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. Steve Finnell


    Here listed are non-Scriptural reasons to reject water baptism.

    1. Do not be baptism because it is an act of obedience and obedience is not essential to be saved.
    2. Do not be baptized because the thief on the cross was not baptized and he was saved.
    3. Do not be baptized because it is essential to join a denominational church, however, you can get into heaven without being baptized in water.
    4. Do not be baptized because baptism is a work of the law of Moses, and works cannot saved.
    5. Do not be baptized because being baptized by someone is working your way to heaven.
    6. Do not be baptized because your preacher said it was not essential in order to have sins forgiven.
    7. Do not be baptized because your creed book says you are saved the very minute you believe.
    8. Do not be baptized because certain men claim that Mark 16:16 should not be included in the Bible.
    9. Do not be baptized because some Bible commentaries state that men are baptized because they have already been saved.
    10. Do not be baptized because all of your friends and church members believe that baptism is not essential to the forgiveness of sins.
    11. Do not be baptized because it is simply a testimony faith, but is not necessary to be saved.
    12. Do not be baptized because God was not smart enough to have Acts 2:38 translated correctly. Baptized for the forgiveness of sins is wrong. It should be because your sins have already been forgiven. Do not be baptized because the Bible cannot be trusted.

    If baptism is not essential to salvation why would you want to get wet?


    1. Be baptized so your sin can be forgiven. (Acts 2:38)

    2. Be baptized so your sins can be washed away. (Acts 22:16)

    3. Be baptized so your trespasses can be forgiven. (Colossians 2:12-13)

    4. Be baptized in order to be saved. (Mark 16:16)

    5. Be baptized so you can walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:4)

    6. Be baptized so you can be freed from sin. (Romans 6:7)

    7. Be baptized so you can be saved. (1 Peter 3:31)

    8. Be baptized so you can have a clear conscience toward God. (1 Peter 3:21)

    9. Be baptized so you can be sanctified and cleansed. (Ephesians 5:26)

    10 Be baptized so you can be holy and without blemish. (Ephesian 5:27)

    11. Be baptized so you can put on Christ. (Galatians 3:27)

    12. Be baptized so you can enter the kingdom of God. (John 3:5)

    13 Be baptized to you can be saved and added to the Lord's church.(Acts 2:40-41) (Acts 2:47)

    YOU ARE INVITED TO FOLLOW MY CHRISTIAN BLOG. Google search>>>>steve finnell a christian view

    August 11, 2013 at 11:28 am |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      Somebody chanting magic spellz and d.u.n.king another person under water isn't unique to your religion and it's pointless.

      August 11, 2013 at 11:35 am |
  2. Ysabella

    It is obvious the Pope does not know the Bible and has not the Holy Spirit on him. You are not going to heaven just because you do good works. If that was the way to be saved and get to heaven, then why Jesus sacrified his life? why Jesus came, suffered and paid the price of our sins, if you can be saved just for doing good works? I am sorry for the Pope, because he does not know the truth, and he needs to come to Jesus and repent of his sins, and accept JEsus as his savior and tell the world that nobody can be saved by works neither by Mary.....you just can be saved by your faith in Jesus Christ, when you recognize your sins, repent of it with all your heart and start living a new life in Christ. He is the way, the truth and the life, and NOBODY can come to God if is not thru Him. Pope, stop leading people to hell with that kind of message. God loves you and He wants to make you free! How an atheist can be saved if he does not believe in Jesus? That is impossible. Sorry Pope, but you are wrong again. Oh well, the Pope said a truth when he told the atheist "we will meet one another there". Yes, they are going to meet "there" .... in hell, that is the sad truth if both, the Pope and the atheist, do not repent of there sins and accept Jesus as their savior.

    August 10, 2013 at 9:41 pm |
    • I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that


      August 10, 2013 at 9:42 pm |
    • Micah

      Ysabella that's the plain truth. The Bible poin it out that we should be careful of wolves in goat's skin. So unfortunately that Pope Francis is a wolve.

      August 18, 2013 at 4:43 am |
      • truthprevails1

        If you're going to try to defend your imaginary friend god, then at least learn how to spell...it would make you sound at least partially intelligent.

