“Pope Francis says atheists can do good and go to heaven too!” That blaring headline you can check out for yourself from Catholic Online (News Consortium). [The original article dated 5/27/13 is no longer available on Catholic Online. All that remains are two articles implying that the pope was misunderstood.] The new pope’s startling homily was also carried by Vatican Radio (5/22/2013) and reproduced online, titled “Pope at Mass: Culture of encounter is the foundation of peace.” Initially I did not want to believe it. After all, Evangelist Luis Palau, a fellow Argentinian, had boasted right after the cardinal’s election that the two were old friends from way back. That gave me hope that just maybe this new leader might have, despite all the egregious errors of traditional Roman Catholic theology, a redeeming (and reforming) evangelical streak. Though I have not seen it, a couple of folk have told me that the Vatican later issued a statement saying the pope was misunderstood. As much as I would hope that, the fact remains that his homily (in the two official sources cited above) says what it says (as you can see by referencing them). There is simply no spinning it after the fact. However if Vatican sources did later attempt damage control, at least that would be encouraging in that somebody in the official mix recognizes the problem. But reading the homily, one cannot argue the pope was misunderstood; one may claim he misstated himself. If so, he ‘misstated’ himself so emphatically it should raise concern about his competence.
In Danger of God’s CurseThis is no academic issue; it is “another gospel,” which, as the Apostle Paul said, “is really not another.” (Galatians 1:6-9) In fact the apostle went on to say, “if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed.” And just before that he had more strongly declared “even though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed.” That broad anathema spares no one who corrupts the gospel, including the pope. What Paul, the apostle, anathematized was this very heresy—putting salvation on a legalistic foundation, i.e. making it contingent on man’s works as opposed to God’s grace through faith in Jesus alone. (Ephesians 2:8-10).
A Biblical Breakdown of this Fatherly FallacyThe aforementioned accounts I perused carefully, reading twice and a third time with a trained eye. Though the pontiff’s message is a bit tangled, in the main what he is affirming is perfectly clear, to my dismay. Sifting through the pope’s message, here is where he appears to be way off the biblical rails:
An Ancient Heresy – Good Without God
Francis seems to be Pelagian. What is a Pelagian? Pelagianism is the ancient heretical teaching of the British monk, Pelagius, [c. 354-415 AD] who believed in the capacity of the natural (unregenerated) man to do good apart from enabling grace and also held that good works or meritorious behavior could bring about salvation.
God’s Image is Corrupted by Sin
Though the content of the imago dei is disputed, Pope Francis’s take on the image and likeness of God is far from orthodox. He, like Pelegius, apparently does not believe that in the fall of Adam, the original image and likeness of God in man was messed up and in need of repair. He fails to understand (or at least believe) that as a result of the Adamic fall, our moral compass (i.e. conscience) got distorted to the degree that its residual instinct for ‘goodness’ is somewhat unreliable. Like a scofflaw running a red light, the pope blows right past that significant obstacle to the natural man trying to jin up what is good, much less do it..
The pope said:
“The Lord created us in His image and likeness [true so far], and we are the image of the Lord [not quite!], 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 [the natural, unregenerated person] cannot do good.’ Yes, he [the natural, unregenerate person] can. He must. Not can: must! [I take it the pope means because of an inner moral imperative] Because he has this commandment [imperative] within him.”
[brackets my own interpolations for clarity]
Here the new pontiff is as crystal clear as he is dead wrong. He is saying the natural man, the man still in Adam (not in Christ), the unregenerate person apart from the empowering work of the Holy Spirt, yes, he can do good. Wrong! His assertion flatly contradicts plain biblical testimony otherwise.
In Romans 3:10-12 the Apostly Paul teaches us the absolute moral bankruptcy of all mankind:
“There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is no even one.”
But there is more. It is not just that every man fails to do what the Pope declares all can do, even must do, there is also the brute fact that the natural man cannot do what the Pope say he can and must.
In Romans (7:14ff) the Apostle Paul describes the utter futility of the natural man to perform the law of God, the very thing the pope vigorously affirms he can. However the Apostle goes on in Romans 8.1-8 to show that only in Christ with the aid of the Holy Spirit is it possible to find the moral ability to do what is good in God’s eyes. With an exclamation mark the apostle rounds out this section with theological finality:
“and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”
Can it get any plainer than that?
