Can Atheists Go To Heaven?

Jesus, The Light of the World
Geertgen tot Sint Jans (1490)
Well, he's done it yet again!  Pope Francis has managed to get the whole world abuzz with some new controversial statements about atheists going to heaven.  Actually, what the pope said was not all that new, nor was it even surprising to those who actually study and know the Catholic Christian faith. However, to the great majority of people in the world, including many Catholics, who are basically clueless as to what the Church teaches, the pope's written comments about atheists are the latest sensational "change" in the Catholic Church marking the new "liberal trends" of this current pope.  (Excuse me while I find a bucket to yak into.)  Sorry, but the pope said nothing new here. There has been no change in Church teaching, and there is nothing about this whole narrative that even remotely suggests the pope is taking the Church down new "liberal trends."

Before I go any further into this, let me tell you a story. Back in 2000, my wife and I were attending an RCIA class preparing to enter the Catholic Church as converts from Protestantism.  On one particular night something happened.  It only happened once, but it was significant enough to almost end our journey into the Catholic Church. Here is what happened....

A guest priest (who shall remain nameless) was asked to speak on a variety of topics related to Church teaching. During the course of his question and answer segment, somebody asked about the salvation of their Protestant relatives. He responded appropriately by saying they could be saved.  That wasn't a problem. The problem came with what he said after.  He went on to talk about how the Catholic Church teaches that anybody and everybody can be saved, so long as they follow their conscience.  He used the typical example, of the bushman way out in the wilderness, who has never heard about God. He too can be saved if he just follows his conscience, and that God can reveal himself to different people in different ways.  He mentioned Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and even atheism.  It clearly sounded as if he was saying that it didn't really matter what you believe, so long as you believe in something.

My wife and I were aghast!  What this priest was telling our RCIA class sounded more like Syncretism than Catholicism.  My wife, who had been a little sceptical of Catholicism to begin with, immediately whispered into my ear: "That's it!  This is not Christianity. I'm done with this place. I want to leave now!" Now maybe she was right. Maybe a clear way to send a message would have been to simply get up, walk out and drive away, leaving our RCIA directors stunned. After all, we could have gone to another RCIA class at another parish.  Or we could have simply gone back to Protestantism for a while.  The only problem was, I was convinced the Catholic Church is the one true Church established by Jesus Christ, and I was convinced this priest just didn't know how to present that plain and clear teaching of the Church.  So what to do?  In that moment, I decided the best thing to do would be to confront the problem, rather than walk away from it. I whispered back to my wife that she should calm down, because I thought the priest was wrong about something.  I told her I would talk to him after the class and that she and I would discuss this later.  She grudgingly agreed.  So after class I approached the priest, and I asked him to further clarify what he meant earlier.  He again explained his teaching, which was identical to what he said before.  I responded by asking him the following questions. "How is that any different than Syncretism or religious relativism?  So it really doesn't matter if I convert to Catholicism?  I can go to the Unitarian Church down the street and that would be okay, right?"  The priest was stunned.  He then began to back-peddle a bit, and no sooner another person in our class came over to speak with him.  She was a sponsor.  She thanked the priest for "clarifying" these matters to us.  You see, her aunt had left the Church for Buddhism.  She had been trying to get her to come back to the Church for years, but now that the priest had helped her understand that "it doesn't really matter," she would leave her Buddhist aunt alone.  In fact, she told him she would write her a letter that night and assure her that being a Buddhist is just fine with the Church, and encourage her to go on being a good Buddhist, and that she would get to heaven that way too. She thanked him profusely again, and then walked away.  As the stunned and speechless priest turned to look back at me, I said rather smugly: "See what I mean?"  His eyes must have been the size of quarters. He then went on to try to back-peddle a bit, and I told him I thought I understood what he was trying to say, but his delivery was a bit off, and that he should be more careful in the future.  I then excused myself, explaining that I have to go do some damage control with my wife now.

