Some are claiming that this shows that the Pope believes in Universal Salvation– but that is not the case. Universal Salvation can be described as the view that when Christ died, all people were ‘saved’ or redeemed. Of course some people don’t realize that they are reconciled to God through Christ’s death on the cross, but everyone actually is. His redemption was actually universal.
Now there are many reasons why many Christians don’t hold to universal salvation. Mainly, it seems to override and ignore the importance of individual decision. There seems to be little responsibility on the part of the individual to do anything to be saved. They don’t need to choose, or decide, or admit guilt, or want to change or anything at all. In some sense the whole thing seems sort of pointless.
Calvinists in the Reformed tradition often hold to the view of Limited Atonement– namely, that Jesus’ death on the cross pays for sin– but only the sin of the elect. His death does not atone (pay) for the sins of those who are not part of the elect. It was never meant to. Not everyone is saved, but not only that– Christ’s death on the Cross was done only for the elect. Here again we can find that it seems like the importance of personal decision and responsibility is undermined– I’m elect because I’m chosen. Those who aren’t chosen never had a chance (in some sense). Generally there seems to be something elitist and unfair about this perspective– although of course it is efficient– Christ’s grace wasn’t wasted on anyone– all of his grace through the death on the Cross was efficiently used for the salvation of those who actually would be saved.
But while Pope Francis certainly would disagree with limited atonement, he is not a universalist. There are other options. One can believe that Christ’s death on the cross was a comprehensive and generous gift able to reconcile anyone to God– potentially all people even. But it is up to us to respond. If we respond in faith, then we can receive the gift of God: “Whosoever believes in him shall have eternal life” (john 3:16) So in this sense then, the grace of God through Christ on the cross potentially covers all people– it could cover anyone’s sin– but the individual’s freedom to chose is respected, and so if they chose to not repent and follow Christ, they will not receive the redemption. God will not force it on them. This, I think, is something close to what the Pope was saying.
Atheists Doing Good
What additionally caused a stir in Pope Francis’ comments was that he said that Atheists can do good. These are exerpts from Catholic Online:
They complain,” Francis said, “If he is not one of us, he cannot do good. If he is not of our party, he cannot do good.” He explained that Jesus corrected them, “Do not hinder him, he says, let him do good.”
The disciples, Pope Francis explained, “were a little intolerant,” closed off by the idea of possessing the truth, convinced that “those who do not have the truth, cannot do good.” “This was wrong… Jesus broadens the horizon.” Pope Francis said, “The root of this possibility of doing good – that we all have – is in creation.”
“Even them, everyone, we all have the duty to do good, Pope Francis said on Vatican Radio.
“Just do good” was his challenge, “and we’ll find a meeting point.”
Francis explained himself, “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.”
This strikes many protestants as problematic. But I think there are two different easily confusable reasons why. First, some Calvinists will say that since the fall of Adam and Eve we suffer from total depravity– namely, that every part/bit of us is infected with sin, and unable to do good on our own. This view of total depravity is contrasted with the ancient view of Pelagius that we are born sinless and able to live a sinless life. Again, there is a middle view here: namely that we are born with a tendency to sin, but with some freedom to also make good decisions. We are unable to live totally sinless lives, but we are also Created in the image of God and able to make some good decisions. Of course we are helpless to save ourselves, but we are not unable to make some decisions which are inline with what God wants. God’s truth and beauty is available for all to see, and most people find themselves attracted to it to various degrees. We are all weak and prone to make mistakes, but we are likewise meant to love God. Even this weak view of the goodness in us strikes most Calvinists as highly problematic and Pelagian– without a proper understanding of the depth of our depravity.
A second reason why some Christians have a problem with what the Pope said is that it sounds like he is advocating a works-based salvation– namely, that you can be saved by what you do. This seems to undermine the importance of Christ’s sacrifice for us, and the free grace available through his death on the cross.
I know for a fact that the Pope is not trying to undermine the importance of Christ’s death on the Cross.
What he is highlighting is the importance of action in preparing the way for us to believe. Even we Protestants will often say that until someone makes a decision for Christ, they will not be able to fully understand and see what the gospel is really about. In reaching out even to atheists, I believe the Pope is simply saying what Pascal said at the end of his wager argument: you want to believe, but you just don’t see it. More arguments aren’t going to do it. What you need to do is start living out towards God. You don’t have it in you to believe in Christ– fine. Don’t worry about that yet. Just respond to whatever sense of God that is available to you at the moment. If that is simply a general desire to love people– do that for now, and hopefully God will reveal himself more fully to you, as you respond to that in faith.
Faith, on this view, is not always a monumental life change, but a gradual conversion and transition. We do not often know how to talk to atheists, nor do we always understand or think carefully about how faith comes about. Truth be told, faith is often a gradual process which builds on itself step by step over time. Of course for some it is a breathtaking decision, but for others it is something which becomes a clearer possibility over time, as we make small decisions towards one way of thinking and away from another. I do not think that that means we think that one is saved by our works or deeds. It does mean that as we make certain choices, we habituate our souls more correctly towards God, positioning ourselves to more rightly see and experience the world, and to more rightly understand ourselves in the world and in relation to God and others. As this transition happens, the possibility of full conversion becomes more real.
Of course the opposite is true as well. Few people fall away from faith in a spectacular act of disassociation (of course some do) from Christianity. Most gradually slip away quietly, by a long series of small choices– no longer reading the Bible, no longer praying with others, no longer praying on ones own, no longer going to church, no longer talking about faith issues with friends, no longer having friends to talk with faith issues about….
This process of deconversion is subtle and gradual, and the path to God can also often be subtle and gradual– made up of a series of small decisions which build on themselves to a final conclusion.
Speaking of conclusions: I tend to be very sympathetic to what the Pope said, and not because I believe people are saved by works, and not because I think that all people are saved, but because I think that his view of the broad grace of God is accurate, and I think the importance of habit and decision is essential in the process of turning to God through Christ.
May God have mercy on us all!