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. Bollie Jackson

    John 14:6 – Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth and life. No one can come to the Father except through me." When we die - Jesus will be the first person you see. You will see the nail prints in his hands and know that everything is true that the Bible says. Your either loving your life of sin so much that your not willing to give it up or you never experienced what love is in your life. The true definition of love is – No greater love than this – a man lay himself down for another – that's Jesus – He died for our sins, He paid the penalty for us all. God accepts Hissacrifice only! God loves us somuch that He gave His only Son for us all. That's how we get into heaven!

    May 23, 2013 at 7:38 pm |
    • Athy

      I don't believe a word of it. Totally preposterous.

      May 23, 2013 at 7:40 pm |
    • crc

      Amen, Jesus told us how it really is and what it takes to get to Heaven because He loves us. Scripturally speaking this leader of the Catholic church is preaching heresy, plain and simple. The Bible tells us that faith in Christ gets you to Heaven after becoming a new creature and that good works alone have nothing to do with it.

      May 23, 2013 at 7:58 pm |
    • Herb

      Jesus is dead. His bones are likely rotting somewhere. He's not coming back because he no longer exists. Poof! Gone forever.

      May 23, 2013 at 8:14 pm |
  2. Bill

    I have respect for anyone who sincerely wishes to do good and demonstrates as much through their actions by helping others. I may not agree with all such persons, I may not even particularly like them, but they will have my respect.

    May 23, 2013 at 7:35 pm |
  3. Butters

    This has always bothered me. What if someone was basically a saint. They devoted their entire life to helping others, They lead good lives. Just an extremely good person.

    Now if they had a different religion or none at all. Would they get into heaven? Because if not the logic seems sorta.. bad.
    Hey you killed six people but you were a Christian and asked for forgiveness right before dying. Come on in. You spent a lifetime helping people but you didn't pick the right religion, you're going to hell.

    Does anyone else not see how absurd that is?

    May 23, 2013 at 7:34 pm |
    • JMEF

      Well Butters, we have creeps like Bill Deacon that is a self confessed murderer that believes that he has repented and been redeemed and is a shoe in for the mythical heaven but denies all others the same delusion if they do not accept jesus christ as their saviour. Strange place the belief blog, seems to be full of born agains that desperately needed a crutch to cope with their existence. Well if it keeps them from being a danger to society I guess some good comes from it.

      May 23, 2013 at 7:49 pm |
    • Not Enough

      Ephesians 2:8-9 sums it up.

      "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast."

      May 23, 2013 at 7:53 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      the point of the article is that the Pope essentially said 'yes, if you live a good life, you can get to heaven'.

      Of course this statement is from the regular guy Pope, not the 'official infallible' Pope, so it was quickly 'corrected' by the clerical lawyers who said "well yes, but not if you know about Catholicism and refuse to be a member of the church. In that case, no".

      May 23, 2013 at 7:56 pm |
    • pjr

      butters, you are basically on the right track and I don't necessarily disagree with you. But how good do you have to be to get into heaven? Because no one can be "good enough" to get into heaven. It is place completely devoid of anything remotely resembling evil. So, Jesus steps out of heaven and takes our place. He bore all of our evil on His back so that we, through Him, can reign with Him in Heaven. Continue to do good and you will find your way. Only start with Jesus and you will experience more joy and peace than you have ever currently known. Through Him, your works will take on more meaning, more people with want what you have; your rewards in heaven will be great.

      May 24, 2013 at 9:04 am |
  4. Mother Gaius Helen Mohaim


    May 23, 2013 at 7:29 pm |
  5. frederick johnsen

    Reblogged this on Revving It Up and commented:
    Seems like a mixed message coming from Rome. Pope Francis has all going to heaven, even the non-believer. So much for Christ's words to his Disciples the one must believe and be baptized or his words to Nicodemus about being born again of water a spirit (faith).
    On the other hand we have Rev. Thomas Rosica giving us the old "No salvation outside the Catholic Church," which I thought JPII and Francis sort of backed off on.

