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. Anthonie B

    Bill Deacon, you sure seem to take the wrath of most in this "forum"
    I praise your resolve and hope that it gets you the redemption and salvation you are hoping for.

    God is the final judge of my life.
    Thou shall not Kill.
    Christians have killed l in the name of God and Jesus
    Muslims kill in the name of their great prophet Mohammed and Allah.
    This practice happens even today.
    The only important message that you need to take from what the pope said is that we should all meet in "doing good"
    If everyone in this world would only act on these 2 words the pope spoke than we will achieve heaven on earth.

    in that, it does not matter if you are Atheist, Catholic, Muslim or whatever other persuasion of religion (yes Atheism is a religion also simply because you Believe) so everyone on this forum listen to the pope and go forth and DO GOOD

    June 2, 2013 at 9:15 am |
    • Matt

      Quoting you:

      "in that, it does not matter if you are Atheist, Catholic, Muslim or whatever other persuasion of religion (yes Atheism is a religion also simply because you Believe) so everyone on this forum listen to the pope and go forth and DO GOOD"

      So..Atheism is a religion because atheists believe in No God? Right?

      Well firstly the definition it is wrong, most atheists don't BELIEVE there are No gods. That is an Anti-Theistic viewpoint.

      Most say – I don't know if there is or isn't, I just choose to reject the claim till evidence supports it.

      But your incorrect definitions aside, if you think Atheism is a religion because we believe there are no gods (which is wrong – explained above)...So in tern you do not believe in Unicorns either right? So is that a religion too? You don't believe in the loch ness monster either, no? So I guess by your standards that is a religion...

      C'mon, use some logic and learn the definitions of Atheism, Agnostic, Anti theism and religion.

      June 2, 2013 at 11:26 am |
  2. JanetMermaid

    Um... er... ah..... "atheists in heaven" is more than a total oxymoron. Atheists don't BELIEVE in heaven. It doesn't exist. So how can they go there?

    June 2, 2013 at 9:03 am |
    • MichaelGordon

      Exactly!! I don't believe in hell, so how can I go there?

      June 2, 2013 at 9:09 am |
    • huhb

      Atheists don't believe in deities. That's it. How do you know there are no atheists that believe in Heaven?

      June 2, 2013 at 9:17 am |
    • Christian forgiveness


      June 2, 2013 at 9:18 am |
    • Matt

      @ huhb

      "Atheists don't believe in deities. That's it. How do you know there are no atheists that believe in Heaven?"

      Even though technically you are correct...The assumption of heaven is synonymous to a deity or in line with it.

      Thats like saying Atheists don't believe in Satan, How do you know there are no atheists that believe in Satan?

      Technically this could be correct. Satan isn't a deity. But it is synonymous with a deity.

      your playing semantics.

      June 2, 2013 at 11:31 am |
  3. Nietodarwin

    The church wants atheist dollars, they spend the same as "believer' dollars. How do you think they got so rich? This is how they got so much land in Mexico, before the revolution.
    Say, you believe right before you die, sign over the ranch, and even as an atheist one will go to heaven.
    Look at Grand Torino, ole Clint Eastwood just signed away the house to the damn church instead of his own family.

    June 2, 2013 at 8:52 am |
  4. Nietodarwin

    "With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion." Steven Weinberg

    June 2, 2013 at 8:43 am |
  5. Nietodarwin

    Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.
    Isaac Asimov

    There once was a time when all people believed in God and the church ruled. This time was called the Dark Ages.
    Richard Lederer

    Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.
    Seneca the Younger 4 b.c.- 65 a.d.

    June 2, 2013 at 8:38 am |
  6. caw

    The only problem with being an Atheist is that I'll never have the satisfaction of saying "I told you so."

    June 2, 2013 at 7:58 am |
    • Nietodarwin

      Very clever. I like that twisted "believer" logic turned back around.
      TOO BAD it's not true, atheists have lots of problems, they have been given to us in "religious kindness" for centuries.
      At least there is the anonymity of the internet and the new information age, making it possible to express oneself this way, without fear of getting murdered by a zealot. They love to prove they are correct by showing you the afterlife right away.
      That's another reason you won't get to say, "I told you so."

