Do all good atheists go to Heaven?

mckellarboxRecently in a daily homily in the Chapel of Domus Sanctae Marthae, Pope Francis commented on the idea that all people are capable of “doing good.” The Holy Father refuted the notion that “those who do not have the truth, cannot do good.” In order to clearly emphasize the universal ability of all humanity to do good, Pope Francis notes emphatically;

“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! . . . 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.”

The Holy Father highlights two points here. Firstly that “doing good” is a principle that unites all humanity and creates a “culture of encounter” that unites us. “Doing good” is a duty which flows from the depths of the human conscience. Further he emphasizes that Christ died for all of humanity. He notes, “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!”

The Huff Post responded to this remark with apparent alarm, by reporting, “Pope Francis rocked some religious and atheist minds today when he declared that everyone was redeemed through Jesus, including atheists.”

Such inaccurate reporting even prompted an official Vatican clarification on the subject. The Catholic Church teaches the universal availability of Christ’s atonement to all people. The idea that Christ died for all is found in Sacred Scripture and is a firm part of Catholic belief. We read in St. Paul’s first letter to Timothy;

This is good and pleasing to God our savior, who wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth. For there is one God. There is also one mediator between God and the human race, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as ransom for all (1 Timothy 2:3-6).

In a similar manner, St. Peter writes, “The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard ‘delay,’ but he is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9).”

The Catechism notes, “The Church, following the apostles, teaches that Christ died for all men without exception: ‘There is not, never has been, and never will be a single human being for whom Christ did not suffer.’” (CCC 605).

This doctrine is central to the teachings of Second Vatican Council. The Council fathers note;

All this holds true not only for Christians, but for all men of good will in whose hearts grace works in an unseen way (LG 16). For, since Christ died for all men,(Romans 8:32) and since the ultimate vocation of man is in fact one, and divine, we ought to believe that the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every man the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery (GS 22).

If we understand Pope Francis through these words, we can see that even atheists “of good will in whose hearts grace works in an unseen way” are offered “the possibility of being associated” with the redeeming work of Christ. Does this “possibility of being associated” with Christ require an explicit faith manifest through the Church? The keystone text on this issue is found in the Constitution on the Church which notes;

Those also can attain to 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 known to them through the dictates of conscience. Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel (LG 16).

The Church recognizes two extremes of error related to this doctrine. On the one extreme is the error of those who say that only those with explicit faith manifest through the Church may be saved. On the other side is the error of believing, with full assurance, that all will be saved regardless of their cooperation with the Divine will. Blessed John Paul II commented,

It is necessary to keep these two truths together, namely, the real possibility of salvation in Christ for all mankind and the necessity of the Church for salvation. Both these truths help us to understand the one mystery of salvation, so that we can come to know God’s mercy and our own responsibility. Salvation, which always remains a gift of the Holy Spirit, requires man’s cooperation, both to save himself and to save others (Redemptoris missio 9).

Even the very generous words of the Second Vatican Council Constitution on the Church (LG 16) contain specific conditions for those who may obtain salvation outside the Church. Their lack of knowledge of the Gospel must be “through no fault of their own” (LG 16) and they must “sincerely seek God” even if perhaps not yet arriving “at an explicit knowledge of God” (LG 16). They must also be “moved by grace . . . to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience (LG 16). Moved by grace each of us should desire to ‘do good.’ Pope Francis says, “If we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter” which may become the one mystery of salvation even for those who do not yet explicitly know Christ or it may lead to an encounter with those who directly proclaim this mystery on behalf of the Church.

Holy Mary, Star of the New Evangelization, Pray for us!


Scott McKellar is Director of the Bishop Helmsing Institute.



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September 28, 2020
The Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph