Are There Atheists in Heaven? 

Are There Atheists in Heaven? 

New Oxford Review, June 2018

It was a touching scene. After circling a massive, decrepit public-housing complex on the outskirts of Rome, Pope Francis arrived at St. Paul of the Cross Church. There, the Holy Father participated in a question-and-answer session with children from the parish. After a few kids offered up the standard questions — e.g., “How did you feel when you were elected pope?” — a young boy who had been waiting his turn tentatively approached the microphone. But he stopped short, perhaps overwhelmed by the enormity of the moment. “I can’t do it,” he said, and he began sobbing into his hands. So Francis called the boy over and encouraged him to whisper his question into his ear. When the boy, named Emanuele, approached, Francis embraced him. With their heads almost touching, they spoke privately before Emanuele returned to his seat. Here’s an account of what followed, courtesy of Catholic News Service (Apr. 27):

Pope Francis said he had asked Emanuele if he could share the boy’s question and the boy agreed. “‘A little while ago my father passed away. He was a nonbeliever, but he had all four of his children baptized. He was a good man. Is dad in heaven?’”

“How beautiful to hear a son say of his father, ‘He was good,’” the pope told the children. “And what a beautiful witness of a son who inherited the strength of his father, who had the courage to cry in front of all of us. If that man was able to make his children like that, then it’s true, he was a good man. He was a good man.

“That man did not have the gift of faith, he wasn’t a believer, but he had his children baptized. He had a good heart,” Pope Francis said.

“God is the one who says who goes to heaven,” the pope explained.

The next step in answering Emanuele’s question, he said, would be to think about what God is like and, especially, what kind of heart God has. “What do you think? A father’s heart. God has a dad’s heart. And with a dad who was not a believer, but who baptized his children and gave them that bravura [courage], do you think God would be able to leave him far from himself?”

“Does God abandon his children?” the pope asked. “Does God abandon his children when they are good?”

The children shouted, “No.”

“There, Emanuele, that is the answer,” the pope told the boy. “God surely was proud of your father, because it is easier as a believer to baptize your children than to baptize them when you are not a believer. Surely this pleased God very much.”

And just as surely, the Pope’s reply pleased Emanuele very much. As is evident from this episode, Francis has the heart of a pastor: his affable demeanor with the children, his warm embrace of a timid boy, and his concern for the sensitivities of those in his care mark him as a man who is eager to be close to his people, share in their joys and sorrows, and draw them into the sheepfold.

But — and with Francis, there’s always a but — his expansive notion of salvation is problematic. What he said about Emanuele’s father appears to contravene Catholic teaching — teaching Francis is sworn to uphold. In response to Emanuele’s question about whether his atheist father is in Heaven, Francis guided the children in the audience to the conclusion that God does not abandon “good” people, even though they don’t believe in Him, and so Emanuele’s father is not “far from” God. That, he told the boy, is your answer.

Now, nobody expects the Pope to crush a little boy’s spirit by confirming his fears about the precariousness of his atheist father’s eternal destination. That would be cruel and possibly a stumbling block to the child’s faith. But, as Francis well knows, whenever he speaks into a microphone, he is addressing not only those present but the whole world, in his capacity as leader of the Catholic Church. Therefore, his words are open to scrutiny. And it appears that the Pope has obfuscated one of the most fundamental tenets of the Christian religion: What one must do to be saved.

God, Francis said, has not abandoned Emanuele’s father. Truly, God is eternally faithful. But what about Emanuele’s father? He was faithless, a “nonbeliever,” an atheist. And the consequence of rejecting God is eternity in Hell. Heaven is reserved for believers. That’s Christianity 101. Surely, the Holy Father is familiar with this passage from the Gospel of John: “Whoever believes in him [Jesus] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (3:18). Numerous passages to the same effect could be cited. Setting aside the question of invincible ignorance, which doesn’t apply here, Scripture is abundantly clear: Nonbelievers are condemned to eternity in Hell.

