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. sybaris

    Heaven for atheists, I can see that if there is one. If this god exercises any reasoning at all it would only be within it's tolerance that those who do not blindly follow some man made theological script would get the benefit of having utilized their god given brains.

    May 23, 2013 at 9:22 pm |
  2. Arvn Huac

    I wonder why they closed the comments on the Boy Scouts article? Does CNN think that the jackboot bigot deserves a pass?

    May 23, 2013 at 9:21 pm |
  3. Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohaim

    Speaking of the problem of fundamentalism's encouragement for people to suspend thought and learning,
    check this out (Dan Dennett w/ Bill Moyers)

    May 23, 2013 at 9:17 pm |
  4. BK

    You make a point saying that why would Atheists care if the Pope says you will go to heaven or not, but I'm an atheist and realize that maybe i'm wrong and maybe their is a God so its somewhat comforting to think that maybe i will go to heaven even if i don't believe in it now.

    Also Human caring doesn't come from God, I don't go around killing people because i don't believe in God its just custom to do nice things, not sure why you wouldn't and I'm definitely not doing good deeds to go to heaven or look good for somebody from above.

    May 23, 2013 at 9:10 pm |
    • Joe

      My friend, you really need to put your ideas or beliefs in order. Before you say that you are an atheist or a catholic or whatever, convince first yourself before open your mouth. Your first paragraph of your comment is stupid.

      May 23, 2013 at 9:25 pm |
    • Roger that

      You sound more like a confused believer. Perhaps reading the Bible will help clear things up for you. There is absolutely no way some deity is responsible for creating that trainwreck.

      May 23, 2013 at 9:36 pm |
  5. faith

    Atheists don't believe in heaven, hell, redemption, or your sky fairy. So your debate over whether or not we will be going to heaven or hell is pointless to argue with us. But entertaining as "hell" for us to watch you guys argue the finer points of the nonsense we don't find reasonably possible to exist.

    dodo, i asked u 4 mercy. u r going 2 send me 2 an early grave, aren't u?

    dodo explains y she doesn't live here.

    u r killin me babe3

    May 23, 2013 at 9:05 pm |
    • SciGuy

      It appears that you think that you can't go to Hell because you don't believe in Hell. That is not logical. I don't believe that moking causes lung cancer. Do you then conclude that I cn't get lung cancer from smoking?

      May 23, 2013 at 9:14 pm |
    • Roger that


      I certainly hope you are practicing every religion known to man, because the chances that you have picked the correct one are extremely low.

      May 23, 2013 at 9:29 pm |
    • SciGuy

      Roger, the correct choice is a dead giveaway. Look for the leader whose tomb is empty.

      May 23, 2013 at 9:52 pm |
    • jungleboo

      OMG SciGuy is insane.

      May 23, 2013 at 10:47 pm |
  6. Gerry from Bayonne

    Jesus, the Good Shepherd, does not humiliate us or abandon us to remorse: in Him, the tenderness of the Father speaks, He who comforts and raises up; He who makes us pass from the disintegration of shame – because shame surely causes us to disintegrate – to the fabric of trust; who restores courage, recommits responsibility, and consigns us to the mission.

    Pope Francis

    May 23, 2013 at 9:04 pm |
    • Colin

      That's interesting. What's your view of this, Gerry. The AIDS epidemic will kill tens of millions in poor African and South American countries before we defeat it. Condoms are an effective way to curtail its spread. As the Pope still has significant influence over the less educated masses in these parts of the World, he has exercised this power by:

      (a) Using some of the Vatican’s incomprehensible wealth to educate these vulnerable people on health family planning and condom use;
      (b) Supporting government programs that distribute condoms to high risk groups;
      (c) Using its myriad of churches in these regions as “boots on the ground” to distribute condoms; or
      (d) Scaring people into NOT using condoms, based upon his disdainful and aloof view that it is better that a person die than go against the Vatican’s position on contraceptive use.

      May 23, 2013 at 9:06 pm |
    • ignore colon

      it is total bull sh it

      May 23, 2013 at 9:08 pm |
    • Joe

      To you and the rest: there is no evidence heaven exists, there is no evidence God exists, there is no evidence Jesus exists, so is you insist in the famous 'faith' word, I think you are wrong again. Faith is to believe in something with no evidence at all that exists. Simply as this. Einstein: Bible? A childish book. At any rate, as we have no idea of what the truth is, even worse, we die without having an idea about this, in a very reasonable and logic conclusion, what atheists believe in, it looks like closer to the truth.

      May 23, 2013 at 9:20 pm |
  7. Gerry from Bayonne

    Moreover, the consequence of loving the Lord is giving everything – absolutely everything, even one’s very life – for Him: this is what must distinguish our pastoral ministry; it is the litmus test that shows how profoundly we have embraced the gift received in response to the call of Jesus, and how we are joined to the people and the communities that have been entrusted to us.