    May 23, 2013 at 7:26 pm |
    • lionlylamb

      Frederick johnsen,

      Your being as an 'intellectual' follower of the RCC's follow along with many flavors of oracle nonsense is meaningless when one is in contemplative associations around the kingdom domains of the Gods' locations as is told for us to so first seek and to first become found. Where-then "frederick' do you say is the places of God's kingdom domains to be so founded upon? Need some help do you? Although the whole world knows not God's kingdom domains whereabouts, all do seem uncaring as to the righteous location of Gods' kingdom domains. Luke 17:21 & 1 Corinthians 3:9 are good reason for one and all to find fathomable insights helping along one's ever to be, fragmented mindsets of spirited perceptivities in the oh so Holy Amalgamated Neurons of Atomic Wonderments!

      May 23, 2013 at 8:15 pm |
  6. One one

    Everyone gets to go to heaven !!! Yahoo !!

    I'm not surprised by this. IMO one of Christianity's biggest problems is the concept of hell. It's like a yolk around their necks. But it appears the new pope recognizes the problem and Is trying to extricate the Catholic brand from this self destructive dogma. Problem is, they are stuck with it because their bible talks about it . Maybe with a new "interpretation" and a new "context" the pope can fix the problem. As usual, the religion business will make up a new inerrant, cast in stone story about what the scripture really means to suite their needs.

    May 23, 2013 at 7:26 pm |
  7. faith

    "You must first believe before it becomes a reality to you!" news

    common, huge error.

    when god makes himself known to you, you can't help believing

    May 23, 2013 at 7:24 pm |
    • lionlylamb


      The meanderings of aimless wanderers, the airy nurturing of a butterfly's wings as it skips and jumps ever so whimsically upon airy currents of majestic wandering. Who then is the wanderer and what is of wandering except they be mysteries of a motional event? Can not one see their owned imaginative visualizations of past events and also hoped for occasions ensuing soon to become a real rationalism to be lived out? Add just a pinch of humor onto one's "spelled" out hopes of social fruitions and the stage is set! Oh for to have faith in one's 'owned' beliefs! Then others won't be so hard for to swallow.

      May 23, 2013 at 7:43 pm |
    • brewster

      "The meanderings of aimless wanderers, the airy nurturing of a butterfly's wings as it skips and jumps ever so whimsically upon airy currents of majestic wandering. Who then is the wanderer and what is of wandering except they be mysteries of a motional event? Can not one see their owned imaginative visualizations of past events and also hoped for occasions ensuing soon to become a real rationalism to be lived out? Add just a pinch of humor onto one's "spelled" out hopes of social fruitions and the stage is set! Oh for to have faith in one's 'owned' beliefs! Then others won't be so hard for to swallow."

      i had waited 4 time 2 change her, the only change that came was over me. god whispered in song 2 me one sweet evening soon after he appeared 2 me. a line from tull.


      May 24, 2013 at 12:33 am |
  8. MCFx

    Athiests are Funny! Some stats for your amusement

    90% – The percentage of their lives trying to belittle Christians.

    0% – The percantage of their lives spent outside a Mosque with a sign that says "Allah Is A Fairy Tale"
    0% – The percantage of their lives spent outside a Satanists Church with a sign that says, "Satan Doesn't Exist So He Doesn't Scare Me."

    Conclusion: Athiests Are Not Only Funny...Their conviction is only surpassed by their COWARDICE.

    May 23, 2013 at 7:23 pm |
    • sam

      This article references atheism. If you don't like it, crying about it in post after post isn't going to get you anywhere. It makes you look like an idiot.

      May 23, 2013 at 7:25 pm |
    • One one

      You seem to be threatened by atheism. Do you wonder why ? Could it be that, deep down inside, you have doubts ?

      May 23, 2013 at 7:29 pm |
    • Athy

      And he still can't spell it! How slow can a person be, even if he's a religie?

