even if you don’t believe in heaven you can still go

atheists in heaven cartoon by nakedpastor david hayward
“Atheists in Heaven” drawing by nakedpastor David Hayward

Did you know that even if you don’t believe in heaven you can still go there?

I have done a couple of cartoons in the past about Pope Francis. For example, back in May when he suggested atheists could go to heaven, I did a couple of cartoons, The Pope Versus the Vatican, and The Pope, The Vatican and Fishers of Men.

Pope Francis is being recognized as open-minded and generous. Michael Day responded with his article in The Independent, Pope Francis Assures Atheists: You Don’t Have to Believe in God to Go to Heaven. He is referring to a friendly letter the Pope wrote to atheists in which he says:

“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.”

David Gibson attempts to balance that view with his article, Analysis: Pope Francis’ Outreach to Atheists Not as Controversial As It Seems, in which he claims the Pope’s letter is about forgiveness, not salvation. He suggests that the Pope’s statement is not a dilution of the gospel but an evangelical outreach to bring atheists to Christ. The Pope insists that atheists must first of all obey their own consciences because, as with believers, it would be a sin not to. But underlying this I’m sure is the church’s hope that the consciences of atheists will lead them to Christ and back to the church.

Sara Lin Wilde of The Friendly Atheist writes, Pope Francis: Atheists Can Be Saved if They ‘Obey Their Conscience’. She sees the Pope’s letter as “unusually humble and shockingly up-to-date”, and even though she may not agree with the theological content or context of the Pope’s words, she does appreciate them as an admirable attempt at inclusion.

From my perspective I find the language, though unusually generous, typically strange. The church still approaches me from a position of superior authority with a theology that will condescend to make room for even me. It seems to assume that I am a passive victim of my error rather than a conscientious thinker pursuing truth that has actively lead me beyond the church. It still wants to bend me to its categories so that I will reach its conclusions. Even though it may now be trying to understand me, it seems to be doing so only to win me over.

Perhaps soon Pope Francis will approach the atheist community as a peer.

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  • Doug

    I’ve discussed this very issue with some of my evangelical parishioners and friends. They would go nuts over what the Pope has suggested, but in my opinion what he’s saying is no different from what Paul says in Romans 2:6, 12-16. I think that Paul (on his better days) was more of a universalist than we give him credit for.

  • i agree doug that paul’s vision was more universal than we have fully comprehended.

  • Three comments.

    1. It is nice that the Catholic Church seems to be moving yet another step away from the thumb-screw days of old concerning non-believers.

    2. I find it humorous how different religious institutions can presume to know the mind of God. Of course, when you think about it, without presuming to know the mind of God, they really have nothing.

    3. I define an atheist as someone who suspends (or defers) belief because they don’t (yet) see sufficient evidence. If presented with evidence, they would then no longer suspend belief.

  • David & any other pluralists, inclusivists or Universalist Christians here,

    I am talking with a Bible-fundie Christian on her web site

    about Hell.

    I am hoping she will consider reading a few Christian authors who offer good Christian explanations of

    (1) Don’t take the Bible Literally

    (2) Pluralistic/Universalitic Christian versions of Christianity

    I could care less that someone becomes atheist, but I do want people to drop the horrible, destructive ideas in their religion or their religion-free thinking.

    What would be the top 3 or 4 books you’d recommend for this situation so that she too could see this cartoon as possibly representing me and my daughter.

    By the way, don’t worry, if there is a big party in Hell for atheists, I am sure you’ll be invited too — we don’t exclude Christians!

  • Help me ‘save’ a Christian from Christianity, folks. Recommend some good Christian books to show the way to a Pluralist Christianity!