I admit, I was a bit short with him, and perhaps that was rude, but at the time I had a lot going on.  My concern?  I may soon be entering the Catholic Church through different parish RCIA program and this time without my wife at my side.  I had to do my homework and do it fast.  That night I went through the Catechism, and this is what I found...
846: How are we to understand this affirmation, often repeated by the Church Fathers? Re-formulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body: 
Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through Baptism as through a door. Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.
This is cross referenced with CATECHISM 161 which says....
Believing in Jesus Christ and in the One who sent him for our salvation is necessary for obtaining that salvation. "Since "without faith it is impossible to please [God]" and to attain to the fellowship of his sons, therefore without faith no one has ever attained justification, nor will anyone obtain eternal life 'But he who endures to the end.'"
It is also cross referenced with CATECHISM 1257 which says...
The Lord himself affirms that Baptism is necessary for salvation. He also commands his disciples to proclaim the Gospel to all nations and to baptise them. Baptism is necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament. The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude; this is why she takes care not to neglect the mission she has received from the Lord to see that all who can be baptised are "reborn of water and the Spirit." God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.
847-848: This affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church
Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience - those too may achieve eternal salvation.
"Although in ways known to himself God can lead those who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of the Gospel, to that faith without which it is impossible to please him, the Church still has the obligation and also the sacred right to evangelise all men."
This is cross referenced with CATECHISM 1260 which says...
"Since Christ died for all, and since all men are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partakers, in a way known to God, of the Paschal mystery." Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved. It may be supposed that such persons would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity.
In regards to the Catholic Church's relationship with other religions, the CATECHISM has this to say...
839: "Those who have not yet received the Gospel are related to the People of God in various ways." 
The relationship of the Church with the Jewish People. When she delves into her own mystery, the Church, the People of God in the New Covenant, discovers her link with the Jewish People, "the first to hear the Word of God." The Jewish faith, unlike other non-Christian religions, is already a response to God's revelation in the Old Covenant. To the Jews "belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ", "for the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable."
840: And when one considers the future, God's People of the Old Covenant and the new People of God tend towards similar goals: expectation of the coming (or the return) of the Messiah. But one awaits the return of the Messiah who died and rose from the dead and is recognised as Lord and Son of God; the other awaits the coming of a Messiah, whose features remain hidden till the end of time; and the latter waiting is accompanied by the drama of not knowing or of misunderstanding Christ Jesus
841: The Church's relationship with the Muslims. "The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind's judge on the last day."
842: The Church's bond with non-Christian religions is in the first place the common origin and end of the human race: 
All nations form but one community. This is so because all stem from the one stock which God created to people the entire earth, and also because all share a common destiny, namely God. His providence, evident goodness, and saving designs extend to all against the day when the elect are gathered together in the holy city. . .
843: The Catholic Church recognises in other religions that search, among shadows and images, for the God who is unknown yet near since he gives life and breath and all things and wants all men to be saved. Thus, the Church considers all goodness and truth found in these religions as "a preparation for the Gospel and given by him who enlightens all men that they may at length have life."