Yet Francis suggested that Emanuele’s father might be in Heaven, without, of course, saying so outright. He told Emanuele that because his father had his children baptized — something that is not “easy” for a nonbeliever — God is “proud” of him and therefore would not “leave him far from himself.” This can only mean that Emanuele’s father is not in Hell, which is eternal separation from God, or even Purgatory, where souls must undergo a purifying fire before they may enter the presence of God. That leaves Heaven, where the righteous spend eternity close to God — i.e., not “far” from Him — in His presence.

Francis said, rather oddly, that Emanuele’s father had a “good heart” because he raised children who cry easily, as if this were some great virtue, a demonstration of courage. But this too militates against Scripture: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9). Moreover, doing good things for our children is no automatic ticket to eternal bliss; even “evil” men do this. “What man of you,” Jesus asked (Mt. 7:11), “if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent?… You then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children….”

Whatever it was that Emanuele’s father wanted to give his children when he had them baptized, he did not want for himself. He seems to have wanted them to have a chance at salvation, and he seemed to realize that the surest way was through the Catholic Church. If this was indeed the case, then he was correct, for the Church “is necessary for salvation,” as the Catechism teaches (no. 846; quoting Lumen Gentium, no. 14). Yet he himself did not seek communion with the Church, which means he denied himself the very chance at salvation he sought for his children. This casts into further doubt Francis’s claim that Emanuele’s father is not “far” from God, for the Catechism continues, “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.”

But Francis has provided himself an out. Though he seems to want to canonize Emanuele’s father, if only for the sake of the boy’s feelings, he holds back, saying that only God can say who goes to Heaven. Nobody, therefore, can accuse Francis of saying definitively that an atheist is in Heaven. As Aaron D. Wolf has written, Francis “seems to rely on his ability to be misquoted and misunderstood” (Chronicles, May). He seems to relish his ability to obfuscate. You see, God isn’t the only one who can say who is in Heaven. Francis himself has the same ability. And he has exercised his power to declare who is in Heaven on 16 separate occasions, canonizing 884 saints, people who demonstrated heroic virtue in this life and are right now face to face with God in Heaven, sharing in His divine nature.

You might think we’re making a mountain out of a molehill, that we shouldn’t read too deeply into the Pope’s comments because he merely wanted to comfort a heartsick boy. Perhaps. But — and here’s that but that always rears its head — this isn’t the first time this Pope has suggested that nonbelieving atheists are in Heaven. A mere two months into his papacy, during a homily in May 2013, Francis said, “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!” If he wasn’t clear enough, Francis continued, “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.” Here again Francis suggests that atheists need only “do good” to obtain eternal life.

The Catechism calls atheism “one of the most serious problems of our time” (no. 2123; quoting Gaudium et Spes, no. 19). The Catechism further calls it “a sin against the virtue of religion” (no. 2125) and cites Romans 1:18 for support. This is where St. Paul says, “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness.” Evidently, Francis doesn’t see atheism as a problem that warrants divine wrath, but as a blessing that can possibly earn divine favor.

Is this what the Pope really believes? Who knows? But this is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ; it is a strange doctrine indeed, a mashup of several heresies: universalism (the belief that all people will be saved), Pelagianism (the belief that we can earn salvation by our own merits), and moralistic therapeutic deism (a concept popularized by sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton in their 2005 book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers; the fifth of its five tenets says that all good people go to Heaven when they die).

Ultimately, the answer to little Emanuele’s question about the eternal destination of his father is: We don’t know. The Church does not consign him to Hell, but neither can she admit him to Heaven. What Emanuele needs more than comfort is encouragement: encouragement to pray for his father without ceasing and to work out his own salvation with fear and trembling. If all he has is the comforting lie that his atheist father is on some imaginary wide road to Heaven, what’s to stop Emanuele himself from edging off the true, narrow road, beguiled by the presumption that he can abandon God and His Church and still get to Heaven if only he’s “good”?

“Some reduce to a meaningless formula the necessity of belonging to the true Church in order to gain eternal salvation.” — Pope Pius XII, Humani Generis (no. 27)

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One comment on “Are There Atheists in Heaven? 

  1. [Are there atheists in foxholes, especially in the Soviet Union during World War II? (See 1:50+)]

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