  • Anything by Ehrman, Spong, Dark, Cox, Caputo, Borg, Vanier, or contemplative Christians like Merton, Nouwen, etc

  • Liza

    Why am I not comfortable with trying to win people over to Christ? Why am I uncomfortable with talks of people either going to Heaven or Hell? I have never been the evangelical type, not even with my kids. I strongly believe that God knows each person’s heart and he is the only one who knows who is going where…if there really is a Hell for people. I really don’t like the idea of trying to reach Atheists…I mean, they are Atheists for a reason and I think they should be left alone, not preached to in any kind of way. Trying too hard pushed people even further away.

  • Fantastic group, but what order — who to read first. TOP three? Remember the audience — a Bible savvy, but echo-chambered Christian who left the political RIGHT CHristians but still clinging on to the BIBLE. She will probably only have time for 1-2 or maybe 3 books max.

  • you don’t want a godless atheist choosing, dude.

  • Spong. Borg. Ehrman.

  • I always keep hope in my heart for you theists!
    Don’t give up on us. 🙂

  • OK, they are all prolific. Given the topics I mentioned, which titles? Thanx mate.

  • Carol

    Many, perhaps even most, informed contemporary Christians believe “heaven” and “hell” to be spiritual “states” rather physical “places.” That makes sense, since, unlike our earthly existence, Eternity transcends the space-time continuum.

    “In the Far East there is a traditional image of the difference between heaven and hell.
    In hell, the ancients said, people have chopsticks one yard long so they cannot
    possibly reach their mouths. In heaven, the chopsticks are also one yard long–but in heaven, the people feed one another.” ~ Joan Chittister, OSB, Wisdom
    Distilled From the Daily Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today

  • Carol

    Jeff, I believe that you have defined what it means to be an agnostic, not an atheist.

    As Jesus said in one of his parables, even it someone were to rise from the dead, there are people who still would not believe (Luke.16 Verses 19 to 31).
    Of course, there are some of us who are convinced that it is not our believing in God that “saves” us [that would make a “work” out of our belief], but rather God believing in us.

  • I’ve read “Jesus for the non-religious” by Spong and found it quite good. It is targeted, though, for the non-religious – not Christians looking to moderate their views somewhat but it might help.

  • Thanx anyway, Jeff P, I need recommendations specific for highly Bible read conservative Christians so as to alter their view of Biblical Literalism and exclusivist soteriology.

  • Juli Litchford

    Others may disagree with me, but two of the books that have been the most helpful to me are:

    1. Love Wins – Rob Bell

    2. Martin Zender Goes to Hell – Martin Zender

    Hope that is helpful,

  • Thank you kindly, Juli: I added them to the list I am building here

  • Sylvia Mead

    If you can only suggest one book, I recommend Misquoting Jesus. The information in there will be very hard for her to refute. It will distress her, but it may change her perspective.

    I would choose Ehrman over Spong and Borg, because Ehrman began his theological journey as a staunch evangelical. Spong and Borg can more easily be written off as apostates by people with her mind set. I love both of them, for what it’s worth, but I wouldn’t have been able to read them while I was still firmly entrenched in my fundamentalist world view. Ehrman shook up my views on scripture and opened the door wide for a whole lot more questioning. Present Ehrman as a challenge to her if necessary. Every Biblical literalist should be challenged to read him.

    I love Bell and Zender as well, but I wouldn’t have accepted anything from them either, until I was a lot more open to the possibility that my airtight world view might have some cracks. It is hard for fundamentalists to get to that point, because they are motivated by fear. Their worldview offers certainty and security, and they don’t want anything or anyone to disrupt that.

  • Hey Sylvia,

    I have read Ehrman too and would agree. Problem is, Ehrman is no longer a Christian. Some Christians would have a very hard time changing their opinion listening to a nonChristian. They feel threatened because though they may be willing to change their theology, they are not willing to change their label.

    I agree that Spong and Borg and just mere apostates. Maybe Ehrman would be a good suggestion — I will have to consider that. Bell is a post-modernist? right? Spong and Borg do their own tricks to make Christianity work for them. It is tough to ask for a Christian author on the subject without introducing those heresies with them. Hmmmmm. Thanx for thinking with me. I put “Misquoting Jesus” on the list.

