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. N&W 1000

    This reminds me of why the Book of Revelation, Ch. 17, speaks of the RC Church and it's pope, the way it does.

    Read it for yourself.

    June 16, 2013 at 8:56 am |
  2. N&W 1000

    This man is a fool, with the spirit of an Anti-Christ.

    The bible plainly teaches that any who come to God must believe that HE IS, and that he is a rewarded of those who seek him.

    June 16, 2013 at 8:55 am |
    • Randy

      Heaven and Hell – carrot and stick approach and scare tactics that today even a 6-year-old will not buy.

      June 16, 2013 at 9:08 am |
  3. Randy

    NoOneLikeJesus, "Jesus Christ is the ONLY way to heaven"? A lot of people would disagree.

    June 16, 2013 at 8:47 am |
    • N&W 1000

      True, many do, and will have their chance to take it up with Him one day.

      June 16, 2013 at 8:56 am |
    • Randy

      Heaven and Hell – carrot and stick approach and scare tactics that today even a 6-year-old will not buy.

      June 22, 2013 at 11:46 am |
  4. Science

    No divine designer needed............so KJV and heaven are a good fairytale........Adam and his bone.

    Video animation: RNA interference



    .geology...................the deep where green slime grows ............for you know.

    Researchers Sequence the Genome of Global Deep Ocean.


    And included this for chadfie...........no divine creator needed chad.

    Mystery of X-Ray Light from Black Holes Solved

    June 14, 2013 — It is a mystery that has stymied astrophysicists for decades: how do black holes produce so many high-power X-rays?


    June 16, 2013 at 8:46 am |
  5. NoOneLikeJesus

    Christ only redeems those who acknowledge Him as His Savior. He died for ALL of us, but not ALL of us will accept His free gift of salvation. Many have been called, but few shall be chosen.......those few are the ones who decided to accept the free gift of salvation, so this pope needs to stop twisting what saith the Lord and study the Bible with an open mind and understanding.

    June 16, 2013 at 8:44 am |
    • Harrison

      You think you know more about the Bible than the pope does? Sounds pretty arrogant to me. Everybody cherry picks their favorite scriptures to support their points of view while dismissing the ones that don't.

      June 16, 2013 at 4:16 pm |
  6. NoOneLikeJesus

    Religion isn't the way to heaven. Jesus Christ is the ONLY way to heaven. Chris was and will never be about religion. I believe that the only way an atheist or anyone can go to heave is to accept Christ as his/her personal Savior, even if it means at death bed he/she surrenders to Christ. I have seen atheists do this and are now for ever with the Lord.

    June 16, 2013 at 8:29 am |
    • Randy

      Yeah, my way or high way, and many people choose the high way.

      June 16, 2013 at 8:38 am |
    • NoOneLikeJesus

      Randy, explain to me where exactly did I say it's my way?

      June 16, 2013 at 8:41 am |
    • Randy

      NoOneLikeJesus, "Jesus Christ is the ONLY way to heaven"? A lot of people would disagree.

      June 16, 2013 at 8:48 am |
  7. TheTruth

    Some believe they're better because of their religion.
    That is not just an opinion; it's a prejudice.

    Teach your children well. Teach them to be free of prejudice.

    June 16, 2013 at 7:40 am |
    • .

      narrow is the way and there are few that find it you have not found it and you have no Truth to offer

      June 16, 2013 at 7:42 am |
    • scrogs22us

      Your teaching them to be prejudice of prejudice people

      June 16, 2013 at 8:10 am |
  8. TheTruth

    All men and women were born equal, regardless race or religion.
    No one race is above another. No one religion is above another.

    June 16, 2013 at 7:39 am |
    • scrogs22us

      I agree with this statement, but you have no reason/or rationale to back it up

      June 16, 2013 at 8:14 am |
    • scrogs22us

      if we evolved from apes, then are white people more evolved than black people?
      if America is the most affluent country are not other countries worth less than the US?
      If religion goes on popularity, then isn't one religion more popular than another?
      (i don't hold real Christianity as a religion) What this pope is saying is that his religion is all inclusive – buddhism, hinduism, and Islam are not inclusive

      June 16, 2013 at 8:17 am |
  9. TheTruth

    “When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. And that's my religion.”
    ― Abraham Lincoln

    June 16, 2013 at 7:39 am |
  10. Doc Ock

    So someone who murders 47 people can sit on the electric chair and ask forgiveness before they pull the switch and he's headed off to heaven; meanwhile the agnostic who is a good husband and father and volunteers in the community and helps with charity is going to burn in hell?

    Gee, that's not confusing in any way.

    June 16, 2013 at 2:14 am |
    • Randy

      Apparently that's what they preach - without believing in god, good people will go to hell, bad people will go to heaven. And then they wonder why believers become atheists.