      May 23, 2013 at 7:33 pm |
    • The real Tom

      What's "cowardly" about atheists? And where, pray tell, is there a "Satanist Church?"

      May 23, 2013 at 7:33 pm |
    • Dave

      Fun irony... what percentage of your life are you utilizing right now trying to belittle Atheists? ROFL!

      May 23, 2013 at 7:34 pm |
    • Coffeeclue

      I'm not sure why atheists should be standing with any types of signs. Evangelists are the ones pushing their agenda. Atheists simply don't care about any religion, nor about converting others to be non-religious.

      May 23, 2013 at 7:38 pm |
    • EdwardTr

      According to you If a good person that was good and kind to others dies, will he be saved? Or will your god say, "well I know you made other peoples life better but you did not believe in me, down you go".

      Do you want any part of god that would act like that?

      May 23, 2013 at 7:40 pm |
    • San Adalberto

      I suspect atheists are most critical of Christian faiths because it is the Christian faiths that most regularly intrude upon their lives, even unto the creation of laws by conservative political groups. When you are in the Lion's den, you don't waste much time worrying about Alligators.

      May 23, 2013 at 7:40 pm |
    • The real Tom

      San Al, I may just have to appropriate that line for my own use at some future occasion.

      May 23, 2013 at 9:28 pm |
  9. ron

    I'm a strongly spiritual person. But since I "know about the Catholic Church" and "...refuse to stay in her," I am apparently doomed to Hell. Well, the Pope, the Bishops, the fundamentalist evangelists, and all of their ilk like to speak for God. Sorry, don't think so. I "know about the Catholic Church" and I've chosen to leave. I sleep well at night knowing that I will die outside the fundamentalist church I grew up in and outside the Catholic Church I converted to.

    May 23, 2013 at 7:23 pm |
  10. Brandon

    I love God and I'm not going to shove it down your throat. But man, you're missing out!

    May 23, 2013 at 7:23 pm |
  11. Age of Reason

    ..."NO one knows if this Jesus Christ existed, and if he did, NOTHING is known about him!"
    "Why I am NOT a Christian" Bertrand Russell 1928

    May 23, 2013 at 7:22 pm |
    • lngtrmthnkr

      why would you follow a guy who knew nothing? ask your own question,find your own answers.Its not hard,

      May 24, 2013 at 11:21 am |
  12. sam

    Well, look at that. CNN finally learned something, and closed comments for the next article. Smartest thing I've seen them do so far. That would have been a raging crapfest.

    May 23, 2013 at 7:22 pm |
  13. News

    And as to everybody making it to heaven No . You cannot make it there with guilt.
    The good News is that Jesus can take away guilt and sin.
    A man cannot even get close to God with Guilt and Sin.
    The Good News is Jesus can make that happen.
    The Good News is no matter who you are– heaven can be yours!

    May 23, 2013 at 7:18 pm |
    • faith

      guilty sinners were his pals.

      it was the self-righteous he detested, like nazi god-hating fascists.

      May 23, 2013 at 7:28 pm |
    • religionkillsGodyourFatherSaves


      The Lord Jesus said, "I am The Way, The Truth and The Life; no one comes to The Father except through Me."

      He DID NOT say – any church or man or denomination is the way to the anything...

      The Word of The Lord condemns pagan practices and tells us NOT TO touch the unclean thing – 2Corinthians 6:17

      Sadly with all the good intentions of many catholics and many other folk to do good, the Lord tells us that without Him, our good works will earn us nothing – they are as filthy rags...Isaiah 64:6

      As the Word of the Lord says – believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.

      Believing is also action in line with obedience to His Word and His Voice – James 1:22.

