Heaven for atheists? Pope sparks debate
Pope Francis greets the faithful as he leaves St. Peter's Square at the end of his weekly audience April 10 at the Vatican.
May 23rd, 2013
03:59 PM ET

Heaven for atheists? Pope sparks debate

By Dan Merica, CNN
[twitter-follow screen_name='DanMericaCNN']

(CNN) -– American atheists welcomed Pope Francis’ comments that God redeems nonbelievers, saying that the new pontiff's historic outreach is helping to topple longstanding barriers.

“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone,” the pope told worshipers at morning Mass on Wednesday. “‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!”

Francis continued, “We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”

Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association, said that although he has been skeptical of Francis' outreach to the nonreligious, he welcomed Wednesday’s comments.

“I gather from this statement that his view of the world's religious and philosophical diversity is expanding,” Speckhardt said. “While humanists have been saying for years that one can be good without a god, hearing this from the leader of the Catholic Church is quite heartening."

He continued, “If other religious leaders join him, it could do much to reduce the automatic distrust and discrimination that atheists, humanists, and other nontheists so regularly face. “

Francis’ comments received a great deal of attention on social media, with a number of people asking whether the Catholic leader believes that atheists and agnostics go to heaven, too.

On Thursday, the Vatican issued an “explanatory note on the meaning to ‘salvation.'"

The Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Vatican spokesman, said that people who aware of the Catholic church “cannot be saved” if they “refuse to enter her or remain in her.”

At the same time, Rosica writes, “every man or woman, whatever their situation, can be saved. Even non-Christians can respond to this saving action of the Spirit. No person is excluded from salvation simply because of so-called original sin.”

Rosica also said that Francis had “no intention of provoking a theological debate on the nature of salvation,” during his homily on Wednesday.

Although the pope's comments about salvation surprised some, bishops and experts in Catholicism say Francis was expressing a core tenet of the faith.

"Francis was clear that whatever graces are offered to atheists (such that they may be saved) are from Christ," the Rev. John Zuhlsdorf, a conservative Catholic priest, wrote on his blog.

"He was clear that salvation is only through Christ’s Sacrifice.  In other words, he is not suggesting – and I think some are taking it this way – that you can be saved, get to heaven, without Christ."

Chad Pecknold, an assistant professor of theology at the Catholic University of America, agreed with Zuhlsdorf, pointing out that the pope’s comments came on the Feast of Saint Rita, the Catholic patron saint of impossible things.

“The remarks about atheists show that there is even a saint for atheists,” Pecknold said. “Including all of humanity, on this day especially, remarks like that are almost called for.”

“To stress that the gospel redeems all people, including atheists, is the teaching of the church,” he added. “This is an objective fact that the church believes.”

Greg Epstein, the humanist chaplain at Harvard University, said Francis' comments reflect “the interfaith and inter-community work many of us nontheists are dedicated to.”

That said, Epstein hopes that lay Catholics are listening.

“I hope Catholics, and all people hearing the pope's statement, will recognize that his words about atheists need to symbolize much more than just a curiosity or an exception to the rule,” Epstein said. “If someone thinks there are only a few atheists out there doing good just like Catholics do, that's a major misunderstanding that can lead to prejudice and discrimination.”

The pope’s comments come a few months after he told worshipers that Catholics should be close to all men and women, including those who don’t belong to any religious tradition.

"In this we feel the closeness also of those men and women who, while not belonging to any religious tradition, feel, however the need to search for the truth, the goodness and the beauty of God, and who are our precious allies in efforts to defend the dignity of man, in the building of a peaceful coexistence between peoples and in the careful protection of creation,” Francis said shortly after his election as pope in March.

Even atheists like David Silverman, president of American Atheists, who has had an antagonistic relationship with the Catholic church, welcomed the pope’s remarks.

“While the concept of Jesus dying for atheists is wrong on many levels (especially given that Jesus himself promised hell for blasphemers), I can appreciate the pope's `good faith' effort to include atheists in the moral discussion,” Silverman said.

“Atheists on the whole want no part in Catholicism, of course, but we are all interested in basic human rights.”

- Dan Merica

Filed under: Atheism • Belief • Catholic Church • Christianity • Pope Francis • Vatican

soundoff (3,731 Responses)
  1. Science

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    EVOLUTION WINS THUMBS UP NO horn-y red devil OR the fairy in the sky DID NOT create US............

    Chad do what Rachel said you to asustin. faith/lol??

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    May 30, 2013 at 12:03 pm |
  2. Stu

    If Christianity is true, then I see the vast majority of people who claim to be Christian not being able to enter. I have only met one person in my entire life who even attempted to live his life according to the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, but he is still going to hell because he won the lottery.

