Francis on God’s Mercy to Atheists: Nothing New But Still Refreshing


Good Pope Francis made some very ordinary comments on God’s mercy even towards those who deny his existence… and the secular media went berserk.

In a letter to the editor to La Repubblica, the anticlerical Italian newspaper, Francis wrote:

“Given – and this is the fundamental thing – that God’s mercy has no limits, if He is approached with a sincere and repentant heart the question for those who do not believe in God is to abide by their own conscience. There is sin, also for those who have no faith, in going against one’s conscience. Listening to it and abiding by it means making up one’s mind about what is good and evil.”

Earlier, last May, the pope made similar, even more dramatic comments during a sermon:

“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! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all!… 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.”

While there is certainly nothing new or shocking in this, Pope Francis’s comments will almost certainly ignite a new series of furious debates on salvation.

That’s because, for certain types of Christians – both Catholic and Protestant – nothing is more upsetting than the notion that God can welcome into his kingdom people who do not explicitly know or acknowledge him.

In this, they are rather like the figure of the dutiful brother in Jesus’s parable of the Prodigal Son:  Outraged at the idea that their Father would throw a huge party for skeptics and scoffers, when they, obedient and faithful, spent years doing their duty and playing by the rules.  Jesus apparently knew his followers only too well…

In just the past few years, evangelical Protestantism has been wracked by a series of vitriolic controversies over the issue of salvation for non-believers.

When popular evangelical preacher Rob Bell tentatively explored the possible salvation of all people in his bestselling book Love Wins, it was followed by a flurry of books and articles accusing Bell of heresy and in effect excommunicating him.

Calvinist firebrand John Piper famously tweeted “Farewell, Rob Bell,” after Bell’s book hit the shelves… and evangelical preacher Francis Chan penned his own bestselling rebuttal, Erasing Hell, in which he reluctantly summed up Jesus’s message as being:  Believe in me or burn for eternity.      

Of course, Catholics have struggled with this issue for centuries as well – and continue to struggle with it today.

Following Pope Francis’s comments last May, many Catholic theologians were quick to point out that nothing Francis said contradicted traditional Catholic teaching.

With his usual scholastic precision, Fr. Dwight Longenecker pointed out that there is a difference between universal redemption (which Catholics affirm and most Protestants do not) and universal salvation (which Catholics do not affirm).

“Unfortunately for those who wish to paint Pope Francis as a lovable liberal, in fact, the Pope is simply affirming certain truths that any somewhat knowledgeable Catholic will uphold,” Fr. Longenecker wrote.  Christ “redeemed the whole world. However, many will reject that saving work. In affirming the universality of Christ’s redemptive work we are not universalists. To say that he redeemed the whole world is not to conclude that all will be saved.”

Longenecker’s basic point: Redemption means the doors to heaven have been opened. Salvation means walking through them.

Historian Tim Stanley similarly clarified the pope’s recent comments in an article in Britain’s Telegraph newspaper:

“The mainstream media is going wild about a letter that Francis has written about atheists and agnostics, in which he appears to say that belief in God isn’t a requirement to get into Heaven,” Stanley wrote.  “Of course, it absolutely is. If you arrive at the pearly gates and still refuse to accept that God exists then the odds are that St Peter won’t let you in. Everyone has to confront that reality at some point in their lives – so only the mad and the stubborn are likely to spend an eternity as unbelievers.”

Or put another way:  No one will force you into heaven!

But of course, this is a little disingenuous.

The truth is, the historical debate on salvation really has been about whether non-believers have any hope at all of eventual salvation.  It’s been precisely about the possibility of salvation, about redemption in the narrow theological sense.  It’s been about whether living according to your conscience is enough without an explicit faith in God or even in Jesus Christ.

That is the crux of the debate – and, in that sense, Pope Francis has been affirming a more liberal understanding that has been vigorously opposed by many factions in the Christian community over the centuries.

In the 1940s, the Church had to intervene and officially condemn the exclusivist teaching of Fr. Leonard Feeney for propounding a literal interpretation of the dogma, “Outside the Church, No Salvation,” and for insisting on the damnation of all non-Catholics (let alone all non-Christians).

In rejecting Fr. Feeney’s interpretation of this dogma of the Church, the Vatican’s Holy Office (now called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) declared that “this dogma is to be understood as the Church itself understands it.”

That understanding, the Holy Office declared, is this:

To gain eternal salvation it is not always required that a person be incorporated in reality (reapse) as a member of the Church, but it is required that he belong to it at least in desire and longing…. When a man is invincibly ignorant, God also accepts an implicit desire, so called because it is contained in the good dispositions of soul by which a man wants his will to be conformed to God’s will.”

This understanding was reiterated and expanded during the Second Vatican Council.  In Lumen Gentium, the Decree on the Church in the Modern World, the Council Fathers forever committed the Catholic Church to a belief in the possible salvation of non-Christians — even, apparently, of non-theists.