      June 16, 2013 at 8:04 am |
    • scrogs22us

      you seem to think that God thinks there are good people – that's not what the Bible teaches

      June 16, 2013 at 8:11 am |
    • Randy

      scrogs22us, you are right, according to that teaching, you don't have to be good (honest, decent, help others, self sacrifice, etc.), you just have to say that you "believe".

      Ever wonder what society would be like if that's the case? Ever wonder what "heaven" would be like if that's the case?

      June 16, 2013 at 8:30 am |
    • NoOneLikeJesus

      How can you be so sure that the person who killed 47 people even surrenders to Christ right before he is even put in the electric chair? Besides, there has been many people who surrenders to Christ years before he/she is even put to death and many who dies as an agnostic/atheist who never cared to repent for their evil deeds. You seem to call yourself self-righteous be saying how wonderful you are by being a good husband and helping others when in reality there is NOTHING good in the flesh of any men or woman. Works without faith is dead......that's how your works are DEAD.

      June 16, 2013 at 8:36 am |
  11. Lina

    It's quite scary to see how the Catholic religion ever so slightly is twisting things of the Bible and God's word.
    Yes, salvation is offered to everyone but to state

    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.”

    You cannot just "do good" on earth without submitting your life to Christ and making Him your savior.
    I understand how the Pope's words may have got misconstrued after this claim:

    "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."

    However, as a holy public figure, get your facts straight.

    June 16, 2013 at 1:04 am |
    • Randy

      Heaven and Hell - carrot and stick approach and scare tactics that even a 6-year-old will not buy.

      June 16, 2013 at 8:09 am |
    • NoOneLikeJesus

      Well said, Lina. Christ was very clear about others being cleared. The Catholics indeed twist the Word of God for their own agenda. Catholic isn't about salvation. I have been to their church and not once have I ever seen a priest ask people to come to the alter for repentance and salvation....NOT ONCE. The Catholic church is a pagan church who happens to adopt Christianity, which they are far from following the teaching of Christ.

      June 16, 2013 at 8:40 am |
    • Randy

      Christians, Catholics, and all other denominations don't even get along with each other (to put it mildly). Why is an all-powerful god not able to put his own "house" in order?

      June 16, 2013 at 9:01 am |
  12. Ysrael YAHUDAH

    What's a catholic? pope.

    June 16, 2013 at 1:01 am |
    • Ysrael YAHUDAH


      June 16, 2013 at 1:18 am |
  13. Mike

    I hear that a lot of atheists convert after meeting God.

    June 16, 2013 at 12:05 am |
    • LinCA


      You said, "I hear that a lot of atheists convert after meeting God."
      If they met a god they would have reason to believe. Until there is evidence for gods, it's no more reasonable to believe they exist than it is to believe the Tooth fairy is real.

      June 16, 2013 at 12:08 am |
    • Randy

      I hear many "believers" become free thinkers.

      June 16, 2013 at 8:15 am |
  14. JennyTX

    I can't believe so many people STILL take the sky fairies so seriously. No one has any proof, yet they sit around pontificating (pun intended) like experts.

    June 15, 2013 at 11:39 pm |
  15. fuhiq

    Doesn't matter who things what about the subject, WE don't decide who gets there-I mean, yes, if there is a there to begin with-its what the Old Man thinks is what is happening. So I would just sit back and enjoy the ride while (you) can.

    June 15, 2013 at 9:41 pm |
  16. Scarlet

    According to the new pope atheists are welcome in heaven but women are welcomed in the presidency. I see how you are.

    June 15, 2013 at 8:27 pm |
  17. Andre Belous

    I rather be the atheist then catholic since atheist reject human traditions how to worship God , and Catholic want you to follow pagan traditions just because they renamed them in Christians names Catholics and all there daughters churches worship satan not Christ.
    This video is public. Pope Resignation to avoid arrest and Vatican Conspiracy John Paul 1

    June 15, 2013 at 11:57 am |
    • Bazoing

      Andre, you are either hopelessly ignorant, or in the business of deceiving the ignorant and the mentally ill. (And what is the function of having equations on a blackboard in the background? You cannot explain that as being anything but pretentious humbug which has nothing with informing us about issues, if they exist.)

