Yes, Pope Francis said: All are ‘redeemed!’ Is that news?

Let’s start with the actual words spoken by Pope Francis, in his much quoted, and often warped, sermon on Mark 9:38-40 and the work of Jesus Christ in redeeming all of creation, including the people in it.

The Lord created us in His image and likeness, and we are the image of the Lord, and He does good and all of us have this commandment at heart: do good and do not do evil. All of us. “But, Father, this is not Catholic! He cannot do good.” Yes, he can. He must. Not can: must! Because he has this commandment within him. …

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! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all!

OK, here is what that turned into once it reached the cyber-pages of The Huffington Post, with this dramatic headline:

Atheists Who Do Good Are Redeemed By Jesus As Well As Catholics, Pope Francis Says

Pope Francis has delivered a homily in which he states atheists who do good are redeemed through Jesus.

Speaking at the Wednesday morning Mass in his Rome residence, he told the story of a Catholic who asked a priest if even atheists were saved by Christ.

In the unprepared speech, he emphasized the importance of “doing good” as a principle which unites all humanity.

OK, what we have here is two crucial doctrinal concepts that have been jammed into a journalistic blender.

First of all, the pope is talking about “redemption” and he notes, of course, that Jesus Christ died and was raised and, as the Orthodox like to say, has thus “trampled down death by death.”

So all of creation has been redeemed. The issue whether everyone in that creation manages, through grace, to accept the reality of this redemption. At that point, the key term is not “redemption,” but “salvation.” And who is saved, through the redemptive work of Jesus Christ? Those who have embraced that redemption.

For another take on this, consider the following — the blunt take offered by the famous/infamous theologian Stephen Colbert at the end of his classic showdown with scholar Philip Zimbardo, author of “The Lucifer Effect”. By all means, click right here for the full video. Meanwhile, here’s the key exchange:

ZIMBARDO: “If God was into reconciliation, he would have said ‘I made a mistake.’ God created hell. Paradoxically, it was God who created Hell as a place to put Lucifer and the fallen angels, and had he not created Hell, then evil would not exist.”

COLBERT: “Evil exists because of the disobedience of Satan. God gave Satan, the angels, and man, free will; Satan used his free will and abused it by not obeying authority; hell was created by Satan’s disobedience to God and his purposeful removal from God’s love, which is what Hell is: removing yourself from God’s love.”

ZIMBARDO: “Wow.”

COLBERT: “You send yourself there, God does not send you there.”

ZIMBARDO: “Obviously you learned well in Sunday School.”

COLBERT: “I teach Sunday School, motherf****r.”

Thus, some accept God’s love and redemption, while others reject the all-seeing blaze of that love and, as a result, refuse to be saved. For more info on that in a popular form, check out (my favorite book of all time) “The Great Divorce” by C.S. Lewis.

Now, there are major debates among Christians that focus on whether this work of repentance — this acceptance through grace of the redemptive work Jesus Christ did for all of humanity — can take place only in this life or whether free will remains true for all souls at all times in their spiritual journeys. That’s a subject for another story and, yes, the role of good works is at the heart of that debate.

But here is the key: There is nothing strange about saying that the sacrificial death of Jesus redeemed all of humanity and all of creation. In fact, Pope Benedict XVI made similar remarks, wrestling with the purpose of the Court of the Gentiles in the ancient Jerusalem temple.

So, let’s repeat the theological “nut ‘graph” in this journalism class.

The pope said all are redeemed through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Check.

The pope said that it is important to recognize that all can do good and, thus, to move closer to God — even if they are not believers. Check.

Did the pope, to be blunt, say that hell is empty, that all have chosen to accept the redemption offered by Jesus Christ? Did he say that no one has chosen to remove themselves from the cleansing fire of God’s love? No check.

Was this sermon worthy of coverage? You bet. However, it helps if reporters interview a source or two, or three (these are ultra-complex issues) who understand Catholic tradition and thought.

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Thinkling

    I got the sense reading his comments that they were motivated by a need to address ignorance of the Catholic understanding of redemption.

    I don’t know that for sure of course, but upon seeing much of the coverage, couldn’t help but think the reaction proved the need.

    And yes, The Great Divorce is one butt-kicking book. Glad you are a fan.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Martha-OKeeffe/100002559433793 Martha O’Keeffe

    It was also not saying that “you can earn salvation by good works”, but I’m sure someone is going to misunderstand and run with that one. Seriously, we do need a headline along the lines “Pope is Catholic (not Calvinist)” :-)

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Martha-OKeeffe/100002559433793 Martha O’Keeffe

      “I teach Sunday School, motherf****r.”
      That line should be on a t-shirt :-D

    • Matt

      We Calvinists would certainly agree that the coming of Christ’s kindgom is the redemption of the whole world (hello, Abraham Kuyper!). On the other hand, I confess I was confused by Francis’ language and did not immediately see how the language he used did not refer to personal salvation. I’m not sure if there is a real theological difference there, or just a difference in the way Catholics are used to expressing themselves.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Martha-OKeeffe/100002559433793 Martha O’Keeffe

        Taking the angle of internal Catholic disagreement, it is more to do with refuting Jansenism, that is, the idea that Christ only died for pro multos (“for many”, not “for all”, which is a controversial phrase for some in the translation of the Mass).

