Sunday, 25 May 2014

Answers for an Atheist (Part I)

About three weeks ago, Hemant Mehta, aka "The Friendly Atheist" posted a video entitled "78 Questions for Christians."  I have to admit to being a little bit impressed about his ability to fit so many questions into such a brief video. Obviously, answering the questions will take longer than asking, I'm not going to be able answer to answer all of them in one blog post, but, let's see how we go.

His first three questions are:

#1. Is Anne Frank burning in Hell right now?
#2. How about Mahatma Ghandi?
#3. Is Fred Phelps in heaven, because he believed in the divinity of Jesus.

My short answers to these three questions: "I hope not", "I hope not", and "It depends what you mean."

Longer answers: I assume that Mr. Mehta is asking these questions having in mind the widely held evangelical protestant belief that anyone who has explicit faith in Christ is going straight to Heaven upon death and everyone without such faith is going to Hell.

I have to admit, as a Catholic, I found this a little annoying. Obviously, there are a huge number of different Christian positions and Mr. Mehta can't be expected to respond to every Christian belief in a short video. I would think, however, that in a video labelled "78 Questions for Christians" he'd show at least some awareness of the beliefs of the world's largest Christian denomination.

The Catholic Church acknowledges the possibility of those who are, for whatever reason, unable to fully grasp the truth, either because they never heard it or because, for some reason, they were unable to accept it, can, in fact, be saved. When Pope Francis, publicly spoke of the possibility of atheists being saved, many people treated this as big news and suggested that it represented a major break from his predecessor. This just isn't true. Benedict XVI, on numerous occasions, spoke about the possibility of atheists being saved. This point can't be emphasised enough, Benedict XVI, frequently cited as an example of a strict, conservative Pope, said atheists can go to heaven.

Some will claim that, while Benedict is by modern standards, a conservative pope, that, even a modern conservative is liberal by pre Vatican II standards. Prior to Vatican II the Church certainly would have affirmed that people who don't believe in Jesus go to hell. Respectfully, those people would be mistaken. A good case in point is the famous "Boston Heresy Case." In the late 1940s, the famous Jesuit, Leonard Feeney, accused Richard, Cardinal Cushing, Archbishop of Boston, of heresy, in part because of Cushing's statement that it is possible for Jews to go to heaven. The Vatican investigated and, in a very significant letter, the Holy Office came down of Cushing's side. This happened four years before John XIII's election to the Papacy.

If the above is insufficient, it is worth noting that, Bld. Pius IX, a man frequently cited as an example of one of the most reactionary Popes of the 19th Century, in his 1863 Letter to the Bishops of Italy defended the possibility of those who, through no fault of their own, could not accept Catholicism, being saved.

So, to answer the first two questions, I have no idea where Anne Frank or Mahatma Gandhi will be spending eternity. I hope that they are in heaven, I have the same hope for all my fellow human beings. What I can say, however, is that I reject the idea that because they died not believing in Jesus, this automatically means that they are in hell.

To Mr. Mehta's third question. I have no idea where Fred Phelps is. As I said above, I would hope for all my fellow human beings to be saved and, yes, that includes Fred Phelps. My hope that Phelps may be in heaven is strengthened by the reports that indicate he may have had a change of heart before his death.

Having said that, if Phelps is in Heaven, it is not just because he believed in the divinity of Christ. Catholics reject the protestant doctrine of salvation by faith alone. So, I have no difficulty at least acknowledging the possibility that someone can die believing in Christ's deity and go to hell. As St. James said "Even the demons believe, and tremble."

Having said the above, fairness to my protestant friends requires me to add that, most protestants do not equate faith simply with believing in the deity of Christ and so they would agree that belief in Christ's deity does not necessarily mean a given person is saved.

So, my, brief answer to Mr. Mehta's first three questions, I hope all three of the people you name are in heaven, but I really don't know.