Notice how the Council speaks explicitly of salvation, not merely “redemption.”

“Those also can attain to everlasting salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the gospel of Christ or his church, yet, sincerely seek God, and moved by grace, strive by their deeds to do his will as it is know to them through the dictates of conscience,” the Fathers declared. “Nor does divine Providence deny the help necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not arrived at an explicit knowledge of God, but who strive to live a good life, thanks to his grace.”

Many evangelicals, and not a few conservative Catholics, believe this teaching of Vatican II represents a dramatic change in official Catholic doctrine — a concession, perhaps, to the liberal theology of Karl Rahner or to an ecumenical movement gone berserk.

They may be surprised to learn, however, that the roots of this teaching are entrenched in magisterial (that is, “official”) Catholic pronouncements, go back through Trent, St. Thomas Aquinas and the medieval scholastics to Justin Martyr  and ultimately to the New Testament itself.

St. Thomas Aquinas comes very close to Karl Rahner’s idea of the anonymous Christian in discussing the “implicit” faith of Cornelius, the Roman centurion who is saved (Acts 10).

Thomas taught that belief in Christ is necessary for salvation, but, because of God’s universal salvific will, God would somehow ensure that all persons had the opportunity to believe.

St. Thomas wrote: “If anyone were brought up in the wilderness or among brute animals, provided that he followed his natural reason in seeking the good and avoiding evil, we must most certainly hold that God would either reveal to him, by an inner inspiration, what must be believed, or would send a preacher to him, as he sent Peter to Cornelius (De Veritate, q. 14, a. 11, ad 1.)” What is more, St. Thomas and later Catholic magisterial teaching would affirm that, while “without baptism there is no salvation for anyone” (Summa III, q. 68, a. 1), that baptism does not have to be the literal sacrament of water. There is a “baptism of repentance” just as there is a “baptism of blood” as well:

This remains the official teaching of the Catholic Church: “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments (CCC 1257).”

In his encyclical Quuanto conficiamur moerore, promulgated in 1863, Pope Pius IX simultaneously affirmed the doctrine extra ecclesiam nula sallus (“outside the church, no salvation”) and taught that those “invincibly ignorant” of the Christian religion, but who cooperate with divine grace, can arrive at justification and eternal salvation.

More than 100 years later, Blessed Pope John Paul the Great would make the identical point in his encyclical letter Redemptoris Missio:

“The universality of salvation means that it is granted not only to those who explicitly believe in Christ and have entered the Church. Since salvation is offered to all, it must be made concretely available to all. But it is clear that today, as in the past, many people do not have an opportunity to know or accept the Gospel revelation or enter the Church…. For such people, salvation in Christ is accessible by virtue of a grace which, while having a mysterious relationship to the Church, does not make them formally part of the church… This grace comes from Christ; it is the result of his Sacrifice and is communicated by the Holy Spirit. It enables each person to attain salvation through his or her free cooperation.”

Thus, it is apparent that the teaching that non-Christians can be saved is not an innovation in Roman Catholic theology, the result of radical ideas adopted by the Second Vatican Council or a misplaced ecumenical zeal.

The roots for this teaching lie deep in Catholic tradition and go back all the way to the New Testament.

It took centuries for the Catholic Church to think through the implications of its teaching on grace, freedom and the role of faith in the journey of salvation, but ultimately Catholicism affirmed a quite liberal understanding of how God’s grace works in the world.

It was precisely this understanding that Pope Francis has been restating, in his usual disarming, direct way, over and over again since his election.

Robert Hutchinson


Robert Hutchinson studied philosophy as an undergraduate, moved to Israel to study Hebrew and earned an M.A. degree in Biblical studies. He is the author, most recently, of The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Bible. He blogs at

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  • Dan

    I am a conservative, traditional Catholic. I am also deeply concerned with our Pope. Not for his beliefs, but for his complete inability and failure to ascertain the impact of his ALWAYS misunderstood comments. Many will respond that the “bad, evil, ignorant” media abuses his comments. Well welcome to the real world. Leaders of every business, charities and other organizations understand how to deal with these forces against them-just not the Vicar of Jesus Christ! Give me a break. These “bad, evil and ignorant” folks are the very people we are trying to reach-and giving them sound bites, interviews, etc. that are ALWAYS seemingly “misinterpreted”. Perhaps, as the leading spokesman for the Gospel, our Pontiff needs to take some instruction in message prep and delivery. If not, perhaps he should practice a bit more meditative style. Out here in the streets of real evangelism, we are spending all our time explaining what the Pope “really meant”. A total waste of time. Excessive nuance is a hindrance to evangelism, not an aid. I realize this won’t change, but I have very little interest in huge crowds than I am in clear teaching from our Holy Father.