    May 30, 2013 at 10:40 am |
  3. boubour zlaq

    Religion is the main motor of hatred and killings. Always and everywhere

    May 30, 2013 at 8:44 am |
  4. boubour zlaq

    Heaven and Hell : a pure fairy tale. If you believe like me you go to Heaven , if not you go to hell.

    May 30, 2013 at 8:40 am |
  5. God

    A long time ago I broke myself up into smaller and smaller bits in order to entertain myself. I was very bored you see being all by myself alone forever. So now some of me is the wind some of me is blades of grass, some of me is people but it's all still me.

    Now what has happened is that some of the pieces of me do not think I exist, other pieces of me do think I exist but collectively I've always been the same one me.

    Even this little excerpt is written by one timy bit of me as a bit of me as I contemplate myself. Ultimately there isn't anything except me. Do you still think there is you? You are also me. How could we (I) have forgotten...well it helps to debate ones self every now and again.

    May 30, 2013 at 7:38 am |
    • stardust

      in fact, you are right, we are all made up of bits and pieces of stardust...

      June 1, 2013 at 8:48 am |
  6. virginia

    Now you all must keep in mind that at Church you'll find them both the believers and the nonbeliever both seeking the truth...so don't expect every one to be innocent for some are guilty...and stil seeking the truth....may the lord help them find the peace they are seeking and the wisdom to see the majesty of God's wisdom...amen

    May 29, 2013 at 11:49 pm |
    • the REAL steve

      i was never more insane, unbalanced and deeply disturbed than when i was a christian seeking 'god'. since ive realized there is no such thing as 'god' i am much more at peace.

      May 30, 2013 at 3:17 am |
  7. virginia

    Jesus when he came to live as the son of God – did spend time with the Atheist and show them the right way to the Wisdom of God not all were able to believe and understand God but God understand them...Gods know the mind and heart of mankind not one can deceive him...Jesus came to the Atheist cause he knew they were the one's in most need of attention and care...and seeking the understanding of the lord our God...

    The opportunity to find God is there for every man, young and old, the wise and those who need to find themselves.

    May 29, 2013 at 11:44 pm |
    • boubour zlaq

      Just how many gods are there in the heavens ? one for the Christians, one for the Muslims, one for the Buddists, etc... So which one is the real one ?

      May 30, 2013 at 8:42 am |
    • stardust

      believing something to be true, does not actually mean it is true. kids find that out with santa claus, the tooth fairy, etc. unfortunately some people keep believing in silly things into adulthood...

      June 1, 2013 at 8:52 am |
  8. Voice in the desert

    Who is the liar???

    Someone is telling the truth, and someone is not!

    Jesus said:

    “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life”. (John 3:16)

    “He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”(John3:18)

    “I said therefore unto you, that you shall die in your sins: for if you believe not that I am he, you shall die in your sins.” (John 8:24)

    “Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven.” (Matthew 10:32-33)

    Pope Francis said:

    “"The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ, all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! 'Father, the atheists?' Even the atheists. Everyone!" We must meet one another doing good. 'But I don't believe, Father, I am an atheist!' But do good: we will meet one another there."

    Who are you going to believe, Jesus or Pope Francis????

    “And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie: That they all might be damned who believeth not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness.” (2 Thessalonians 2:11-12)

    May 29, 2013 at 10:51 pm |
    • virginia

      things are easily misunderstood, i am aware of your concern...many can fall in the deception, i don't believe Pope Francis has any intention of deceiving any one...but the mind of man can fall in deception= sin...every one has the opportunity to repent and find God in their lives not all will...but God knows the spirituous one. being good at heart is the beginning of salvation but not salvation itself...many will come to God in the day of judgment and say in your named i saved the many...yet God will say your name is not found in the book of everlasting life...had you accepted God in your heart your name would have being written in the book of everlasting life...go to where your choice was...it takes more then repentance alone but the awareness of God in you mind body and soul that writes your name in the book of everlasting life...doing good is the beginning but one must allow the presence of God in your heart, soul, and body...to understand the wisdom of god there for the awareness of God....no one who is unwilling to become aware of the presence of God can write his name on the book of everlasting life...the word must be brought to all to hear the Good news salvation is at the reach of all who seek after the knowledge of God.

      May 30, 2013 at 12:03 am |
    • the REAL steve

      the one true and everlasting God Lord Zoltar is the only path to heaven.

      May 30, 2013 at 3:18 am |
    • craig


      May 30, 2013 at 1:42 pm |
    • stardust

      quoting from a silly book with talking snakes and a man who lived inside a whale again huh? you christians are so silly!!

