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. prophet

    this pope asks the rich to help the poor, hypocrisy here, as Our Saviour Said about the catholics their father is satan and what thye are shows this, they lie cheat and deceive innocent people and abuse children.

    June 3, 2013 at 5:20 am |
  2. prophet

    the muslim religion is evil and is from satan and thats a fact and what we see now in the world shows this.

    thye arabs etc are nice as any other but when they become muslims they becaome evil motivated.

    June 3, 2013 at 5:11 am |
  3. Nadeer Ahamed

    Jesus did not say I am Christian or I am Catholic & During Jesus time he did not build any church, and he did not put his own statue in the church or statue of Mary for worship. Then y yur people worshiping a statue which is Jesus did not teach? If I not hurting u,Pls Understand, All u worshipping statues for example, if its fell down, itself will stand up again? It cannot, The statues need your help to stand up again, & It is going to help u?, U Just Think.
    The Muslims worshiping ALLAH the God of Adam, Nova, Abraham, Moses, Jesus & final Messenger Muhammad Peace Be Upon all of them. Muslims don’t worship Kaba Makkah. Kaba Means, in this earth, the first place build to worship the ALLAH, the God of Adam, Nova, Abraham, Moses, Jesus & Muhammad final Messenger by Adam and its renovated by Abraham.
    "He is Allah , [who is] One, Allah , the Eternal Refuge, He neither begets nor is born, Nor is there to Him any equivalent." means, among other things, the Creator, the Sustainer, the Provider, and the One in whose hands is the disposal of all affairs], who accomplishes all affairs, Allah is the Omnipotent and the Omniscient.
    Our lord not inside the KABA, he is in the Heavens & His knowledge comprehends in perfect manner all things, hidden or manifest. He is greater than can be encompassed by the knowledge of His creatures. He knows everything, and He is aware of all that takes place in the earth and the heavens

    June 3, 2013 at 4:36 am |
  4. Clovis

    To borrow a line from the film Chocolat:

    "I'm not sure what the theme of my homily today ought to be. Do I want to speak of the miracle of Our Lord's divine transformation? Not really, no. I don't want to talk about His divinity. I'd rather talk about His humanity. I mean, you know, how He lived His life, here on Earth. His *kindness*, His *tolerance*... Listen, here's what I think. I think that we can't go around... measuring our goodness by what we don't do. By what we deny ourselves, what we resist, and who we exclude. I think... we've got to measure goodness by what we *embrace*, what we create... and who we include."

    June 3, 2013 at 12:20 am |
  5. So then why thwart Gay Marriage?

    IF ALL of us are going to heaven – then why all the fuss about gay marriage?

    AH – I see – only the STRAIGHT atheists get to go to heaven...

    June 2, 2013 at 11:28 pm |
  6. What the Hu

    ADAM and EVE and the Talking Snake......Yup !!! That makes lot of sense !!!

    June 2, 2013 at 9:44 pm |
  7. Ernesto Onofre

    Hey you rich Pope, why don't you give some moneys to the poor...I understand you are loaded...right..? you get moneys from
    all over the world...from all those poor souls that all they own is nothing but misery and disease...come on...build some Health clinics in Honduras...how about Haiti...as a matter of fact... I'm short this month on making ends meet...why don't you send me a nice...$ 1000.00 dollar check...? that would help me a lot...I promise you to flagellate myself...once...O.K., twice...and I'll pray...two minutes too..what do you say...? Jesus would vomit at so much rubbish in the Church..He would probably close the shop.

    June 2, 2013 at 8:46 pm |
    • Mel

      Ernesto, I see that you and many others don't believe in God, yet you'll expect him to remove suffering from this world and from your lives. Its always easy to blame one's problems on others, especially God, as well as expect God and other people to sort out your problems.
      The Pope sends an important message to everyone out there, in a bid to reduce suffering in the world. I can testify that my parish does help a lot of people who are suffering and persecuted, with its limited resources.
      So if we do have the capacity to do some good in our life, why not do it?
      Try doing away with your bitterness and negative thinking, and see the wonders that happen in your life.
      God Bless!

      June 3, 2013 at 2:05 am |

    Kids believe Santa Claus lives in the North Pole, grown ups believe Jesus relaxes in heaven. Heaven help us all.

    June 2, 2013 at 8:08 pm |
    • Bob

      Heaven does help us all/. Atheists and Gays, even the devout fundamentalist. The question is what is your perception of God. For details see The Dawki9ns Delusion by Slater Amazon Kindle.
      Thee is a God that is not trapped in contradictions.

