149. Do Atheists Go to Heaven? Pope Francis Says Yes

May 1st, 2018

Recent weeks have seen Pope Francis attracting media attention for statements that sound controversial even among Roman Catholic circles. Recently he was quoted using ambiguous language – to say the least – regarding the existence of Hell for those who don’t believe. The Vatican Press office quickly responded to the controversy, saying that the Pope’s words on Hell should not “be considered as a faithful transcription of the Holy Father’s words.” In doing so, the Vatican made a journalistic point, but failed to clarify the Pope’s actual teaching on Hell.

More recently (April 15th, 2018) Pope Francis claimed that atheists get to Heaven, thus reinforcing the impression that his opinions on the afterlife are somewhat clumsy when compared to standard biblical views. Both statements, in fact, have to do with the eternal destiny of people, the former suggesting the prospect of annihilation (i.e. the waning away of the soul) and the latter implying a form of universalism (i.e. all will ultimately be saved regardless of their faith in Christ).

“Be sure, he is in Heaven with Him”
This public comment by the Pope was given in the context of a visit paid to a parish in the suburbs of Rome. While meeting kids and responding to their questions, a boy went to him in tears, telling the Pope the story of his recently deceased father and asking whether or not he is now in heaven. The boy made sure to inform the Pope that his father, though wanting his children to be baptized, was himself an atheist.

So what to say to this boy mourning his father and asking for information on his eternal destiny? Here is the answer given by Pope Francis:

“God has the heart of a father, your father was a good man, he is in heaven with Him, be sure. God has a father’s heart and, would God ever abandon a non-believing father who baptizes his children? God was certainly proud of your father, because it is easier to be a believer and have your children baptized than to be a non-believer and have your children baptized. Pray for your father, talk to your father. That is the answer.”

One needs to appreciate the emotional challenge of having to answer a boy in pain and tears. Talking about a dear one who has recently died is always difficult. Having said that, the first commitment of a Christian should always be to be true to the biblical gospel, and then to convey what the Bible says in pastorally appropriate and sensitive ways. This is exactly what the Pope failed to do, in more ways than one. He certainly showed sympathy, but was he faithful to the Word of God?

The Pope made several incorrect claims that need to be briefly mentioned. First, the connection he made between the father being a “good person” and him being with God. Is being a good person sufficient to be accepted by God? Does not the Bible say that no one is righteous before God (e.g. Romans 3:10-12) and that our only hope is because Jesus Christ was the only “good person,” through whom we can be accepted by God the Father (e.g. 2 Corinthians 5:21)?

Second, does having one’s own children baptized equate with trusting the Lord Jesus for our salvation? Is this not a version of salvation by works that is always opposed in the Bible (e.g Ephesians 2:8-9)?

Third, the assurance given to the boy was issued on the basis of whose authority? How can a person – even a Pope – be confident enough to say that an atheist is in heaven? Don’t Christians have to rely on the authority of the Word of God, which clearly teaches that those who don’t believe will be condemned (e.g. John 3:18)? Has the Pope the authority to change that, or is his authority superior to plain Biblical teaching?

And fourthly, how can the encouragement to pray for the father and to talk to him be squared with the clear biblical teaching that warns us not to talk to the dead (e.g. Deuteronomy 18:9) and to pray only to Jesus Christ, the only Mediator between God and men? Instead of leading the boy to Jesus Christ, why did the Pope point him to his dead father?

“We Are All Children of God”
In this answer the Pope gave voice to a whole theological vision that may sound compassionate and warm, but which is ultimately misleading and deviant because is not truthful to Scripture. Even more troubling, the answer did not occur in a vacuum. It was instead the climax of a previous comment in which the Pope said that we are all children of God. Here is how the Pope articulated this thought:

“We are all children of God, all, even the unbaptized ones, yes, even those who believe in other religions, or those who have idols. Those of the mafia are also children of God but prefer to behave like children of the devil. We are all children of God, God created and loves us all and placed in each of our hearts the consciousness of distinguishing good from evil. With baptism the Holy Spirit entered and strengthened your belonging to God. The “mafiosi” are also children of God, we must pray for they go back on their ways and recognize God.”

Here Pope Francis reiterates his attempts at redefining what it means to be a child of God. For him, children of God are all people: Christian believers, baptized people, unbelievers, atheists, people of other religions, idolaters, etc. He grounds this claim in creation and relates it to the human conscience. No mention is made of sin and separation from God. He refers to baptism as “strengthening” our belonging to God, intensifying it, making more relevant something that is already there before baptism takes place. The idea that all people are children of God means that all people will ultimately be saved, thus blurring the distinction between nature and grace, between being a created person and being a saved person. Evidently for the Pope this was the background for him assuring the boy that his atheist father is now in heaven.

There are serious distortions in this papal teaching. All Bible believers, even among Roman Catholic circles, should begin to biblically question the wayward theological system of Pope Francis.