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
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(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. muslim2012


    June 23, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
  2. muslim2012


    June 23, 2013 at 1:19 pm |
  3. muslim2012


    June 23, 2013 at 1:11 pm |
  4. muslim2012


    June 23, 2013 at 1:00 pm |
  5. muslim2012


    June 23, 2013 at 12:58 pm |
  6. muslim2012


    June 23, 2013 at 12:57 pm |
  7. lucia

    One way I see it, is you can't mix water and oil, good and evil... If God is only good, all love, how can we mix and know him if we arent good/perfect all the time? I can't be clean unless I take a shower and wash off all the dirt... The way I understand it is that we have to love one another, with all the faults, and problems everyone has, including ourselves, thats impossible cause of human nature..., I can't do that, I will never be able to never criticize someone, or never think negatively about certain things, I could never give my life for a stranger, I could never love certain irritating people..,its just impossible. How can someone like me who is not perfect, mix with God who is perfect? How can I get clean if I'm covered in dirt? I have to purposefully take a shower and wash the dirt off myself, I have to purposefully love unconditionally, and I can't do that. But.., The bible says it was done for me already thru Jesus Christ on the cross, ok so now what? I think what will empower me to be good all the time.., there's nothing I can think of that will empower me to "always love everybody," except thinking of who Jesus was, if he was who he said he was, and what he did for me.., so when I think of his "perfect" sacrifice I think maybe I can be a little bit of what he was, and thats empowering. When I think of that on a daily basis, it kills the negative in my heart, and that's called being holy.., that's what I think the bible is trying to tell us, to be loving to "everyone" all the time, even if they spit in your face.., forgive everyone, all the time.. Let go of the ego, of the self. People who I know who are anything like this (and I'm not) I admire, and wish I could be this way too... This is what empowers me, someone who is self-less, like Jesus Christ, self-less.

    June 23, 2013 at 12:18 pm |
  8. Nelkiss

    We are up the world in Earth. Life is to enjoy and also to suffer if we dosen't believe in God and Jesus Christ, how will we doing everything right?. We need to doing the God will and we need the Spirit of the true Always with US, then we w'll have a second life of resurrection eternal to get or to go to the Heaven. If we respect the mandat of God.

    June 23, 2013 at 8:50 am |
  9. Horatio

    Is the Catholic church the appointed official broker of heaven or is it only a self-proclamation?

    June 23, 2013 at 4:55 am |
  10. Randy

    Oh D.: It is a "heart" thing. Non-religious people do not need god to have a heart. It comes naturally to them. You were obviously at a loss with the "religion thing". I hope you'll find your way.

    June 22, 2013 at 11:58 am |
  11. JH

    Like he said he didn't mean to start a theological debate. He's just telling everyone to love each other and do good things for each other.

    June 21, 2013 at 8:01 pm |
  12. ~8~

    I feel so sorry for atheist. They are so lost

    June 20, 2013 at 11:49 pm |
    • Hear This

      Well, your "God" character must want it that way, huh? - it's ALL 'his' will, right?... just so that you can feel so superior.

      (except for your use of English. The plural of 'athiest' is 'athiests')

      June 20, 2013 at 11:54 pm |
    • ~8~

      oh, dear me! Another spelling bumble-bee is after me... It was just a typo, deary! 🙂

      June 20, 2013 at 11:57 pm |
    • Hear This

      dang, dang, double dang! - 'atheist' and 'atheists' - see what happens when I get overwrought!

      June 20, 2013 at 11:57 pm |
    • Hear This

      You might pay more attention to the first part of the post. The parenthetical part was just a small deal.

      June 21, 2013 at 12:03 am |
    • Secrect - 666

      Shocking! CNN actually covers Bilderberg conference



      June 21, 2013 at 7:21 pm |
    • Science

      DNA tests reveal Prince William's Indian ancestry


      June 22, 2013 at 12:02 pm |

      True indeed, ~8~.

      June 23, 2013 at 2:57 pm |
  13. All Atheists are already in Heaven

    We get to wake up in heaven every day, a life of sensation and experiences that we choose not to trade in for some fictional afterlife, but choose to enjoy here and now, loving every moment, every second we have on this planet. The insubstantial heaven can never measure up to what we have right now, the emotions and beauty and even the pain of life is all part of the incredible heaven we get to enjoy every day. And all are welcome to enjoy it.

