Pope Francis, meet Rob Bell: Pope Says Atheists Who Do Good Are Redeemed, Not Just Catholics #universalism

May 23, 2013

Gosh, I love a good old-fashioned stoning, this story from Vatican City has plenty of fuel to make the boulders fly. I have some commentary on the jump, but first, here is the briefest outline of what is going on, and  link to the full story.

Pope Francis rocked some religious and atheist minds today when he declared that everyone was redeemed through Jesus, including atheists.

During his homily at Wednesday Mass in Rome, Francis emphasized the importance of “doing good” as a principle that unites all humanity, and a “culture of encounter” to support peace.

Using scripture from the Gospel of Mark, Francis explained how upset Jesus’ disciples were that someone outside their group was doing good, according to a report from Vatican Radio.

Pope Francis Says Atheists Who Do Good Are Redeemed, Not Just Catholics.

UPDATE: Vatican Radio also carries the story.

National Catholic Register has a very informative and helpful report.

You may also read an excellent discussion on Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog.

Note also that Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB, in Europe Voice, has posted a more nuanced commentary on the Pope’s sermon. Let me especially direct your attention to the section in which he quotes lengthy sections of the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in defining the Church. For example:

162. Where does the one Church of Christ subsist?

The one Church of Christ, as a society constituted and organized in the world, subsists in (subsistit in) the Catholic Church, governed by the Successor of Peter and the bishops in communion with him. Only through this Church can one obtain the fullness of the means of salvation since the Lord has entrusted all the blessings of the New Covenant to the apostolic college alone whose head is Peter.

A careful reading will show that those outside the Church of Rome (lowly Anglicans, for example) are not automatically out of the parade. This essay also address the concept of the “anonymous Christian.” I must respectfully observe, at the risk over-emphasizing individual salvation, that this theological approach seems to somewhat devalue God’s free gift of grace.


I am writing this “on the fly,” so I am sure that many better minds will have  comprehensive and thoughtful comments over the next few days. My first reaction is that, despite the current media-driven tendency toward immediate rage, we owe it to Pope Francis to interpret his remarks in the most favorable light and should not do otherwise without the strongest evidence.

In other words, we should not suppose that the Pope is proposing that all people are saved. That is the heresy known as “universalism.” Rob Bell was recently accused of that after writing a controversial book. This viewpoint was held by some of the “church fathers.”  Origen, for example, is not considered a heretic because the doctrine was not officially stated in his lifetime and he never had an opportunity to recant, He was an early universalist. The idea behind this theory is a mistaken extension of the biblical idea that, at the end of this age, everything will be reconciled under the rule of Jesus Christ. That is true, but we must also remember that people have free will and cannot be forced to live in harmony with God’s law. Those who refuse are excluded from union with God.

Peter is very straightforward in that there is no other name by which we can be saved other than Jesus Christ. The Anglican Articles of Religion also take up this theme and also address the idea that only members of certain organizations, such as is claimed by the Roman Catholic Church, are admitted to Heaven.

 XVIII. Of obtaining eternal Salvation only by the Name of Christ.

They also are to be had accursed that presume to say, That every man shall be saved by the Law or Sect which he professeth, so that he be diligent to frame his life according to that Law, and the light of Nature. For Holy Scripture doth set out unto us only the Name of Jesus Christ, whereby men must be saved.

Paul also has a few things to say in this direction which add some light to the discussion.

This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering—6 since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 7 and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels 8 in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, 10 when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed. (2Thes 1:5-10).

This is not by any means the only scriptural text that proposes never-ending punishment for those who reject the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I have previously expressed my opinion on the existence of an ever-burning hell. The above passage gives us a few clues concerning the judgment of God. Since the Creator is a holy God and cannot tolerate anything that falls short of his glory, judgment is necessary in the scheme of bringing all things together under Jesus. The Savior is revealed in flaming fire, but this passage does not outright say that the condemned will burn. If you want that passage, a good place to start is Rev. 21:8. Paul describes a scene of vengeance in the above passage and it is meted out to those who do not know God and those who do not obey the Gospel. The punishment is eternal destruction.

Since I am not a linguistic scholar, let’s not hammer the analysis of “eternal” too hard. The Greek word is aiōnios. It has 68 usages in the NASB text. It refers to that which is without beginning and without end. The word is used concerning both reward and punishment. “Destruction” is olethros: ruin, destruction, death. Without splitting hairs, may we agree that something very bad happens to the unbelieving and that it lasts forever? It we expect to be with Jesus into all eternity, it seems logical that the fate of the damned should be locked up in the same time parameters.

Deep breath here. Anglicans are obliged to check up on the matter in the 39 Articles of Religion. Indeed, there is one Article that might suggest some insight concerning the good works of atheists. This needs some unpacking, so hang on tight. Article XIII, dealing with good works performed before one is justified, is not helpful to this conversation because it is about what happens before the believer receives the “grace of Christ.” Pope Francis is talking about people who do not know God or the Gospel.

Is there a way for atheists, and other non-believers, to enter into the Heavenly Kingdom. Watch yourself because we are on the thinnest of ice. Paul deals with a similar idea in Romans 1. God’s invisible attributes, “his eternal power and divine nature (v. 20)” have been apparent since the creation. So what happens to the “good” pagans?

For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. (Romans 2:14-16 ESV)

Paul is talking about the religion of the heart, our Christian faith. He is dealing with righteous practices done by those who have never heard of Jesus. There is certainly a broad suggestion that some who do not know the name of Jesus may be excused on the last day. Furthermore, it is not the place of mere mortal men to say how Almighty God, in his perfect knowledge and wisdom, judges any fellow human being.  I am wondering if this is what Pope Francis intended to say. He deserves a patient hearing. That specifically means that there is no name-calling, or anger. We should listen to our brother and wait on the advice of wise and learned men.

Pope Francis is also dealing with a unique Roman Catholic doctrine, and I am a little hesitant to dig very deep here. Roman Catholics have traditionally believed that those who are not included in that particular group are not full members of the Body of Christ. Francis is getting at an error upon which all Protestants and Evangelicals would agree. The true church has an invisible aspect, in which we cannot tell who is sincerely converted and following Jesus. We realize that the wheat and the tares grow side by side. There were two distinct expressions of Christianity at the time of the Apostles, and there is no reason to believe that God demands absolute uniformity in our worship and government. The current Bishop of Rome surely got this one right.

From a broader perspective, it hardly seems helpful to suggest that those who do not believe in God may safely procrastinate about changing their minds. My Baptist neighbors must be very perplexed by a statement that seems to say, “Oh never mind. I can believe whatever I darned well please and it all works out OK.” Those who know God and have heard the gospel are called to make a decision upon which will depend reward or condemnation. I fear that the Pope has unwittingly fogged something that needs to be crystal clear.

Benedict, we miss you!


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