A link to an article from the UK website, The Independent, has been floating around Facebook. It’s provocatively titled “Pope Francis Assures Atheists: You don’t have to believe in God to go to heaven”; you can read it here.
I have friends posting this to show how wrong the Pope is; and this was my first reaction too, it’s very easy to simply react to a title isn’t it? I’m sure others are posting about how they agree with the Pope. So I thought I’d take a closer look and let you know my thoughts. In a world of quick information it’s very easy to take things out of context, perhaps this is one of those articles that lends itself to the typical impatient social media response.
I’m not Catholic, I’m a worship/discipleship/communications pastor in an EFCA church. However, I find the Pope’s comments on Jesus and sharing faith to be very refreshing and Gospel friendly. I follow him on Twitter (@Pontifex) and have often been encouraged by his words. After reading the article several times I think I understand what the Pope is communicating. In my opinion, the title of the article is a stretch and not really based on the quotes in the article. According the to article, Pope Francis wrote:
“You ask me if the God of the Christians forgives those who don’t believe and who don’t seek the faith. 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.”
But there’s an important part of the letter missing in the above quote. It’s a sentence describing the unbeliever’s conscience:
In fact, listening and obeying it, means deciding about what is perceived to be good or to be evil. The goodness or the wickedness of our behavior depends on this decision.
I have taken the time to find a transcript of the Pope’s letter and I find it very interesting. He’s writing to a person who is not a Christian and the content of his letter is directed to people who don’t believe in God. In fact, here’s a quote about his audience: “…to spark a sincere and rigorous dialogue with those who, like you, define themselves as “for many years being a non-believer who is interested and fascinated by the preaching of Jesus of Nazareth”.” So, when he talks about obeying one’s conscience (a non-believer’s conscience) it makes sense. If you don’t believe in God, in what or whom are you going to obey? He talks about God’s mercy having no limits – that’s true. He says that God will forgive those who come to him with a sincere and contrite heart – that’s true. If you don’t believe in God then you’re not going to be obeying God. Furthermore, if you come to him with a sincere and contrite heart that seems to suggest that you’ll be making a decision to believe God and become a follower of Jesus Christ.
John 3:16 says that God loved the world so much (not just part of the world) that he gave his Son to die on the cross so that whoever believes (no limits) will have everlasting life. Based on that scriptural truth I can understand the Pope’s comments in the context of talking to non-believers.
Here’s the conclusion of the actual letter that I find encouraging, notice the desire for a discipling relationship where he talks about walking a path together:
Dear Dr. Scalfari, here I end these reflections of mine, prompted by what you wanted to tell and ask me. Please accept this as a tentative and temporary reply, but sincere and hopeful, together with the invitation that I made to walk a part of the path together. Believe me, in spite of its slowness, the infidelity, the mistakes and the sins that may have and may still be committed by those who compose the Church, it has no other sense and aim if not to live and witness Jesus: He has been sent by Abbà “to bring good news to the poor… to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” (Luke 4: 18-19).
I hope those who disagree will take another look. I’m not trying to defend Catholicism or the Pope; I actually have many theological disagreements with my Catholic friends. I am pointing out the inaccuracy of the article’s title while trying to put things in context for our culture today. I trust this Pope is truly compassionate to those who don’t believe in God. I trust that he actively seeks to have discipling relationships with all types of people to share the Good News. I pray for this Pope and I’m encouraged by his words.
What do you think?