    Pope Francis

    May 23, 2013 at 9:01 pm |
    • Get a life

      So your version is to be a mean-spirited hater for Jesus?

      May 23, 2013 at 9:02 pm |
    • Colin

      Gerry, can you help me with something, please? You are about 70% likely to believe the entire Universe began less than 10,000 years ago with only one man, one woman and a talking snake if you are:

      (a) a reptile handler who has severe mental issues;
      (b) a five year old boy who just read a fairytale;
      (c) a scientific fraud; or
      (d) a Catholic

      May 23, 2013 at 9:04 pm |
    • Gerry from Bayonne

      Colin, after you're fonished googling yourself, look up Catholic scientists. I think you'll realize what a nit wit you are.

      May 23, 2013 at 9:06 pm |
    • ignore colon

      bull sh it alert

      May 23, 2013 at 9:06 pm |
    • Colin

      YEs Gerry, I googled "Catholic Scientist". It came back with a definition of "oxymoron".

      May 23, 2013 at 9:08 pm |
    • ignore colon

      all bull sh it all the time

      May 23, 2013 at 9:10 pm |
    • Get a life

      Point proven.

      May 23, 2013 at 9:11 pm |
    • Roger that

      giving everything – absolutely everything, even one’s very life

      Sort of reminds me of... oh I don't know....Al-Qaeda.

      May 23, 2013 at 9:14 pm |
  8. Peter Millican destroys the Kalam Cosmological Argument


    May 23, 2013 at 8:55 pm |
    • Science

      The hike to Grandmas house trough the woods.

      Do you have any..............faith/chad?........take a hike in the woods chad you might learn something !

      Where do morals come from?.....................NOT THE BIBLE>

      By Kelly Murray, CNN


      Hey faith..................the peach........... did you learn or hear from that Discovery show about the LAND BRIDGE ?

      How many years ago did we cross into North America ?.................faith chadie and Good news..........not

      Free learning videos go viral

      By Salman Khan, Special to CNN



      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 !

      Evolving Genes Lead to Evolving Genes: Selection in European Populations of Genes Regulated by FOXP2

      Apr. 18, 2013 — Researchers have designed a method that can universally test for evolutionary adaption, or positive (Darwinian) selection, in any chosen set of genes, using re-sequencing data such as that generated by the 1000 Genomes Project. The method identifies gene sets that show evidence for positive selection in comparison with matched controls, and thus highlights genes for further functional studies.


      Oldest of the old.............the RCC ...........BedVrooooom.............and the red devil................not funny !

      Science books........videos.............trumps the 666.................beast.................or red horn-y thingy....does it

      NOT ........peachy ?.............but below IS..............please help .........thank you.

      A project of DC Entertainment to support Save the Children, Mercy Corps and IRC


      The Greatest Action Movie Ever (G.A.M.E.)


      Again Chadie................SPLAT = E mc2...............(U-Pb)...........dating process for link below


      And a little carbon – 14 from chondrites..............and water =

      WHAM-O........horn-y planet and life.

      Mom and Dad............did it faith !

      http://www.discovertheforest.org/...............To Grandmas house we go

      Hey Vic

      Do a simple search on Prof. Higgs.

      It is what creates the mass for our asses !

      May 23, 2013 at 10:21 am | Report abuse |


      That's not occam's razor. Occam's razor is that the hypothesis WITH THE FEWEST ASSUMPTIONS is the MOST LIKELY.

      Seeing as you are assuming an all powerful, all present, all knowing deity with no origin and no supporting, observable and repeatable evidence, creation through God is no where near the most likely.

      May 23, 2013 at 10:22 am | Report abuse |

      ME II

      The ICR is obviously biased and not scientific.

      "Principles of Scientific Creationism

      The physical universe of space, time, matter, and energy has not always existed, but was supernaturally created by a transcendent personal Creator who alone has existed from eternity."
      "The first human beings did not evolve from an animal ancestry, but were specially created in fully human form from the start."

      "The Bible, ... is ... infallible and completely authoritative on all matters with which they deal, free from error of any sort, scientific and historical as well as moral and theological."

      May 23, 2013 at 10:22 am | Report abuse |

      Red Rover............something NEW............you asked !



      I'm a Dinosaur – Ultrasaurus The Ultra Cool Dinosaur





      Hey Earl

      Share OK Thanks.

