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Pope Francis says atheists can go to heaven

Dr. Jim Denison is the CEO of Denison Forum.
His Daily Article and podcast globally reach over 160,000 subscribers. Dr. Denison guides readers to discern today’s news—biblically. He is the author of multiple books and has taught on the philosophy of religion and apologetics at several seminaries. Prior to launching Denison Forum in 2009, he pastored churches in Texas and Georgia. He holds a Ph.D and a Master of Divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Jim and his wife, Janet, live in Dallas, Texas. They have two sons and four grandchildren.

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Pope Francis I meets with Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner at the Santa Marta residence, Vatican City, March 18, 2013 (Credit: Casa Rosada / Presidency of Argentina)

Francis I has made a wonderful start to his papacy.  For instance, he recently unveiled a new app that shares the gospel and Catholic materials in eight languages.  He made several appeals for Catholics to pray for the survivors of the Oklahoma tornado.  And he called on Christians to share their faith through the power of the Holy Spirit.

But last week, he made a statement that generated controversy around the world.  “Pope Francis says atheists can do good and go to heaven too!” said Catholic Online.  “Pope Francis Says Atheists Who Do Good Are Redeemed, Not Just Catholics,” declared Huffington Post.  Francis stated that “we all have the duty to do good.”  He then said to atheists, “Do good: we will meet one another there.”  In context, “there” is clearly heaven.

Why would the pope believe that atheists can be in paradise?

Catholic Online explained: “Those who do not know God will be judged on the good they have done and the values lived by.”  This idea has its roots most recently in a theological concept called “anonymous Christianity.”

Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner (1904-84) taught that Jesus died for all people and that his death could therefore be effective for all, whether they have placed their faith in him or even heard of him.  In other words, good Buddhists could go to heaven through the atonement of Christ.  The same logic would extend even to atheists.  This concept was adopted by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and became an official part of Catholic theology (see Catechism of the Catholic Church #2125).

By analogy, most of us have been vaccinated for polio, though many have never heard of Jonas Salk, the pioneer of the polio vaccine.  His work was effective for us, whether we know of him personally or not.  In the same way, Jesus is “the way and the truth and the life” for the world (John 14:6), whether the world knows of his atoning love or not.

With respect to my Catholic friends, I disagree on the basis of John 3:18: “Whoever believes in [Jesus] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe in him stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”  The first Christians risked their lives to tell the world about Jesus, convinced that all people must trust Christ as Savior and Lord to receive eternal life (see Romans 10:1-4).

Here’s where I agree with Catholics on this issue: Catholic Online, in its coverage of Francis’ sermon, states, “The most loving thing we can do for all men and women is recognize that they too hunger for the God who created them and then help them to find Him as He is fully and completely revealed in his Son Jesus Christ.”  Please share the good news of God’s love with someone today.  Our response to Pope Francis is important, but our response to Jesus matters forever.

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