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. Gerry from Bayonne

    100,000,000 killed by atheists in Pope Francis' lifetime and he has the courage to say that there are good atheists. You won't find a single hate-filled atheist on this site to say the same thing about believers. Losers.

    May 23, 2013 at 8:41 pm |
    • the AnViL™

      gerry from bayonne is a fine example of xian idiocy.

      people like gerry should be prohibited from voting, serving on juries, running for or holding public office, purchasing or owning firearms, teaching public school, having contact with children under the age of 18... or reproducing.

      heck – they shouldn't even be allowed to have internet access.

      May 23, 2013 at 8:44 pm |
    • Gerry from Bayonne

      The anvil just proved my point. What a tool.

      May 23, 2013 at 8:45 pm |
    • Sure

      100,000,000? I love how the figure keeps getting higher and higher.

      Coincidentally that is the number of people killed because of Christian fanatics in one single war: the Taiping Rebellion.

      May 23, 2013 at 8:58 pm |
    • The real Tom

      "Gerry", why do you keep changing your moniker? Why did you stop posting under "truth be told"? Are you embarrassed to post under the same name you used to use? Why?

      May 25, 2013 at 9:28 pm |
  2. Gerry from Bayonne

    So proud to see a real man of God beat the atheists to the bargaining table

    May 23, 2013 at 8:39 pm |
  3. EX catholic

    No surprise here! IDOLATRY is a common tread between Papists, romanists, catholic Idolaters.

    May 23, 2013 at 8:38 pm |
    • EX catholic

      And atheists.

      May 23, 2013 at 8:38 pm |
    • Gerry from Bayonne

      EX catholic and current nit wit

      May 23, 2013 at 8:42 pm |
    • Arthur Bryant

      "tread"? Is that a misspelling or a Spanish accent?

      May 25, 2013 at 9:25 pm |
  4. Bible reader

    With all the due respect for atheists, how can they declare that God does not exist? Some even posted such statements here. Can they prove what they say? Did they travel throughout all the universe and came back with a clear proof He does not exist? I know what they will answer: "Prove to me that He exist!" Sorry, it is their burden of proof, because they said so loudly He does not exist. They should better say: "We do not know!" But to so confidently say: "He does not exist", this to much to say! Many things invisible exist, and things impossible 200 years ago are now facts. I recommend caution. And don't forget that scientist are divided; some of the greatest of them were believers, not only hundreds of years ago, but Einstein for instance.

    May 23, 2013 at 8:38 pm |
    • the AnViL™

      sorry bible reader... the burden of proof still rests firmly on the shoulders of those who assert the existence of gods.

      you've failed.

      May 23, 2013 at 8:41 pm |
    • Gorsh

      Trying to place the burden of proof on the other party is a sure sign of a weak faith system. Though if one were to define "extraordinary claims" you would think a belief system that is accepted by only a tiny minority of people would be the one making "extraordinary claims".

      May 23, 2013 at 8:44 pm |
    • LinCA

      @Bible reader

      You said, "With all the due respect for atheists, how can they declare that God does not exist?"
      Your god doesn't exist for the same reason the Tooth Fairy doesn't exist. There simply isn't a shred of evidence in support of your imaginary friend.

      You said, "Can they prove what they say?"
      Do you require proof before you no longer believe in Pink Unicorns, or the Easter Bunny? the burden of proof is on the person claiming the imaginary creature exists. Until you do, it is unreasonable to believe it exists.

      You said, "Did they travel throughout all the universe and came back with a clear proof He does not exist?"
      Did you travel throughout all the universe and came back with a clear proof that Pink Unicorns don't exist?

      You said, "They should better say: "We do not know!" But to so confidently say: "He does not exist", this to much to say!"
      Technically there is a non-zero chance that there is a god somewhere, or somewhen, but the same is true for the Tooth Fairy.

      You said, "Many things invisible exist, and things impossible 200 years ago are now facts."
      They didn't become facts until there was a rational narrative and evidence in support. You've had thousands of years and come up blank. Every. Single. Time.

      You said, "And don't forget that scientist are divided; some of the greatest of them were believers, not only hundreds of years ago, but Einstein for instance."
      Very few believe in a personal god like yours. Atheism is rampant among today's brightest minds.

      May 23, 2013 at 8:46 pm |
    • Gorsh

      The burden of proof is on anyone who makes a positive claim of knowledge. If you claim to believe there is no god, or that there is one you have made a positive claim therefor bare the burden of proof.

      May 23, 2013 at 8:47 pm |
    • the AnViL™

      Gorsh – positing the existence gods is a positive additive assertion and bears the burden of proof.

      asserting that there are no gods is a negative assertion – and bears no burden of proof.

      just so you're clear, there are absolutely no gods.
      cha cha cha

      May 23, 2013 at 8:53 pm |
    • LinCA


      You said, "The burden of proof is on anyone who makes a positive claim of knowledge. If you claim to believe there is no god, or that there is one you have made a positive claim therefor bare the burden of proof."
      The problem with christian gods is that there's one for every believer. While they may all share some characteristics, no two appear to be identical.