      June 2, 2013 at 8:37 pm |
    • fintastic

      There is NO god........... just mytholgy...

      June 4, 2013 at 4:18 pm |
  9. Red

    Of course an atheist can live forever in the gardens if that's God's choice. No man of faith can say an atheist or anyone is hellbound. God may actually give that person of faith a harsh penalty because he or she should know better. The Lord works in mysterious ways. No person can judge. Anyone and anything can have an eternal life if they/it earn it.

    June 2, 2013 at 6:51 pm |
    • Rusty Yates

      And then again, maybe not.

      June 2, 2013 at 8:00 pm |
    • Red

      We got here this time, we'll be again.

      June 2, 2013 at 9:13 pm |
    • But Red - then WHY did Jesus said you MUST believe in HIM?

      to get to His Father?

      You can't make a 100$ rule like that and then go back on it and say, "Uh, never mind... Not anymore. Go ahead and you can do that now..."

      Or – actually, you can, since ALL of Christianity and all its flavors do exactly that: they pick and chose and then make up excuses why suddenly everything is changed and no, that's not the way it is anymore...

      Tell you what – YOU get all the Christians together and make up your god damned pea brains up on what you all believe and THEN you can try and force your delusional fairy tales down our throats – and we can laugh at your insane little mythology one more time.

      June 2, 2013 at 11:31 pm |
    • Red

      Why are you assuming I'm Christian because I'm not. I'm a monotheist. I don't believe The Light has children. I believe creatures have children. Sorry, can't help you on that one.

      June 3, 2013 at 6:42 pm |
  10. EX catholic


    June 2, 2013 at 4:15 pm |
    • Science

      Current search on Bing chadie ..........bookmark update chad........3rd one from top of page.

      RDFRS: When Christians become a 'hated minority'


      11,000,000 results Any time

      Splat Chad

      June 2, 2013 at 6:34 pm |
    • Science

      By the way HAR/chadie..........your header on post was ............see below........so do not go deleting comments !

      Your request was successfully submitted.

      Bing Webmaster Tools

      June 2, 2013 at 6:45 pm | Report abuse |

      June 2, 2013 at 6:58 pm |
  11. danielwalldammit

    The trouble of course is that heaven is not so useful unless it's a limited commodity. The Church is already walking this one back.

    June 2, 2013 at 3:08 pm |
  12. faith

    in this hi-tech ultra quick sophisticated age, it is easy to forget or dismiss the reality of the spiritual world surrounding us, even inside of us. lil fatso sambo is a clear and flagrant example of the kind of devil roaming free right under our noses and under the radar of evil. she is one very sick, very disturbed and extremely dangerous piece of infectious waste.

    sam stone

    faith: jeebus is waiting for you to take your rightful place on your knees, pleasing him. it is as close as a click away

    thanks to each and every nazi god hating fascist 4 giving lil fatty sambo heck 4 being the degenerate animal and terrorist, the filthy evil deviant pervert she is. really think u r swell. appreciate your moral stance against this demon possessed felon

    June 2, 2013 at 2:25 pm |
    • Science

      You to the peachy one...............no red horn-y beast.

      Earth’s timeline ................chad remember this long ago..........L4H but me on the list for this.

      Trace our planet's geological and biological ages............better than the bibles timeline.


      Church Refuses to Host Troops Over Scouts' New Gay Policy
      NBC News·16 hours ago

      See also: More stories ·
      Top stories

      Big circle here chadie...................

      look what shows up on Bing 16 hours ago

      June 2, 2013 at 4:05 pm |
    • Science

      Oops too.

      June 2, 2013 at 4:06 pm |
  13. faith

    sam stone

    faith: jeebus is waiting for you to take your rightful place on your knees, pleasing him. it is as close as a click away

    thanks to each and every nazi god hating fascist 4 giving lil fatty sambo heck 4 being the degenerate animal and terrorist, the filthy evil deviant pervert she is. really think u r swell. appreciate your moral stance against this demon possessed felon

    June 2, 2013 at 1:54 pm |
  14. Mike - WA

    This whole conversation exposes the idiocy of religion. My god is better than your god. Or my god is better than your non-god. And if you don't believe what I believe you are doomed – even though nothing you believe has ever been proven to be true.
    No matter what gods, goddesses or fairies you woship, an atheist is as likely to be right in their beliefs as you are.