      Even pentecostal or evangelical people have to meet the same standard. The Lord clearly tells us that miracles or great works in His Name will not cut it. It is only our lifestyle and our wills submitted to the Lord. See Matthew 7:15-23, John 15, Matthew 15:8,

      May 23, 2013 at 7:47 pm |
  14. Francisco Decastro

    American Atheist President? I didn't know there was an "American Atheist" organization. I will say this, for someone to have a career denying the existence of God daily, and being the President of that organization based on those merits, makes you wonder if satan is behind it.

    Okay, now I am ready for any replies disagreeing with me. <– hopefully because I said this no one will bother.

    May 23, 2013 at 7:17 pm |
  15. akmac65

    It is good to see a Christian with an open mind and conscience. The typical "christian" stance that only Christians have the attention of God, is arrogant to the extreme. They forget that the original Christians were Jews, not to mention that Jesus himself was a practicing Jew. The teachings of Jesus were inclusive, not exclusive, also.

    May 23, 2013 at 7:17 pm |
    • Francisco Decastro

      Everybody has a chance of going to heaven. There is no such thing that religion will save you. What will save you is how you live your life. If you do good, you will go to heaven, and if you do bad, you will not go to heaven. And purgatory does not exist of course. But no religion will save anyone. Religion is good for practice, to keep the faith going by going to a church weekly to pray and keep the rhythm. But it is not what will save someone. Many people in churches will not go to heaven, and many people out of churches will go to heaven.

      May 23, 2013 at 7:20 pm |
  16. pr0gress

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

    First of all – weirdly worded. Second of all, I love that the church is basically "walking back" the pope's comments, not "clarifying" them. Gee, what would happen to the collection plate if people believed that an atheist who simply did good all of their lives could get into heaven...

    May 23, 2013 at 7:16 pm |
    • sam

      Pulling out is a sin.

      May 23, 2013 at 7:18 pm |
  17. MCFx

    Athiests Are Funny! Of the 90% of their time trying to convince us there is no God, 75% of that time is spent on articles about God. Keep it coming Athiests. You crack me up!

    May 23, 2013 at 7:13 pm |
    • sam


      May 23, 2013 at 7:18 pm |
    • pr0gress

      This seems to be an article referencing atheism. Why would atheists not read it and comment?

      And atheists do not need to do any convincing. All evidence – that is, the complete lack of it – is on their side. It is your burden to prove that there is a god (and that has never been done in the history of thousands of deities), not their burden to prove a negative.

      May 23, 2013 at 7:18 pm |
    • Athy

      Well, you got "their" spelled right. Now start working on "atheist". I know it's hard, but give it your best.

      May 23, 2013 at 7:20 pm |
    • MCFx

      Athy, REALLY? Spell Checking a COMMENTS section. Next you'll be correcting grammar at a BAR!!!!

      May 23, 2013 at 7:26 pm |
    • faith

      "And atheists do not need to do any convincing" that's y they r so good at it.

      May 23, 2013 at 7:30 pm |
    • The real Tom

      If you don't want to be ridiculed for your sh!tty writing, then do a better job, dumbfvck. If you're too dumb or too lazy to bother, then you deserve scorn, and since you see fit to criticize atheists, turnabout is fair play. Grow a thicker skin or find somewhere else to post.

      May 23, 2013 at 7:32 pm |
    • akmac65

      MCFx.... The only people trying to sell, sometimes literally, their beliefs are the so-called christians. Atheists have no need to convert (or control) anyone.

      May 23, 2013 at 7:33 pm |
    • EdwardTr

      We simply want for your discrimination against us to end. Most of the atheists are humanist we believe that people are basically good at their nature and we want to leave this world a better place just like most of other human beings. Empathy is not just a Christian trait.

      Having said that, one reason to be vocal is for others atheists and such to come out and be open about their belief. To let them know they are not alone. As far as time spent, you spend a lot more time spreading your gospel than we do. Several times a year I have some fanatic knocking on our door spreading their beliefs, none of them have been atheists.

      While we can not disprove existence of a god, I can prove non existence of any specific god that is presented to be proven, to us including yours.