      Comments (1,644 comments)

      This Oklahoma atheist isn't thanking the Lord

      By Jessica Ravitz, CNN




      Atheists Fight Gideon Bibles With Books By Christopher Hitchens And Richard Dawkins In Georgia State Parks


      RDFRS: Florida Teen Fights Back Against Bible ... – Richard


      May 23, 2013 at 12:46 pm | Report abuse |




      Gee CNN, use a headline to marginalize a woman who just lost her home for the sake of Blitzer's reputation. Like oooh, she isn't thanking the lord. She's so ungrateful. She should be ashamed. NO! Blitzer should be ashamed for asking not once, but twice. Even after she blew it off the first time. The headline should have been "Wolf gets Blitzed by his own dumb question"

      May 23, 2013 at 1:57 pm | Report abuse | Reply



      Agree . Maybe a Full B:ITZ !

      For the whole planet to see !


      May 23, 2013 at 2:07 pm | Report abuse |


      Well, CNN is a special son of the Beast, ruled by group think. So they went with it.

      May 23, 2013 at 2:08 pm | Report abuse |


      Salute to Troops +468


      May 23, 2013 at 9:03 pm |
  9. Apple Bush

    It is refreshing to learn the pope is an atheist. One more as we march towards a new age of enlightenment.

    May 23, 2013 at 8:54 pm |
    • Gerry from Bayonne

      You're actually dumber than your name suggests. Cool.

      May 23, 2013 at 8:56 pm |
  10. dred

    He is right ... for atheists...their faith will not prevent them from meeting God either, and by His grace be given a second chance, for God has said,.."Therefore wait for me for the day I will stand up to testify. I have decided to assemble the nations, to gather the kingdoms and to pour out my wrath on them – all my fierce anger. Then the whole world will be consumed by the fire of my jealous anger.THEN will I purify the lips of the peoples that ALL of them may call upon the name of the Lord and serve him shoulder to shoulder."Zephaniah 3:9-9
    And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved."Joel 2:32
    There is a final chance for all even after the destruction of this earth,on Judgement day.

    May 23, 2013 at 8:53 pm |
  11. Guest

    To akmac65:

    Before you make a comment, try to read the Bible and do your research so that the Bible can make sense for you. Remember to interpret the Bible the way it is suppose to because people's head interpret the Bible the way they want it to be but not what the Lord Himself meant it to be. So make sure you call the Lord Jesus first and ask Him for guidance in understanding His Word in the Bible before you make it sound the way you think it should be.

    The Words of the Lord Jesus Christ in the Holy Bible will never change regardless how men interpret it and twisted it and attempt to discredit it by adding garbage to it. The Word of the Lord will never change as the Lord Himself, He is the same yesterday, today and the future and His Word will never die. To those who hate His name and the real Bible are certainly wasting their time because both Lord Jesus and the Bible will prevail at the end.

    One suggestion to akmac65 and all those who hate the truth, you need to read the Bible

    May 23, 2013 at 8:52 pm |
    • Sure

      Jesus' words that the end times would come within the lifetimes of some people standing there is indeed unchanged, wrong and getting wronger.

      Jesus' words that you get whatever you pray for without fail, including having a mountain throw itself into the sea remains unchanged, and wrong.

      May 23, 2013 at 9:01 pm |
    • ScienceNeedsNoFaith

      So if you read the Bible as a rational adult who hasn't had the Bible babble pounded into their head by the church (and silly parents) since birth, and find it totally full of nonsense of a non worldly Bronze Age vintage (of stories stolen from even more primitive and less educated cultures). Or you read all the cruel death and destruction caused by the "loving, caring" main character, a psychopath named "God". Or you find that for every point made in the story line, you find an equal but opposite point made elsewhere in the novel. Or you find that that same "loving, caring "God" brutally killed his own son in sacrifice (which is ironically against His own rules) to pay for the sins of people not yet born (but also cruelly not saving those countless souls who lived before this sacrifice) to be a ridiculous plot twist and terrible anti-climatic ending to the story.
      In other words, those people who see through the absolute absurdity of this story somehow are not seeing it's hidden and magical real story of redemption, love and that this mean, bitter and jealous dad is somehow the hero of all time. Those with the reasoning power to see the real story of hatred, cruelty, revenge, racism, religious intolerance are somehow at fault for not seeing the "magic" of the book?
      Nice try Guest. Try tom make sense next time you post. And using the book that claims this crap as "proof" that the book itself is real is a little shaky as a methodology of proof. I can provide you with a drawing of a unicorn, that therefore prove that unicorns exist.

      May 23, 2013 at 9:24 pm |
  12. Gerry from Bayonne

    OH, I get it! This is called the belief blog, but in fact it is actually the anti-Catholic AND hate blog. Alles klar!