        In other words, the death of Christ only redeemed a certain portion of humanity, those chosen beforehand to be redeemed (the elect, more or less) and involves double predestination. To symbolise this, Jansenist crucifixes position the arms of Christ upwards or upright, to denote that only some are included, rather than opened on the cross in the traditional manner to denote that all are redeemed by the deah of Christ.

        Pope Francis is reiterating the idea of the natural law (think of the Jewish concept of the Noahide Laws) which ‘is written on the human heart’ and constrains all humans, whether or not they have received news of the Gospel. Atheists, other religions, everyone – we are bound to do certain things and refrain from others due to the fact of our humanity. The duty to do good is one of them – this is not ‘buying your way into heaven by good deeds’, it is not the same as salvation, but it is fulfilling one of the ends for which we were created.

      • Tom B.

        Protestants often use Redemption, Justification and Salvation as synonyms. That can get confussing in talking to Catholics who don’t.

        When it comes to religion English defaults to the dominant Protestant usage, and the confusion is not unreasonable.

  • Jerry

    First, I really love “The Great Divorce” as well. It’s a classic.

    And it’s very true that there are interesting theological questions including interpreting Matt 7: 21-23.

    And sometimes words used and emphasis are critical. To me, Pope Francis is clearly telling Catholics (more than once) not to put a wall separating themselves from other humans. And he’s preaching to atheists in effect saying that by doing good they are walking on the path of “the will of my Father”. In other words, he’s not saying the destination is any different but he is emphasizing good works as a necessary part of the path. In still another way of looking at it, he’s emphasizing the common ground of good works rather than emphasizing the differences between Catholics and humanists.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Once again, The Guardian is trying to put a wall between Francis and Benedict. “Pope Francis says atheists can be good: Just do good, and we’ll find a meeting point, says Francis in marked departure from Benedict’s line on non-Catholics”
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/may/22/pope-francis-atheists-can-be-good

    When will they ever learn? (http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2013/05/23/pope-francis-atheists-heaven/)

  • Jerry

    Reading CNN’s belief blog, I learned something that might or might not be relevant here:

    Chad Pecknold, an assistant professor of theology at the Catholic
    University of America, agreed with Zuhlsdorf, pointing out that the
    pope’s comments came on the Feast of Saint Rita, the Catholic patron
    saint of impossible things.

    http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2013/05/23/heaven-for-atheists-pope-sparks-debate/

  • nickrcf

    Thank God for Limited Atonement.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Martha-OKeeffe/100002559433793 Martha O’Keeffe

      As I said, the headline might as well read “Pope is not Calvinist” ;-)

      • Matt

        But again, I think any Calvinist objections to what Francis said are based on misconceptions due to the language he used. Calvinists believe in common grace, that everyone has a God-given ability to do good that is separate from the question of salvation. It seems to me that that’s all Francis is saying. We just wouldn’t use the word “redeemed” in that context, and that’s where the confusion arises.

    • Tom B.

      That’s funny because I commented somewhere else that the Calivinists making a point of that demonstrates that Pope Francis is saying nothing new or radical here.

  • susaneisaacs

    Love me some Stephen Colbert. Way to preach it, Steve!

  • Grtgrandpa

    Thomas Aquanis spoke of other religions and believers as having ‘potential’ but not acutal salvation. The good in people the Pope spoke of is the potential within all men to become believers at some point in life. Remember the parable of the daily wage, where some came early, others in mid life, while yet some came in the late stages, but all were paid the same wage (eternal life)…. ‘He who is last is first.’ Predestination is something God placed in the hearts of man, so the person who does good may hit the target with their soul before they depart this life….Atheist today, confessing tomorrow their belief in Jesus Christ being raised from the dead.
    The Great Divorce is a awesome book, as is all of C.S. Lewis’s books like the Screw
    Tape Letters.

  • Lean Mahoney

    God did indeed create evil. He made free will and designed it in such a way that evil was possible. You might say “if he barred people from choosing to do evil, then that wouldn’t be free will.” Yes but only because all we know of free will is what is in this universe, which allows evil to be a part of free will. God could’ve created an entire cosmos with all its rules and all its free will without evil ever being a possibility for spirit beings or humans. In that case, free will totally devoid of the possibility of rejecting divine authority would still be free will because that’s all that it could be; there is nothing outside of everything that God created and therefore if God had really created an evil-free cosmos no evil could ever be thought, spoken, or done. That is not what God, in all his wisdom and power, decided to do. He made everything and that most certainly includes evil, you can’t blame the Devil or anything else, there really is no way around this.

  • Stefanie

    I always use an icon/image of the Jesus descending into Hell or “Harrowing of Hell” as you did above — when I teach RCIA or Confirmation. It always startles everyone… 1 Peter 3:19
    A question from one of my young students (age 10) during a discussion of the Blessed Mother: “Was St. Joseph there, too? Because he didn’t get the chance to be baptized.”


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