“Can Atheists Go To Heaven?”

Many mountains have been made of molehills regarding Pope Francis’s comments on the question, “Can atheists go to Heaven?” It seems the common “take” on his response to this question (which is really no different than Benedict XVI’s, John Paul II’s, Vatican II’s or various pre-Vatican II teachings) is that he’s somehow denying the efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice to say that Christ died “for everyone,” and that anyone can get to Heaven by accepting that gift of salvation. Many who are tempted by sedevacantism are falling into that position.
When people ask questions like, “Do you think non-Catholics go to Hell?” the implication is that one’s “religious affiliation” is somehow immutable and inherent, like race, and that thus salvation is not a matter of a free choice but a question of arbitrary, Calvinistic predestination. Asking “Can atheists go to Heaven?” is, for the questioner, the same as, “Can Asians go to Heaven?” It’s like the atheist has no choice *but* to be an atheist.
Of course, this all derives from the two classic “extreme situations”: the catechumen who dies en route to her baptism or the pagan who dies in some Third World country without ever hearing of Jesus. As I’ve noted many times about the two extremes on this issue,
a) Fr. Feeney was really a radical providentialist who insisted God’s Mercy would not allow a person to die in such a state, and that God would provide someone to evangelize and baptize such an individual; he based this on his own experience in which he claimed to have encountered several people on the verge of death who begged him to baptize them;
b) Fr. Rahner’s (and anyone who reads me knows I’m not a fan) theory of the so-called “anonymous Christian” necessarily involves that hypothetical pagan, so it does *not* justify failing to evangelize those whom we meet. I’ve read quotations from more liberal priests than Karl Rahner who insist that even Rahner’s position is “insensitive” because “my Muslim friend would be deeply offended if I told him I thought he was an ‘anonymous Christian.'” The problem with this, as I’ve previously noted, is that the hypothetical “Muslim friend” is no longer an “anonymous Christian” once he’s met the priest.

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