Salvation for Atheists: possible but difficult

My latest book, Forgiveness and Salvation for Everyone, takes the theological position that salvation is available to everyone, even to a non-Catholic or non-believer who does not convert. However, as we consider each belief system (or lack thereof), the further away we get from the Catholic Faith, the more dimly-lit and more difficult the path to salvation becomes. The path to salvation for atheism is dark and treacherous.

Some quotes from my book follow. First, on the difficulty of salvation for atheists and agnostics:

By choosing to believe in a religion, even one that mixes many errors with some truth, the believer has an important vehicle for seeking religious and moral truth. This belief system may eventually lead a believer to Christianity, which offers a much fuller and clearer understanding of that truth. But even when an individual believer fails to progress, in the sincere search for religious and moral truth, to a Christian conversion, that sincere search can be an occasion for the interior full cooperation with grace needed for an implicit baptism of desire or implicit perfect contrition.

Atheists and agnostics have no such help. They are in the worst state that a human person can freely choose regarding religious truth. For both groups have rejected any religious belief system that might guide their lives. It is easy to see how a devout believing and practicing Roman Catholic can attain to eternal life. The path of salvation for Catholics is well-lit, with many helps and blessings along the way. Believing and practicing Roman Catholics go to Heaven, if they do not contradict or abandon the way of salvation marked out by the Church.

By comparison, it may be that a majority of atheists and agnostics end up in Hell. For their rejection of religion and belief in God, even when it is not an actual mortal sin in itself, is nothing but an obstacle to the path of salvation. They might commit an actual mortal sin in some area of life other than their rejection of belief in God. And then they might not repent with perfect contrition before death. I consider it likely that most of those atheists and agnostics who are condemned to Hell, are not condemned for their rejection of belief in God, but for various other types of sins they commit in life. For their rejection of belief in God makes it much more difficult for them to repent with perfect contrition from actual mortal sin.

Next, on the possibility of salvation without conversion:

Suppose that a person, living in a sinful fallen world, noticing the many sins and failings of believers, reaches the conclusion, after a sincere search for religious truth, that God does not exist. It is entirely possible for that mistaken conclusion to be accepted by the individual without actual mortal sin. The person sincerely does not believe God exists. In such a case, that individual would not be sent to Hell specifically for his disbelief in God. Catholic teaching is very clear that God punishes no one in Hell, except those unrepentant from actual mortal sin.
[…]
Therefore, an atheist or an agnostic does not necessarily commit an actual mortal sin by concluding that God does not exist, or by failing to affirm the existence of God and the importance of God to human life. And since God only punishes unrepentant actual mortal sin in Hell, an atheist might attain eternal life, despite his failure to believe in God. For God is so merciful and loving that He will take to Himself in eternal happiness any human person who has not chosen the sin of final impenitence: actual mortal sin with the refusal to repent through the last moment of life.

Final impenitence, called blasphemy against the Holy Spirit by Jesus, is the only unforgiveable eternal sin. Jesus did not say that atheism or agnosticism or the choice of a non-Christian religion are unforgiveable or eternal sins. Nothing other than the failure to repent from actual mortal sin can condemn any human person to eternal punishment in Hell.

However, if an atheist avoids actual mortal sin within his sincere but mistaken rejection of belief in God, he must not commit actual mortal sins in any other area of life, or if he does, he must repent prior to death. The actual mortal sin of omission of never having found sanctifying grace in life can be avoided by entering the state of grace through an implicit baptism of desire. A person who does not believe in God or religion can only obtain sanctifying grace by an implicit baptism of desire or of blood, out of love of neighbor. But God is always seeking the salvation of all human persons, including those who have explicitly rejected Him by atheism or agnosticism. Abundant grace is always available.

Any person who knows about Christianity and decides not to convert might not be guilty of actual mortal sin, if his decision is due to invincible ignorance. However, such a person must enter the state of grace by some form of baptism (water, desire, blood), typically by an implicit baptism of desire. And if he falls from the state of grace by an actual mortal sin in any area of life, he must return to that state by perfect contrition. His baptism of desire may be implicit, and so also his perfect contrition may be implicit.

An atheist can enter the state of grace by an implicit baptism of desire out of love for neighbor. And he can return to the state of grace after actual mortal sin by contrition motivated by love of neighbor. For the love of neighbor is always, at least implicitly, the love of God.

[Romans]
{13:8} You should owe nothing to anyone, except so as to love one another. For whoever loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.
{13:9} For example: You shall not commit adultery. You shall not kill. You shall not steal. You shall not speak false testimony. You shall not covet. And if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this word: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
{13:10} The love of neighbor does no harm. Therefore, love is the plenitude of the law.

by
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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6 Responses to Salvation for Atheists: possible but difficult

  1. Felipe says:

    I like to know what you think about the teaching authority of the Pope exercised during an public interview on matters of faith and morals. Thank You.

    • Ron Conte says:

      The Pope’s answers in an interview with the press are not an act of the Magisterium (the teaching authority). But why should his opinions be treated as so much less than all the online commentators? He has a good understanding of Church teaching.

  2. Aegis says:

    Are there important differences between someone who has always been an atheist and someone who once professed the Catholic faith and then became an atheist? Most of the atheists I know were once Christian. When they ask me about their prospects of salvation, what should I tell them?

    • Ron Conte says:

      To be saved, a person must:
      1. enter the state of grace by some form of baptism (water, desire, blood) and then
      2. a) either avoid all actual mortal sins, and so remain in the state of grace until death, or
      2. b) repent and be forgiven from actual mortal sin, so as to return to the state of grace.

      An atheist who was baptized as an infant fulfills the first criteria. An atheist who was never formally baptized must obtain a baptism of desire or blood, so his path to heaven is considerably more difficult.

      In any case, an atheist must choose to live a life of selfless love of neighbor and of repentance from any grave sins on his conscience in order to be saved. If he does not love his neighbor, he commits an actual mortal sin of omission. If he commits an actual mortal sin in any area of life, and does not repent, he will not be saved.

      More atheists are saved who were baptized as infants than those who were not. And I think that, of those atheists who end up in Hell, most were condemned for sins other than choosing atheism.

  3. Felipe says:

    Why not you posted my second comment? I think you’re a good theologian, and so I would ask you a reasoned answer to the question that I did to you. If you don’t want to respond on the blog at least send me the answer to my email.

    • Ron Conte says:

      The Pope’s comments in interviews with the press are not an act of the Magisterium. The Pope’s writings in a book of private theology (e.g. Pope Benedict’s books “Jesus of Nazareth”) are not an act of the Magisterium. Your idea to the contrary does not come from Tradition, or Scripture, or the Magisterium. When an idea is not based on Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium, the burden of proof is not on me to disprove it, but on you to present some basis for the idea. No bishop, priest, or theologian thinks that every comment by the Pope about faith or morals is an act of the Magisterium. The Magisterium has never taught such an idea. So many Catholics today have fallen into error, because they treat their own baseless ideas as if these were doctrine or dogma.

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