      June 2, 2013 at 8:35 am |
  7. Snowdog

    Unbelievable. So the Pope is saying that we do not need to believe in Jesus Christ to get to heaven. He is going against what the Bible teaches and what he is supposed to believe as a Christian. Atheists will not be in heaven.Sorry. Being a good person will not get you to heaven. God states that none of us are good, not one. Jesus Christ redeems you if you give your life to him. The POPE will have to answer to God.

    June 2, 2013 at 7:45 am |
    • Creationist

      Huh? Good people won't go to "heaven". Bad people who say they give their life to the invisible man will go to "heaven".

      Most people, and eventually all people, would say: for that kind of "bad heaven", please count me out.

      Do you see why your religion is failing?

      June 2, 2013 at 7:58 am |
    • LOL


      June 2, 2013 at 8:07 am |
    • Molly Joyce

      You are right, you cannot get to heaven by being a "good person". The Bible tells us that there will be false teachers in the Last Days..The thing with being an "athiest" is they have to deal with the fact that if they are wrong..they will be punished ETERNALLY in Hell. Whereas the christian..what would they have to lose if they were wrong? Many say they believe in God, but fail to realize that even the demons believe in God..it's all about a personal relationship with Jesus. I see the media attacking christianity alot now. If christians do not agree with their corrupt ways...they call it "hate"...I like purple..you like red..does that mean I hate you? LOL...if ever there was a time to serve the Lord..it's NOW.

      June 2, 2013 at 8:20 am |
    • Creationist

      @Molly Joyce
      Heaven and Hell - carrot stick and scare tactics. That's getting old. People no longer buy that. Try something else.

      June 2, 2013 at 8:30 am |
    • Ron

      The point, very easily missed, is why would a person (though a good one) want to be in a place he never believed? The Atheist rejects:
      * God
      * Heaven
      * The gospel

      and respects science.

      Why would he even WANT to be in a place he loved to rejects?

      That being said, it's not that God hates Atheist, or doesn't want them in heaven...it's that Atheist don't want to be there.

      June 2, 2013 at 9:00 am |
    • Creationist

      Like I said:
      Heaven and Hell – carrot stick and scare tactics.

      June 2, 2013 at 9:23 am |
  8. mark

    Religion is for people with a 6 year olds morality.

    To be moral without religion comes from the highest level of morality.

    See Lawrence Kohlberg's stages of moral development. Hopfully we all learned this in freshman year of Theology like I did.

    June 2, 2013 at 7:44 am |
  9. alm

    In defense of Pope Francis, first and foremost, as much as he is the Vicar of Christ, he is just a man himself. He believes, and many of us believe along with him, and the bible says it, that we are created in the image and likeness of God.

    Now it depends on whether you believe in a merciful and generous Father or if you believe in a conditional one but I believe in the merciful, generous and benevolent kind. So if a mere human being like Pope Francis could see the good and recognize it in others (similar to what Pope John Paul II said when he referred to all men/women of goodwill), then it is not entirely possible that a mere human being like him can be more forgiving and accepting than the God that made him.

    No one can be “greater” or “more” anything than God. One can take the opposite position. Is it that just as there are more vindictive, judgmental and violent people, that God can be that in the most extreme way? Then that person may be looking at the wrong image – maybe one of the fallen? I personally would not want to look up to and emulate that one. If one truly believes that Jesus is the son of God and does His will, then Pope Francis cannot possibly be more forgiving than Jesus Himself, as well.

    If one really wants to get technical or at least humble before one’s Maker, then one can say that mercy and justice are God’s alone, in which case, so is condemnation and so one cannot infallibly send some to heaven and condemn others to hell if one believes that is the sole domain of God.

    I also agree with Pope Francis that we should spend less time sipping tea discussing the finer points of who goes to heaven and hell, and more for actually trying to do for the least of His people, that He considers being done unto Him. Maybe then, not only do we try to save others from an earthly hell of injustice, but save ourselves as well so more of us can go to heaven.

    For those who want to focus on intellectual discussions, they may want to consider building some remote Olympus where men of hubris (not sure women would be allowed) can hold symposiums and shoot the breeze instead of taking care of the least among us.

    June 2, 2013 at 7:18 am |
    • Science

      No hell or heaven or horn-y red devil.

      June 2, 2013 at 7:29 am |
    • Creationist

      Many religions have their own versions of hells. You better believe that hell is not real, or other religions' hells are waiting for you to get there - one day you will be in one, and another one, and another one, and another one,...

