Is Pope Francis a universalist heretic?

Oh mercy! The evangelicals have so wanted to make peace with the Catholics, because they make for such great allies in the culture wars. They’re not just anti-abortion; they’re anti-condom! So we’ve tried to overlook the whole Mary thing. But then they elected this pope who washes the feet of criminals. And he says negative things about capitalism. And now he says that non-Christians are capable of doing good and are in fact redeemed by Christ. Is Pope Francis a flaming universalist heretic?

It’s hard to stay in facetious character for very long. If I were still a high school teacher and not someone who shares the body and blood of Christ with my flock and considers my soon-to-be-ordained wife just as capable of doing so, then Pope Francis would have pushed me over the edge into a full-blown conversion to Catholicism. Wow, what that man is doing makes me so hopeful for the future of the body of Christ. It’s the Pentecostals and the Catholics, supposedly opposite ends of the spectrum, who are the future of Christianity.

In any case, I wanted to address the pope’s most recent comments on the goodness of non-Christians which have scandalized more than a few evangelicals. Here’s what he said about the proverbial atheist who is nonetheless a good person:

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. He must. Not can: must! Because he has this commandment within him. Instead, this ‘closing off’ that imagines that those outside, everyone, cannot do good is a wall that leads to war and also to what some people throughout history have conceived of: killing in the name of God. That we can kill in the name of God. And that, simply, is blasphemy. To say that you can kill in the name of God is blasphemy.

I have talked before about my hypothesis that a misinterpretation of Romans 3 has caused Christians to think it pious to talk about how wicked the rest of humanity is: what I call the doctrine of the total depravity of everyone else. When Paul cites the psalm in Romans 3 which says that “no one is righteous,” he is not trying to say, “All of humanity is wicked, we just don’t realize how terrible they are because we don’t have God’s standards,” which is the default evangelical interpretation. On the contrary, he is citing an indicting example from Israel’s history that answers the question he opens with: “What then? Are we any better off?” (Romans 3:9). So basically, he’s making the opposite point from the one that evangelicals often use this passage to make. Instead of saying those other people are so evil but we aren’t, Paul is saying we’re not any better than them.

Paul talked about himself being “chief among sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). When each of us as Christians embraces that attitude of radical humility, then we are made into people who “in humility regard others as better than ourselves” (Philippians 2:3). It is not impious as a Christian to call others good; it is impious to call myself good. The quintessential Christian virtue is the recognition that any good I do is only made possible through the grace of God and is to His glory alone. It is not that I revel in self-deprecation but rather that I am set free from the cursed slavery of trying to take credit for my good deeds and keep score. When I have a theology that regards others as utterly wicked, the result is my own entrapment in spiritual pride.

So here was the other controversial paragraph that Pope Francis busted out:

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! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all! And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. 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 is a genius blueprint for effective evangelism. Instead of trying to argue people on the sidewalk into admitting they’ve violated one of the Ten Commandments and deserve to be tortured eternally (like sidewalk evangelism guru Ray Comfort), what Francis proposes is that we work together with atheists and other non-Christians for the common good in order to make the space for a “culture of encounter.” This is the space in which the witness of Christ is made manifest.

Francis isn’t saying that “doing good” earns your way into heaven. I would say that people who think the purpose of life is to earn your way into heaven whatever prayer or formula they have settled upon, however Biblical and orthodox it appears, are still very far from tasting the living water of Jesus Christ that wells up into eternal life. Such a shallow, self-preservationist understanding of salvation is the salvation of the third servant in the parable of the talents who buried his talent in the mud and gave it back to his master because he wanted to risk nothing and be absolutely sure that he was saved.

Instead of selling salvation like a manufactured product of the personal afterlife insurance industrial complex, we should be doing what Christ commanded us to do in Matthew 25, the one place where he talked the most emphatically about heaven and hell. We should gladly do this in the company of those who do good even though they haven’t yet discovered the source of their goodness, even if they have a different name for this source than we do, even if we don’t consider their theological understanding to be an adequate representation of the God we’ve come to know.

The point is to meet, to encounter one another in the praxis of loving our neighbor. I think we have a much better chance inviting someone to share in the sacred mysteries of Christ when we’ve sat in the trenches with them and fought for causes that we’ve shared than when we come in and say none of what you’re doing is worthwhile because I haven’t yet presented the gospel to you. Really it amounts to the question of whether we trust that God is already at work in other peoples’ lives before we get on the scene and whether God has the capability of using authentic relationships to draw people to Him rather than just the content of our own brilliant apologetic arguments.

So bravo to Francis for providing these words of correction. Could he be the one who God uses to help Catholics and evangelicals alike move beyond the toxic anti-evangelism of culture war that we’ve been stuck in the last thirty years?

21 thoughts on “Is Pope Francis a universalist heretic?

  1. The Pope is not a universalist. The Catholics and the Orthodox have always historically repudiated universalism. Saying that non-Christians can go to Heaven is not universalism, it is simply part of historic Christianity.

    You can read about this in Matt. 25:31-46, there is also Mark 9:38-40. The problem is that when Evangelicals and Liberals read stuff like Francis I’s statements on gays or on non-Christians going to Heaven, they have a tendency to read these statements in black and white.

    I’m converting to Catholicism and I have liberal friends and family who see very much in black and white and so when a guy says that non-Christians can go to Heaven they read this as “universalism!” and think that the guy is on their side. It gives me a headache trying to explain to them about how that Orthodox priest or that Catholic bishop was not teaching universalism.

