Last night, an atheist told me that the pope said atheists can go to heaven if they do good deeds and that there was no longer a need to hold on to "the dogma" of believing in Christ.
After pointing out the fallacies in this line of thinking, I spent the morning looking for the pope's words. Please understand that being a protestant and a Calvinist, the Catholic church and I differ on many theological issues, but this blog isn't for the purposes of airing out that dirty laundry. As a matter of fact, in these few paragraphs, I am setting some personal convictions aside for a moment to hopefully render a proper interpretation of what the pope had to say.
Now for the life of me, I couldn't find the Pope's message to read for myself, but what I did find was an overwhelming response to what the pope discussed- that atheists can also do good along with Catholics and that Christ has redeemed them too and that this was common ground for us to be working together. And that the Catholic church should not hold on to the dogma that only Catholics can do good in this world. The discussion has two basic points.
First, people are capable of doing good. Sometimes we evangelicals, and maybe Catholics, run all too quickly to the verse that says that our good works are as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). Remember, this scripture is first off a comparative set of words which juxtaposes our righteousness to the righteousness of The Lord. Secondly, this is poetic language which includes hyperbole to get its point across. There are plenty of people in the world today and we Christians certainly haven't cornered the market on doing good and/or right by people. I've covered this in other blogs... go back and read my opinions there.
Secondly, the distinction between redemption and salvation comes into question. Now, the pope was speaking from Mark 9:33-49 where the apostles were trying to stop someone from doing miracles in the name of Jesus, all because that person wasn't part of their inner circle. Jesus rebukes them about this, but there is NO evidence to point to the fact that the person in question was an atheist. It was a lesson in directing those who are "more in the know about spiritual things" not to handcuff those of little faith. On the contrary, in Matthew 7:21-23 Jesus points out the importance of having faith and a personal relationship with Him. And that salvation IS NOT yours just because you do good deeds, even if they were in the name of Christ!
Let's look to what the Bible has to say about this distinction of redemption and salvation...
for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of His blood
Here we see the redemptive work of Christ on the cross and what it accomplished (John 3:16A For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son...). I'm guessing (and hoping) that this was the point that the pope was trying to drive home. That Christ has paid the penalty for EVERYONE'S sin, not just Catholics. The question of whether or not the theology behind this is all inclusive of everyone during all of time is a debate better left for another time. The point here, is that the pope was simply pointing out (hopefully) that sin is sin and that Christ has paid the price for ALL sin once and for all.
But now let's clear up any confusion that may lead to the line of thinking that would bring someone to think that atheists go to heaven because of Christ's redemptive act and doing good things alone. Let's put these two and a half verses in the context of the verses around them. Look at how redemption was Christ's responsibility which has been achieved and the act of salvation is based in faith in Him.
But now apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of His blood--to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance He had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— He did it to demonstrate His righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.
Though the price of our sins has been paid by Christ, this redemption only comes to the full fruition of salvation through faith in Christ alone.
Again, I couldn't find the pope's speech, but after seeing some of the quotes around the internet, it seems like our selfish desire to get away with as little as possible, with help from 140 characters and a news media that wants to be as inflammatory as possible, mistook the meaning of the words of this man to mean that everyone who does good deeds gets to go to heaven. I don't think this was his intention (if it was, then that will be one more thing we don't see eye to eye on). I trust the pope meant that redemption was available to everyone; that faith in Christ is CRUCIAL for salvation to an eternity in heaven rather than being damned to an eternity in hell; and that we might be able to meet, in this world, in the common ground of doing good to those around us; which in turn could potentially grant Christians the opportunity to earn the respect of atheists so the gospel could be heard; which in turn could possibly bring them to salvation by this redemptive work of Christ.
Serving through love and laughter is a great way to live.