I received a couple of days ago a link to a post by Catholic Online with the title: “Pope Francis says atheists can do good and go to heaven too!”. Intrigued, I went on the website to read the article, and although I pretty much agreed with most of what the Pope said, I couldn’t help but feel alarmed at a big misinterpretation of a passage in the Bible the Holy Father used as a reference to lead Atheists into believing they can still do good and go to heaven.
Let me first start by saying that I do concur wholeheartedly with the Pope when he declared that all people, not just Catholics, are redeemed through Jesus, even atheists. This is what the Bible teaches. To quote the apostle Paul when he was talking about death in Adam but life in Christ:
“Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.” – Romans 5:18 (ESV)
However, the catch is not to do good as the Pope states it, because the Bible is also very clear about salvation not coming from works, but it is to have faith in Jesus Christ as the son of God.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” – Ephesians 2:8-9 (ESV)
“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” – John 3:18 (ESV)
“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life.” – John 6:47 (ESV)
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” – John 11:25-26 (ESV)
The example the Pope used to tell atheists they can do good even if they don’t believe in Jesus and go to heaven is from the gospel of Mark where the disciples tried to stop someone who was casting out demons in the name of Jesus even though he wasn’t following the disciples and when they told Jesus, his reply was not to stop him. Inspired from this passage, the Pope compared the attitude of Catholics who don’t believe atheists can do good just because they are not Catholics to the attitude of the disciples. To quote the exact passage:
John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us. For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward.
Now although I agree with the Pope that we should never stop anyone from doing good even if they didn’t belong to Christ, I can’t but disagree on his interpretation of this passage, simply because he overlooked one simple detail which is that this man in question wasn’t just doing good works but he was doing good works in the name of Jesus (as I have highlighted in bold in the quoted passage). Now this makes the whole difference. Jesus told the disciples not to hinder this man because he was for them not against them since he was doing works in his name.
However this is far from being the truth when it comes to atheists doing good works. I have friends who are atheists, lots of them, and their whole argument is that a person does not need God to be a good person, one can do good out of the goodness of his own heart. And this is true and comes in unison with what the Pope said of the root of the possibility of us doing good being in creation. If God is good and we are created in his own image and likeness then all of us have this commandment at heart to do good and not evil, whether we are aware of it or not. I’ve never met anyone so far who isn’t good deep down at heart. So since everyone can do good, including atheists, what is the point of Jesus coming to earth and dying on the cross for the sins of the whole world if salvation can be found in good works? The answer would have to be that Christ died in vain.
Thankfully this is not the case. The Bible is clear about this.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” – John 3:16 (ESV)
“And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” – Hebrews 11:6 (ESV)
So the meeting point between Christians and Atheists isn’t in fact in doing good as the Pope states it, but is believing in God and namely his Son Jesus. This is what separates Christianity from the rest of the world’s ideologies, philosophies and religions. All of these believe in doing good (as relative as the definition of good can be nowadays). Even Satanism has good values! (Read about it to be sure). But the difference in Christianity is that believers come into contact with the person of Jesus that changes them from the inside out, by pouring his Spirit into them and thus making them a new creation that lives to please God the only way God can be pleased which is by faith in his Son and it is this faith that results in good works as James says:
“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” – James 2:14-17 (ESV)
So, I hate to be bursting the salvation bubble here, but it’s not enough to do good to go to heaven, especially in today’s modern culture where what is considered good by someone can be perceived as evil by someone else. Salvation is for everyone, even atheists, only if they believe in the Son of God, thus nullifying their atheism and making them believers.
“Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” – Galatians 2:16 (ESV)
I don’t want people to get me wrong and think I’m attacking Pope Francis here. After all I do admire the different spirit of humility and openness he’s been showing ever since he recently took his new position as the head of the Catholic church. But all I’m saying here is: Let’s not dilute the message of salvation in order to please people. Let’s tell it like it is. You want heaven you need to have Jesus. Point.
But I guess heaven is the last thing on an atheist’s mind. Or is it? 😉