Is My Atheist Friend Coming to Heaven with Me?

The following is an essay based on this Sunday's sermon

When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, "I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith."  Luke 7:9

“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!”   said Pope Francis last week. And the headlines screamed "Even Atheists Can Go To Heaven!"

Then the Vatican, maybe nervously, came out with a statement: "All salvation comes from Christ, the Head, through the Church which is his body….Hence they cannot be saved who, knowing the Church as founded by Christ and necessary for salvation, would refuse to enter her or remain in her."  And the headlines screamed: “Atheists are going to hell after all!”

So, which is it?  Is my atheist friend coming to heaven with me or not?  I have friends who are atheists, I love people who don’t believe in God, and I bet most of you do too.  What does all this mean about the good, good people we love?

So, first, never trust the headlines.  Did anyone else notice that neither the Pope nor the Vatican said anything about heaven or hell?  They used words like “redeem” and “salvation.”  Very different and slightly churchier words.  But I think that’s because, despite the fact that we live in a country and a time where most people think Christianity is all about going to heaven or hell, that isn’t actually what the Pope or the Vatican were talking about. (Have you noticed life after death isn’t something Jesus talked about much either?) Throughout the 2,000 years that Christians have been around, and in most of that time in the Catholic Church, Christianity has been as much about what happens here, on this earth, as it has been about what happens after we die. 

“Salvation” means so much more than “are you going to heaven or not?”  Salvation means being saved from the things here, on this earth, that destroy our health and wholeness.  Salvation means forgiveness of sins, but also being set free from shame and guilt. Salvation means bread when we are hungry and love when we are lonely, freedom when we are in chains, healing when we are sick, and a home when we don’t have a place to belong.  Salvation is being at peace with God and with the people we aren’t at peace with right now.  Salvation is a way of life that knows what Jesus calls “the kingdom of heaven,” is very near. It is knowing the unconditional love and acceptance that God has given us in Jesus, and wanting to tell everyone about it.  Salvation is participating in a community that works to bring health and wholeness, joy and love, to every one of God’s children, just as God would want.  Salvation is you and me, taking bread and wine, here, together, and getting the strength we need to love the world.

And there’s a difference between salvation and “being redeemed.”  Being “redeemed” is less about the way of life we have, and more about our standing before God.  Being “redeemed” means when God looks at us, God isn’t holding against us our mistakes and messes and sins, but has already forgiven them because of Jesus.  God has wiped the slate clean, has erased the debt, has cleared the search history.  Those things aren’t counted against us.   And there is a long history in the church of debating whether the death and resurrection of Jesus has done this for all of us, or only for some.  I believe we are all forgiven, every single one, whether we know it or not, accept it or not. God so loved the whole world….

And so I wonder if what the Pope meant, although he hasn’t returned my calls to clarify, is that all of us, believers and atheists, and people of other faiths, stand before a God who is not holding our mistakes against us, but looking at us in love.  And I wonder, although again, the Vatican hasn’t returned my calls either, if the Vatican meant that there is a thing, salvation, knowing that you’re loved and acting like it, that you only get in the church.   The Pope and the Vatican might not be disagreeing with each other at all, and the headlines might be all wrong.

But here’s the thing.  I still disagree with the Vatican. (Beyond what kind of “church” counts.) Some of the atheists I know have found that kind of salvation, outside of the church.  Not all of them, but some.  Some of the atheists I know are some of the most loving people, the most dedicated to working for the well-being of the world, and have found a community and a home to belong to, to work with.  Some of them are working with us, and we are some of the people they have made a home with.

I said that, like you, I know and love people who don’t believe in God, who call themselves atheists.  And, I wonder if your experience is like mine, they aren’t all alike.  (Of course!)  Some of the atheists I know are incredibly smart, thoughtful people, who with great spiritual maturity have considered the question of God’s existence, and have found it lacking.  They see no evidence of a greater spiritual being, and even evidence of how humans might be inclined to invent one.  You and I, dear ones, are probably never going to convince them otherwise, and can simply respect the integrity with which they have made their decisions, and live their lives.  We can find common ground in our longing for a better world, and can work together to make it.  We can see honestly that many of them have already found the peace and love and wholeness that we all need, are already living a kind of salvation, and we can become their partners in loving and serving people who need our love and our care.

Other atheists, and I bet you know as many of them as I do, don’t believe in God because they’re mad at him.  Some of us probably were these atheists before!  And you know what?  I think that’s a different kind of spiritual maturity for us to respect.  Some of them have only heard about a judgmental, hateful god, a sky bully who hates gay people and Muslims and probably women too, who will punish us if we dance or have sex or don’t give him enough praise.  And you know what? I don’t believe in that god either!  And I respect the strength and integrity of people who think that might be what god is like, and stand up to him, say “I’m not going to worship that god!”  If their compassion for the world is so strong that they’ll defy a god they think is hateful, they are exactly the kind of people we need to have working with us!