  • peacebwu12

    This is an excellent article, and I really appreciate the efforts at clarification. Still, the documents discussed appear to represent people who have not been exposed to the Word, not those who have (and throughout the entire course of their lives) rejected It, which is usually out of some form of pride. The limitlessness of God’s Divine Mercy and the Particular Judgment remain a mystery, a sort of paradox, though it seems that if one develops a tendency to reject God during one’s life, he or she will likely do so at the Gates. Nonetheless, there might be some Saving Grace at the moment for some who have Love, which is from God, in their heart (part of the mystery?).

    Also, my biggest concern related to this issue is that many people’s “conscience” is not well-formed in this day-and-age, I know mine wasn’t until I reached my 40’s, and therefore going with one’s conscience, if generally malformed, can be problematic and against God on a frequent basis. Perhaps the Pope is talking about a “well-formed” conscience, which in my mind seems to still have great limitations or obstacles if one is rejecting God.

    In any event, I trust the Holy Spirit is working in the Pope and I am excited to see what all his these things bring to our lives. Praise be to God.

  • Michael

    I am conservative and traditional myself, but probably not that knowledgeable in the teachings of the Church. These remarks, though maybe unplanned by the Pope, are being used by the Holy Spirit to educate Catholics like me and most probably to plant seeds in non-Catholics too. Our job is to help water those seeds. May the HS keep the off-the-cuff remarks coming, may the media keep talking (they always will whether it is about the Pope’s remarks or something else), may people like Robert keep writing and clarifying and re-educating, may people like me spread this clarification to other people, and may the HS keep using everything he can use to bring people into the Church’s embrace.

  • Dan

    I agree with you Michael on the wonderful job that writers like Robert perform for all of us.

    My basic concern (not condemnation) is that frequently when Pope Francis speaks it requires an “interpretation” by many others to actually explain his comments since people misinterpret so much of what he says.

    The article itself indicates that “many theologians…Fr. Longenecker….historian Stanley…” all felt the need to explain the Pope’s comments. Some of that is certainly understandable. But even just today, various clergy (including Fr. Provone) have had to explain to everyone that the Pope didn’t “mean” that defending life was not a primary issue. Other pro-life leaders have had to do the same “clarification” for their groups.

    Finally, I am certainly not casting dispersions on the author of this column. Far from it. It is an excellent piece, very informative and helpful in explaining why the Pope’s remarks weren’t “new”. That is most helpful.

    It is also a requirement for all of us when sharing the Gospel.

    Thanks for letting me share my thoughts and God bless.

  • pbecke

    One difference, if not the most obvious, between St Thomas Aquinas and Karl Rahner is that the former perfectly understood that the deeper the truth, the more personally centred on Christ and the Gospel will be its and inspiration, and automatically acknowledge as much.

    Rahner, however, seemed to think philosophy and abstract concepts addressed deeper truths than the person of Christ, the scriptures, and the traditional Judaeo-perspective on Christian theology, and that it expressed them more appositely; when the converse is true.

    Compounding that, when extrapolating such truths as the one alluded to above, namely, the applicability of the term, ‘anonymous Christians’, he seemed to omit acknowledging as much; seemingly, passing it off as the fruit of his own inspiration.

  • harry reyhing

    Jesus is the only way to heaven.False religions do not save and those who die in unbelief go to hell.That is Bible and 2000 years of church history.It is true that there may be those who never heard the gospel and God will judge them according to the light they did havean d how they lived up to it but even vat 2 says this is only a POSSIBILITY.Muhammed,budda and confucius save no one.Jesus is the way truth andl ife no one comes to the father but through him.Whatthe

  • Betty Borrough

    Were you drunk when you wrote this? Nowhere does anyone say that other religions, or lack thereof, bring people to heaven. However, they have said that a conscientious person who is not in the Church has the possibility of salvation. If you don’t believe this is the case, your God is a monster, and I will have nothing of Him.

  • harry reyhing

    What I was saying was that people who never heard the gospel that does not make them automatically saved or lost.God will judge them according to the light they did have and how they lived up to that lighta nd the dictates of conscience.Butwe must go and evangelize all nations.My point is that those who have heard the gospel but reject Jesus and turn to false religions are not saved.God is no monster.he created us sustains usand gives us all things.hese nthi s only son to suffer and die for us and rise.Peopleare free to accept or reject him

  • Randall Galante

    Interesting that the Vatican had to add an “explanatory note” to clarify this confusion . Does anyone else get a sick feeling in the bottom of their stomach when they hear Pope Francis’ interviews with the press? I really hate to say it but he frightens me !

  • jim in colorado

    The great thing about this pope is that he has the media buzzing! He (the Pope Francis) is a “big boy” and he can take care of himself. After all didn’t Jesus have to clarify many of the puzzling things that He said? Let’s all sit back, relax and PRAY for our new Holy Father. Remember who’s in Charge of our Holy Mother Church…The same Jesus who said that the gates of hell will not prevail against Her. St. Michael the archangel, defend us in battle…Holy Mary Mother of God, pray for us…Jesus, we Trust in You!