If you had the choice, would you rather have as your next-door neighbor a mean, snarky, territorial Christian or a friendly atheist who mowed your grass when you had the flu?
Given that choice, I’d take the atheist every time.
It surprised me a little, though — and encouraged me — to find that no less a personage than Pope Francis might possibly agree with me.
Maybe that’s why I admire this pope so much: He and I agree on lots of things.
He’s even implied that some atheists will make it to heaven, while some self-professed Christians … won’t.
Among the many news items readers forward to me was one I received Easter weekend titled, “Pope suggests it’s better to be an atheist than a bad Christian,” by Daniel Burke, a religion editor at CNN.
Unfortunately, I don’t remember and can’t seem to track now who sent me the article. I apparently saved the attachment but then lost the email. The story, from CNN’s website, was a bit dated. It had been written in late February.
According to CNN, the pope said in a Mass that Christians who act hypocritically by, for instance, managing exploitative businesses, would be better off if they dropped their Christian pretentions.
In Burke’s paraphrase: “Examples of such sins abound, the Pope said, from money launderers to business owners who take beach vacations while stiffing their employees.”
As you may have noticed before, although some Catholics (and some Protestants) tend to major on hot-button sins such as abortion, Francis is equally concerned about social and economic injustice.
Francis’ larger point was that what people actually do is more important, or more revelatory, than what they call themselves. A true Christian is one who acts Christ-like, who loves his fellow travelers and treats them honestly.
Earlier, in 2013, the pope also had hinted that heaven might be open for all those of good will and compassionate actions, including non-believers, Burke noted.
Back then, Francis said Jesus redeemed everyone with the blood of Christ, including, specifically, atheists. Christians and atheists “must meet one another doing good,” the pope said.
Thus, Francis implied, it’s possibly better to be a charitable atheist than a double-dealing, miserly Christian, of whom, as we’ve all discovered, there are quite a few.
The CNN article caused me to ponder yet again a couple of issues regarding Christians and atheists that readers of this column bring up fairly regularly.
First, is it possible to be good without God?
The short answer: yes, of course it is. Even a little bit of experience with life proves that. Many people of all stripes are inclined toward generosity, humility and honesty.
Some of the best people I’ve ever known were Christians. But I’ve also known atheists who were equally good, who honored their spouses and loved their kids and encouraged their friends, who fed the hungry and clothed the needy and paid their employees well. I’ve met Jews, Buddhists and Muslims who did the same.
At the same time, I’ve known Christians who were pure evil. Just awful, awful people. And I’m sure that, too, could be said about atheists, Jews, Buddhists and Muslims.
No group has cornered the market on virtue, and no group has cornered all evil. That’s not a liberal statement or a conservative one. It’s simply the truth.
I do believe that trying to obey the teachings of Jesus and his apostles helps a lot of us Christians, myself included, be better than we otherwise might have been if left to our own devices. But members of other groups might say similar things about their belief systems.
Second, can atheists go to heaven?
It’s paradoxical to suggest that people who don’t believe in heaven might end up there despite themselves.
I don’t know the answer. As I frequently admit, it’s way above my pay grade to decide who goes to heaven or hell or just dies and remains dead like a withered bagworm. Frankly, I don’t even think about it much, it’s so far beyond my purview.
In the teachings of my own low-church tradition, though, going to heaven really has nothing much to do with how good or bad we are. Our theology says no one — Christian, Jew, atheist — can earn his way into God’s favor. Salvation is by God’s grace, and by our faith in that grace. It’s a gift, freely bestowed on anyone who asks.
Still, we trust God to do the right thing by all people, to judge wisely and to extend abundant mercy.
When I do try to think about what heaven will be like, I tend to think of it in much the way I think about this world. Which is to say, I’d just as lief spend eternity next door to certain atheists I’ve known as next door to some of the Christians.
So, if the Lord does ever ask my opinion, I’ll tell him, “Let the good atheists in, too.”
Besides, if they wake up in heaven, they won’t remain atheists anyway, right? It’s hard not to believe in a place where you’re actual heavenly residing.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.