      Some of the most common characteristics attributed to the christian gods is omnipotence and omniscience. These gods are said to be able to do anything and know everything. The problem arises when a creature knows everything, it must also know its future actions. If its future actions are known, it has no power to change them. If it has the power to change them, it can't know them. Omniscience and omnipotence are mutually exclusive. No god can be both. Ergo, the christian god can't exist.

      Again, technically, there is a non-zero chance that there is a god somewhere, or somewhen, but the same is true for the Tooth Fairy. I don't see any reason to believe in either.

      May 23, 2013 at 8:58 pm |
    • John

      I don't know – how are you so confident that other popular Gods do not exist? Allah, for instance. Or Hindu Gods? Like it or not, even those who believe in a particular God are atheists in regards to Gods not their own. So it's dishonest to pretend that you can't understand why atheists don't believe in God, because you must.

      May 24, 2013 at 9:32 am |
    • John

      Do we really need to be agnostic about everything we can't prove? If all my personal experience and logic suggests to me that there is no God, what's wrong with believing there isn't one? Why do atheists have to hold out their conclusions forever in the off-chance that somehow, somewhere there's going to be an experience contradicting their experiences to date? You believers in God don't withhold your conclusions on the possibility that you could have experiences that change your mind, why should we?

      May 24, 2013 at 9:37 am |
  5. kristofer

    no thanks. i can redeem myself.

    May 23, 2013 at 8:38 pm |
  6. hrdwrknjoe

    The world is finally healing from its insanity. We're pushing the intolerant bigoted minority terrorist Christian CULT, along with all the other cults to the brink of extinction. The world's populations ability to find facts not fairy tales through the Internet is the SAVIOR.

    May 23, 2013 at 8:32 pm |
  7. TG

    Heavenly life is reserved only for 144,000 for have been selected by our Creator, Jehovah God.(Rev 7:4; 14:1) These are chosen to serve as "kings and priests".(Rev 1:6)

    But first off, Jesus said that for anyone to gain life everlasting, these have to take in accurate knowledge of Jehovah God and Jesus, for Jesus said in prayer to his Father: "This means everlasting life (be it on earth [Matt 5:5] or in heaven [Heb 3:1]), their (his genuine disciples) taking in knowledge of you, the only true God, and of the one whom you sent forth, Jesus Christ".(John 17:3)

    Thus, if a person fails to grasp that Jehovah is "the only true God" and that Jesus is his "only-begotten Son" that was created as "the beginning of the creation by God" (Rev 3:14), then this is a stumbling block. Furthermore, if a person fails to understand that the holy spirit is God's active force and not a "third person of the trinity", then this is another stumbling block to gaining accurate knowledge of God and everlasting life on earth or in heaven.

    Those who go to heaven, Jesus said make up a "little flock", for he said: "Have no fear, little flock, because your Father (Jehovah) has approved of giving you the kingdom".(Luke 12:32) Hence, those chosen to go to heaven are a "little flock" of 144,000 that make up God's heavenly kingdom or government (Isa 9:6), serving in the specific assignments as "kings and priests" and are selected from "every tribe and tongue and people and nation."(Rev 5:9)

    But if you ask so-called Christians why those who go to heaven serve as "kings and priests", they have a blank stare on their face. One who is chosen for the "heavenly calling" (Heb 3:1) is given a "token in advance" of the "inheritance", being "sealed" by means of God's holy spirit, becoming anointed with it (Eph 1:13, 14), just as Jesus was anointed with holy spirit after his baptism (Matt 3:16), for the word Messiah or Christ means "anointed one." or one set aside for sacred service.

    May 23, 2013 at 8:31 pm |
    • Jenny W

      TG....the 144,000 are Jewish male virgins. Others will be in heaven, too. 1 Thessalonians 4:17 "Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in teh air; and so shall we ever be with the Lord."

      May 24, 2013 at 3:20 pm |


    May 23, 2013 at 8:29 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      Vatican 11? When was Vatican 10?

      May 23, 2013 at 8:34 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      Or Vatican 3 – 9 for that matter.

      May 23, 2013 at 8:35 pm |
  9. the AnViL™

    everyone goes to the same exact place when they die.

    it doesn't matter what you are. if you're atheist, agnostic, xian, muslim, hebrew, buddhist, hindu, bahai, janist, zoroastrian, scientologist......

    everyone goes to the same place.

    everyone goes to their grave – and no further.... forever.

    there's no heavens, hells, or reincarnations. all there is – is the sweet eternal silence of non-existence.

    the strong and the meek alike all inherit oblivion.

    deal with it.

    May 23, 2013 at 8:29 pm |
    • Science

      the AnViL™

      SH-it hit the fan here too LMFAO

      Hey Cora how are the cats ?

      https://www.zotero.org/colleengreene/items/5XRFKX8N...............url for you chadie !

