Pope Francis recently asked if God would forgive those who do not believe in him. (Read about it here.)
His response, according to the Guardian:
“Given – and this is the fundamental thing – that God’s mercy has no limits, if He is approached with a sincere and repentant heart,” the pope wrote, “the question for those who do not believe in God is to abide by their own conscience. There is sin, also for those who have no faith, in going against one’s conscience. Listening to it and abiding by it means making up one’s mind about what is good and evil.”
Now there is a lot of taking the Pope out of context, such as The Independent, which ran the headline “Pope Francis assures atheists: You don’t have to believe in God to go to heaven.” I don’t believe that the Pope is saying atheists go to heaven as some papers are trying to say, but it does seem like a plausible interpretation that the Pope is saying that following the conscience is the main thing atheists need to do because going against it could mean sin.
So, is the Pope right or wrong?
That’s the wrong question to ask.
Let’s assume the Pope is right, and in some ways I think he is. I agree that “God’s mercy has no limits, if He is approached with a sincere and repentant heart.” But I’m willing to go a step further. Let’s just pretend that the Pope really was saying that atheists could go to heaven if they would just act according to their consciences.
Would it be good news if just “following our consciences” was the answer? I say NO.
People are excited about the prospect that the Pope, who is kind of the BMOC of religion in the world, might have said that essentially following your conscience is enough is because of an underlying assumption that people are good. People are not good. Their, our, consciences are corrupted. But even if our consciences were perfect, we all violate what our conscience tells us. So, if following our consciences was the answer, we would all be in trouble.
So regardless of what the Pope did or didn’t say, the real questions to ask are these:
1. Am I truly good?
2. If not, how on earth can I fix it?
The short answers:
2. You can’t.
These questions essentially capture the whole story of the Bible. We’re broken. From Adam and Eve, (who broke a command) to Cain (who didn’t break a command but still sinned, and I would dare say, violated his conscience) to Paul the great evangelist who cries out from his heart, “who shall rescue me from this body of death?!” we are all sinners. We are all spiritually dead.
So God intervened and sent the son to take on all our deadness and give us life. And that’s what the Gospel is really all about. The Gospel isn’t about making bad people good; it’s about making dead people live.
16 “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes (*Present tense) in Him shall not perish, but have (*Present tense) eternal life. 17 For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.” John 3:16-17 NASB “*” denotes editors note.
But for those of you who still think that what the Pope maybe, hopefully said is true, keep reading.
18 “He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. 19 This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil.”.