Can Atheists go to Heaven?

by Paolo Reyes

Can atheists go to heaven?  On May 21, 2013, Pope Francis created a global firestorm of religious debate as a result of a homily that talked about atheists.  In that controversial homily, the pope essentially emphasized that what matters more is not so much our religious affiliation, but that “we do good”:

The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! “Father, even the atheists?”Even the atheists. Everyone!...we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path to peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. 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.

After that homily, headlines in major newspapers and mainstream press such as the New York Times screamed with the “big news” that according to the pope, even atheists can now go to heaven: all of us, including atheists, will “meet one another there [heaven]” for as long as we do good.  Here are some examples of the various headlines that made it in major publications: “Heaven for atheists? Pope sparks debate”; “Is Pope Francis a heretic? No but he does raise questions”; “Pope Francis: ‘Even the atheists’ can go to heaven’.”

In light of the fierce debate that ensued, Reverend Thomas Rosica, a Vatican spokesperson, issued a “clarification” of the pope’s statement, saying that the pope was misunderstood, saying that “they cannot be saved who, knowing the Church was founded by Christ and necessary for salvation, would refuse to enter her or remain in her.”  This has led many commentators, in response, to point out that this “correction” made by the Vatican spokesperson went against the essence of what the pope said. Richard Dawkins, well-known scientist and an outspoken atheist, tweeted in response: “Atheists go to heaven? Nope. Sorry world, infallible pope got it wrong. Vatican steps in with alacrity.”

This is not the first time that Pope Francis has talked in positive terms regarding atheists.  In his first ecumenical meeting with non-Catholic religious leaders just a few days after his election, Pope Francis said that atheists and believers can be "precious allies" in their efforts "to defend the dignity of man, in the building of a peaceful coexistence between peoples and in the careful protection of creation."

A Chapter on Atheists in the First Published Papal Book

In the first published book by the pope, “On Heaven and Earth: Pope Francis on Faith, Family and the Church in the Twenty-First Century”, an entire chapter was dedicated to the topic of atheists.  The book contains a series of discussions between then Cardinal Bergoglio, as well as the Argentine Rabbi Abraham Skorka, on various topics of the faith and religion.   An entire chapter was dedicated to atheists in the said book.

The emphasis of the whole chapter, as well as all of the recent pronouncements such as the controversial homily, is on respect and tolerance for the atheist.  Cardinal Bergoglio said: “When I speak with atheists...I do not propose the problem of God as a starting point, except in the case that they propose it to me...I do not approach the relationship in order to proselytize, or convert the atheist; I respect him and I show myself as I am...nor would I say that his life is condemned, because I am convinced that I do not have the right to make a judgement about the honesty of that person.” (p. 11)

The Jewish Rabbi Skorka, on the other hand, condemned both the atheist and the believer on their “arrogance”, and instead implicitly praised the “agnostic” - the term that describes those people who claim that they are unsure of the existence of God. While atheists outrightly deny the existence of God, agnostics claim that the existence of God cannot be determined. Skorka said: “An agnostic thinks that he or she has not yet found the answer, but an atheist is 100 percent convinced that God does not exist. It is the same arrogance that leads some to assert that God definitely exists, just like the chair I am sitting on. Religious people are believers, but we do not know for certain that He exists...”

Further on, he said: “Even though I personally believe that God exists, it is arrogant to say that He exists as if it were just another certainty in life. I would not casually affirm His existence because I need to live the same humility that I demand of the atheist.”

Essentially, Skorka was saying that we should be “humble” when dealing with atheists by not insisting that God really, truly exists.  The curious fact here is that the future pope actually did not contradict Skorka with the above statements, and in fact, the chapter ends with Skorka essentially advocating the supposed “humility” of the attitude of agnostics.

Can Atheists Really Go to Heaven?

Many people, including well-meaning Catholics, reacted favorably online to the homily of the pope, praising his tolerance for “non-believers.”  While it is good and noteworthy for us to respect people of other religions, many are forgetting the fact that to be an atheist is to deny God.  How can someone who denies God go to heaven?  It is a complete contradiction: Heaven, after all, is heaven because of God.  Heaven is to enjoy the eternal company of God, to enjoy the “beatific vision”. 

How can someone who denies the existence of God enter heaven?   The atheist who denies God until his last breath essentially denies heaven - he denies himself the “beatific vision”, because he does not believe in it in the first place.  Since we have free will - a great gift that God cannot take away from us - God cannot force those who deny him until their last breath to enter the heavenly abode.

Why Not Talk About Proofs for the Existence of God Instead?

To deny God, to be an atheist, is to risk being condemned to eternal fire - unless the atheist repents before he dies, of course.  An atheist is a soul who is in danger of going to hell.  If we see a brother or sister, a fellow human being, headed straight towards a cliff - completely oblivious about the impending fall to death - what will we do? Will we “respect” him for the path he is taking? Or will we instead scream, shout, plead with him to change his path? 

Why would the future Pope talk about tolerance for atheists, and in fact dedicate a whole section on the first published papal book on atheists? Shouldn’t we be talking to atheists instead on the proofs for God’s existence? Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saint Anselm and many other brilliant Church Fathers have all given powerful, logical proofs for the existence of God.  Whereas before these were discussed extensively in schools and religious classes, alas, today they are buried deep in the archives of Catholic libraries.  It is not fashionable anymore to talk about proofs of the existence of God. Instead, it seems that nowadays it is more noteworthy to emphasize tolerance and acceptance of non-believers.  Instead of emphasizing this tolerance and respect for atheists, shouldn’t we instead be sharing with them the sheer joy and the peace that comes from believing in God - and the horrible fate that awaits those who deny God until the very end?   The truth hurts, but it must be told for the good of the atheist.

An Implicit Endorsement of Atheism/Agnosticism

In the book, the future pope, strangely, does not correct or clarify the dangerous “uncertainty” theory of Skorka. We recall here Skorka’s words, just for emphasis: “Even though I personally believe that God exists, it is arrogant to say that He exists as if it were just another certainty in life. 

The above statement is essentially an endorsement of “agnosticism” (we are not sure whether God exists or not).  The future Pope Francis said: “ the experience of God there is always an unanswered question, an opportunity to be submerged in faith...we can say what God is not, we can speak of His attributes, but we cannot say what He is...I would also classify as arrogant those theologies that not only attempted to define with certainty and exactness God’s attributes, but also had the pretense of saying who He was.”

Where is Jesus in the Conversation?

If I were in the place of the future pope, having that dialogue with Skorka, how would I have responded to this endorsement of agnosticism? I would have responded by saying that Jesus is the ultimate proof that God exists.  His life, his works, and especially His Resurrection prove beyond reasonable doubt that God exists.  Jesus Christ is real, concrete, historical, irrefutable proof for the existence of God. 

In the Gospel of John 14: 6-14:  Philip asked Jesus: “Master, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father...Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?”

Instead of saying to atheists, “it’s okay to be atheist, you will still go to heaven for as long as you do good”, I think it is a better idea to talk about the dangers of being an atheist, the incontrovertible proofs for the existence of God, and the divinity of Jesus.  They may argue with us, scream at us, hate us for challenging their views - but as they say, the “truth hurts”, and even if it does, it is better to be said - for their own sake.

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