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. Lee S

    if there really is a heaven why let us know about it? I mean, would you want all the people who faked being nice and putting on the religious face coming to suck up to you and kiss your rear if you were god? Furthermore, what kind of deity demands all those he created and loves worship him and live their short and miserable lives grobbling before him? Doesnt seem like a qaulity the most powerful being in all creation or whatever would exhibit, unless hes just messing with us. Thats just me though. In short there is no god.

    June 5, 2013 at 1:12 pm |
  2. Lee S

    If there is a heaven those who preach they know religon and they know the path etc will be the last on the list.

    June 5, 2013 at 1:07 pm |
  3. nettie

    Sadly, what the Pope said is completely misleads people. Remember in John 14:6, Jesus answered," I am the way, the truth and the life. No one come to the Father except through me." and in Ephesians 2:8-9, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is a gift the gift of God – NOT BY WORKS, so that no one can boast. (emphasis mine).

    And I quote Pope Francis, "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.” Good works will never save and allow the person to enter the Kingdom of God. Jesus is the only way. Doing good works alone without believing that Jesus Christ died for your sins will never saves.

    For those who are lost, and don't know what's the diff between Biblical Christianity and Roman Catholicism, may I suggests 2 book that explains it, one is Far From Rome Near To God by Richard Bennett and Martin Buckingham and second is The Gospel According to Rome by James McCarthy. These two books helped me understand what the difference between the two. For anyone who is interested in reaching out those who are lost using books can check, you can check http://booksforevangelism.org/.

    June 5, 2013 at 3:29 am |
    • Science

      Hey .nettie.........all creationists...........chadie too !

      The pesky meteorites/chondrites = life .........................not the nasty bible. and Adam and his bone.

      No horn-y red beast needed.......no heaven either..........but they (meteorites) where hot when they where coming in.

      Life-Producing Phosphorus Carried to Earth by Meteorites

      June 4, 2013 — Scientists may not know for certain whether life exists in outer space, but new research from a team of scientists led by a University of South Florida astrobiologist now shows that one key element that produced life on Earth was carried here on meteorites.


      June 5, 2013 at 6:23 am |
  4. Science

    Hey chadie look what Isabell found ..............chad is the king and queen of trolls...unless you are the horn-y red beast

    Chad ?

    An 'Extinct' Frog Makes a Comeback in Israel

    June 4, 2013 — The first amphibian to have been officially declared extinct by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has been rediscovered in the north of Israel after some 60 years and turns out to be a unique "living fossil," without close relatives among other living frogs.


    June 4, 2013 at 3:43 pm |
    • Scienec

      Science.............nothing BUT crickets aye chad ?

      Hey I found my theme song I just love this it really says what I am about. But excuse me I just wet my pants


      OK..............thanks..................who ever is the fake handle as i did not post.


      Lmfao...........got no sole..............on bottom of shoe...........can be replaced or repaired !

      May 21, 2013 at 8:15 pm | Report abuse |


      June 4, 2013 at 8:14 pm |
  5. tre

    .......Well, if your GOD is LOVE.........and LOVE has NO barriers...........I am not Catholic, but I believe as does the Pope.....

    June 4, 2013 at 6:24 am |
    • Science

      So RB.....chadie too..........truth is best told to children is it not ?


      June 4, 2013 at 12:29 pm |

      Never has been a red horn-y devil and that is the truth !

      June 4, 2013 at 12:48 pm |
  6. jim

    After spending three years with Christ, his own disciples fled and adamantly refused to believe the reports from friends of Jesus' resurrection, and they had witnessed first-hand people being raised from the dead! Something must have happened to their belief that fateful day that rendered them into atheists, yet Jesus brought the proof they needed right to them. In person. I don't think for one moment that they were more special than anyone else on the planet and what Jesus did to bring them to belief, he will, and does do, for everyone.

    June 3, 2013 at 11:34 pm |
    • fintastic

      @Jim.... there is zero evidence of any so called miracles. Stop confusing mythology with reality.