      June 1, 2013 at 8:56 am |
  9. Julie

    Ok, this Pope I like...and I'm about 70-30 Athiest! THAT'S what a religion should be about! Accepting of EVERY-DANG-ONE! Not just the ones who think like you.

    May 29, 2013 at 10:33 pm |
  10. ED4

    As an agnostic I was impressed by the popes statement but I detect spin control by other church officials. It never made sense to me that some children of other faiths were doomed to hell just because they followed in their parents footsteps. "Honor they father and mother". Isn't that what all children are expected and encouraged to do?

    May 29, 2013 at 10:15 pm |
  11. Joel

    God in these last days, has spoken to us through His Son, Whom He appointed hear of all things, through Whom also He made the world. Hebrews 1:2 We must come to God on His terms not our own. Salvation has been provided by one means, the atonement of Yeshua/Jesus, through faith in His finished work. "Without faith it is impossible to please God". James2/Hebrews11 Do not be deceived. Shalom

    May 29, 2013 at 9:09 pm |
    • Ron

      Joel, exactly

      May 29, 2013 at 9:29 pm |
    • Julie

      Yeah, they're cute stories, but I usually read Psychology Today before bed. ;-D

      May 29, 2013 at 10:34 pm |
    • stardust

      sorry joel, just a bunch of nonsense.

      June 1, 2013 at 9:01 am |
  12. Bearing Fruit

    Most Catholics I have met are turned off from religion whether it be from Catholic school or Catholic beliefs, But have not stopped believing in God.
    Getting into Heaven is only a matter Faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.. It IS as simple as that!
    Religion TODAY is a sad joke on the Churches. It's a DISGACE!!!

    May 29, 2013 at 8:48 pm |
    • stardust

      i was raised catholic and looking back now, i can say that i only took for granted that god existed, simply because my parents said so and everyone going to church probably believed, and i guess that's just the way it was. then i got older and actually seriously contemplated the idea. the only reasonable thing to do is to reserve belief in things without evidence. otherwise you might as well belief in anything and everything, because lots of things sound really cool like heaven.

      June 1, 2013 at 9:10 am |
  13. RL

    John 14:6 Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me

    May 29, 2013 at 7:32 pm |
    • Ron

      RL, amen

      May 29, 2013 at 9:30 pm |
    • Julie

      Those are cute stories, considering the fact that NO ONE wrote down what Jesus actually SAID. It was all written about 300 years after he died. Here's something to chew on: There are people today who rant like Joan of Arc, but we're not following them around France with pikes. We're giving them anti-psychotic medication!

      May 29, 2013 at 10:37 pm |
    • stardust

      whoa hold on there!! you are telling me a guy named jesus said that? well then, since he said it, it's obviously true. i mean, it's right there in a book. it could not have possibly been made up.

      June 1, 2013 at 9:13 am |
  14. Sunshine

    I'll be waiting for the atheists on the other side. I'll keep on waiting too.

    May 29, 2013 at 5:16 pm |
    • cradle Catholic

      Pope Francis expounds the beliefs that I always heard growing up in the Catholic Church. and I am an old person 🙂 I was never told we were favored over others, that Catholics were the only ones going to heaven, or any other such nonsense. I was taught that faith alone doesn't guarantee a seat – that good works done with love for our fellow man are the tickets. Growing up in the Bible Belt, interestingly, I would leave church and hear from other "devout" members of two religions in particular that Catholics weren't going to heaven. In fact, we weren't even Christians. No worries since I would reconcile this with the realization that Jesus was Jewish. 🙂

      May 29, 2013 at 6:56 pm |
    • Scott Johnston

      Francis didn't say atheists would go to heaven. He said "we'll meet there", where "there is referring to the place where they and we are doing good. Can't the press read plain English? Yes, he said "all are redeemed."

      May 29, 2013 at 9:16 pm |
  15. Diggy

    Let's separate CLEARLY church and church attendance from salvation.

    Many Christians are a complete DISGRACE to humankind and to Jesus.

    Many refuse to let the Holy Spirit work in them and to do His will instead of their selfish needs.

    Those Christian are not saved people. They are formalist, going to church just because they're used to it. True Christian people live a life-changing, loving relationship with Jesus Christ.

    Salvation is not an after-death experience. It's a present-day one, which means that the person who accepts salvation lives life in Jesus Chirst, leans on Him, lives joy, peace, love, forgiveness. Those Christians get sanctified by Jesus Christ, waiting for His Return, where all the world will see His Glory.

    May 29, 2013 at 12:38 pm |
    • sam stone

      His glory?

      What a laugh

      May 29, 2013 at 12:59 pm |
    • Richard Cranium

      That's what your book says. But that book has been proven wrong in so many ways, to put any stock in it is illogical.

