The Kuyperian Commentary

Politics, Economics, Culture, and Theology with a Biblical Viewpoint

Pope Francis and Redeemed Atheists

by Adam McIntosh

You may have heard the controversy surrounding Pope Francis’ remarks on the redemption of atheists and other non-Christians. To many Catholics and Protestants alike, they were startling to say the least.

…the Lord has created us in His image and likeness, and has given us this commandment in our heart: Do good and do not do evil. The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, what about the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us first class children of God! 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, with everyone doing his 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 meeting: 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 shall meet there.”

The Lord has redeemed everyone, even those who reject him? How can this be? Is Francis showing another example of theological and ecclesiastical liberalism? While some say yes, many Catholics came to the Pope’s defense and attempted to prove that he was simply stating what the Roman Catholic Church has always taught. The Catholic World Report published an article listing other popes, Scripture verses, and sections of their catechism making similar remarks about the general redemption of mankind. Additionally, Romans 5:18-19 can be used to support this idea:

Therefore, as through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.”

Jesus came to restore humanity back to its proper relation to the Godhead. If all humanity inherited death through Adam’s sin in the garden, then all humanity inherits life through the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ. This is why both Christians and non-Christians will partake in the resurrection of the dead in their physical bodies (1 Cor. 15:22). Does this mean that no person will experience eternal torment for rejecting Christ in this life? No. Catholic defenders of the Pope distinguish between general redemption and personal salvation. Fr. Dwight Longenecker writes:

We can distinguish [Christ’s] redemptive work from the acceptance of salvation. He redeemed the whole world. However, many will reject that saving work. In affirming the universality of Christ’s redemptive work we are not universalists. To say that he redeemed the whole world is not to conclude that all will be saved.”

OK, so the Pope may not have been advocating universalism. Great! The question mark still lingering in my mind, however, is his explanation of Mark 9:38-40. This passage was the basis from which he made his remarks.

Now John answered Him, saying, ‘Teacher, we saw someone who does not follow us casting out demons in your name, and we forbade him because he does not follow us.’ But Jesus said, ‘Do not forbid him, for no one who works a miracle in my name can soon afterward speak evil of me. For he who is not against us is on our side.’

Brandon Vogt, lead contributor for a Catholic apologetics website says,

Jesus’ point here is that it’s wrong to think people can’t do good simply because they aren’t Christian. As Pope Francis explained, ‘This [belief] was wrong…Jesus broadens the horizon…The root of this possibility of doing good—that we all have—is in creation.'”

While it is true that non-Christians can perform good actions, that is not at all what is happening in Mark 9. The person in question is specifically said to cast out demons in the name (or authority) of Jesus. This is a follower of Christ who apparently wasn’t in the inner circle of the twelve disciples. This was not a faithless individual performing charitable acts. This person was casting out demons, co-laboring with Christ to recreate the world. So, then, it seems the Pope is drawing a parallel between faithful Christians and faithless non-Christians. If this interpretation were correct, the non-Christian would not be against the Church and he would not be an enemy of God. If he isn’t an enemy of God, then he is a friend of God. “You’re either for me or against me,” Jesus says (Matt. 12:30). If he isn’t an enemy, then salvation already belongs to him (Col. 1:21). If followed to its logical conclusion, we’re back to universalism. Does the Pope make the same distinction between “redemption” and “salvation” as his defenders do?

Furthermore, if faith without works is dead (James 2:14-26) – as our Catholic brothers are always eager to remind us – then it follows that works without faith is dead. The faithless non-Christian may perform good works, but it does not change his status before God. Faith and works together is the true mark of God’s friends (John 15:1-8). I’ve yet to see one of the Pope’s defenders correct him on his interpretation of Mark 9. Perhaps we should give the benefit of the doubt and conclude that the Pope did not mean to sound like a universalist. At best, he was unclear with his words. But that alone justifies concern.

Adam McIntosh lives with his wife and daughter in Southern Illinois where he is fulfilling a pastoral internship at a local church. You may write to him here.

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3 thoughts on “Pope Francis and Redeemed Atheists

  1. Nice analysis, Adam. It seemed clear there was something fishy in his sentiment, even if (as I thought from the beginning) he WASN’T advocating for universalism.

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