      June 4, 2013 at 4:12 pm |
    • Richard Cranium

      not everyone. I studies the bible for many years, and came to the conclusion that it is the product of men's imaginations in response to their own ignorance. Also many people on the planet never heard of your Jesus...so no not everyone, that is also a lie.

      June 4, 2013 at 4:22 pm |
  7. saved and pray you get saved

    What the catholic leader said goes against practical foundation Christian knowledge. If you are catholic and you are being led by him I feel sorry for you because deep down inside you understand that teachings of catholism goes against what JESUS taught. Nonbeliever redeemed?by guess who

    June 3, 2013 at 6:07 pm |
    • Robin

      Catholic/Protestant = Sunni/Shiite. I sure wish you people would all quit arguing over who has the right interpretation of your doctrine and just get on with your own lives.

      June 5, 2013 at 9:59 am |
  8. Wolffe

    Please do not confuse Catholocism with biblical Christianity; they are not the same whatsoever. Jesus said that unless a man be "Born Again", he will not inherit the kingdom of God. He also said that He is the way, the truth and the life and there is no other path to God.

    These statements are either completely false or completely true. There is no other middle ground. Truth is absolute, not relative.

    June 3, 2013 at 5:33 pm |
    • Robin

      It's always funny to see how different varieties of Christians are so ready to condemn the other varieties as not authentic and being just as bad as non-believers. Remind anyone else of the Sunnis and Shiites?

      June 3, 2013 at 10:50 pm |
    • flounder


      June 4, 2013 at 2:51 pm |
    • fintastic

      It's ALL "completely false"........ every bit of it....

      June 4, 2013 at 4:13 pm |
    • PRISM 1234

      "These statements are either completely false or completely true. There is no other middle ground. Truth is absolute, not relative"
      Yes, brother. Amen!

      June 4, 2013 at 9:34 pm |
    • Humanity

      "These statements are either completely false or completely true. There is no other middle ground. Truth is absolute, not relative"

      You are right: Those statements are completely false.

      June 4, 2013 at 10:33 pm |
    • PRISM 1234

      And you are the one with authority to say so, hm ? WHO counseled YOU that you would know what is right and what is wrong, to recognized truth from a lie, or reality from a fiction?

      June 5, 2013 at 8:49 am |
    • Lee S

      BIblical christianity? LOL didnt the catholics put the bible together?

      June 5, 2013 at 1:13 pm |
    • Pole dancing for Jesus

      And you are the one with authority to say so, hm ? WHO counseled YOU that you would know what is right and what is wrong, to recognized truth from a lie, or reality from a fiction?

      June 5, 2013 at 1:14 pm |
    • sam stone

      isn't that sweet? prissy makes an appearance

      June 5, 2013 at 3:45 pm |
    • sam stone

      "And you are the one with authority to say so, hm ? WHO counseled YOU that you would know what is right and what is wrong, to recognized truth from a lie, or reality from a fiction?"

      Same could be asked of you, prissy

      June 5, 2013 at 3:47 pm |
  9. Science

    Hey faithy seems like you have not been weaned yet sort of like chadie .............reminds me of a 5 year old ?

    Monkey Teeth Help Reveal Neanderthal Weaning

    May 24, 2013 — Most modern human mothers wean their babies much earlier than our closest primate relatives. But what about our extinct relatives, the Neanderthals?


    June 3, 2013 at 5:15 pm |
  10. Salero21

    Atheism is stupidity in Full bloom. That's all there is to it.

    June 3, 2013 at 4:28 pm |
    • Lee S

      Being scared of death and reaching blindly for some book to comfort you with stories of afterlife and magic people is total sanity.

      June 5, 2013 at 12:55 pm |
  11. Science

    Hey chadie time to come in old of the cold..............or stay stuck in the green slime that created US

    NASA: Mars could have supported life

    Water-Rock Reaction May Provide Enough Hydrogen 'Food' to Sustain Life in Ocean's Crust or On Mars

    May 30, 2013 — A chemical reaction between iron-containing minerals and water may produce enough hydrogen "food" to sustain microbial communities living in pores and cracks within the enormous volume of rock below the ocean floor and parts of the continents, according to a new study led by the University of Colorado Boulder.


