A few days ago the religious world was a bit shocked by the Pope’s address. According to the media’s interpretation he said even atheists will go to heaven. On further investigation I found that the media in its traditional spin and twist had misinterpreted the Pope’s theology to get a headline.
Pope Francis may not be as conservative as some at the Vatican who believe only Catholics will go to heaven, but he is not so naïve as to believe that those who mock the very existence of God will someday be there. Here’s a quote from the Pope’s May address that I took from a newspaper in Melbourne:
"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!''
There is a difference between “who can be saved” and “who will be saved.” Christ died for the whole world, including atheists. Anyone can be saved. Salvation is available for all – even those who believe God does not exist. This, of course, does not mean they will all be saved. To appropriate the salvation that is universally offered one must put their faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)
The Pope puts a lot of emphasis on “conscience.” People who see those in need and respond to help them have a conscience and seek to do good. Those without a conscience who ignore people in need are doing evil. I believe it is the good conscience that the Pope sees in some atheists that leads him to believe they are on their way to salvation and thus to heaven.
So, atheists going to heaven? More specifically, how does that work? I think the pope believes that someone with a good conscience who does good things is on the right path that will eventually lead to faith in God. Whether or not he would see these same sojourners as needing to find their salvation in the Savior alone, I am not sure. I would hope so.
Believing in the existence of God is not enough for salvation, according to the Bible. “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” (James 2:19) No one believes more in the reality and existence of God than Satan himself.
On this issue I can only agree with the Apostle Peter whom the Catholic Church claims as its first Pope. He said of Jesus Christ, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)