    June 20, 2013 at 2:33 pm |
  14. Robyn

    Science – I see you post quite a bit to try to convince people that there is no God. But I really wonder if it's the fact that you'e trying to convince us that there is no God or that you're trying to convince yourself that there is no God. Mu guess, is that it's the second half of that statement. Most of what you say is very sarcastic and childish and doesn't make a lot of sense. You don't know my God however I do pray that one day you will, before it's too late.

    June 19, 2013 at 4:24 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      Robyn, Those that claim a god need to provide the evidence else why believe? To date there is no evidence of a god, let alone yours.

      June 19, 2013 at 4:29 pm |
    • Science

      Hey Robyn.............no maker to meet...............evolution works.

      Find a chondrite and cut it in half see what it looks like inside.

      June 20, 2013 at 6:27 am |
    • Science

      Hey Robyn.............evolution no god(s) needed !

      Snail Trail Reveals Ancient Human Migration

      June 20, 2013 — Geneticists from The University of Nottingham have used snails to uncover evidence of an ancient
      human migration from the Pyrenean region of France to Ireland.


      June 20, 2013 at 9:24 am |
  15. Frank

    There has been several early church fathers who have always believe In the inescapable love of God, that no man can resist God forever. Once the eternal fire’s that produces all truth begins to melt all the impurities and all of man’s sanity restored it becomes an offer that no one can refuse. Just as the Apostle Paul, when THE LIGHT, engulfs you with the Totality of Truth it can only produces the essence of surrendering and the beauty of it is that it is done without violating the so called “free will”.

    June 17, 2013 at 8:46 pm |
    • sam stone

      Wow, Frank...do you have any support of this?

      June 18, 2013 at 10:19 am |
    • Subjective

      3.observed only by person: describes an experience that is perceived to exist only by the person and is not recognizable to anyone else

      June 19, 2013 at 4:29 am |
  16. science

    Bill Deacon you twisted up with your buddy chad and the ICR over on this tread too.!


    June 17, 2013 at 1:44 pm |
    • Science

      Hey creationists ..........fred and chadie too no horn-y red beast !

      New Research Backs Genetic 'Switches' in Human Evolution

      June 19, 2013 — A Cornell University study offers further proof that the divergence of humans from chimpanzees some 4 million to 6 million years ago was profoundly influenced by mutations to DNA sequences that play roles in turning genes on and off.


      June 19, 2013 at 3:37 pm |
  17. Benjamin Hartog


    June 16, 2013 at 11:49 am |
  18. Andres

    The fact that someone is not religious does not immediately label him/her an atheist agnostic. A non-religious person can be as much a believer or more than a religious one. The atheist should always keep in mind that the bible was written by men not by Jesus himself.

    June 16, 2013 at 10:26 am |
  19. 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 9:12 am |
    • SLambert28

      God does not interfere with free will. We do as we please. That being said, it was the free wiil of His followers to see the Bible in a different way from others, and that is what caused the split of the church and the creation of denominations. So it is not really Him needing to put his house in order. By that logic, you would marry who He wanted you to, and everyone would love him, becasue He would make them.

      June 16, 2013 at 9:51 pm |
    • Randy

      SLambert28, precisely, why didn't "He", made everyone love "Him", made all his followers all love each other, made heaven on earth from the start?

      If he's the all-knowing all-powerful all-loving god, why did "He" created human with free will and then condemn them with sin if they exercise their free wills? Follow that logic, it's like a self-claimed loving parent playing mind game with his children and put them through hell if they did the wrong thing. That doesn't sound like a very loving parent, does it?

      The truth is the bible is not god's words, it's human's words, written by human, who claimed those are god's words. Not only the bible is up for interpretation, the existence of the so-called god, heaven, hell are up for interpretation too. Some choose to believe and interpret the bible their own way and condemn others who don't; most choose not to believe at all. It's free will that we are all exercising.