    Star Dust we are


    Pebbly Rocks Testify to Old Streambed On Mars

    May 30, 2013 — Detailed analysis and review have borne out researchers' initial interpretation of pebble-containing slabs that NASA's Mars rover Curiosity investigated last year: They are part of an ancient streambed.


    Creationists make sure to look for that chondrite................compasses and GPS does not work around the stones.


    June 3, 2013 at 10:19 am |
    • rh

      I believe in science and evolution. I don't believe in any gods. But since I have never gone to the Galapagos, have never read Darwin's works in his own hand, have never been in a position to repeat experiments that proved the genetics of DNA, I do have something in common with those who follow religion. Because of that, I refuse to impugn people who were convinced by smaller men than Darwin and Newton to follow a religion. All that you can do is wish that those who choose to follow a religion do not let it cloud the ultimate truth of science and evolution and the need for understanding and compassion throughout the world.
      And Pope Francis is someone who seems to be "talking the talk" – actually trying to bring people together instead of drive them apart. I believe that if he starts talking more about "good and evil" whether people are Catholic or not, follow a religion or not, some of these "Hey, I'm a Christian and I think all atheists are evil plagues on the world" people might actually stop and think for a millisecond that millions of their neighbors are just as moral, if not more, than they are.

      June 3, 2013 at 11:55 am |
    • Science

      The 666 beast for the RCC too !

      You know creationists...........ID believers.....chad..........The Bone !..............E =mc2 = splat.

      Messed-Up Bible Stories – 2 – Adam and Eve


      June 3, 2013 at 1:56 pm |
    • Science

      Hey sparkie ..............was it a chondrite stone.............not rock ?

      A Step Closer to Artificial Livers: Researchers Identify Compounds That Help Liver Cells Grow Outside Body

      June 2, 2013 — Prometheus, the mythological figure who stole fire from the gods, was punished for this theft by being bound to a rock. Each day, an eagle swept down and fed on his liver, which then grew back to be eaten again the next day.


      June 3, 2013 at 3:22 pm |
    • Lee S

      @Rh. Men smaller than Darwin? Just because they havent made great leaps in understanding more or less single handidly does not make them any less right or wrong than Darwin was about anything. You missed the point of science completely. If you can prove someone wrong and rewrite the pages of science, you are more than welcome to do so. You just have to convince everyone else in the community by providing a repeatable and testable hypothesis that will prove whatever you are trying to say. There are scientists who disagree with particular findings of other scientists in their repective fields, its called progress. Dismissing science becasue you are religous is just ignorant. If science was all a farce how in the heck are we communicating through the internet etc? Did god leave instructions for a pc and network somewhere?

      June 5, 2013 at 1:01 pm |
  12. Sunfire

    I am not a Catholic even though I am a Christian and this Pope is doing a tremendous good job by bringing in atheists and other Christian denominations as well. The Pope means good and may the Lord save him from the devil the Vatican

    June 3, 2013 at 8:33 am |
    • rh

      Agreed. I don't care if you have a religion or not (I and my family don't), but the more people can be brought together and understanding can be shared, the better this planet will be.

      June 3, 2013 at 11:50 am |
  13. Randy

    On Wednesday May 22, The Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Vatican spokesman, said

    “People who aware of the Catholic church “cannot be saved” if they “refuse to enter her or remain in her.”
    The Bible says,
    “Then I heard another voice from heaven say:
    “ ‘Come out of her, my people,’b
    so that you will not share in her sins,
    so that you will not receive any of her plagues;
    5for her sins are piled up to heaven,
    and God has remembered her crimes” (Revelation 18:4)

    Salvation is by grace, “through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

    June 3, 2013 at 7:04 am |
  14. Randy

    On Wednesday May 22, Pope Francis said, “ 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.”
    But the Bible says “But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away” (Isaiah 64:6)
    “God looks down from heaven on all mankind to see if there are any who understand,
    any who seek God. Everyone has turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one” (Psalm 53:2-3).

