Is it possible for an atheist, who does not repent of his refusal to believe that God exists, to die in a state of grace and be saved? Yes, this is possible. Some atheists die in a state of grace and are given eternal life in Heaven, after a purification in Purgatory.
The light of reason can know that God exists, that He created the universe, and that we should worship Him. By the light of reason and natural law, any adult with sufficient use of his faculties can and should be able to conclude that God exists. Therefore, the rejection of belief in God is an objective mortal sin. Many an atheist may be fully culpable for this sin, making it also an actual mortal sin. If so, then he must repent and believe in God before dying, or he dies in a state of actual mortal sin and will be sent to Hell. His culpability, to the extent of an actual mortal sin (full knowledge of the grave immorality of his act, and a fully deliberate choice of that act), may occur through substantial negligence in seeking the truth about God. Or it may occur because he, as they say, lies to himself, telling himself there is no God because he does not wish to give up his sins, or because he does not wish to humble himself before something greater than himself.
However, not every objective mortal sin is also an actual mortal sin. Culpability can be reduced from that of actual mortal sin to that of actual venial sin, despite the objectively grave immorality of the act, due to a number of factors. For an adult atheist with full use of his mental faculties, the most likely factor reducing culpability is a lack of knowledge.
Reason can know that God exists, even without Divine Revelation. But to a fallen sinner, living in a very sinful world where contrary opinions abound, perhaps living in a culture where Christianity and Judaism are not prevalent, ignorance of God may well be invincible to some extent. If the extent of the invincibility is sufficient to reduce the mortal sin of rejecting God to a venial sin, the person might be saved despite being an atheist. Invincibility admits of degrees; it need not be a total invincibility, such that the objective mortal sin is reduced to no actual sin at all. What reason can know is obscured by original sin and personal sin and a sinful world, thereby reducing knowledge and reducing culpability, possibly from actual mortal sin to actual venial sin.
There are some sincere atheists and some sincere agnostics. There are some persons who selflessly love their neighbor as themselves, and therefore must be in a state of grace, and yet they sincerely disbelieve or doubt that God exists. Some of these persons may have been baptized as infants, but never raised in the Christian Faith. Some of these persons may have fallen away from belief in Christianity due to the many sins of the members of the Church on earth.
Second Vatican Council: “Undeniably, those who willfully shut out God from their hearts and try to dodge religious questions are not following the dictates of their consciences, and hence are not free of blame; yet believers themselves frequently bear some responsibility for this situation. For, taken as a whole, atheism is not a spontaneous development but stems from a variety of causes, including a critical reaction against religious beliefs, and in some places against the Christian religion in particular. Hence believers can have more than a little to do with the birth of atheism. To the extent that they neglect their own training in the faith, or teach erroneous doctrine, or are deficient in their religious, moral or social life, they must be said to conceal rather than reveal the authentic face of God and religion.” (Gaudium et Spes, n. 19).
A sincere atheist might be in a state of grace, despite committing the objective mortal sin of denying or obstinately doubting the existence of God, due to a reduction in culpability. We Christians, especially Catholic Christians, bear substantial blame for this situation. We have not lived entirely in accord with the true Gospel and with the teachings of our own Church.
For those atheists who were never baptized, an act of love is sufficient for an unbaptized adult to obtain sanctifying grace. This act must be done in full cooperation with grace. This love must be a true selfless spiritual love of God and neighbor. However, any selfless act of love toward one’s neighbor is implicitly an act of love for God also. And so even an atheist or an agnostic might receive sanctifying grace by an implicit Baptism of desire — but only by full cooperation with actual grace in a truly substantially selfless act of spiritual love for neighbor.
Pope Pius XII: “An act of love is sufficient for the adult to obtain sanctifying grace and to supply the lack of baptism” (Address to Midwives, October 1951).
The act of love must not be mere human love or love of self, but love of God (at least implicitly) and true selfless love of neighbor, which is also called perfect charity. Whoever loves his neighbor loves God. And this is true even if the person who sincerely loves his neighbor as himself doubts or disbelieves the existence of God. How can the atheist choose an act of perfect charity, if he is not in a state of grace? He cooperates with actual grace to some extent while not in a state of grace. And then, by the unmerited mercy of God, he enters the state of grace in choosing that act of perfect charity.
Certainly some atheists are guilty of actual mortal sin by being obstinately unwilling to give sincere consideration to any idea of the existence of God. They would have to repent from this actual mortal sin in order to obtain a state of grace. But not all atheists are guilty of actual mortal sin. There is no reason why an atheist, being fallen and influenced by a sinful world, cannot be sincerely mistaken about the existence of God.
Catechism of the Catholic Church: “In the historical conditions in which he finds himself, however, man experiences many difficulties in coming to know God by the light of reason alone: Though human reason is, strictly speaking, truly capable by its own natural power and light of attaining to a true and certain knowledge of the one personal God, who watches over and controls the world by his providence, and of the natural law written in our hearts by the Creator; yet there are many obstacles which prevent reason from the effective and fruitful use of this inborn faculty. For the truths that concern the relations between God and man wholly transcend the visible order of things, and, if they are translated into human action and influence it, they call for self-surrender and abnegation. The human mind, in its turn, is hampered in the attaining of such truths, not only by the impact of the senses and the imagination, but also by disordered appetites which are the consequences of original sin. So it happens that men in such matters easily persuade themselves that what they would not like to be true is false or at least doubtful.” (CCC, n. 37).
Therefore, an atheist or an agnostic might be sincere in his disbelief or doubt of the existence of God. As a result, he might not be guilty of actual mortal sin, even though he is committing the objective mortal sin of rejecting God. This implies that an atheist or agnostic may still be in a state of grace, may die in that state, even though he dies without repenting of his rejection of God, and may be saved and given eternal life.
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and Bible translator