        August 18, 2013 at 6:22 am |
  3. Darla723

    Wow, these atheists are taking a big chance on dying and not knowing the truth until they meet the Holy One the Anointed One (Yeshua). So, what is so hard about reading the Bible and asking Jesus(Yeshua) to reveal himself to you. Are they scared. Read II Thessalonians 2:9-16 It tells us that God shall send them a strong delusion, that they should believe a lie. and read on..... Bible is the living word of God. John 1:14 the Word was made flesh.... I think the Pope meant that God loves atheists and they can be saved also. Jesus(Yeshua) saves us from Hell and people reject his gift.... Shalom ....

    July 21, 2013 at 5:03 am |
    • PhillyJimi

      It is the reading of the bible that is the direct reason for my atheism. The idea of a virgin born zombie, created a the "get out of the lake of fire forever" loop hole for the fruit eating crimes of a rib woman who spoke to a smooth talking snake is just so insane it doesn't merit any creditably. How can a moral god ask anyone to kill his son for him to prove his loyalty? How much more immoral can one get? I doubt Hitler would of asked that of any of his followers.

      July 27, 2013 at 11:36 pm |
      • Steve

        God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac so that God could have a lesson that would be repeated down through history, by the believers in Abraham's God, that you are NOT supposed to sacrifice your children. God wanted it known that He the only living God does not want anybody to kill their own children.

        This is one of the strongest admonitions against abortion that has ever been made.

        September 12, 2013 at 3:02 pm |
  4. Mark

    I'm no astrophysicist so when the experts say the Earth is 150 million km from the sun and that the speed of light is 299792.458 km/s, I take them at their word. They are witnesses to these truths. They seem sincere and have credentials. When the same scientists speak about God, they are no longer speaking as a scientist but as a philosopher, a theologian. The scientists have witnessed to what they know, and Jesus has witnessed to the things he knows to be true.

    July 19, 2013 at 8:00 am |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      The statements by the physicists are verifiable by various other standards of measurement. When it comes to the philosophy of religion, there is NOTHING to measure in order to verify the statements. It's why you use faith even though you know that faith cannot arbitrate between your religion philosophy and another's religious philosophy. Why is it that people of all different religious beliefs MUST use the same math and chemistry?

      August 11, 2013 at 11:38 am |
  5. Wraphg

    Ts quite ungraspable that atheists are in Heaven.

    July 12, 2013 at 2:54 am |
  6. Myer

    Also it's sort of funny for the athiests to not believe in anything their new symbol resembles the satanic pentagram, I wonder why?

    July 11, 2013 at 3:11 am |
  7. Myer

    WOW!!! Every Christian knows that the devil is a liar! Deep down everyone even the sinners know that God exists! He sent His Son Jesus to die for our sins! Everyone's as long as we repent and turn from our rebellious ways! Now even the pope is getting in on this, we'll that was expected, they already have tried to have the Sabbath changed to Sunday and have succeeded for the most part! Our Father, Our Creater, our Savior, is watching very closely! We all will die one day and as soon as we do, you will either be in Heaven or Hell, awaiting the lake of fire, think this isn't possible? Think again! To burn for just a thousand years I couldn't imagine, yet that's just the beginning! I wouldn't be surprised if many Folks that say they're going to Heaven end up here! I don't believe anybody that is already there wants to be, yet we have about 70 years or so to not be there which is like a blink of a eye compared to eternity. I don't think I could have enough faith to be a atheist! Our Court system has a saying " beyond a shadow of a doubt" , can God be disproved beyond a shadow of a doubt? Unlikely!
    I know Jesus will return one day soon, and with all this garbage I hope it's very soon, so a lot fewer will be in hell, believing all this nonsense these people are preaching! Jesus is my Lord and Savior! Think about this if you where the only person on earth Jesus would have died for you!, People can hate me all they want, God bless them! There's even Christians that need a reality check, those who say they believe in Jesus yet still preach santa clause to their children, hence keeping the children from coming to Him, with a lie, how would you feel? I would be pretty ticked off, Dyeing for someone and they straight out lie to their children with something so stupid, don't get me started on the bunny, what does that have to do with Jesus rising from the dead? Oh but I guess the pope thinks this is all o.k. In Gods eyes! Good news is its never to late to turn from evil ways and take our Country back! Change back to the true meanings of Christmas and Easter and God may show kindness to us, take a look around and look at tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, fires, our streets in chaos, etc... Maybe there's a cause if you think about it! We need to rise up against sin in this world and seek God with all our hearts and see where we can go! With God all things are possible! Stop lying to our children and help others even when they have used us, find a homeless person and pay for a meal or a room for a night or so, ( never just give them money)! If you believe in Jesus, put Him before you! You might just be surprised! Sorry for such a long post, but this atheist pope thing gets me!