      June 15, 2013 at 11:03 pm |
  18. anton suthaharan

    people with no faith in Christ,
    may be better than we
    and nearer to God’s reign.
    Remember how Christ received a pagan centurion
    and told him, “I’ll go and cure your servant”?
    The centurion, full of humility and confidence,
    said, “No, Lord. I am not worthy that you go there.
    Just say a word
    and my servant will be cured.”
    Christ marveled, says the gospel, and he said,
    “Truly, I have not found such faith in Israel.”85
    I say:
    Christ will also say of this church:
    outside the limits of Catholicism
    perhaps there is more faith,
    more holiness.
    So we must not extinguish the Spirit.
    The Spirit is not the monopoly of a movement,
    even of a Christian movement,
    of a hierarchy, or priesthood, or religious congregation.
    The Spirit is free,
    and he wants men and women,
    wherever they are,
    to realize their vocation to find Christ,
    who became flesh to save all human flesh.
    Yes, to save all, dear brothers and sisters.
    I know that some people come to the cathedral
    who have even lost the faith or are non-Christians.
    Let them be welcome.
    T H E V I O L E N C E O F L O V E B Y O S C A R R O M E R O 1 2 4
    And if this message is saying something to them,
    I ask them to reflect in their inner consciousness,
    for, like Christ, I can tell them:
    the kingdom of God is not far from you,
    God’s kingdom is within your heart.
    Seek it, and you will find it.
    DECEMBER 17, 1978-oscar romero-

    June 15, 2013 at 6:35 am |
    • Science

      Hey Bll the hats comedy gold .................you could trap/chain up tinker bell in one of those hats. from an old speed read

      A War Without End, With Earth's Carbon Cycle Held in the Balance




      June 15, 2013 at 10:00 am |
  19. tony

    Christians will be outnumbered in heaven about 1,000,000 to 1 by the already dead who lived before christianity and by the christians who are living now and who will live in the future.

    June 14, 2013 at 3:49 pm |
    • Robyn

      Tony – FYI- When Jesus died, during those 3 days before his resurrection the people who were already dead he judged and brought some to heaven and some are in hell. That's why pergatory no longer exists. Jesus took care of them already. God takes care of everything.

      June 14, 2013 at 4:11 pm |
    • Science

      Hey Robyn...............think of The King James version as Humpty Dumpy Sat on the Wall another classic fairytale from


      June 12, 2013 — To World War II soldiers, "The White Cliffs of Dover" was a morale-boosting song that lifted spirits in dark times. To geographers,


      June 14, 2013 at 4:25 pm |
    • Lawrence

      Robyn – Supposedly one is judged concerning whether or not you accepted Jesus as your savior. How could people who lived before he supposedly existed ever have accepted that?

      June 15, 2013 at 11:43 am |
    • Bazoing

      You do not realize how few people who proclaim Christianity really are Christians. "... get away from me you workers of inequity."

      June 15, 2013 at 11:08 pm |
    • Robyn

      Lawrence – When Christ was crucified, during the 3 days before he had risen, he went and judged the dead. Some people believe in pergatory, Christ did away with pergatory and brought those out who were worthy of Him and brought them to Heaven. The others were not so lucky.

      June 19, 2013 at 4:06 pm |
  20. fear the word of God not man.

    Everyone one can go to heaven but one thing the pope and everyone does not understand, is you MUST REPENT DAILY, and be washed in the blood. See false teaching by saying you don't have to repent and seek God. yes God Is love, But his word says also unless you dont repent and accept the truth, and salvation through Christ then i don't know you.
    More false Prophets and many to be deceived to please many. But where did the sound doctrines go. The devil is a liar. People must read the word for themselves and stop making themselves feel ok in there sin. and people need truth. this is why all the chaos is taking place. But do what you all want. Unless you repent, how can you enter the Gates of heaven? Be baptized by the holy spirit? God Bless and may the lord have mercy on us all.

    June 14, 2013 at 2:04 pm |
    • Robyn

      Way to go..you said exactly what I would have. It's so sad that that there are so many false teachers out there. I don't understand how someone like the pope who has authority over so many hasn't study what the bible says. Jesus is perfectly clear when he said "I am the way, the truth and the light. NO ONE can come to the Father except through me" John 14:6. That message is pretty clear. The antichrist is real and works through many different areas/peopel. We need to be clear on where we stand and not allow false prophets to stand in our way. All we can do is pray that pope's eyes are opened to the word of God.

      June 14, 2013 at 3:35 pm |
    • Lawrence

      "My version of Christianity is the only correct and pure one; all those many other versions are the result of the devil or delusional leaders".

      Do you realize how arrogant and small-minded that sort of thinking sounds? I'm sure when you hear about the Sunnis and Shiites killing each other over different interpretations of Islam you shake your head at the absurdity of it, but your way of approaching your own religion is not so different (and has been used in the past to justify killing other Christians).

      June 15, 2013 at 11:53 am |
    • Alexander

      Lawrence – No kidding, it's annoying, isn't it? Protestants say only the Bible, Catholics say no, there's more to it than just that, Mormons have an additional testament, all are somehow convinced only they have it right when it's more likely that they all have it wrong.

      June 15, 2013 at 6:45 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.