    “There is no one righteous, not even one;
    11there is no one who understands;
    there is no one who seeks God.
    12All have turned away,
    they have together become worthless;
    there is no one who does good,
    not even one.”b
    13“Their throats are open graves;
    their tongues practice deceit.”c
    “The poison of vipers is on their lips.”d
    14“Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”e
    15“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
    16ruin and misery mark their ways,
    17and the way of peace they do not know.”f
    18“There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Romans 3:10-18)

    Don’t get it twisted, there is no such thing as “your good will outweigh your bad”!

    On Wednesday May 22, Pope Francis said ““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. “

    But the Bible tells us Christians,

    “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?” (1 Cor. 6:14)

    “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9).

    June 3, 2013 at 7:03 am |
    • Fladabosco

      What could possibly be worse than people who think they were chosen by god to be special or saved and that other people are lower than you.

      The ultimate arrogance of man is pretending to know what god is or god wants. Claiming that ancient scripture that was edited and collected by a Roman emperor, added to, translated, and interpreted to be the voice of god is ridiculous.

      June 3, 2013 at 10:05 am |
    • mags

      What we have found out that in order to be full people is that we must labor beyond scripture. It is very possible for atheists to live an ethical life in that they would not do unto others what they would not want others to do unto them. That is sooooo basic! Also, as we grow older we realize that the almighty has one quirky sense of humor! The almighty did not create heaven as a country club.

      June 3, 2013 at 3:54 pm |
  15. Randy

    On Wednesday May 22, 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!””
    Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matthew 7:21-23).

    Don’t get it twisted, Trust what Jesus said!

    June 3, 2013 at 7:02 am |
    • Robin

      Because his trusty stenographer recorded his words exactly as he spoke them, right?

      June 3, 2013 at 10:52 pm |
    • PRISM 1234

      Amen, my brother!

      June 5, 2013 at 8:52 am |
    • PRISM 1234

      The Lord God, the Almighty Creator has a "Stenographer" you know nothing about. He who created the world and vast universe, with all His mysteries also knows how to direct and preserve His message to human beings He created for Himself, so that they may know Him. And He doesn't need Joseph Smiths, Watchtower crew, or RC C's Popes to decode it, interpret it, or endorse it.
      But because you do not know Him, neither do you knowThe Spirit of Truth who testifies to the Truth, to you they are all the same. Sad reality, but so many fall in that category!

      June 5, 2013 at 9:02 am |
    • Lee S

      So I see Prism has some mental issues? Voices in the head? You claim to be some sort of elite and opened spiritual being that can understand this "god?" LOL sounds more like your just delusional and scared to die. Is publishing your ignorance on the internet going to stamp your ticket into the exclusive country club in the sky for people like you? Sounds a bit self serving no? Welcome to reality.

      June 5, 2013 at 1:06 pm |
    • sam stone

      "He who created the world and vast universe, with all His mysteries also knows how to direct and preserve His message to human beings"

      That's why there is only one denomination of christianity, right prissy? The message is so clear and unambiguous?

      June 5, 2013 at 3:51 pm |
    • sam stone

      Lee: prissy does not have mental issues. he has mental subscriptions. that way, he has all the issues

      June 5, 2013 at 3:52 pm |
  16. prophet

    they are forgiven but not our friends. Everyone is forgiven but not everyone accepts it and forgiveness is not complete until it is accepted.

    June 3, 2013 at 6:40 am |
    • 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 ·
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      Big circle here chadie...................

      look what shows up on Bing 16 hours ago

      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 3, 2013 at 6:45 am |
  17. prophet

    we are praying for them

    June 3, 2013 at 6:38 am |
  18. prophet

    look at the caps they wear, all Jewish.

    June 3, 2013 at 6:38 am |
  19. prophet

    the catholic clergy are antisemitic and yet what they pretend to show is actually a corrupted form of Judaism that they corrupted by trying to de judaise Judaism.

    June 3, 2013 at 6:35 am |
  20. prophet

    we are praying for the catholic clergy and their followers.

    June 3, 2013 at 6:31 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.