Q&A on Salvation for Atheists

If you have any questions on this topic, add them in the comments section.

Objection 1. Refusal to believe in God is a mortal sin, so how can an atheist be saved without converting?

The Church teaches a difference between objective mortal sin, which is the grave immorality of the act, and actual mortal sin, which includes all three factors: grave matter, full knowledge, full deliberation. It would be cruel and ignorant to assume that all atheists are guilty of actual mortal sin in regard to their rejection of religion and belief in God. Some persons certainly have invincible ignorance with regard to God, and specifically Christianity.

Pope Pius IX: “There are, of course, those who are struggling with invincible ignorance about our most holy religion. Sincerely observing the natural law and its precepts inscribed by God on all hearts and ready to obey God, they live honest lives and are able to attain eternal life by the efficacious virtue of divine light and grace. Because God knows, searches and clearly understands the minds, hearts, thoughts, and nature of all, his supreme kindness and clemency do not permit anyone at all who is not guilty of deliberate sin to suffer eternal punishments.” [Quanto Conficiamur Moerore, n. 7]

If you are Catholic, why don’t you believe what Pius IX teaches on this subject? Invincible ignorance is found in the hearts and minds of some persons who have rejected God or Christianity. But if they follow their conscience, i.e. the precepts of the natural law inscribed by God on their hearts, then they can possibly be saved.

Objection 2. Baptism is required for salvation. How can an unbaptized atheist be saved?

The Church teaches three types of baptism, which are a reflection of the Three Persons of the Trinity:
a. baptism of water
b. baptism of desire
c. baptism of blood
How were the Jews saved in ancient times, before Christ, since they did not have baptism? They were saved by an implicit baptism of desire. And this is certain because the limbo of the Fathers is a dogma; it is the place where those who were saved prior to Christ waited for Him to open the gates of heaven with His salvific death.

An implicit baptism of desire was taught by Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saint Alphonsus Liguori, Pope Pius IX, Pope Pius X (in his Catechism). This is not a new teaching of liberal post-Vatican II Catholics. And yet some conservatives today have decided to reject (or severely narrow) the baptism of desire, and so fall into the error of Fr. Feeney. More on the Implicit Baptism of Desire.

An atheist can implicitly desire baptism by desiring a life of selfless love, justice, mercy, truth, and happiness for others. What is the path to these goods? Baptism into the life of grace in God.

Objection 3. If a person receives an implicit baptism of desire and then they sin gravely, how can they be returned to the state of grace?

By sorrow for sin out of love for neighbor. The love of neighbor always includes, at least implicitly, the love of God. So an atheist who loves his neighbor also loves God, even though he does not believe in God. By loving all the true goods of this life, he loves God without realizing it.

[1 John]
{4:20} If anyone says that he loves God, but hates his brother, then he is a liar. For he who does not love his brother, whom he does see, in what way can he love God, whom he does not see?
{4:21} And this is the commandment that we have from God, that he who loves God must also love his brother.

Objection 4. Outside the Church, there is no salvation, so how can any non-Christian, especially a non-believer be saved?

Pope Pius IX Singulari Quadam:

“For, it must be held by faith that outside the Apostolic Roman Church, no one can be saved; that this is the only ark of salvation; that he who shall not have entered therein will perish in the flood; but, on the other hand, it is necessary to hold for certain that they who labor in ignorance of the true religion, if this ignorance is invincible, are not stained by any guilt in this matter in the eyes of God.”

Persons who follow the natural law, and whose rejection of religion is due to invincible ignorance, can be in a state of grace, and so they are implicit members of the sole Ark of Salvation.

Objection 5. What is the point to being Catholics if even non-believers can be saved?

The surest and easiest path to Heaven is to be a believing and practicing Catholic. The further away from Catholicism you go, the more difficult the path to Heaven. The path to Heaven for an atheist is particularly dark and dangerous. It is possible for atheists to be saved, but it is much less likely than for a faithful Catholic Christian.

Objection 6. We don’t really know if anyone received an implicit baptism of desire; it is just a theory.

The three types of baptism are a reflection of the Three Persons of the Trinity. Moreover, the baptism of desire is also called the baptism of the Spirit, as it is the work of the Holy Spirit. It would not make sense at all for a path of salvation which is a reflection of the Three Persons, to have one main path, and two others that are hardly used — for the Three Persons are co-equal as God. And since the baptism of desire is particularly of the Holy Spirit (attributed to Him, even though it is a work of all Three Persons), it is offensive to God to conclude that it is very narrow, or to say that we can’t be sure the Spirit saves anyone by this method. Is the Spirit all-powerful God or not? How is it that you doubt His work in saving through the type of baptism attributed to Him?