    June 2, 2013 at 1:14 pm |
    • Lexagon

      Not that i disagree with your sentiment, but by any rational system of assessing likelihood, atheist are very nearly infinitely more likely to be correct in their beliefs, as they don't violate the laws of physics.

      June 2, 2013 at 6:36 pm |
  15. Tom Regan

    I think the comment by Pope Francis was a kind and generous one. He's obviously not the kind of doctrinaire bigot that his predecessor was.He is a good man, and will make a great pope I think. But as an atheist. his remarks make no difference to me one way or the other. I still don't believe in any kind of god, heaven or hell,etc. etc.
    And all the conversation on this thread about what is need for salvation is interesting, but ultimately of no meaning to me. It's a little like living in a rainy climate and watching people debate about how to survive in the desert. Fun, but useless.

    June 2, 2013 at 11:04 am |
    • nadinesh

      thank you, Tom. I'm glad to hear an atheist that appreciates the intelligence and tolerance and kindness of this Pope, who might just be extraordinary. I'm not an atheist; neither am I a Catholic; actually I'm not even a Christian! But the statement of this Pope a few weeks ago had a big affect on me. Maybe he can help bring Christianity back to a true religion rather than the cult that it has become. Whether he does or not is not important to me. But the effect he might have on the relations of all of us on this earth can be ginormous and I am devoted to it.

      June 2, 2013 at 11:50 am |
    • Snowdog

      He is a false prophet and a deceiver and going against what the Bible-God's word, states. He is basically saying that everyone goes to heaven and what Jesus did on the cross was for nothing. He is ridiculous and will pay for representing Christ falsely.

      June 2, 2013 at 2:09 pm |
    • PRISM 1234

      Anyone who says such thing as this pope said IS false prophet and a deceiver. There are many people in RCC who truly love God. But RCC holds their flock captive by false claims that, in order to be saved one must go through the church. And anyone who LEAVES RCC is a condemned heretic. It is an ungodly organization that has truth at its core but has all sorts of dark heresies attached to it, even as some mystical cults do.
      May God open the eyes of His people who are tangled up in its web, and lead them out.
      This pope has shown that no matter how humble one person may appear, their true colors will show what they're made out of when exposed how they line up to the Word of God. This man has miserably failed! Cursed is that man who puts his trust in a man.
      We have the Word of God, Christ Jesus, who is the LIVING Word of God made flesh, and the Spirit of God who testifies of Him and to all that is of Him. We have no need of man to look up to.

      June 2, 2013 at 8:03 pm |
  16. LMB

    Through Jesus Christ all people are "saved" from death and will be given resurrection. That is a free gift given to all to counter act the so called "original sin". However, immortality is not the same as Eternal life or life in heaven. The fact that there is going to be a "judgement" clearly implies that life on the other side will not be the same for everyone. Otherwise what's the judgement for, if we are not accountable for our actions?

    June 2, 2013 at 10:08 am |
    • sxs

      The "fact there is 'going to be a 'judgement day'....... You must mean 'my BELIEF there is going to be a judgment day.' This is not a FACT. Religion is just a he said/she said on the little speck of dirt that orbits this big ball of light and energy that moves through space.

      June 2, 2013 at 1:47 pm |
  17. pwayne

    The Pope made a mistake in making an off the cuff statement to begin with. He misled many by what he said. Shame on him. Christ did die to atone for mankind's sins, including the atheist. There is a difference between atonement and being saved. There is an action step required to be saved, one which many never take. It says in Scripture, by Grace(a free gift from God) are you save through Faith, NOT BY WORKS, SO THAT NO MAN CAN BOAST. The action step is acknowledging Christ as Savior, followed by a confession of sin and a turning from sin from that point. Christ said, to paraphrase Scripture, the road to destruction is wide and many choose it, but the gate and road are narrow that leads to heaven and FEW choose. Many are called but FEW chosen. Christ spoke of hell more frequently than heaven. Christ said, "I am , The Way, The Truth and The Life. NO ONE comes to the Father but by me. There were hundreds of witnesses to the Resurrected Christ, including His frightened Apostles. They saw Christ and all but John killed and they went to thei death knowing they saw Christ. Christ fulfilled at least a hundred prophesies in the old testament. The chances of one man fulfilling those prophesies would be like covering the entire earth in coins, with but one cold coin and finding that gold coin on your first try. The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the forties and there was a copy of the Old Testament Book of Isaiah, which had been determined to have been written 700 years before Christ. There are graphic references to the Messiah that was to come. For those of you who don't believe in Christ , the Resurrection from the dead and Salvation, remember that at that instant you close your eyes for the last time, you will be instantaneously be judged before a Just and Holy God. Your belief that there was no Christ in life will be honored by your eternity separated from God, which is hell. No amount of good works , no sense of you being a good person can save you before a just God. You are quilty as charged before God without Christ.