      Try reality instead.

      May 29, 2013 at 1:02 pm |
    • sam stone

      interesting that you desire eternity with a being from whom you have to be "saved".

      May 29, 2013 at 1:16 pm |
    • Bearing Fruit

      Very good explination!!

      May 29, 2013 at 8:37 pm |
    • trogiah

      very well said.

      May 29, 2013 at 9:52 pm |
    • stardust

      your interpretation of stories written in a book might be inspiring to people predisposed to to believing in supernatural nonsense, but to others not. it's both sad and amusing. live your life now, it's the only one we KNOW we will have. stop longing for the day when you die and get to be in some fairy tale land with gramps and grams. it's just silly.

      June 1, 2013 at 9:20 am |
  16. nwsunni

    why do the atheists even care about this? As far as I know, when they are laid to rest in their suits and dresses, they are all dressed up with nowhere to go.

    May 29, 2013 at 9:04 am |
    • Richard Cranium

      so is everyone...actually I will follow in my family's tradition of donating my body to a local learning hostpital, where medical students will dissect my body over the course of a couple of years. I will still be contributing to society after I die...what about you?

      May 29, 2013 at 9:07 am |
    • biobraine

      "why do the atheists even care about this?"

      They care about the perceptions that religious folk have about them because they are descriminated by them. World leaders of religion have sway over how their followers view people of other faiths or non-religious beliefs. The Pope's message could help reduce the hate that some Christians feel toward atheists.

      May 29, 2013 at 12:59 pm |
    • CA

      Great one! I love it!!

      May 29, 2013 at 5:12 pm |
    • the REAL steve

      i plan on having my body processed into hamburger, grilled and fed to my family and friends. this is my body....eat me.

      May 30, 2013 at 3:20 am |
    • stardust

      i'm an atheist and don't really care, it's obviously BS and I find it amusing. now the pope has to explain himself to all the gullable believers.

      June 1, 2013 at 9:28 am |
  17. Josh H.

    I just interviewed Father Albert Haase about this issue. http://redtapewhiterope.blogspot.com

    May 28, 2013 at 11:36 pm |
  18. Observer


    Offer ONE FACT to support your assertion that atheism is stupid. Just ONE FACT. Opinions are worthless for this discussion.

    May 28, 2013 at 10:24 pm |
    • Salero21

      You are all the facts we need!

      May 28, 2013 at 10:36 pm |
    • His panic

      That is right!

      May 28, 2013 at 10:37 pm |
    • EX catholic


      And don't forget but always remember that IDOLATRY IS NOT Religion, IDOLATRY IS A VERY GRAVE AND SERIOUS SIN.

      May 28, 2013 at 10:38 pm |
    • Observer


      I'm not an atheist. Ooops. I'm an agnostic.

      So far, you haven't supplied ONE FACT to support anything you've said. ALL you have left is juvenile insults. How about trying to do better with even ONE answer? So far, all we've established is that your IQ apparently isn't nearly as high as some atheists.

      May 28, 2013 at 10:40 pm |
    • sam stone


      Speaking for god, are ya?

      May 29, 2013 at 8:14 am |
    • John

      Idolatry, by definition, is worshipping a false god. That would make all traditional religions idolatrous.

      May 29, 2013 at 5:22 pm |
  19. Theo

    Monthly check in, i see the same wackos posting same stuff

    Do you people have lives ?

    May 28, 2013 at 4:29 pm |
    • Richard Cranium

      yes...this is just a minor hobby.
      Do you?

      May 28, 2013 at 4:49 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Yes, Theo's hobby is checking in monthly on the Belief Blog for new trains of thought.

      May 28, 2013 at 5:05 pm |
    • Science

      Hey Bill where was it 250 million years ago ?


      May 28, 2013 at 7:35 pm |
    • Science

      Oops ......there Bill

      Rock Where India Crashed Into Asia And Pushed Up The Himalayas [PHOTO]

      Read more: http://www.businessinsider.com/chris-hadfield-himalaya-satellite-photo-2013-5#ixzz2UdQgGr1G

      May 28, 2013 at 8:20 pm |
  20. Zool

    The pope is just a man in a long line of men, nothing more. Just another blinded fool, brainwashed since birth. His opinion only means something to the crazies who believe some super being overlord created this VAST universe. Next I will debunk Santa Claus, and I bet some children would disagree, sound familiar.
    And now.....

    May 28, 2013 at 4:25 pm |
    • stardust

      unfortunately some people like being told what to think and are too lazy to do their own research. it's just easier to believe that a man in the sky created everything.

      June 1, 2013 at 9:35 am |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.