  • Thanks for taking the time to give a thoughtful response!

  • I was gladly surprised by the statements of the pope.

    I entirely agree that God will never reproach to a person to have acted according to her sincere beliefs:


    I think that the next step for pope Francis would be to recognize that the concept of eternal hell is also completely incompatible with the love of God.

    Giving it up would shock quite a few conservative Catholics.

    Lovely greetings from continental Europe.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son


  • DKeane123

    Thanks, but I decline the offer.

  • marty_jones

    It’s a form of arrogance to think that we really have much to say about our future as souls created for Eternity by our Creator. I think we will have the power of Choice when we meet our Eternal future; but that Choice will only come when we have seen the Truth presented without the filter of this very badly-filtered life. Our lifetime here, no matter how long, short, or painful; or pain-free [whatever that may be] will be an eyeblink in the span of Eternity… I believe our souls were created for Eternity; not this small span on this broken planet.
    Devotion to the Creator is devotion to the Creator, regardless of it’s externals. And it will always be insufficient because we are broken creatures. However, because the Creator chose to take upon [His] self, all of our suffering and shame on our behalf, our misshapen devotion is sufficient.

  • Liza

    What do you mean by “I always keep hope in my heart for you theists”? Not sure what you mean.

    I don’t give up on anyone. I just don’t believe in pushing God on anyone or doing the whole Hell and damnation thing…or trying to save people. I respect Atheists and don’t feel the need to try to convert them.

  • Sylvia Mead

    Gerry Beauchemin is a conservative Christian universalist. He wrote a book called Hope Beyond Hell that a friend of mine found very compelling. I haven’t read it yet, but it might be a good book for this discussion you’re having with your friend.

    Phillip Yancey is a Christian author I love, though I’m not sure any of his books would speak directly to the issues you’re discussing. What’s So Amazing About Grace and Soul Survivor: How my Faith Survived the Church are two of his books I found very thought provoking several years ago.

    Yes, your friend would probably categorize Bell as a post-modernist/emergent. That’s too bad, though, because she is missing out if she is unable to hear him. He is one of my favorites.

  • Sylvia Mead

    I love reading your blog. =)

  • Ooops, sorry, Liza, that was intended as a joke — damn internet.

    I still have atheist ‘friends’ who tell me with self-righteous pity in their eyes, “I’m praying for you. I have hope for you.”

    So I flipped it around as a joke.

    I don’t have hope for theists at all!

    Meaning: I see their fate and mine as identical — in all its sad truths and wonderful truths. I don’t view theists different than me at all in any meaningful way.

    And fortunately most my Christian friends are the same — for as I wrote here, most Christians don’t believe what they confess.

    But I am curious: You say you don’t try to convert Atheists out of “respect”, but I imagine you do so because you are a universalist Christian, right? In other words, you do so because you don’t think Christianity is the only way to the heaven you believe in? Otherwise, it would be unkind to not try and convert Atheists, in my opinion. It would be cowardly cruelty not to try and convert someone who you felt was bound and determine to suffer eternity for their beliefs.

  • @ Sylvia:
    One of the many things I dislike about hierarchy discussion threads is that when I get the comment in my e-mail I can’t tell if it is addressed to me or not (in a thread with multiple conversants). For instance, I would imagine that you LOVE David’s blog here — tis amazing! And I love it too!

  • Thank you Sylvia. I added Beauchemin to the list. I will leave Lancy off since I am only addressing the two pernicious Christian doctrines of literalism and exclusivism.

    I agree, it is a shame that folks ignore others who are too far out of their comfort zone.

  • Yes, Carol, there are various definitions of “atheism” floating around (like there are for “Christian”). That is why many people tend to shy away from labels.

