You know exactly what you’re looking at, and everyone can agree that a spade is a spade…even if they can’t agree that spades are good. On the other hand, murkiness means that people can argue their opinions before they ever find out if they’re even talking about the same thing. This is why one fisherman will argue with another about whether he should give some “play” to that submerged branch he’s just hooked.
It’s also why secular journalists probably should not comment on religious matters, and why religious people (who ought to know better) shouldn’t start arguing on the basis of a few misinformed comments.
Last week, the Huffington Post ran an article with the title, “Pope Francis Says Atheists Who Do Good Are Redeemed, Not Just Catholics.” Talk about good news! As a Protestant (Baptist brethren, bear with me), I assume I’m included. Not that I had any doubt, but hey, if atheists are redeemed, then surely the Pope doesn’t think I’m going to hell. Even if I were an atheist, I’d be…well, actually I assume atheists probably don’t really care about whether the Pope thinks they’re going to heaven. And they’d be right – not to care, that is – because the Pope never actually said one word about whether they were going to heaven or hell.
He did say that Catholics and atheists could meet and agree together in the act of doing good. Again, I assume that he would include Protestants (and Baptists who protest against being called Protestant). If a Catholic, a Baptist, and an atheist all volunteered to help build a community playground or donated to a food bank, it would help to better our world and affirm a kind of civic peace between believers of different creeds. That’s what he was trying to say. I think.
What Really Happened.
I think that’s what he was trying to say because I’m not really sure. A perfect storm of communication failure occurred. The Pope was speaking without any prepared remarks, and only part of his homily was transcribed and translated. Apparently, he was speaking about Mark 9:38-41, in which Jesus instructed his followers not to interfere with some folks who were performing exorcisms in the name of Jesus Christ, even though they did not belong to the band of disciples. From this, the Pope asserted that all people can do good because they are created in the image of God and commanded to do so. To reinforce this, he went on to say, “The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ…even the atheists. And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class!”
I think it was his statement about all people being redeemed that got everyone’s attention. But that brings up two other points. First, the Huffington Post got it wrong. He didn’t say that only atheists who do good are redeemed, he said that all atheists are redeemed. It is their redemption, in fact, that means that they can do good. Second, in saying that atheists are redeemed, he didn’t say anything that would be out of place in a lot of Baptist pulpits every Sunday.
Baptists, just like many other evangelical groups, offer the Gospel indiscriminately to all people in the hope that an unbeliever might turn to Jesus Christ in repentance and faith. To do this, we explain who Jesus is and what he has done that makes him worthy to be trusted for salvation. In short, we proclaim him as the perfect Son of God, who died on the cross and rose again for the sins of men. Which men? It is our answer to that question that either creates controversy or brings clarity.
The redeemed of the Lord shall return…
Did Pope Francis say that atheists will be in heaven apart from faith in Christ? No, I don’t think so, but he did say that they had been redeemed by the blood of Christ. And the Bible says that those who have been redeemed by the blood of Christ will go to heaven. (Isaiah 51:11; Revelation 5:9) So, who are the redeemed?
The Bible word “redeem,” has several different meanings. Literally, it means “to buy back.” This is often used literally, like in the book of Ruth. It can be used figuratively, almost like “rescue.” (Psalm 107:2) And it can take on the sense of “ransom,” which is kind of like “rescuing by buying back.” (Colossians 1:14) In contexts that reference the blood of Christ, it is this sense that is most prominent: a rescue effected by payment. (Ephesians 1:7)
What is clear in Scripture is often confused preaching, and that is the difference between intent and extent. I don’t know any Christian who wouldn’t agree that God loves the world, that Jesus’ death was sufficient to atone for the sins of the world, and that the Gospel is to be proclaimed to the world. However, orthodox Christian theology has never taught that the redemption that is in Christ’s blood extends to all.
Think for a moment what this would mean. Redemption is intrinsically connected with the forgiveness of sins (Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14), justification (Rom. 3:24; 1 Cor. 1:30), holy living (Titus 2:14; 1 Pet. 1:18), and adoption as the children of God (Rom. 8:23; Gal. 4:5). What Christian would admit all of this to be true of all men? What’s more, what would have to be said about those believed to be in hell?
The reasonable and – I would argue – biblical conclusion is that not all are redeemed. Of course, I can already hear some of my friends object, “It’s not that they aren’t redeemed; it’s that they don’t believe in Jesus.” And in saying that, my friends would be touching on exactly the point that Pope Francis confounded: the necessity of faith. In Rom. 3:21-25, the Scriptures are clear that redemption (as well as justification and propitiation) is received through faith. It may be available to all, as 1 Tim. 2:6 seems to be saying, but it only takes place through faith in Christ – the very thing that atheists reject. Atheists can do good; they can build hospitals and playgrounds, donate to cancer research, work for equitable trade between nations, and attempt to pass just laws. But until they repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, they cannot be justified, forgiven, adopted, purified, or redeemed. And neither can anyone else.
Why I Miss Pope Benedict
That’s why clarity is so important. While no Baptist would ever admit of salvation outside of faith in Jesus Christ, our desire to see the world converted can allow us to confuse the message. Apparently the same thing can happen to Catholics.
I don’t know much about Pope Francis, but these comments have been seen to be a departure from the stance of his predecessor, Benedict XVI. Benedict, in his time, was known to take a clear, strong stand on the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, and while I disagree with that doctrine to a large degree, at least it was clear: Catholics and Protestants are not the same, and atheists are different from both. In the future, it may be that the desire for ecumenical dialogue and the unification of the world’s faiths will allow for a blurring of lines and cloudy theology. Whether or not it involves the Huffington Post or some other secular news outlet, I think we can count on more confusion than clarity.
And so I thank God for the clear revelation in Scripture: Jesus Christ died and rose again so that all – atheists included – who repent of sin and trust in him alone may be redeemed.