Pope Francis has made some provocative statements in the short time that he has been leading the Roman Catholic church, but none is probably drawing
as much consternation as his recent remarks regarding whether atheists can go to heaven. Some people view this as "throwing Christianity under the
bus", others recognize it as a conciliatory message, and most people probably are wondering what the heck is up with this guy.
I'll try and explain, both to my fellow Christians, and to those who are not believers, what he meant and why it is true -- people who don't believe
in God can go to heaven, which is supported in scripture
Three critical points to start with.
First, Pope Francis did not say that people cannot be saved without Christ, or without the church. They are both necessary, though we can bicker about
what "the church" means -- for me, it doesn't mean the Roman Catholic church.
Second, Pope Francis is not advocating "Universal Salvation", a growing belief among many Protestants and some Catholics, that in the end, God saves
everyone. That's not what he's talking about here.
Third, nothing that Pope Francis has said is contrary to the Catechism of the Roman Catholic church (the official teaching of the church) and it's
nothing that Pope Benedict or Pope John Paul II couldn't have said, if they had chosen to.
To begin, we have to look at what the Pope actually said. The full document, a letter to the editor of an Italian newspaper,
may be read here
, but the salient
bit is this:
You ask me if the God of the Christians forgives those who don’t believe and who don’t seek the faith. I start by saying – and this is the
fundamental thing – that God’s mercy has no limits if you go to him with a sincere and contrite heart. The issue for those who do not believe in
God is to obey their conscience.
In essence, Pope Francis is saying that, ultimately, it is up to God whom he saves and who he does not. We trust that God's mercy reflects some
justice, that this decision is not made capriciously (as some interpretations of Calvinism teach,) and so we have to think about on what that decision
This morning, my United Methodist devotional (for those who don't know me, I'm a Protestant-leaning Roman Catholic, recently converted from a
Catholic-leaning Protestant, so I kind of have a foot in both camps,) included this passage, from the book of Matthew
, the parable of the Goats
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before
him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the
goats on his left.
Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the
creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you
invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you
a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was
hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes
and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help
He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. (Matthew 25:31-46 NIV)
Right there, we can see, scripturally, a basis for what Pope Francis is saying -- it doesn't say "All of these people who professed belief get in,
and all these people who didn't are excluded", it says that, irrespective of anything else, loving your fellow man, doing good
, is what will
separate the goats from the sheep.
One key point that Catholics differ from Protestants on is this -- we believe that there are Christians in hell. In the passage above, the condemned
also call Jesus "Lord", but they are to be condemned because they were not charitable, which in the religious sense means loving, not simply
This is also supported in another critical passage of Matthew:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in
heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform
many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matthew 7:21-23 NIV)
So, if we recognize that these passages in Matthew indicate that simply professing belief in God, and doing some acts in his name are not sufficient
for salvation, where does that leave us? If Christians who do some amount of good are not saved, how can non-believers who do good be saved?
Again, we turn to scripture:
Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question:
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest
commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew
This is Jesus' "Executive Summary" of everything related to our relationship with God and our salvation. You don't have to worry the details if
you follow these two commandments -- how can you envy your neighbour's possessions, lie to him or sleep with his wife if you are loving him as
yourself? And in a separate parable, Christ teaches that everyone
is your neighbour, not just the guy up the street or your friends, it is
everyone. This makes it very difficult to follow, because it means that you have to love people that are despicable as you love yourself -- don't
like President Obama or the leader of Syria or Adolf Hitler? Doesn't matter, to follow Christ, you have to love them as yourself, and that's what
sets you aside from the goats.
The good news is that if you follow the first commandment there, the second becomes easier, because God helps you to love other people, even when you
disagree with them or when they treat you shabbily.