Answer a Theological Question

In this post, I pose a question to my readers, and we discuss what the answer might be.

Question: If an atheist does not convert to belief in God, can he possibly be saved and have eternal life in Heaven? If so, what are the conditions that he must meet?

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24 Responses to Answer a Theological Question

  1. Matt Z. says:

    Yes, an atheist can possibly be saved by God. One condition is that the atheist must have atleast implicit selfless love of neighbor.

    • Ron Conte says:

      OK. But why is that the condition? What if the atheist commits actual mortal sin?

    • Francisco says:

      If the atheist commits an actual mortal sin, he can go (or return if that is his particular case) to the state of sanctifying grace by an act of selfless love in full cooperation with grace which is an implicit act of perfect contrition out of love of neighbor which is an implicit love of God even though he outwardly rejects Him. It can also be by a set of acts of love with partial cooperation with grace which will eventually lead the atheist to full cooperation with grace and thus to the state of sanctifying grace.

  2. Anthony says:

    Answer to the first question: Yes.

    “The same is true of the numerous predestined who, though outside the pale of the true Church of Christ, yet depart from this life in the state of grace as catechumens, Protestants in good faith, schismatics, Jews, Mahommedans, and pagans.”

    (Pohle, Joseph. “Predestination.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911.)

    Answer to the second question:

    Such an invidual would need to be from all actual mortal sin, ans also must display acts of perfect charity and contrition for sins. There is also the issue of vincible vs. invincible ignorance. Has he willfully rejected God, or has he because of deficient knowledge made a bad choice in rejecting God? In the latter, he might still be held accountable for his rejection of God.

    “The Catholic Church has ever taught that nothing else is needed to obtain justification than an act of perfect charity and of contrition. Whoever, under the impulse of actual grace, elicits these acts receives immediately the gift of sanctifying grace, and is numbered among the children of God. Should he die in these dispositions, he will assuredly attain heaven. It is true such acts could not possibly be elicited by one who was aware that God has commanded all to join the Church, and who nevertheless should willfully remain outside her fold. For love of God carries with it the practical desire to fulfill His commandments. But of those who die without visible communion with the Church, not all are guilty of willful disobedience to God’s commands. Many are kept from the Church by ignorance. Such may be the case of numbers among those who have been brought up in heresy. To others the external means of grace may be unattainable. Thus an excommunicated person may have no opportunity of seeking reconciliation at the last, and yet may repair his faults by inward acts of contrition and charity.

    (Joyce, George. “The Church.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908.)

  3. jbbt9 says:

    Yes. Of course an atheist can be saved. Christ died for everyone. If the atheist has a true love of others he implicitly has a love of God. His love for others comes from God even if he cannot acknowledge that reality. If the atheist dies trying to save a drowning stranger he becomes a martyr and will have a higher place in heaven than most practicing Catholics, to say nothing of non-practicing Catholics.

    • stefano says:

      Then, the question is whether such an atheist should be an atheist.

      How could someone love overwhemingly his neighbor, but not God? It is not according to nature to give one’s life for anyone; any rational being would ascribe such love to a supernatural origin.

      Can a rational creature be full of Grace and so stupid at the same time?

      The answer is no, there cannot be an atheist like that. Maybe he just percieves himself as an atheist, due to his poor philosofical education, or for some cultural superstructure, or psychological complex. In this case he might have an excuse for saying to be an atheist, not to be one.

  4. Emanuel Costa says:

    Yes, he can be saved under these three scenarios. First one, the person never was introduced to Christianity,
    and the many religions that he has met teach many immoral things (child sacrifice, polygamy, superstition) that makes hard for this person to believe in a God who allows that.
    The second one, the person was deeply hurt by his religious leader ( or his Christian parent bad example), so he lost his faith in God
    The third one, the person honestly can’t conclude that God exists. It can happen if most of his “heroes” (parents including) are atheist and they make a better argument for not believing in God than any Christian that this person know.
    P.S.: I am assuming that this person loves selfless his neighbor

  5. Paul M. says:

    If an atheist is defined as a person who has the faculty of reason and chooses to believe that God does not exist, then no amount of good works will save them. For, we are saved by faith and works.

    An atheist, in this example, is culpable for rejecting the one, true God of the universe, who loves him and provides sufficient grace for that person to embrace Him in an act of the will.

    • Ron Conte says:

      By works, do you mean exterior or interior expressions of love of God and neighbor? If someone has works, indicating selfless love, which is always only an infused theological virtue, then they are in the state of grace and have the other infused virtues, faith and hope. You can have faith without love, but not love without faith.

