The Huffington Post published an article that was eye-catching: “Pope Francis says atheists who do good are redeemed, not just Catholics.”
My gut reaction was “All right! Cool!” The charity and love in that statement was very appealing to me. I assumed that since it was the Pope who said it, then it must be theologically sound. Then a Protestant friend of mine challenged me, “Where is that based in Scripture?” So, that got me thinking.
I’m not really good with remembering Scripture, so I have Matt Fradd to thank for his article about Pope Francis’ homily. God “wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4) and “is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Pet 3:9). The Gospel of Matthew needs a bit of commentary for the following verse “the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt 20:28). According to the commentary, “‘many’ does not mean that some are excluded, but is a Semitism designating the collectivity who benefit from the service of the one, and is equivalent to ‘all.'”
Romans 5:18 was also instructive: “just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.” Paul did not write “justification and life for Christians,” but “for all.” He means everyone: the soldiers who nailed Christ to the Cross, the Pharisees who mocked him, and even the atheists of today.
While my Protestant friend would not accept the Catechism as an authoritative source, its interpretation of Scripture is something even Catholics who felt scandalized by what the Pope said cannot ignore (CCC 605):
At the end of the parable of the lost sheep Jesus recalled that God’s love excludes no one: “So it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish” (Mt 18:14). He affirms that he came “to give his life as a ransom for many”; this last term is not restrictive, but contrasts the whole of humanity with the unique person of the redeemer who hands himself over to save us (Mt 20:28; cf. Rom 5:18-19). The Church, following the apostles, teaches that Christ died for all men without exception: “There is not, never has been, and never will be a single human being for whom Christ did not suffer” (Council of Quiercy in 853 A.D.; cf. 2 Cor 5:15; 1 Jn 2:2). [Emphasis mine.]