      May 23, 2013 at 7:34 pm |
    • faith

      "All evidence – that is, the complete lack of it – is on their side. It is your burden to prove that there is a god (and that has never been done in the history of thousands of deities), not their burden to prove a negative."

      it is my burden to prove to myself what nazi god-hating fascists pretend doesn't exist so that i can convince myself what i already believe meets the standards of nazi god-hating fascists' requirements as credible evidence.

      they believe god is light so he cannot create light. this is typical of their capacity to reason.

      they lie saying u can't prove a negative.

      they lie when they claim there is a law of debating that puts the burden on anyone who makes an assertion to prove said assertion first, otherwise it must be dismissed.

      jesus is hip

      not one intelligent nazi god-hating fascist is willing to debate. apparently, none posts here

      May 23, 2013 at 7:45 pm |
    • San Adalberto

      I think atheists spend a lot of time worrying about 'God' or organized religion because organized religions like Christianity have a profound impact on daily life. So while they may not believe in God, they certainly believe that religions wield power over them- despite separation of church and state.

      May 23, 2013 at 7:45 pm |
    • pr0gress

      @ faith – Guess what? You don't get to just claim it's a lie that you can't prove a negative or that the burden of proof is on the claimant. That's just fact, not opinion.

      Since you don't get it, consider this: if the justice system worked the way you claim, I can just say, "I believe poster 'Faith' murdered someone, somewhere. I don't have a name of a victim or any details, I just believe it. Unless he can prove that he did not, he is to be executed for his crime."

      How will you prove that you did not? I mean, I don't have to give you a single bit of proof to my claim, other than my belief. You simply cannot prove the negative, that you did not do it.

      You DO have to provide evidence of a claim, otherwise there is LITERALLY nothing to debate!

      And just one more rule – the person who calls the other a "Nazi" is ALWAYS in the wrong. So – you lose.

      May 24, 2013 at 12:23 am |
  18. MCFx

    Archaia, CHANGE THE CHANNEL! you know there is a thing called the remote.

    May 23, 2013 at 7:11 pm |
  19. Robert

    So much for Christs words of repent and believe the gospel or perish, eh?

    Mar 16:15 And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.
    Mar 16:16 He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.

    May 23, 2013 at 7:11 pm |
    • Bob

      Robert, Catholicism is like atheism, they make it up as they go. lol

      May 23, 2013 at 7:12 pm |
    • akmac65

      Robert.... The only gospel when Jesus was reported to have lived was the Old Testament. The New Testament did not exist.

      May 23, 2013 at 7:28 pm |
  20. Guest

    The pope and the rest of catholic churches need to read the NIV real Bible and stop spreading nonsense around and lead everyone to lucifer.
    After following their nonsense doctrine for all my life from being a cathokic student to going to church every Sundays wasting my time. Not once they preach on the truth about being saved by the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. Everyone need to acknowledge their sins, confess them to the true God the Lord Jesus Christ and ask for forgiveness. Everyone needs to be born again to be save by the Lord Jesus. John 3.16 spell it out for everyone. These so call catholics called themselves Christians without finding out what is Christianity continue to manipulate the Word of the Lord.
    The truth is whether atheist likes it or not, whether they believe Christians or not, one day when the Lord returns every knee will bow down and every tongue will confess that the Lord is the King of kings and the Lord of lords. Whether anyone like it or not Jesus is the Lord God the Creator and by the time they realize that born again Christians were telling the truth, it will be too late. So the pope better start reading the real Bible.

    May 23, 2013 at 7:10 pm |
    • akmac65

      In early Christianity, Jesus was a man, not God. The Romanized church selected and edited the gospels, which were written long after Jesus' death to deify him. They went so far as to eliminate references to his brothers and sisters in order to preserve his mom's virginity and his so-called god status.
      Besides which, the Commandments clearly prohibit multiple gods and graven images, so making Jesus into a god is a lawyerly manipulation, not truth.

      May 23, 2013 at 7:26 pm |
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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.