In fact, I think rejection of that kind of god might be a kind of faith itself.  If someone has such a commitment to goodness, to love, that they’ll reject a god who isn’t good and loving, isn’t that a belief in goodness and love?  Isn’t that a faith that any divinity worth worshipping must be good and loving? 

In our Gospel today, Jesus meets a Roman centurion, an officer of the army that was occupying his homeland, and saw faith in him.  This centurion was not a part of the religious community of the time.  We have no idea if he worshipping in that synagogue he helped build, or what he thought about God.  What we do know is that he worked with the Jews for the good of the community, and that he cared about the health and well-being of the slave.  When he heard that Jesus might have a healing salvation for the boy, he asked Jesus to give it to him.  And for this, Jesus recognizes his faith. 

I don’t know if believing that God must be good so strongly so to reject a god who isn’t good counts as faith.  But I know there is faith outside of this religious community, outside of any church whatsoever. And I know that there is goodness and compassion and longing for a better world in so many people outside of our churches, and that we’d be a better congregation if some of those people longing for a better world were inside our congregation, working with us.

And I know that some of those people, those atheists who have rejected the judgmental sky bully god, they aren’t at peace.   They are still mad at the god they don’t believe in.  Sometimes they still need help reconciling with themselves, and with the people around them.  Some of them would experience it as salvation to be told that there is a God of love, forgiveness, and acceptance.  Some of them are the people who need to hear that they are completely loved, completely forgiven, completely accepted, by a good God.  Some of them are the people longing for a place to belong, a community to contribute to, people to worship and love and work with to make the better place.  For these atheists, salvation will come from being in church with us. 

Some of us have been them, know the salvation of hearing that God loves us, know that salvation is here, singing and praying and hearing the Good News and passing the peace and eating the meal and going out to serve the world together.  We have experienced this salvation in church.

These are the people that I believe Grace Lutheran has a very specific mission to.  These are the people that will fill our church.  And I believe that Houston is full of people mad at God, longing for the salvation we can bring, enough to fill our church and all the churches we know.  We know they’re in the LGBTQ community, but not just there: feminists and progressives and moderates who know dancing is holy, survivors of fundamentalism and people who grew up with no church at all. 

And even better news: when they fill our church, we will be blessed by their strength and integrity and compassion.  And we will work to make a better world together.

I invite you to ask your friends, your loved ones, your partners, when they tell you they don’t believe in God, ask them “Tell me about the god you don’t believe in.” Maybe they’ll give you a philosophical answer about a higher being not existing, and you can smile, and understand, and keep loving them and working with them for a better world.  But maybe, just maybe, they’ll tell you about a god you don’t believe in either, and you can tell them that, and invite them to consider the God of love, and compassion, and forgiveness. 

So, will your atheist friend go to heaven with you?  If you’re asking about a life after death, I don’t know, but I’m betting on the God of love. 

But if you’re asking about the heaven here on earth, the heaven of being loved and welcomed and belonging, the heaven of longing for a better earth and sharing that longing with each other, working together for the health and wholeness and joy of all creation, then yes.  Yes! Yes, atheists are living that heaven together with us.  And some of them, some of them, are longing to live that heaven right now, and will, if you invite them.  Invite them to come live that salvation with us.

In the name of the God of Love.
Pastor Lura


  1. Lura -

    Thanks for posting this. Beautifully written. Thoughtful. Food for my soul.


  2. Just a few thoughts from an atheist who caught this from a Christian friend of mine.

    After reading this I wrote to my friend this in closing: "She seems like a very nice pastor who has some very nice ideals and some very nice motivations. I don't think I would have anything bad to say about her character or quality of humanity."

    As to a working understanding of atheism... well... that could benefit with some education/information about atheism.

    When talking about people who hate or have hated a god, what you are describing are not atheists but misotheists. An atheist doesn't believe in a god. The hate (anger, frustration, etc) some of us feel is not directed at a god. Frequently it is directed at the people, institutions and organizations. But atheists are no more angry at a god than we would be angry at a mermaid or a fairy.

    Like many believers I suspect P. Lura is operating under the (false) idea that many atheists do believe in some kind of god, but just need that compassionate, caring believer to tell them some magic code that will give them that safe passage to open proclamation. Perpetuating this kind of stereotype will only serve to keep up a barrier that I believe P. Lura is trying to overcome.

    I strongly applaud her desire to focus on growing meaningful bonds between two disparate groups and to use the combined productivity to promote health and peace on this planet. I caution her to the ease of condescension and ignorance to what - exactly - it means to be an atheist.

    Rev. Amber BG
    First Church of Atheism