    I do appreciate your view of God. It seems to me that so many people have a “vending machine” view of God where if one accepts, believes, and does the right things (pushes the right buttons) then they get to go to heaven. I can see that you think of God as more than a cosmic vending machine. Good for you. Even as an atheist, (or agnostic or whatever), I can see that a God worth considering would need to be more than merely a cosmic vending machine.

  • Carol

    Those who worship a “cosmic vending machine”–great description!–have confused faith with superstition. It has always been a popular corruption of true religion because it leaves the believer, not God in control.
    Still, as heresies go, the cosmic vending machine has done far less harm than the Cosmic Bully, IMO.

  • @ Jeff P & Caro,
    All your talk here about various forms of gods and the difference between “atheist” and “agnostic” inspired this diagram-beautified post out of me today. Thanx!

  • Brigitte Mueller

    Nicely drawn halos. Everyone is the holier than thou. Everyone acting on their intact morality and conscience. No one needs to confess anything or apologize or say he is wrong about anything. It’s all good. Perfect little angels one and all. One more loving than the other….

    However, I agree with the natural law position. We do have a built in morality meter and conscience that is active and somewhat normative. This is actually a very important concept. The Roman Catholic church has long held to it and the Reformation has not thrown it out. We know what’s right and wrong, though we can pervert this easily and willfully. Still the truth will seek us out in quiet hours. Turning on those who preach and tell what is true does not help in the long run. For some reason, the truth is alive and active and comes to roost in our brains like a homing pigeon. This also happens to the “atheist”, and thus he can live also a more or less “righteous” life, speaking in “civil” terms. In our hearts, however, as Jesus points out in the sermon on the mount, we are also the same; we sin in thought and word and deed, but what we do, and by what we leave undone.

  • seba

    “David Gibson attempts to balance that view with his article, Analysis: Pope Francis’ Outreach to Atheists Not as Controversial As It Seems, in which he claims the Pope’s letter is about forgiveness, not salvation.”

    and what is salvation, if not forgiveness? Catholics sometimes are so twisted in their definitions, concepts and all this jazz they forget what early christianity represented or what desert fathers were saying, and unfortunately for catholics, it wasn’t deep theological mumbo jumbo but simple message of forgiveness.

  • Sabio, I liked your 8 possible cases of assigning the three commonly held attributes to God.


    Another thing to consider is a god that does not have these attributes to an infinite extent. Powerful but not all powerful. Knowing but not all knowing. Loving but not all loving.

  • Liza

    Well, I just have never been comfortable telling people that they need Jesus. Now, if they have questions about what I believe in I have no trouble talking about it, but I have never been the kind of person to think that others have to believe the same things I do. I don’t force myself on anyone. If I see an argument about to happen, I back off and try to end things on a positive note. I say that I was never comfortable with evangelism, but that wasn’t easy when I was in church. Everything is a guilt trip with them. If you don’t do this or that…then you are judged. It wasn’t easy for me to be myself in churches.

    I know that Atheists are strong in what they believe in and I respect that. I know that most of them have had enough of people trying to convert them and since I have never been the type to try to convert anyone they don’t have to worry about that with me.

    I like hearing what others have to say, including Atheists, because I think it’s important to hear all sides on the subject of faith. Everyone makes good points that I can incorporate into my faith building. Like Buddhists. I wouldn’t practice their faith, but I find there are things they believe in that help me in my spiritual journey. I also don’t believe that there is only one way to live. It’s all about what someone is comfortable with, and if they aren’t hurting others, then why would I care what path they choose? God gave people a freewill. If that is what God intended then I have no say in the matter. I don’t even force faith onto my kids. If they have questions, I answer to the best of my knowledge, but I don’t make it sound like they have to believe…or else! I want them to be freethinkers. If they conclude that yes, there is a God, I don’t want them to do that just because I say so. If they don’t believe there is a God, then I will respect that. I think it kind of cruel to try to make my children just like me. I want them to be their own selves while I gently guide them with whatever wisdom I have to offer.