844: In their religious behaviour, however, men also display the limits and errors that disfigure the image of God in them: 
Very often, deceived by the Evil One, men have become vain in their reasonings, and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and served the creature rather than the Creator. Or else, living and dying in this world without God, they are exposed to ultimate despair. 
845: To reunite all his children, scattered and led astray by sin, the Father willed to call the whole of humanity together into his Son's Church. The Church is the place where humanity must rediscover its unity and salvation. The Church is "the world reconciled." She is that bark which "in the full sail of the Lord's cross, by the breath of the Holy Spirit, navigates safely in this world." According to another image dear to the Church Fathers, she is prefigured by Noah's ark, which alone saves from the flood.
In regards to the Catholic Church's relationship to atheists and agnostics, the CATECHISM has this to say...
2123: "Many . . . of our contemporaries either do not at all perceive, or explicitly reject, this intimate and vital bond of man to God. Atheism must therefore be regarded as one of the most serious problems of our time."
2124: The name "atheism" covers many very different phenomena. One common form is the practical materialism which restricts its needs and aspirations to space and time. Atheistic humanism falsely considers man to be "an end to himself, and the sole maker, with supreme control, of his own history." Another form of contemporary atheism looks for the liberation of man through economic and social liberation. "It holds that religion, of its very nature, thwarts such emancipation by raising man's hopes in a future life, thus both deceiving him and discouraging him from working for a better form of life on earth." 
2125: Since it rejects or denies the existence of God, atheism is a sin against the virtue of religion. The imputability of this offence can be significantly diminished in virtue of the intentions and the circumstances. "Believers can have more than a little to do with the rise of atheism. To the extent that they are careless about their instruction in the faith, or present its teaching falsely, or even fail in their religious, moral, or social life, they must be said to conceal rather than to reveal the true nature of God and of religion."
2126: Atheism is often based on a false conception of human autonomy, exaggerated to the point of refusing any dependence on God. Yet, "to acknowledge God is in no way to oppose the dignity of man, since such dignity is grounded and brought to perfection in God. . . . " "For the Church knows full well that her message is in harmony with the most secret desires of the human heart."
2127: Agnosticism assumes a number of forms. In certain cases the agnostic refrains from denying God; instead he postulates the existence of a transcendent being which is incapable of revealing itself, and about which nothing can be said. In other cases, the agnostic makes no judgement about God's existence, declaring it impossible to prove, or even to affirm or deny. 
2128: Agnosticism can sometimes include a certain search for God, but it can equally express indifferentism, a flight from the ultimate question of existence, and a sluggish moral conscience. Agnosticism is all too often equivalent to practical atheism.
Whew!  That's a lot to digest.  As you can see, the Catechism is very careful to take in every imagined scenario, so as to address every topic humanly possible.  It's a pretty hefty document, which is why so many national dioceses have instead created a simplified version for regular catechises of faithful.  Still, when we get into sticky wickets like this, we have to pull out the big guns.  Nothing but the universal Catechism from Rome will do, and as you can see it says allot.  Some of it even sounds conflicting at times, and I can see why some Catholics (even clergy) would get a bit confused from time to time.  I would assert that Rome should probably make an effort toward further clarification at some future date, but at the same time take special care that such "clarification" doesn't further muddy the waters.  Salvation is by far the single most important teaching of the Church.  It must be crystal clear.