      But in favorites or peg IT OK !


      May 23, 2013 at 7:19 pm | Report abuse |

      Robert............no HORN-Y RED DEVIL ether !

      The DINOSAUR ?...............Chomp Chomp !...Evolution WINS hands down...time for the horn-y red devil to get the

      HELL out of the way.....................Stem Cell research !

      Allosaurus Fed More Like a Falcon Than a Crocodile: Engineering, Anatomy Work Reveals Differences in Dinosaur Feeding Styles

      May 21, 2013 — The mighty T. rex may have thrashed its massive head from side to side to dismember prey, but a new study shows that its smaller cousin Allosaurus was a more dexterous hunter and tugged at prey more like a modern-day falcon.


      Evolution wins............No red devil either !


      May 23, 2013 at 8:37 pm |
  10. Herb

    Seeing this criminal reaching out towards a child just makes my blood boil.
    His smirk is the smirk of a sadistic monster. He probably is thinking of how this child resembles one he beat to death.

    May 23, 2013 at 8:28 pm |
    • Gorsh

      Wow. You really are damaged goods. Hope you heal soon.

      May 23, 2013 at 8:41 pm |
  11. faith

    that's y they executed the one crook next to jesus. he ran out of money. went stealing to get enough to pay his due to make it in. when jesus told him he was going to paradise that very day, he got so excited he started shaking and all that stolen money fell on the ground. so close, dag!

    May 23, 2013 at 8:28 pm |

    Yes, one can be good without a god;

    but one can be real Good with a real GOD!


    May 23, 2013 at 8:28 pm |
  13. Bible reader

    Atheists claim there is no God. To suppose that they will be forever with the God whom they totally deny is a nonsense. Nonsense for believers and for nonbelievers. To say that just in order to get attention and win friends? Atheists do not think there is an eternal life, they don't wish such a thing. If God took to heaven people who don't want to have anything to do with Him, heaven would be hell for them. They don't accept God here and will not be happy in His presence there. Period. Let's be serious. People choose their direction in life and collect the consequences.

    May 23, 2013 at 8:27 pm |
  14. faith

    these nazi god haters continue their assault

    as bad as kfc
    three more commercials in last hour. they are raising boneless chickens. illegal cloning?

    report all these criminals to the fbi

    May 23, 2013 at 8:27 pm |
  15. CNNReviewer

    The Vatican is loosing ground worldwide, as the Church is increasingly scrutinized. It is unfortunate that the human tendency is to translate universal truths into religions. Religion is the problem. Secular acts of goodness and compassion are all that matters, just as your grandmother taught you. Transcendental and philosophical debates merely distract mankind to that which is unimportant. Humans are charged with the matters of life in this world; our sole obligation is to serve humanity. Importantly, Pope Francis has said and done the right things since he assumed his office.

    May 23, 2013 at 8:27 pm |
    • ScienceNeedsNoFaith

      There only gains are in the undeveloped, uneducated South America and Africa. As they find education, they too will gradually the nonsense.

      May 23, 2013 at 8:39 pm |
  16. prophet

    If any of you want to believe in Our Saviour ask Him

    May 23, 2013 at 8:23 pm |
    • ScienceNeedsNoFaith

      If your savoir knew how to write a coherent, logical book and had the guts and sense to provide the slightest evidence of His existence, Atheists would flock to him. Too bad he's not good at marketing (or making the slightest bit of sense.) Until that time, we will believe in what has evidence and has logic and reason. His bad, not ours.

      May 23, 2013 at 8:41 pm |
  17. prophet

    Our Salvation is a Jewish Event and Our Saviour is Hebrew and any christian that denies this is denying Our Salvaton, mant christians are antisemitic such as the vatican catholics and this is the hypocrsiy. The catholics are deceiving people, we are praying for them.

    May 23, 2013 at 8:20 pm |
    • Science

      Hey Cora how are the cats ?

      https://www.zotero.org/colleengreene/items/5XRFKX8N...............url for you chadie !

      But in favorites or peg IT OK !


      May 23, 2013 at 7:19 pm | Report abuse |

      May 23, 2013 at 8:23 pm |
  18. prophet

    christians are very misled people, they have and are being deceived by so called christian leaders

    May 23, 2013 at 8:17 pm |
  19. Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohaim



    May 23, 2013 at 8:15 pm |
    • Observer

      Proving the existence of Jesus doesn't solve the REAL issues: whether he was the son of God and whether God exists.

      May 23, 2013 at 8:19 pm |
  20. STFU

    ya heaven has open door policy, but I bet, atheists will be treated as second-class citizens.

    May 23, 2013 at 8:15 pm |
    • ScienceNeedsNoFaith

      And where exactly do I point my telescope to see that magic door? Gee big guy in the sky, just one bit of evidence would be nice for those of us who have the sense to reject myths with no basis in rational thought.

      May 23, 2013 at 8:43 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.