      If the atheist is culpable for refusing to believe in God, his culpability might fall short of actual mortal sin. I don’t think we can assume that all atheists have actual mortal sin for their choice to be atheists. That premise of your argument is not found in Catholic teaching. Rather, as Pope John Paul II taught, sometimes a person outwardly rejects the Church, and yet is saved by inner graces:
      Of course, it can be the case that some atheists are fully culpable, and die without any form of repentance, so that they go to Hell for the refusal to believe in God. But there is no evidence in doctrine that all atheists are fully culpable. You might imagine that God would give them sufficient grace, such that their refusal to believe is always with full culpability. But where is the evidence for that in Church teaching?

    • Tom Mazanec says:

      You can have faith without love, but not love without faith.

      Would demons, which know of God, be examples of this?

    • Ron Conte says:

      No. When a human person enters the state of grace, they are given the infused theological virtues of love, faith, and hope. If they fall from grace by an actual mortal sin, other than one against faith, they lose love and hope, but they retain faith. It is a true type of faith, though one not enlivened by love. So they have faith without love. But you cannot have love without faith because all three are possessed by anyone in the state of grace, and love and hope are always lost by actual mortal sin.

  6. Francisco says:

    The atheist can be saved by sincerity seeking truth in his heart and mind in full cooperation with grace thus acquiring at least a non-formal baptism (of desire or blood) which makes him/her enter into the state of sanctifying grace and remaining in this state all his/her life. If the atheist commits an actual mortal sin, he can implicitly repent by an act of love in full cooperation with grace (implicit perfect contrition).

  7. Mark P. says:

    There are a few pathways to atheism:
    1) born into it
    2) forced into it
    3) persuaded into it
    4) willingly enter into it
    At least, that is how I have pared it down into a manageable category. But even from there, some subcategories could be in order. And I am considering “atheism” as having denied the existence of any deity, not just the Christian Trinity. But in any case, there is much less (if any culpability) for somebody born into or forced into atheism than there is for, say, a formerly practicing Catholic who chooses to become an atheist.
    But even from there, some exceptions may exist; for instance, the former Catholic may have been abused by clergy and lost all faith in God. That person would be much less culpable than a Catholic who became atheist for the sole purpose of indulging in sin without guilt.
    Likewise, a child born in North Korea is certainly less culpable than one born in say France or Poland. Because in the case of NK, there is a totalitarian restriction of religion so the person is both born into and forced into atheism. Even a French or Polish person born to atheist parents has more of a responsibility (in my opinion) to consider Christianity since their culture is steeply rooted in Catholicism. But, the parents being the primary teachers of faith to children, these people still may never fully realize the truth of the faith. But they certainly have much more of an opportunity to convert than a North Korean person. Some people have a weak or poorly formed faith and can be lured into atheism. So they cannot be fully culpable for their apostasy.
    So the most severe case would be someone like Ron (sorry to use you as an example) just completely abandoning the faith out of sheer pride and denial of revelation, in order to live a life contrary to the Gospel. So there seems to exist a paradox in that the more one learns about the faith and accepts it, the more bound he becomes to follow it, and the more severe his punishment for straying from it (without repentance). But in my estimation, the prayers of these people are the most effective in converting non-believers to the faith.
    These few examples of the ways one becomes an atheist highlight what the Holy Father calls “concrete situations” because there is really no “one size fits all” approach to such a problem, and this is where pastoral care must be tailored to each individual to lead them to the Truth.

  8. Paul M. says:

    Ron, you stated a very specific example– one of an atheist– and then you cited in your reply to me a general audience (which lacks the authoritative weight of an apostolic letter, encyclical, papal bull, etc.) in which Pope St. John Paul II never mentions the plight of an atheist specifically. In fact, he writes, “As we read in the Council’s Decree Ad Gentes, we believe that ‘God in ways known to himself can lead those inculpably ignorant of the Gospel’ to the FAITH NECESSARY for salvation (AG 7).”

    This too was my argument: that God makes His presence known to all. In fact, “The fool hath said in his heart: There is no God. They are corrupt, and are become abominable in their ways: there is none that doth good, no not one” (Ps 13:1). In Hebrews 11:6, we read, “But without faith it is impossible to please God. For he that cometh to God, must believe that he is, and is a rewarder to them that seek him.”

    When I mentioned works, it was only because the examples that you and others are citing seem to be implying that we can be saved by works alone, apart from faith. However, this does not account for original sin (much less baptism), and is a heresy. The CCC, 406a, reads, “The Church’s teaching on the transmission of original sin was articulated more precisely in the fifth century, especially under the impulse of St. Augustine’s reflections against Pelagianism, and in the sixteenth century, in opposition to the Protestant Reformation. Pelagius held that man could, by the natural power of free will and without the necessary help of God’s grace, lead a morally good life; he thus reduced the influence of Adam’s fault to bad example.”