    I pray for people when I feel it’s the right thing to do, but not just because they are this or that…like, “Oh, you are an Atheist? I will pray for you.” More like, “I sense that this person is struggling with something…let me say a quick prayer.”…and I don’t tell them I am praying for them. That’s so patronizing. I don’t see God as a genie in a bottle…rub him the right way and *poof* you get what you ask for. I don’t think I have to tell God what to do. I don’t even fully understand prayer. But I do understand about caring for others and if I don’t see a way I can help someone I pray for them because it’s the least I can do.

    I know what it feels like to have someone push their beliefs on me so why would I do that to anyone? THE only thing I know for sure is that he does exist because I can remember clearly how my life changed when I asked Jesus to be my savior. Everything after that is what needs to be worked out of me from being in one bad church after the other. Like being in one bad relationship after another, it’s not that love doesn’t exist…it’s that I chose to try to make something happen with people that it would never work with. Strange, but my “love life” was reflective of my spiritual life. I was failing at finding a church that would be good for me at the same time I was failing at finding a man that was good for me. Since I stopped going to church, I have also stopped dating. Oh, and just because I believe God is real because of my own experiences, I still would never try to convince someone he is real. They’re my experiences. I have no problem talking about it, but if no one wants to hear, then I don’t talk about it.

    So, bottom line is that I just simply respect others and what they believe. I don’t think myself above others; we are all equals. I believe God knows the heart of man, so it is not my place to judge or worry if someone is going to Heaven or Hell. The only time religion and what others believe bothers me is when they insist that laws reflect those beliefs, like making gay marriage illegal. They don’t want government interfering with their belief system, but they want the government to bow to them. But I respect their individual right to attend church and believe what they want.

    I adopted a lot of these beliefs once I stopped going to church. There is just too much judgement and nonacceptance in churches. I always felt out of place in congregations. I could tell they were judging me because I am a single mom, because I didn’t wear my “Sunday Best”, etc. etc. Being on the side of someone who was constantly being judged, believing that life teaches lessons, and being empathetic towards others produces understanding and respect for others and what they believe. That is just me.

    p.s. I just needed to make sure if what you said was a joke or not because I have seen on the internet Atheists who want to convert others to Atheism. I guess I just wanted to be clear as to whether it was sarcasm or if you were interested in converting me. lol

  • @ Liza,

    You said:

    I just have never been comfortable telling people that they need Jesus.


    (1) Do you feel everybody needs Jesus? (whatever that means)

    (2) Do you feel that without even knowing a nonbeliever, that you can be certain they’d be better with your Jesus even though you may be uncomfortable telling them so?

    (3) Do you feel Christianity is the best way to God?

    No, I am not asking what you believe in — too many Christianities out there and I am not to interested in the knotty details — btw, I am a former Christian.

  • Liza

    I already said that I respect all faiths and non-faith alike. I don’t feel it’s my responsibility to save anyone. If someone asks me faith related questions I will tell them what I believe. If they reject it I have no problem with that. If they accept that then they accept that. I just try to live my life as peacefully as possible with others. I decided to edit this so I can clarify something. In other words, I don’t answer faith questions with “You need Jesus.” I don’t go door to door telling people to believe or perish. I don’t feel the need to get people to go to church. Life is my religion. I just live day to day. I don’t say that one type of religion has all the answers, etc. because only God knows the hearts of men, so to say “You need Jesus” is assuming that I know who does or does not know Jesus, which I don’t. Does that make sense?

  • Cecilia Davidson

    IF i may be allowed, i would also like to suggest a book for nontheists that offers advice for pluralism. “Good Without God” by Grep Epstein.

  • Jdawg

    The God I believe in does not judge you based on your beliefs but on your actions and what you did with your life.

  • Colorado Kidd

    Is that a god that you made up? I cant seem to find any documentation to support that.

  • Jdawg

    Yes. Just as the gods with documentation are.