    July 11, 2013 at 2:46 am |
    • George Jetson

      I know Jesus will return one day soon, and with all this garbage I hope it's very soon, so a lot fewer will be in hell, believing all this nonsense these people are preaching!

      Yeah...if his return will save people from an eternity in hell then every day he waits he condemns thousands to the lake of fire. Must not care very much I guess.

      August 5, 2013 at 3:17 pm |
  8. CSX

    Wow, just read your Bible, only believers in Jesus are saved.
    The world is nuts.

    July 7, 2013 at 7:58 am |
  9. Paul

    "...Jesus himself promised hell for blasphemers.."

    Sorry. Blasphemers may be defined any way you want. I see it as "misquoting" or "misinterpreting" the WORD, not
    as forcing its application to the entire human race, all seven billion of us, who may march under a different drum.
    That sounds discriminatory.

    June 30, 2013 at 1:50 pm |
  10. kjvav

    So exactly who is it that John saw going into the lake of fire when he wrote the book of Revelation?

    June 29, 2013 at 11:42 pm |
    • John Germain

      John probably saw those who say they are Christian and yet support sodomy (gay marriage), abortion, or other evils. The non believer who none the less does good and may even unknowingly does the will of God by simply doing what is right just might end up in heaven, at least more so than the "believer" who disobeys and sins against the God they claim to follow. "lip service" does nothing for salvation, doing the will of God does, even if one doesn't believe, but does God's will just because it is the right thing to do.

      June 30, 2013 at 10:07 am |
  11. Garrett

    Thank God!! As an atheist I was soooo worried about getting into heaven!! Now I can enjoy life....

    June 28, 2013 at 12:01 pm |
    • Science

      Garrett......................life is a blast when it is the truth.............not some crap coming from the pope and the bible.

      Science Daily: Your source for the latest research news and science breakthroughs – updated daily

      Hey chavic.................what does Rachel say about you 2 timing with VIC ?

      Origin of Life News


      June 29, 2013 at 1:05 pm |
    • digitalclips

      LOL, great response.

      June 30, 2013 at 9:03 am |
  12. Zach

    Ephesians 2:8-9 says "For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast." In other words, being a good person and doing good things here on earth will not save your soul from hell. Only faith in Christ and believing He died for you to save you from your sins will get you to Heaven.

    June 27, 2013 at 10:41 pm |
    • David

      Thanks for the great quote. Of course Ephesians also said a bunch of other stuff that most of us whole-heartedly reject. Such as:

      5:22 "Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church"

      6:5 "Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ."

      4:31 "Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you."

      Clearly we don't follow these instructions from Paul (if indeed Paul wrote it). Why do you think we need to follow other parts of Ephesians?

      June 30, 2013 at 9:11 am |
    • Lawrence

      David – Nice rebuttal!

      July 2, 2013 at 7:52 am |
  13. Science

    Strong religious convictions are no excuse for misrepresenting research

    The faithful can live how they choose, but not dictate to others


    June 27, 2013 at 8:41 am |
    • Science

      Like WASP said HAPPY DAYS !

      Jesus wept' or tears of joy? Faithful react to gay marriage rulings

      By Daniel Burke, CNN


      June 27, 2013 at 8:44 am |
    • Science

      Hey Wasp here the god damn funny part god did not create the air we suck in >

      A Stepping-Stone for Oxygen On Earth

      June 26, 2013 —


      June 27, 2013 at 11:45 am |
    • Science

      Hey all creationists/chavic too ID believers....and bible thumpers/pope..... do you really think the beast below is FAKE ?

      How 'Parrot Dinosaur' Switched from Four Feet to Two as It Grew

      June 28, 2013 — Tracking the growth of dinosaurs and how they changed as they grew is difficult. Using a combination of biomechanical analysis and bone histology, palaeontologists from Beijing, Bristol, and Bonn have shown how one of the best-known dinosaurs switched from four feet to two as it grew.


