Pope Francis has caused another controversy last week due to answer he gave to a journalist’s question about whether nonbelievers can be forgiven. Part of the Roman Pontiff’s response:
You ask me if the God of the Christians forgives those who don’t believe and who don’t seek the faith. I start by saying – and this is the fundamental thing – that God’s mercy has no limits if you go to him with a sincere and contrite heart. The issue for those who do not believe in God is to obey their conscience…
Sin, even for those who have no faith, exists when people disobey their conscience.
The more you read the Pope’s response the more confusing it sounds. While I do not think he went so far as to say that atheists can be forgiven apart from faith I do still take issue with how he misled the public about the nature of sin. He watered it down so much that it does not seem very serious, which then raises the question of why it’s even a big deal. It’s important to keep in mind that he wrote a long letter and the part that is getting the most attention is only a couple of sentences long, so we need to reserve judgment until we know what the context is.
If all we had to go on were these remarks then it wouldn’t be much help. It’s too ambiguous and vague, and there’s good reason to be concerned about just that. But I don’t believe that the press is misrepresenting the Pope because he has made the same point in more direct language in the past. Here is what he said last May in a homily:
“The Lord created us in His image and likeness, and we are the image of the Lord, and He does good and all of us have this commandment at heart: do good and do not do evil. All of us. ‘But, Father, this is not Catholic! He cannot do good.’ Yes, he can… “The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!”.. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”
It seems that the Pope believes in something of a social gospel in which your good works are given such weight that it overshadows doctrine. Throughout the centuries the pendulum has swung from one to another and many people create a false dichotomy between doctrine and behavior. Sound biblical doctrine teaches us that what we believe and how we treat others are equally important and must be balanced.
When we read 1 John we see that there is a threefold test to distinguish true believers: confessing your sins and walking in the light; love for the brethren; and confessing that Jesus is the Son of God who has come in the flesh. Truth and love cannot be separated and made to stand on their own.
Of course, most important of all is that the Bible teaches us that only those who believe in Jesus Christ will have everlasting life in the kingdom of heaven and they are saved by grace through faith alone, not by their works. So, just because an atheist does good works does not mean that he will then enter the kingdom. That is because the problem with mankind is that we are enemies of God and we are in need of redemption. Our problem is not fundamentally a moral one but a spiritual one.