Welcoming Atheists into Heaven

by | Jun 3, 2013 | Blogs

Pew Look by Brit. at Flickr
Pew Rows by tarboxje at Flickr

Row of Pews

I have a hypothesis that there are two types of churchgoers.  There are those who arrive early and create a nest of coats and purses, staking out space in the pew of their choosing.  Then there are those of us who stroll in halfway through the opening song to find that Mass has (once again) started before we’ve arrived.  Ummm… despite what I tell my students about timely arrivals, I tend to fall into the latter group.

Latter group-er that I am, the other day I snuck into Sunday Mass as the second verse ended and made my way to a pew half-filled with an early-bird family tucked inside their nest of coats.  Despite fear that I was imposing, a glance and grin from the father made it clear that, yes, he’d slide down.

Funny, then, that a faint voice of disdain popped into my mind when some of my fellow latter group-er’s sidled up to pews around me later – some of them five, ten, even twenty minutes later – than I. “Two minutes is one thing,” my faint voice whispered, “but coming in during the Gospel reading?  Who are these people?”

It’s a curious thing when indignation blots out the very kindnesses we’ve been shown.


As has become something of a habit for him, Pope Francis caused a hubub recently.  This time the catalyst was a homily in which he preached that Christ’s death was redemptive not just for church-going Catholics, but for everyone, even *gasp* atheists.  Francis:

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 we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: We need that so much. 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.

Even if not new, I’ll admit: it’s pretty astounding.  And even though I read Francis’ words with some joy, it wasn’t hard to imagine a faint, indignant voice popping up in response to such inclusive and hopeful words. This time it sounded like the biblical older brother, like a voice pushed out through clenched teeth, seething with indignation at having to watch his good-for-nothing Prodigal Brother return home, only to be welcomed with open arms by their overjoyed father.  This time it whispered:

All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!

Vertical Row Red by Ol.v!er [H2vPk] at Flickr

In a Row

I wonder if that same faint voice isn’t at the root of the indignation over the Pope’s olive branch to atheists that we meet while doing good.1


While doing good.  The Pope’s words strike a nerve, not because they aren’t beautiful or true, but because, for us who are already committed believers, they’re unsettling.  The indignant voice in my own mind says: “I do good because of my faith. And my reward will be eternal life with God.  So how can atheists – people who’ve rejected God and the Church, who don’t have to ask the early birds to slide down the pew because they don’t even show up – get the same reward?  I’ve put in the Sunday-time to get my salvation… why don’t they have to do the same?”

It’s a line of thinking that soothes my believer’s doubts – but only by raising the possibility that atheists might just be as redeemable as I.  It rattles because it intimates that salvation might not be under my control.  And underlying that is the fear that, if other people can do good without claiming God, then maybe all this time spent talking about God – or to God – is… fruitless.

Put another way: Why show up early for Mass, if you can come in late and it still counts?

To face these questions is to dig deep into our souls.  It requires an honest examination of our intentions, demands that we name our doubts, fears and quiet indignations, and that we call them what they are.  As Allan Bloom wrote: “Indignation is the soul’s defense against the wound of doubt about its own; it reorders the cosmos to support the justice of its cause. …Recognizing indignation for what it is constitutes knowledge of the soul.”

And as any mystic worth her salt will tell you, knowledge of the soul leads to a deeper knowledge of God because it strips away the false deities we fashion in our minds.


All this to say: Pope Francis isn’t “lowering the bar” for people to get into heaven.  He isn’t kowtowing to a world that would welcome the surrender of faith.  Pope Francis is asking each of us – believers, doubters, and deniers alike – to consider a simple question: why do you do the good that you do?  What is its true source?

Francis isn’t kowtowing, he’s welcoming the late comers. And he’s prodding the early-birds among us – myself included this time – to make room, slide down the pew, to be ready to welcome anyone who is willing to show up.

— — // — —

  1. For those keeping score, this idea is not new to Christian theology.  20th century theologians such as Karl Rahner and Hans Urs Van Balthasar have pondered salvation for non-Christians before.  Rahner suggested that those noble souls who never knew God through Jesus Christ could be “anonymous Christians” in their own time and place; Balthasar provocatively asked, whether all are/were saved (yes, all) when Christ descended into hell.