The pope thus appears to be either grossly ignorant of the Scriptures or just arbitarily sets them aside in favor of his own theological bias. The latter option of course is a long and infamous habit of the Roman Catholic Church, no huge surprise there.
Save Yourselves… With a Little Help From Jesus
Going hand in hand with his Pelagianism is out-and-out legalism. Legalism (as it pertains to redemption) is a fatal doctrine that holds that salvation can be achieved by good works (in whole or in part). In fact it was legalism that the Epistle to the Galatians was penned to rebut and condemn. In the papal version of legalism, it comes with a twist that tips its hat to the redemptive power of the atoning death of Christ, but not in any helpful way that relieves the pope of the old fashioned legalism.
Declares the pope:
“The Lord has redeemed us all, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! And this blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all! [Faith in Christ or no faith in Christ—it makes no difference; the atoning blood is pre-applied to the whole race and all one must do to make it effective is to do good] And we all have to do good. . . . . If we each, doing our part, if we do good to others, if we meet there [doing good], and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make a culture of encounter [rather than of enmity, I take it]: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good; and we will meet one another there [in the kingdom, I assume he means]”.
[brackets my own interpolations for clarity]
Translation: Christ laid down His life as an atoning sacrifice for all mankind. You, whoever you are out there, are covered by the benefit of that offering—IF you do good. Atheist or Christian, if you do good, bless your heart, we will all meet at the same place (code for arrive in heaven, accepted by God).
Notice something here. Historic or apostolic Christianity teaches the blood of Christ atones for the sin of all those who trust in Him. But the pope is saying in effect:
“Stop the press! Revise that. The blood of Christ atones for those who do good. Salvation by God’s grace through faith alone is out: salvation by good works is in.”
However Jesus (a better authority) said:
“I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14.6)
Our Lord also taught:
“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so the Son of Man must be lifted up; that whoever believe may in Him have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:14-16)
And He added in verse 18-19:
“He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe in Him has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the judgment, that light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light; for their deeds were evil [which is why they won’t come to light, which is the truth, supremely manifested in Christ].”
[brackets mine for clarification of the thought]
There is nothing there about escaping judgment by doing good, is there? There is everything about believing in Jesus as the conditon of inheriting eternal life. Faith, not works.
Like the pope, the Jewish people in NT times were determined legalists, by and large. They steadfastly believed their relationship to Abraham and their rigorous law-keeping earned them a seat in the kingdom of God. On the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the Church, the Apostle Peter gave a mighty sermon to those in attendance. When (Acts 2:27-38) many of them on that day got the picture, that they had crucified the Christ of God, they asked Peter and the apostles there, “Brethren, what shall we do [to be saved]?” Peter’s response:
“Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
Repentance of course is the first motion of faith and baptism was the outward symbol of a confession of faith in Christ. If doing good works could save, devout Jews would have gone to the head of the class. But no, it is impossible for human beings to please God by their works, as we saw earlier.
In fact, the author of the book of Hebrews lays it out in no uncertain terms:
“And without faith it is impossible to please Him. . .” (Hebrews 11:6)
But the pope dismisses all that. According to him, an atheist (or anybody) who does not even believe in God, does not even believe in the atoning death of Jesus Christ, and rejects the whole gospel story as nonsense will find salvation (“meet at the same place”) just the same as us, if he has followed the path of doing good.
Christianity, Atheism…Tomato, Tomahto
This pope is a pluralist essentially. Pluralism, rampant today, is the popular idea that all religious roads eventually meet at the same place.
Everyone is a Winner
This pope is not far from a universalist. Universalism is the doctrine that in the end all men will be saved, none will be damned. Whether or not he is depends on what percentage of the human race qualifies in his view as those who do good. In the popular view of moral reality, people are all essentially good (with just a few bad apples among us). Does the pope share that popular perception of the essential goodness of the human race as a whole? If so, by his definition, virtually all men in the end will be saved, i.e. meet at the same place.