Hey, good news for all you atheists. When you stop breathing you can still get into heaven. That’s right, even if you don’t believe in God, you can enter the pearly gates, as long as you’re a good person.
To my conservative Christian friends: Please don’t send your angry emails to me. I’m just your humble messenger. Send them to the pope. That’s right, The Pope! He’s the one who said it, in an open letter published on page one of an Italian newspaper — big news that’s getting play all over the place.
The Independent, in England, trumpeted the news under this headline:
Pope Francis assures atheists: You don’t have to believe in God to go to heaven
Here in America, Catholic Online ran its story under this banner:
Pope Francis says atheists can do good and go to heaven too!
“You ask me if the God of the Christians forgives those who don’t believe and who don’t seek the faith,” Pope Francis wrote. “I start by saying – and this is the fundamental thing – that God’s mercy has no limits if you go to him with a sincere and contrite heart. The issue for those who do not believe in God is to obey their conscience.
“Sin, even for those who have no faith, exists when people disobey their conscience.”
In other words, if you don’t believe in God, He still believes in you. Or to put it in a more earthly way: no harm no foul.
This will surely offend many conservative Christians who don’t quite see it that way. In fact, many of them believe that even if you devoutly believe in God, even if you devote your life to helping the poor and infirmed, if you don’t accept Jesus as your lord and savior, you’ll be taking the express train south when you die.
I’ve always found this thinking – a word I use loosely in this case – a bit odd. Let’s say a serial killer, seconds before they put the needle in his arm at San Quentin, honestly and truly accepts Jesus. He goes to heaven but a Jew or a Muslim or a Hindu or a Buddhist who has done many good things here on earth — but does not accept Jesus as his savior – goes to hell?
I’m a libertarian on these issues: Believe whatever you want. Of course, true believers don’t want you to believe whatever you want.
While the pope’s take on this issue simply won’t do for a lot of born again Christians, many of whom aren’t crazy about Catholics in the first place, for some atheists, it’s pretty much a non-issue.
They don’t believe in God and so they don’t believe in heaven and so they couldn’t care less. Richard Dawkins, the outspoken devout British atheist, tweeted: “Atheists go to heaven? Nope. Sorry world, infallible pope got it wrong.”
But Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association, was more upbeat. “I gather from this statement that his view of the world’s religious and philosophical diversity is expanding,” he said. “While humanists have been saying for years that one can be good without a god, hearing this from the leader of the Catholic Church is quite heartening.”
A note of caution to any atheist out there who may actually be looking forward to someday saying hi to Saint Peter: There’s a good chance the pope’s Jay Carney will be out with a statement any second now that begins, “What the pope really meant is …”
And in case you’re wondering … No, I definitely, most assuredly am not an atheist. I don’t have enough faith for that.