Jesus says that baptism with water is necessary for salvation, but since the baptism of desire is ordered toward a baptism with water — that is what the person is, at least implicitly, desiring — the baptism of desire is included in His saying:
{3:5} Jesus responded: “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless one has been reborn by water and the Holy Spirit, he is not able to enter into the kingdom of God.

And notice that He says water “and the Holy Spirit”, thereby anticipating the teaching of His Church that a baptism of the Spirit is sufficient.

Objection 7. You say that prenatals, infants, and young children are all saved if they die at that young age, without water baptism, but they cannot desire baptism, even implicitly.

The baptism of blood is related to the baptisms of water and of the Spirit.
[1 John]
{5:5} Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God!
{5:6} This is the One who came by water and blood: Jesus Christ. Not by water only, but by water and blood. And the Spirit is the One who testifies that the Christ is the Truth.
{5:7} For there are Three who give testimony in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit. And these Three are One.
{5:8} And there are three who give testimony on earth: the Spirit, and the water, and the blood. And these three are one.

The testimony of Three is the Trinity. It is also the three-fold baptism that is a reflection of the Trinity:
1. the water (baptism by water)
2. the Spirit (baptism of desire)
3. the blood (baptism of blood)

These three types of testimony are each widespread. For as a reflection of the Trinity, none of the three can be weak or rare or unlikely or an unreliable path to salvation. Therefore, baptism of blood is not limited to only martyrs who willingly die for Christ. Just as the baptism of desire does not require explicit knowledge of and desire for water baptism, but it may be implicit, so also the baptism of blood does not require the explicit choice to die for Christ. For the very young, who are not guilty of actual mortal sin, are not permitted by God to suffer in Hell forever, just as Pope Pius IX teaches: “his supreme kindness and clemency do not permit anyone at all who is not guilty of deliberate sin to suffer eternal punishments.”

And do not say to me that these children are happy in the limbo of Hell. That teaching is precluded by the teaching of the Councils of Lyons II and Florence that the souls in the limbo of Hell have the chief punishment of Hell, which is the deprivation. They cannot be punished eternally, as Pope Pius IX teaches. And they cannot be happy while having the chief punishment of Hell, therefore, they do not go to any form of Hell, nor to any place other than Heaven as their eternal destination.

Other questions? Ask in the comments below.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian
* My books of theology
* My translation of the Bible (the CPDV)
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2 Responses to Q&A on Salvation for Atheists

  1. Mark P. says:

    I think a topic like this must take into consideration the different causes and preconditions of what make a person an atheist.

    For example, there surely must be a difference between an atheist who was formerly Catholic and an atheist who is born into a culture like North Korea’s, which is already an atheistic society. Surely a case for “invincible ignorance” applies much more strongly to the North Korean.

    These definitions must be presented an be made clear up front in this topic, otherwise there is great confusion as to how an atheist may be saved. Many in Western society make the shallow claim that they can be good people without religion. Well, good defined by whom? It is quite common in the West for a person to abandon the faith because they find the teachings too hard; then, these people create a god of their own making. But they already had some training in the faith and cannot really claim “invincible ignorance.” Rather, instead of carrying the cross of faith, they used their free will and conscience to drop their cross.

    So this topic an teaching must be presented clearly. If it is not, many will get the wrong idea that they can just walk away from the faith since they might claim ignorance on some teachings they disagree with. However, they will insist that they will be saved by just being “good.”

    • Ron Conte says:

      Invincible ignorance can occur despite sufficient accurate knowledge of Catholicism because our reason is fallen, because sinful society has influence on us, and because Catholics fail to live up to their calling, obscuring the face of Christ to those who would otherwise convert. It is not merely ignorance of teachings, but the inability to accept those teachings as truth which constitutes invincible ignorance. Many Catholics are presented with Church teaching, and they fail to accept it, are they all guilty to the extent of actual mortal sin, as you claim atheists may be?

      If a person is good in the sense that they love their neighbor, selflessly, in full cooperation with grace, then such an act of love can is sufficient for the adult to obtain sanctifying grace and to supply the lack of baptism. Being good, in the sense of cooperation with grace, devotion to truth, mercy, and helping others out of love, this type of being good is part of the path of salvation for everyone who is able.

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