    Ron, you seem to be arguing that God imparts sanctifying grace without also manifesting faith. I really think the onus is on you to develop this idea further for your readers, as it is contrary to the Tradition of the Church.

    • Ron Conte says:

      I have researched and written a book on the subject, Forgiveness and Salvation for Everyone, which will be free in Kindle format, this coming Sat. Sun. and Mon. So the idea is well-developed in my theology. And there are many magisterial teachings that combine to support this conclusion, although it is not explicitly taught as a dogma. The general audience is about the encyclical Redemptoris Missio, which is a binding magisterial non-infallible teaching.

      An atheist can have faith implicitly. When someone enters the state of grace by an implicit baptism of desire, they receive all three infused virtues. Faith is not mere intellectual adherence to a set of ideas. It is a virtue that includes a certain trust in transcendent values (goodness, truth, justice, love). And this faith, in an atheist, would implicitly include faith in God.

      Can you provide a magisterial teaching that states God gives everyone sufficient grace such that no one could mistakenly sincerely think there is no God? Vatican II, GS 20-22 considers atheism and concludes: “All this holds true not only for Christians, but for all men of good will in whose hearts grace works in an unseen way.” While not stating that atheists can be saved without converting, it is a tenable opinion, and the opposite view, which you faithfully hold, is not specifically taught by the Church.

  9. Paul M. says:

    Jesus said, “But he that shall deny me before men, I will also deny him before my Father who is in heaven” (Mt 10:33). An “implicit baptism of desire” is an impossibility for an atheist– it is a contradiction. You are attempting to split the finest hairs by arguing that a person can be an atheist by their very words, denying the one true God and all notions of His existence, one one hand, and still have saving faith by their works, on the other.

    You ask me to cite magisterial teaching. I cited the Bible, which is the inerrant Word of God; any magisterial teaching either of us claim to understand can never contradict a clear teaching in scripture. If so, then the problem would be in our understanding, not in God’s Word or the authority of Church teaching.

    Historically speaking, the Church clarifies teachings when heresies arise– and not always immediately. Otherwise, it is the Bible, Apostolic Tradition, and (to a lesser degree) the sensus fidelium which we look to as our guide. Yet, you ask me to cite magisterial teaching for a modern understanding of extra ecclesiam nulla salus that has morphed into a joke over the past 50 years. The onus is on you to, as you seem to be embracing a deviant form of Modernism in your attempt to emphasize God’s mercy to the detriment of His justice.

    I acknowledge that God is not bound to follow the “normative” way of salvation when He judges individual hearts. However, we must believe that God has the power to do all things and that he has conquered Satan and this world. If God means to save each one of us, it is by providing the grace necessary for each one of us to have an encounter with him. An atheist has made the choice to deny this encounter of the heart.

    • Ron Conte says:

      The atheists denial of God is just like any other objective mortal sin, it has to be committed with full knowledge and full deliberate to be an actual mortal sin. You have not provided evidence that that is always the case. I trust the teachings of Pope Saint John Paul II on this topic: “The universality of salvation means that it is granted not only to those who explicitly believe in Christ and have entered the Church.” RM 10.

      If it were the case that God always gives sufficient grace so that every objective mortal sin of denying God is also an actual mortal sin, then why does He not do so for every other objective mortal sin?

  10. Paul M. says:

    It seems that you hold the premise that salvation is ours to lose, rather than ours to gain. God does not owe us anything. It is by His grace that we are saved. An atheist is not a child of God at his birth, who is entitled the inheritance of a son. He is a servant with no claim to inheritance.

    Please share with me magisterial teaching that relegates original sin to the waste bin.

    • Ron Conte says:

      The universal salvific will of God is an infallible teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium. God has decided to offer salvation to all human persons, as RM teaches. So even though God did not have to do so, He in fact has decided to make that offer to all. Therefore, God gives each person a way to be forgiven for original sin, and to enter the state of grace, either by a baptism of water, desire, or blood.

      The atheist is entitled to the concrete possibility of salvation, not by his own merits, but by the promise of God to offer salvation to all. He therefore can lay claim to that free undeserved offer. Now “the universal salvific will of God is closely connected to the sole mediation of Christ” (Dominus Jesus), and so anyone is saved must be saved solely by Christ. But the doctrine of the Church on implicit baptism of desire allows us to consider that the atheist may be saved, without realizing that he is saved by Christ.

    • Francisco says:

      A person is not “born an atheist” so we cannot say that a baby or a little child is not a child of God (Matt 19:14). A person becomes or chooses to be an atheist due to the circumstances in his life. God knows if that particular atheist is sincerely seeking truth despite his mistaken conscience of if that person rejects Him with full knowledge.

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