Are Atheists Redeemed as Pope Francis stated?

On Wednesday, May 22 Pope Francis made some very interesting statements, which I need to comment on for clarification about atheists, redemption in Jesus, and salvation in Jesus.  The Pope said:

“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!”

Francis went on to say:

“We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all! And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. 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.”

These quotes lead to many questions, which are answered in the Scriptures – which conflict with the Pope’s words.  The first question raised by the Pope’s statement have to do with the definition of “redeem.”  In Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity, redemption is achieved through Jesus Christ on the cross on behalf of humanity.  To put it in simple words, we are guilty before God because of our sin and cannot pay our debt owed to God.  We cannot pay it off because our debt is so great, and so the pre-incarnate Son of God became a human in the person of Jesus, becoming the God-man to live a perfect life (owing no debt to God) so that Jesus could pay the ransom-price for the sins of humanity, thus paying off our debt owed to God so that our guilt and condemnation could be removed.  The act of Jesus dying on a cross for the sins of the world is His redeeming act to bring us back into right fellowship with God the Father.  The big question raised by various theologians is whether or not the act of redemption (also known as atonement) was to cover the sins of the whole world for all time? Or if it was only intended for those predestined by God? This debate has manifested itself in debates between Arminians and Calvinists in the last 400 years. 

The Arminians believe Jesus did cover the sins of the whole world by the cross based in 1 Timothy, which seems to indicate that Jesus not only desires that all might be saved (1 Tim. 2:4) but that Jesus actually is the Savior of the whole world (1 Tim. 4:10).  Most Arminians interpret these verses in view of the second half of 1 Tim. 4:10, which states: “…who is the savior of all men, especially of believers.”  Meaning that redemption (atonement) is for all of humanity but that it is applied only to those who actually believe and receive the gift of salvation (see Ephesians 2:8-9).  Thus, it is the task of Christians to share the message and it is the responsibility of everyone to respond in belief or be condemned.

Classical Calvinists have another take on the Scriptures concerning this issue.  They believe there are those who are predestined, elected onto salvation by God.  They believe this election is based in God’s eternal plan, thus He foreknew who would and would not be saved before the cross of Christ and that the redemptive act of the cross was only for those foreknown by God (see Romans 8:29-30).  In other words, redemption for the classical Calvinist is only for the elect.  Jesus never intended to redeem the whole world, in fact they would argue the power of the cross is limited, just enough to save those predestined. 

Many people who have been raised with this thinking have challenged this perspective using the same texts of Scripture that the Arminians use to come up with a more biblical perspective, which is called “Neo-Calvinism.”  The Neo-Calvinist perspective states that God desires for all to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4) and Jesus is the Savior of the whole world (1 Tim. 4:10a), and especially for those who believe (1 Tim. 4:10b), meaning redemption (atonement) is not limited in its power to save anyone, but it is limited in application to those who believe.  This lines up nicely with Romans 8.

Back to the Pope’s comments – I read a few news articles concerning his statements and Brandon Vogt commented that the Pope believes there is a difference between “redemption” and “salvation” similar to the Neo-Calvinist position above.  Vogt argues that the Catholic position is that just because the debt has been paid (redemption / atonement), this doesn’t mean the atheist has accepted the act of redemption on his behalf (i.e., the person has not believed and hence not applied redemption onto salvation).  I can see that this may have been what the Pope meant to say, but the Pope made some other statements that are concerning to me as a Christ follower.  Francis was preaching from Mark 9:38-40, which says:

“John said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name, and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us.’  Jesus replied, ‘Do not prevent him.  There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name who can at the same time speak ill of me.  For whoever is not against us is for us.”

The Pope interpreted this to mean that Jesus’ point is that it’s wrong to think people can’t do good simply because they aren’t Christian.  I agree, but that is not the point of Jesus’ words to the Apostle John.  Notice that John is upset because someone is driving out demons IN JESUS’ NAME.  He may not be one of the 12 Apostles literally walking with Jesus, but apparently he has heard about Jesus and has enough belief in Jesus to rebuke demons IN JESUS’ NAME.  How can this passage be applied to mean “good deeds” done by an atheist? If an atheist today were to drive out demons IN JESUS’ NAME, then he would no longer be an atheist because he would have enough faith in Christ to actually be able to drive out demons IN JESUS’ NAME.

What about atheists doing good? Of course an atheist can do good deeds.  But what is their motivation? Glory of self or glory of God? Even with the best motivations for doing good, no one can be good enough to earn God’s favor onto redemption of self.  The Apostle Paul says in Scripture, “There is no one who does good, no not one” and “no flesh will be justified in His sight by good deeds” (Romans 3:9-20).  Paul goes on to say we need Jesus’ atonement (the act of redemption) applied to us by faith in order to be justified or redeemed (Romans 3:21-26). 

Francis emphasizedd the importance of “doing good” as a principle that unites all humanity, saying “All people are called to do good and not evil.”  Yes, this is true, but how do we determine what is good and what is evil if there is no author of what is right and what is wrong? God is the author of moral goodness.  When God is removed from the picture people make up their own moral code of good and evil to live by, which is the product of atheism, agnosticism, and humanism.  Looking at the evidence of our world it seems obvious to me that when people reject Christ and His teaching the lines of good and evil are soon blurred into ambivalence.



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