    May 23, 2013 at 8:52 pm |
    • Colin

      Gerry, a quick quesion. The completely absurd theory that all 7,000,000,000 human beings on the planet are simultaneously being supervised 24 hours a day, every day of their lives by an immortal, invisible being for the purposes of reward or punishment in the “afterlife” comes from the religion of:

      (a) The ancient Celts;
      (b) Bronze Age Egyptians;
      (c) Pre-Colombian Aztecs; or
      (d) Modern Catholics

      May 23, 2013 at 9:00 pm |
    • ignore colon

      don't step in colons bull sh it

      May 23, 2013 at 9:11 pm |
    • ScienceNeedsNoFaith

      Gerry: So you believe those things he pointed out as ludicrous and You have the gall to call BS? Dementia is clearly at work in your fantasy world.

      May 23, 2013 at 9:27 pm |
  13. Steve


    May 23, 2013 at 8:51 pm |
    • Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohaim

      I watched this debate earlier – very good!

      May 23, 2013 at 9:01 pm |
  14. lionlylamb

    Gen 6:3 And the LORD said, "My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that He also [is] flesh" and my days are marked out to be one hundred and twenty years.

    May 23, 2013 at 8:50 pm |
    • ScienceNeedsNoFaith

      And 2000 or so years later, when does the 120 years come into play?

      May 23, 2013 at 9:29 pm |
  15. aelric

    Why do atheists care if the pope thinks they are going to heaven? What does that have to do with basic human rights?

    I believe in everyone's right to believe or not believe as they choose, and I don't think they are automatically evil if they choose not to believe. I also believe in my fundamental right to believe according to my own conscience, and couldn't care less if those beliefs are popular with atheists. CNN does the pope and every other Christian a disservice by implying that Christian doctrine needs either progress or the approval of non-Christians. What a stupid article.

    May 23, 2013 at 8:50 pm |
    • Billy

      "Christian doctrine needs either progress"

      LOL – what it needs is to assume its rightful place on the bookshelf along with Harry Potter.

      May 23, 2013 at 8:52 pm |
  16. Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohaim


    May 23, 2013 at 8:49 pm |
  17. Puzzled in Peoria

    The Catholic Church does not teach universalism (the belief that everyone will be saved), nor does the Bible teach it. If there is a God and a heaven, we each make our own choice which way we want to go.

    Christ himself said, "No one comes to the Father except through me." John 14:6. You either follow or don't follow. It's that simple.

    May 23, 2013 at 8:48 pm |
    • indeed

      you either believe or you do not believe the stupidity of atheism is that the atheist is like the homeowner who will not accept the builder denying God is the most deadly sin

      May 23, 2013 at 8:51 pm |
    • Athy

      Indeed, your punctuation is nonexistent. Indeed, maybe you try using some.

      May 23, 2013 at 9:17 pm |
    • dred

      Amen...yes, He said.."no one comes to the Father except through me....not 'No one comes to God except through me.' and also.."No one can come to me unless the Father draws them.", so some just cannot accept Jesus, because His Father has chosen not to draw them.
      Jesus came to save the world and to reveal His Father to those whom His Father has called....
      Moses came and saved Israel and revealed God Almighty....but not the Father.
      No other 'prophet' or messiah has ever dared to say they are revealing their Father, who happens to be God.Jesus alone did.
      Jesus is all about relationship with God, as a family...not religion.

      May 23, 2013 at 10:49 pm |
  18. Clear English

    Nice article including nuances of the Pope's words, so I hate to be a stickler, but the word for principle or belief is "tenet," not "tenant."

    May 23, 2013 at 8:47 pm |
    • Gerry from Bayonne

      you've added a lot to this discussion. Thanks!

      May 23, 2013 at 8:48 pm |

    one can be good without a god,

    but one can be real Good with a real GOD!


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

      More word play suitable for the billboard in front of the church. I have often wondered what kind of people could possibly be impressed by that kind of hyperbole. Must be church people, because they specialize in slick word inversions that give one a starry-eyed sensation.

      May 23, 2013 at 10:59 pm |
  20. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things

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

      God is not healthy for children and other living things.

      – Genesis 7:21 “And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, domestic animals, wild animals, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all human beings”

      May 23, 2013 at 8:51 pm |
    • .

      it has long been proven that "observer" is anything but observant and totally ignorant when it comes to Truth.

      May 23, 2013 at 8:54 pm |
    • Observer


      So did I quote EXACTLY what the Bible says? Yes or no?

      How observant are you? lol.

      May 23, 2013 at 8:56 pm |
    • .

      Short answer no the Bible was not written in English.

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


      So you didn't have any rebuttal. Knew that.

      May 23, 2013 at 9:01 pm |
    • .

      no is your answer ass hole deal with it or jack off in the corner for all anyone cares

      May 23, 2013 at 9:13 pm |
    • Observer


      There are good atheists and there are bad atheists just like there are good Christians and there are bad Christians. So far, you haven't exhibited the smarts to recognize that.

      As long as you repeat this LIE about atheists, I will continue to ACCURATELY QUOTE the Bible.

      May 23, 2013 at 9:27 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55
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.