      June 2, 2013 at 8:27 am |

    Heaven is for all Good People,

    who will work for the Good Deeds:


    June 2, 2013 at 5:17 am |
    • Science

      GOOD NEWS............ no horn-y 666 beast never has been.

      Ancient Egyptians Accessorized With Meteorites...........death...............depleted carbon ........stony irons = carbon

      May 30, 2013 — Researchers at The Open University (OU) and The University of Manchester have found conclusive proof that Ancient Egyptians used meteorites to make symbolic accessories for their dead.


      June 2, 2013 at 6:41 am |
  11. Creationist

    The internet will transform religions for years to come, making them more transparent, making them responsible for their own words.

    No longer will people just listen and believe; people demand proof. Google it if you have doubts. It's a great progress for mankind.

    June 2, 2013 at 12:36 am |
  12. PRISM 1234

    What we see today, with this pope and many others in Christendom, is only even more proof that God's Word is true and it is comming to pass just as it was prophesied in the Bible in Epistles of Timothy , Peter in NEw Testament and and in Daniel 12. of Old Testament. It only shows where on God's timetable we are now. Yet the most intense is yet to come!

    June 1, 2013 at 10:45 pm |
    • UncleBenny

      It's been "yet to come" for almost 2000 years. I'm not holding my breath.

      June 2, 2013 at 8:17 pm |
  13. Cindy

    This Pope is a true intellectual. I give him credit for making this statement even though many people will hate him for it. He is saying that God is for everyone, not just one particular religion.

    June 1, 2013 at 9:35 pm |
    • Libsrtyrants

      No. He didn't say anything remotely similar to that. He's saying the same thing that Christians always say. (I'm not saying the Pope is a Christian). As is common within Catholicism,

      All Christians are in agreement that anyone can be saved. We are all sinners, in need of a Savior. Anyone who trust the Savior will be saved. No exceptions.

      June 1, 2013 at 11:05 pm |
  14. paul42

    there are two parts to salvation, from what I can gather. There is the part where we all resurrect regardless of what kind of people we are. And there is the part where to get into heaven to be with God we are to be good people and do our best to follow God's commandments as they are written on our hearts. I suppose if someone doesn't believe in God in this life, but endeavors to be a good person, that there will be an opportunity for reconcilation with God. Since God is a just God and no respecter of persons, I would think that everyone no matter where or when they are born will have an opportunity for reconciliation with God. All will be Judged acccording to the Commandments, but then Jesus Christ, in Mercy, will Mediate for everyone who falls short, but who did the best they could with what they knew. That will be the other part of Grace and Salvation.

    June 1, 2013 at 8:36 pm |
    • LOL


      June 1, 2013 at 10:43 pm |
  15. Go Figure

    I figured it would take three months for this one to do something totally stupid. I was wrong. This is how protestantism started. Men in dresses who slept with each other demanded the commoners kiss their rings and claimed to be ordained by and speak for God himself.

    June 1, 2013 at 7:28 pm |
  16. 4ormorechars

    This new Pope seems to actually believe in Jesus.

    June 1, 2013 at 7:13 pm |
    • Science

      Bono at TED 2013: Eradicating extreme poverty doesn’t have to be a dream


      June 1, 2013 at 7:25 pm |
    • faith

      Bono is a christian, u moron

      June 1, 2013 at 7:27 pm |
    • Science

      Hey faith................no horn-y 666 beast never has been !

      Ancient Egyptians Accessorized With Meteorites...........death...............depleted carbon ........stony irons = carbon faith

      May 30, 2013 — Researchers at The Open University (OU) and The University of Manchester have found conclusive proof that Ancient Egyptians used meteorites to make symbolic accessories for their dead.


      June 2, 2013 at 6:37 am |
  17. LocalCrank

    If, upon reaching Heaven, some believers are disappointed to find that ethical atheists are not burning in Hell, that's just too bad...

    June 1, 2013 at 6:53 pm |
  18. faith



    rush will expose em

    June 1, 2013 at 6:01 pm |
    • LocalCrank


      June 1, 2013 at 6:55 pm |
  19. BuleriaChk@aol.com

    Actually, you go to hell if you remain in the Catholic church....

    June 1, 2013 at 4:53 pm |
  20. rob


    June 1, 2013 at 2:32 pm |
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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.