      June 16, 2013 at 11:19 pm |
    • Keith

      Hey Randy, how about this. A father can't force his child to love him right? That wouldn't be real love. A father can show his love with words, actions, sacrifice, discipline etc... A father can only hope that his children are going to love him. That's how I see our Heavenly Father. Let's assume the bible is the authentic Word of God. In the bible God's love for us is displayed in the Most Extreme way possible. He became flesh and sacrificed His body for our sins so that all who believe in Jesus would walk in redemption and be saved from condemnation. Can anyone display a greater love than that? Regarding the bible's authenticity, I guess I won't go there because that's more of a faith thing. There's no way to actually prove that God did or didn't Spiritually inspire the writers under the influence of The Holy Spirit to write the books of the bible. We have a choice to love our Heavenly Father. We have a choice to believe whether or not the bible is the word of God. I believe it is. I also believe only God can reveal these truths to us. I believe we were created to love God & others, but not forced to.

      June 17, 2013 at 12:47 am |
    • Randy

      Keith, believers say this over and over again "He became flesh and sacrificed His body for our sins so that all who believe in Jesus would walk in redemption and be saved from condemnation. Can anyone display a greater love than that?" Of course!

      Of course, there are human who can and are willing to do that for the people or the ideal they love - that does not take "god" to do that! Maybe you haven't run into human like that, but I had, time and again, by real human. It never cease to amaze me to hear the statement above being made over and over again.

      June 17, 2013 at 1:08 am |
    • Keith

      Hey Randy, yeah I agree that we can display a love equal to the cross. There's no greater love than laying down your life for someone else. I'm also in agreement with you in saying that both you and I have heard these words over and again. The bible is popular. Whether people like it or dislike it, most know of it. Unfortunately some Christians boast about what they've discovered while studying the bible and they believe their intellect had something to do with it. Paul clearly taught that Christians should only boast in the Lord. I cringe when I hear Christians say "How in the world can you be an atheist/agnostic/muslim etc.. If they understood what Paul was saying, they probably wouldn't go there. Again, to me it's pretty clear. I believe we were made to love God and love each other. The world would be a better place if we stuck to those 2 principles.

      June 17, 2013 at 1:46 am |
    • D.

      because God, gave me the right to choose. I have been given free will, because I am not Gods puppet. He didn't condemn me with sin. I choose. It's not an anything goes world. All of my actions have good or bad results for others and myself. I can accept Him or reject Him. Either way, Jesus paid the price for our sin and we get to choose to accept that or not. We cannot earn salvation. Only through accepting Jesus as Lord, do I begin a heart relationship with Him. That escaped me for years due to the "religion" thing.
      Time to lose that "religion" which is, man working and keeping a set of rules, to earn salvation. (Yes, we still have the 10 commandments) God wants a heart relationship with us. I had "religion" for a long time. Then someone told me about Jesus. I saw Him for the first time without all the "religious" stuff. I quit the works thing – me trying to balance my scale with good verses bad. Knowing, Jesus for real is changing my heart and actions. I am a work in progress, attempting to walk in love – that's the challenging part. : ) His word is food for the heart, mind and body. It's a spiritual thing. I hope you find your way.

      June 17, 2013 at 5:41 pm |
    • sam stone

      "God does not interfere with free will."

      There is no free will with an omniscient god

      June 18, 2013 at 10:20 am |
    • Lawrence

      There is also, I believe, nothing in the bible that directly says we have complete free will. God did allow some choices to be made, but that does not necessarily imply complete free will.

      June 20, 2013 at 11:08 pm |
    • Randy

      Lawrence: Did the bible and god say that or you did?

      June 22, 2013 at 11:52 am |
    • Randy

      Oh D.: It is a "heart" thing. Non-religious people do not need god to have a heart. It comes naturally to them. You were obviously at a loss with the "religion thing". I hope you'll find your way.

      June 22, 2013 at 11:59 am |
  20. N&W 1000

    The bible condemns the practice of a celibate priesthood as "Doctrines of DEVILS."

    Mary is recorded as having other children, AFTER Jesus.

    Peter was NEVER acknowledged as the leader of the early church, in the book of Acts, that was James. Peter was the apostle to the JEWS.

    Matthew 23:9 says to call NO MAN on this earth your spiritual Father; that is reserved for God alone.

    Paul taught that we are saved by GRACE ALONE, through FAITH ALONE, in Christ alone, not by a man made system of good works and adherence to laws, chains, legalism, etc...that Rome offers.

    Read the bible for yourself and learn.

    June 16, 2013 at 9:00 am |
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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.