I'm a visual person, so it helps for me to explain things in visual word-pictures.  If you'll indulge me for a moment, I'll explain this Church teaching on salvation in the best way I can, using a visual analogy...
Here in the Ozark Mountains we have a lot of caves. Many of these caves are tourist traps. Many more are unexplored. Some have recently been discovered bearing the remains of prehistoric animals, trapped thousands of years ago, with their bones undisturbed until now! I can think of no better analogy to use here than a cave. Suppose, for a moment, that a rather large group of people find themselves stranded at the bottom of a deep and dark cave.  It doesn't matter how they got there.  Let's just assume they've been down there for generations, living a life of total blindness, filth and poverty.  Now, suppose rumours of a world above have been spreading throughout this population, a world above that is filled with light, wherein people can perceive reality in a way previously unknown, where food is plentiful, life is dignified and people are relatively "happy."  So naturally, a good number of them set out to find their way out of the caverns and up to the surface opening of the cave.  The only problem is, nobody knows the way. Okay, that's the scenario, and it is meant to visually describe the situation of our fallen human race. The world of light above is heaven. The dark cavern below is this fallen world under the yoke of original sin.
So to each person who sets out on this journey of faith and hope toward the surface, a tool can be chosen... 
To some are given an enormous megawatt floodlight, powerful enough to illuminate not only the path in front of them, but also each and every cavern they set out to explore.  This is the light of Jesus Christ as given by his One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. Those who use this light are Catholic Christians.
Others are disillusioned by that light, and find it a bit too revealing and hard on the eyes, which for generations have been more accustomed to darkness.  So they instead choose smaller flashlights.  These again represent the light of Jesus Christ, but this time diminished in power and made incomplete by the limited reasoning of man.  This is Protestantism. 
Still to others were given lanterns, which were good for illuminating some things, but not nearly as powerful as the floodlight or flashlights.  Here the light of Christ is hidden in a different form, but present nonetheless in some veiled fashion. This is Judaism.
To a large group of people were given candles, not nearly as strong as the lantern, flashlights or floodlight, but a light nonetheless, and capable of some illumination.  Christ is present in that light in some fashion, but like in Judaism, those who bear it have no idea of its full potential. This is Islam.  
Then there were those who were given canes, the type used by the blind.  These are people who do not have any light, but are given the tool to at least stand up dignified, and "feel" what is before them so as not to trip over it.  These are the pagan, spiritual and pantheist religions of the world, created solely by man's reasoning and imagination.
Then there are those who refuse all tools, and prefer to crawl on their journey, feeling their own way with their own bare hands.  These are the agnostics, who, while they do not necessarily deny the existence of a world above, they, at the same time, deny the usefulness of tools to help them find their way up.
Finally, there are those who refuse to believe there is a world above at all.  They dismiss, as foolish, anyone who tries to seek it.  Instead they choose to remain at the bottom of the cave, in darkness, drinking the slime of cave water, feeling their way through the feces of bats, and eating the blind fish and salamanders of the deep.  They are content with their life in darkness, and have no desire to leave it behind.  These are the atheists.
Now that I've created this analogy, this word-picture, let me ask you some questions.  Which group is more likely to find its way up and out of the cave?  Which tool is most effective for this task?  I think the answer should be obvious.  The megawatt floodlight of Jesus Christ and his Catholic Church is by far the most effective tool for this task.  Getting to the top of the cave is no guarantee.  Anyone can be distracted into the darkness of some fascinating cavern, but if one stays true and follows the light as it leads the way out, that one has the best chance of reaching the top of the cave by the grace of God.  Now, that being said, is it possible for somebody bearing the flashlight of Protestantism to reach the top of the cave?  Sure!  It may be just a little harder than for somebody with the megawatt floodight of the Catholic Church, but the Protestant still has a powerful tool nonetheless, because Christ himself is the light that shows him the way.  By God's grace, it is possible. What of the follower of Judaism? Can he reach the top of the cave? Yes, by the grace of God, but it's quite a bit more difficult. What of the Muslim? Again, it's possible, by the grace of God, but even more difficult. What of the pagan? Yes, in God's grace, but by this time, the numbers of those pagans who set out on the journey, verses the number of those who actually reach the top, are significantly diminished. Namely because without the truth of Christ to guide them, it is easy to be distracted and give up. By the time you get to the agnostics, the number who actually reach the top are very few indeed. As for atheists, well, they simply won't reach the top, unless they change their attitude, and at least set out as agnostics. Most people who claim to be atheists are really agnostics anyway, once you probe down into what they really think. Only a very small number of people are really and truly atheists.

