Did Pope Francis say everyone will be saved by doing good?

Enormous theological ignorance and bad reading exploded onto the scene this week:

Pope Francis Says Atheists Who Do Good Are Redeemed, Not Just Catholics

(An earlier version had this headline: “Pope Francis Says All Who Do Good Are Redeemed – Atheists included.”)

(Huffington Post) Pope Francis rocked some religious and atheist minds today when he declared that everyone was redeemed through Jesus, including atheists.


Of course, not all Christians believe that those who don’t believe will be redeemed, and the Pope’s words may spark memories of the deep divisions from the Protestant reformation over the belief in redemption through grace versus redemption through works.

That supposedly correctly interprets remarks made by Pope Francis:

“They complain,” the Pope said in his homily, because they say, “If he is not one of us, he cannot do good. If he is not of our party, he cannot do good.” And Jesus corrects them: “Do not hinder him, he says, let him do good.” The disciples, Pope Francis explains, “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.”


“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.”

First, I should note that I do not think any Orthodox Christian should have any problem with what Francis is quoted as saying here. Why?

Well, first, this is not universalism. It might appear to be so if you don’t know that there is a difference in traditional Christian theology between being saved and being redeemed. The redemption that Christ accomplished through the incarnation, cross and resurrection was for all of human nature, and so it is quite correct to say “The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ.” Redemption is something that happens for human nature, which is why all will be resurrected in the end and why all are capable of doing good.

But that is not the same thing as saying that all will be saved, and it certainly isn’t saying that everyone will be saved by doing good. It’s not even saying that everyone will be redeemed by doing good. Salvation, in distinction from redemption, is centered on the individual person, not on the whole of human nature. Salvation is what the individual person does with the redemption that Christ has given to all, and it involves much more than simply doing good.

But Francis holds out the possibility here for an encounter, that we may “meet one another” when good is done, by whoever it may be done. And he is absolutely correct. All good is from God, so even an atheist—even an anti-theist—who does good is in some sense participating in God’s goodness by virtue of his redemption by Christ and remaining created according to the image of God. But that doesn’t mean he is saved.

The headline for this piece and much of the writing has this all quite backwards. The capability of doing good is an effect of redemption, not its cause, and salvation is also another possibility because of that redemption. Someone may be redeemed and not be saved. Someone may be redeemed and not do good. Someone may also be redeemed, do good and yet not be saved.

The writer and many readers are not only theologically illiterate, but they are not even reading what Francis said. One does not need to know that redemption and salvation are two different things to see that his emphasis here is on who is capable of doing good—not who is redeemed or saved—and that he’s not at all saying that redemption or salvation are the result of doing good.

The lessons here are twofold: know your terms and read what is actually said.

Update: Here’s a good piece of analysis on this from a Roman Catholic viewpoint: Friends Don’t Let HuffPo Writers Do Theology


  1. Wesley Wilson says

    Perhaps you are right about the distinction the Pope is making between redemption and salvation but I’m unclear on what he meant by: ” But do good: we will meet one another there.” Meet one another where? In heaven? In purgatory? Or does he just mean that we will find unity and a common cause in doing good?

    • says

      Since the context of his remarks is Mark 9:38-40, I don’t think he’s talking about heaven or purgatory. “We must meet one another doing good” would seem to refer to an encounter here in this life. I don’t have the full text of his homily, though, but that would seem to fit with his quoted words here. Again, there doesn’t seem to be any warrant for a belief in universalism in his words.

  2. says

    “Salvation” is a _loaded_ word in the U.S. So, it’s no surprise that this bees nest of misunderstanding has been kicked. :) Do you have an article explain the depth and beauty, some of the fullness of the ancient Christian concept?

  3. coffeezombie says

    Sadly, I’m sure my Southern Baptist family/friends will be using Pope Francis’ remarks as validation of their belief that the Roman Catholic Church teaches that we can save ourselves.

  4. says

    This is tangential to the post, but I find it confusing how much the media, other denominations of Christianity, and even atheists seem to care (the latter perhaps in an antipathatic sense) about the Roman church’s validation. I think this is why they jumped to misread the pope’s words; they seem to be mining for some kind of imprimatur. If they believe Roman theology is bunk, then so what?

    When the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith rolled out their taxonomy of communions identifying the Orthodox Church as a ‘deficient communion’ many got hot under the collar; my thought was, “yeah, so what?” Not only were they being honest, but why would we need their validation?

    There is some inconsistency in these contexts that I’m not getting.

    • says

      I think the common thread is really a kind of anti-Catholicism, i.e., mining the data for proof that RCs are really as bad as we think they are. I honestly am not myself concerned with whether they are bad or good but with whether their doctrine is true or false.

      I am quite delighted when anyone declares that his church is true and then also concludes quite naturally that others are either false or somewhat less true. It means I am listening to someone who actually takes doctrine seriously.