      The Pope a joke ?

      June 28, 2013 at 1:51 pm |
  14. WE

    Together with modern-day metallurgy as well as material fabrication technology enhanced, view the actual look with the material beneath the actual tutelage of watchmaking (over unity magnetic soft metal controls), as well as different inner areas of the actual movement location (plaque created by sugar over unity magnetic alloys,

    June 27, 2013 at 3:31 am |
  15. churchoffreethought

    It is encouraging to think that Catholics can find encouragement in their religion (it certainly exists in the Gospels!) for supposing that atheists are not, just because they are atheists, deserving of eternal torture. Catholics may even think better of their own deity by so supposing!

    June 26, 2013 at 9:18 pm |
  16. Angel

    Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. ( Acts 2:38)
    Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)

    June 26, 2013 at 12:01 am |
    • Thebigatheist

      And you know this how? Faith? Not Fact? Enough said.

      June 26, 2013 at 7:07 pm |
    • churchoffreethought

      Nothing you quote says that atheists can't go to heaven, even if they remain atheists all their lives. Just because SOME PEOPLE get into heaven by believing in JC and all doesn't mean that others won't also be saved, even if by JC. JC himself said "He that ears, let him hear!" But would even a human parent torture his/her child because the child is deaf? And JC also says that "The Heavenly Father" is far BETTER than a human parent. As an atheist, I welcome Catholics being given reasons not to hate atheists.

      June 26, 2013 at 9:23 pm |
  17. Nick

    Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him. John 3:36

    June 25, 2013 at 8:21 pm |
    • churchoffreethought

      Read it again. Whoever BELIEVES versus whoever OBEYS. JC taught the Golden Rule and that is what atheists obey as much as sincere and honest Christians.

      June 26, 2013 at 9:25 pm |
  18. Canista

    Are we talking about Muslim heaven or Christian heaven here? Where do the atheists end up?

    June 25, 2013 at 11:19 am |
    • occasional troll


      June 26, 2013 at 4:01 pm |
  19. MohamedThePhoenician

    Heaven is too big, and it has room for all.
    We have to be careful because in heaven there is Paradise for the righteous and the hellfire for the sinners that don't repent, including but may not be limited to idolaters, atheists, fornicators, usury dealers,...etc.
    Yes all of those are going to Heaven and it will have room for all of them, none of them will be left out, but to their surprise, regardless of what the pope is telling them, they are going their for an eternal torment. We ask our creator his guidance.
    For a better understanding of your creator, for yourself and your mission here please learn more about Islam. You owe it to yourself, not to me or to any one else. Please visit whyislam dot com or any Islamic site and learn about Islam from its source and don't allow any one to decide for you your destine. You deserve better and I ask God's guidance for me and you.

    June 23, 2013 at 8:31 pm |
    • Science

      And the pope has fallen of his rocker maybe with the heaven deal ?

      The Universe: Big Bang to Now in 10 Easy Steps.....................old news.


      Steve Martin – Atheists Don't Have No Songs (Live on Letterman 03-16-2011) [HD]


      June 24, 2013 at 7:53 am |
    • Science


      June 24, 2013 at 8:13 am |
    • Science

      What a joke below !!!


      June 24, 2013 at 8:19 am |
    • Science

      Hey creationists...............the se-x thingy and you know evolution...........wins hands down.

      Two Mutations Triggered an Evolutionary Leap 500 Million Years Ago

      June 24, 2013 — Evolution, it seems, sometimes jumps instead of crawls. A research team led by a University of Chicago scientist has discovered two key mutations that sparked a hormonal revolution 500 million years ago.


      Can the pope be good and say............. no fairy in the sky needed ?..............lmfao


      A Conversation with Richard Dawkins and John Huddlestun (College of Charleston


      June 25, 2013 at 10:54 am |
    • jvcjr

      Then there is the notion of karma. It is not what you believe in that matters; it is what you do, especially what you do to others.

      July 28, 2013 at 9:37 pm |

    Most atheists have Christian, Jewish, or Muslims family.....I guess their family are worthless to them because atheists don't know how to value life.

    June 23, 2013 at 2:56 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.