By now it should be obvious what is happening in this word-picture analogy here.  Nearly all of us are on a journey of faith upward.  We believe there is something for us that is greater above.  We are all attempting to get to the same "place," even if our understanding of what that place is different.  We all know that everything will be revealed once we get to the light above.  What makes us different is the means which we choose to guide us.  Most of us walk upright and dignified.  Some of us have the full light of Christ (Catholicism). Others have a partial light of Christ (Protestantism). Some have a veiled light of Christ (Judaism), wile others have a diminished light of Christ (Islam). Some of us use canes (paganism, spiritism and pantheism) like a blind man, but still walk upright and dignified.  Others prefer to crawl on the ground using their hands to feel the way (agnostics). Only a very small number chose to stay at the bottom of the cave, living in darkness and filth, and deny the existence of the world above (atheists).

It should be obvious from this word-picture that the people most likely to reach the top of the cave (heaven) will be those with the megawatt floodlight (Catholics).  Again, that's not a guarantee.  Any person can be distracted by a beautiful rock formation, and the sound of a rushing stream somewhere in the cave.  Anyone can choose instead to stop the journey, and use the light to set up camp, and live a more dignified life within the cave, never reaching the top.  That happens too.  Not all Catholics go to heaven, because some, by their own choosing, decide to use the light to create a better home for them down below. What a horrible experience it will be for them when the light goes out eventually, meaning, they die within the cave, having never attained the fullness of light above.  The same goes for Protestants, Jews and Muslims.  The point I'm making here is that while none of us are guaranteed heaven, we do at least have the moral assurance of getting there so long as we seek with sincerity.  Those of us who have the best tool, obviously have the best chance of reaching the goal.  Catholic Christianity is clearly the best tool there is, because Jesus Christ is the megawatt light that guides our way.  The floodlight that contains it (the Catholic Church) simply allows that megawatt light of Christ to shine to its fullest measure possible.  If you leave aside the floodlight, and pick up a flashlight instead, you do so at your own peril.  You may still make it to the destination, but you'll be using a much less effective tool. If you refuse either one of these modern torches, and choose a lantern or a candle instead, you've just diminished your chances of reaching the top even further. Finally, if you refuse any light at all, choosing instead a cane or your hands, again, you might possibly reach the top, by the grace of God, but your chances are astronomically more difficult.  If you choose not to make the journey at all, and remain in the darkness and filth of the cave below, you probably won't ever make it to the top, unless of course, you change your attitude.  That can happen for atheists, and it's happened many times in the past. Such a change in heart usually involves following one's conscience.

Now with that in mind, let's get back to what that guest priest said to our RCIA class 13 years ago, as well as what Pope Francis said last week.  Yes, it is possible for people of other faiths, or no faith at all, to reach heaven.  However, without the full light of Christ, illuminating the way through the Catholic Church, the chances of actually reaching heaven are significantly reduced.  The more the light of Christ is rejected, the more the odds of reaching heaven are reduced.  Those who refuse to make the journey (atheists) are almost assured total darkness and depravity (hell) unless they change their attitude, and that can't happen unless they follow their conscience.  Why?  Because a conscience is God's way of communicating with each and every one of us.  When an atheist follows his conscience, he ceases to be a true atheist.  He is now an agnostic at the very least, and his journey to the top of the cave begins. Maybe along the way he'll find a cane and use it, or perhaps a candle, lantern or flashlight.  Maybe, just maybe, he might even find a megawatt floodlight, put aside his pride, and actually use it. Who knows? But the journey can't even begin until he starts following his conscience. On the other hand, maybe he won't use any of these things. Maybe instead he will simply crawl is way through the darkness, feeling every rock with his hands along the way. Could God still lead him out of that cave? Could God, in his infinite grace and mercy still save him? Of course! God can do anything, and none of us attain salvation without the grace and mercy of God. The one question here is: "How often does this happen?" Nobody but God can know that. What we do know is that we should do everything possible to increase everyone's odds of reaching the top, and that means preaching to gospel to every soul.

You see, this is what the pope is encouraging atheists to do, and in encouraging atheists to use their conscience, he is in no way contradicting the Bible or the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Nor is there anything "new" or "liberal trendy" about this teaching.  It's the same teaching of the Catholic Church since Saint Paul made his sermon on the Areopagus in pagan Athens 2,000 years ago (Acts 17:16-34).  Every journey begins with a first step, even if it's just a shuffle or a crawl. The pope merely reached out to those living at the bottom of the cave, and encourage them to do the very thing that will lead to that first step. Follow your conscience!

As for the priest who spoke to our RCIA class more than a decade ago, I think this message serves as an object lesson of what not to say, and most especially, how not to say it. In all things the superiority of the Catholic Christian faith must be stressed. It must be emphasised that Catholicism is the best tool (indeed the only tool) that God has given us to reach heaven, because it is the full measure of the light of Christ. It is possible for people to reach heaven using a veiled (man-made) version of that light, or even no light at all, but there is no way anyone can reasonably say that one tool is just as good as another. Some tools are better than others, and one tool is best of all.


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Highly recommended by priests and catechists, "Catholicism for Protestants" is a Biblical explanation of the Roman Catholic faith as told by Shane Schaetzel -- an Evangelical convert to the Catholic Church through Anglicanism.  The book is concise and formatted in an easy-to-read Question & Answer catechism style.  It addresses many of the common questions Evangelical Protestants have about Catholicism. It is ideal for Protestants seeking more knowledge about the Catholic Church, and for Catholics seeking a quick refresher course on fundamental Catholic teaching. It's an excellent book for Catholics and Protestants alike!
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