Pope Says Atheists Go to Heaven?


The new leader of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, has been making plenty of news since taking over in March. Not only is it the case that he may have exorcised demons in public very recently (very old school), but now he seems to have blessed the infidels (not-so old school).

In his Wednesday sermon, he stated the following:

The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! …‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.

From this, it appears His Holiness is blessing everybody: Catholic, Protestant, Jew, Muslim, pagan, and atheist. His mention of meeting “one another there” could be a reference to the afterlife, so is the Pope saying everybody is going to heaven, even the non-believers?

Do you really think the leader of the church, Christ’s vicar on Earth, is going to say he doesn’t hold the keys of heaven first given to St. Peter? If you do, I know an antisemitic rabbi for you to meet that sells bridges.

The Pope’s message is actually that everyone is capable and ought to do good. This includes infidels, that they too are in the image of God, and God does good, so everyone ought to do good. That’s the theology happening here, not the idea of universalism, which was supported by some early church figures. For the Pope to declare universalism would require him going ex cathedra on this, someone only very rarely done, and that would have been really big news, not to mention something more than just a sermon message. Lots of paperwork to do in the holy bureaucracy.

However, this message from the Pope is marked in how it undoes a notion so many attach to non-believers, that they are immoral or incapable of doing good. Pope Francis strongly rebukes that, using the Gospel of Mark as his foundation for his argument. So while what he has said is perfectly compatible with traditional dogma, his modernization of message and tone is certainly more welcoming to non-Catholics and non-Christians generally.

However, there is another layer of theology at play, it would seem. The notion of redemption here is being used by the Pope to say all can do good, and this can bring people together (“But do good: we will meet one another there”). It would seem to suggest that by works Christians and non-Christians can come to salvation, you can come to redemption. This point is made in the comments of Fr. James Martin’s Facebook post (who gave a quote for the HuffPo post on this news event):

He’s saying be a good person, do good works, and if you do those things you will be opening yourself to Christ’s redeeming love.

This gets into points of arguments among Christian denominations. The biggest contrast to this would probably be Calvinists who see grace as unconditionally given to humans at God’s choosing, and God had made his plan on who to save timelessly; you did nothing and could do nothing to earn grace and was decided before existence itself. Others will argue that faith is all that matters, and works are not so important, though being anti-social probably isn’t a good idea. You can find biblical support for whatever you want, I don’t care. The point here is that the Pope’s message of inclusion and the encouragement for all to do good deeds requires an idea of soteriology that is divisive in modern Christianity. So while the Pope will let those with ears hear him, there will be plenty that simply cannot.

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