    June 2, 2013 at 10:07 am |
    • nadinesh

      It is my fervent hope - very fervent indeed - I'm ready to march - that this harmful and rather incredible doctrine will finally be laid to rest in the remainder of this century. It was fantasized by people like Paul beginning decades after Jesus' death and it was silly then and over the centuries it has become very harmful. It has brought about the death of many millions of people, and it's such a remarkably dopey idea to begin with. I'll say it clearly: Jesus was not divine; he was a man. You either believe what he actually SAID or you transform yourself into a vengeful cult. I don't buy it. Not a bit.

      June 2, 2013 at 11:59 am |
    • Snowdog

      Funny. It has not gone away in 2000 years and will never go away. The truth will never go away. You know how many non-believers have tried to get rid of the Bible and have failed evry time. MMMMM. I wonder why? It is still and will always be the most sold book in the world. God is awesome and hsi word will never go away.

      June 2, 2013 at 2:12 pm |
    • Mel

      pwayne, I do not agree with your comments about the pope making a mistake. We are all created to serve a certain purpose in this world, believers and non-believers alike. And that purpose is to contribute to the greater good of mankind. I believe that God will note judge you for not believing in him, but for the good you've done in your life. Believing in God and committing grave sin is a bigger offence than not believing in God but performing good deeds anyway. As a Catholic I fully agree with Pope Francis's statement, and also that he will bring about the much needed change to the Catholic church.

      June 3, 2013 at 8:07 am |
  18. Nietodarwin

    Let's not forget, ALL christians believe that out of ALL the mammals that have lived, ONE "rose from the dead" (and was "born of a virgin.") HA HA HA HA HA
    NONE of the christians, are sane at all.
    “The difference between faith and insanity is that faith is the ability to hold firmly to a conclusion that is incompatible with the evidence, whereas insanity is the ability to hold firmly to a conclusion that is incompatible with the evidence.”
    _ William Harwood, Dictionary of Contemporary Mythology

    June 2, 2013 at 9:33 am |
    • Aion

      FYI, 'NONE' is singular, and can always be replaced by 'not one' when testing for verb alignment.

      June 2, 2013 at 9:46 am |
  19. Cleatus_wt

    If there is a heaven, then all ethical and good humans get in... I assure you.

    June 2, 2013 at 9:22 am |
    • pwayne

      You are absolutely wrong. Apart from Christ there is no salvation. Scripture says ALL have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Scripture doesn't support your statement. Even one small sin before God makes you unfit for heaven. You reminded me of a story about a man who was headed home after doing business in another city. He had plans to dinner when he got home and family parties. He trusted that the plane would get him to his final destination, but as the plane approached the airport it crashed with no survivors. This man's faith in the plane failed him. Could it be that what you are trusting in faith will fail you in the end?

      June 2, 2013 at 10:17 am |
    • visitor

      I thought it said 144,000 Jews get in.

      Why not just quote scripture instead of making up your own parables? Didn't think Jesus did a good enough job?

      June 2, 2013 at 10:26 am |
    • nadinesh

      AMEN, Cleatus. Obviously. My creator appears to be a lot more civilized than theirs. 🙂

      June 2, 2013 at 12:00 pm |
    • nadinesh

      pwayne, you can believe what you like. I wince at it, but it's up to you. Personally, I'm surprised you don't actually listen to what Jesus said, not what others say about him. And no, I think it's about time you stopped trying to define what a Christian is based on your own rather narrow doctrinaire notions. You don't own Christianity.

      June 2, 2013 at 12:02 pm |
    • PRISM 1234

      It is obvious that YOU are the one who believes What YOU like. And if YOU actually listened to Christ Jesus and the Spirit who testifies of Him, you would recognise what the truth is.
      As it is, you do not, but you insult and scorn those who tell it to you, adding to your own condemnation.

      June 2, 2013 at 9:07 pm |
  20. Creationist

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

    June 2, 2013 at 9:22 am |
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