  2. Reblogged this on Vox Clara and commented:
    After the great Pope of Christian unity, Benedict XVI, we have Pope Francis who in just six months reenergized Christians everywhere to create culture of encounter, where the gospel can be preached.


    Heresy is an opinion, especially a self-willed opinion, which is substituted for submission to the power of truth, and leads to division and formation of sects. Christian heresy is opinion contrary to the Scriptures. Christian heresy is opinion in opposition to the doctrines of God.

    One mans heretic is another mans truth teller.

    There are men who believe there are many ways to heaven. Was Jesus being a heretic when He said (John 14:6 …”I am the way, and the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father but through Me.)

    There are believers in Christs as well as others who believe that that it took God millions or billions of years to create the heavens and the earth. Was Moses being a heretic when he wrote in Genesis of a six day, twenty four hour day creation? (Genesis 1:1-31……31 God saw all that He made, and behold, it was very good. And that was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.)

    Many believers in Christ believe and teach that water baptism is not essential to have sins forgiven. Was the apostle Peter being heretical when he said (Acts 2:38 ….and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins..)

    Some believe that Jesus is God the Father. Was the apostle Paul guilty of heresy when he said (1 Corinthians 15:20-28…..24 then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to God the Father, when He has abolished all rule authority and power……28 When all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, so that God may be all in all.)

    Some men believe that you do not have to believe in Jesus to be saved. Other men assert that water baptism is not a requirement for salvation. Was Jesus demonstrating an act of heresy when He said (Mark 16:16 He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved…)

    There are those who proclaim that Christians cannot fall from grace. Was the apostle Paul deemed a heretic when he said (Galatians 5:4 You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.)

    There are a few who believe that God only offers salvation, by His grace, to a select chosen few. Was the apostle Paul showing his heretical side when he said (Titus 2:11 For the grace of God has appeared bring salvation to all men) Gods grace is available to all who accept His terms for pardon.

    Are Jesus, Moses, the apostles, and the writers of the Bible, all heretics?

    Is it heretical to be opposed to denominational doctrines that are contrary to the facts found in the Bible?

    Are Jesus and the apostles heretics because they disagree with denominational doctrines?


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    • I’m guessing you assume that there’s only one interpretation for every verse in scripture and there’s never any tension between different verses. The Calvinists could give you just as strong a case for their view based on a different set of proof-texts. Haeresis is the original Greek word that gets translated as heretic; it means faction. Paul used it in 1 Corinthians to refer to people who were focused on finding ways in which they were the only ones who were right, saying I follow Paul or I follow Apollos or I follow Cephas. Did you read my article or where you responding to the title?

  4. I guess Pope Francis was pointing out the universality of the salvation OFFER as opposed to views such as limited atonement.

    To my mind, God won’t force anyone to choose Him, and if the person refuses, he or she will eventually cease to exist.

    I’ve one question: as a Christian Universalist, how does one interpret Jesus warnings about hell?
    Keep doing all your good work!

    Lothar’s son – Lothars Sohn

    • I’m not a universalist. I think people can reject God and I think that God has the covenantal duty to protect those under His mercy from their unrepentant oppressors. I do also think that Jesus was being hyperbolic to put rich, selfish Pharisees in their place since both of his major warnings about hell in Luke 16:19-31 and Matthew 25 had to do with rich, selfish people not helping the poor.

  5. No stereotyping – I said Catholocism, not Catholics. I think there are a lot of good Christians deceived by Catholocism, and I believe it is possible to be a saved Catholic. Salvation is individual, not collectivist. However, much of the system of beliefs espoused by the Catholic cult are from Satan, not God.

    • You seem overly confident in your powers of discernment so I’m going to need to exhort you a little. I’ve learned from my relationships with Catholics and from attending mass on a weekly basis that what you shared are all mischaracterizations. What distinguishes Catholics from Protestants is that they really believe that people in heaven participate in our reality and still are very literally “a great cloud of witnesses.” Protestants say we believe in eternal life but we treat Christians who have died as it they don’t have eternal life but are simply gone. When Catholics converse with a saint, it’s because they think they’re having a real conversation with someone who is still eternally alive and can pray for them no differently than I can pray for you. It’s not polytheism. You really haven’t had any direct exposure to it at all, have you? Who’s feeding you this stuff? Don’t you fear the consequences of bearing false witness in this way? I don’t think Jesus takes it lightly when we talk about His bride being a whore which is literally what you just did.

  6. Morgan, I disagree with your premise. I do believe the intent of Romans 3 (and Psalms) is to say that none are good. Jesus says so himself – if ANYONE was good it was Jesus, yet he says,

    Mar 10:17 As He was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
    18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone.

    Luk 18:19 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone.

    Rom 3:9 What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin;
    10 as it is written, “THERE IS NONE RIGHTEOUS, NOT EVEN ONE;

    So how is it that Jesus says that none are good but God? Didn’t we all start out as good?

    Gen 1:31 God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

    What happened is Adam sinned, introducing death (and thereby corruption Gen 6:12) into the earth.

    Rom 5:12 Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned—

    The Bible calls death an enemy (1Cor 15:26). Certainly, something that contains death cannot be good, but is a corruption of the original creation.

    Job 25:4 “How then can a man be just with God? Or how can he be clean who is born of woman?

    Gal 4:4 But when the right time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, subject to the law.

    In his spirit, Jesus was God (and therefore good). But in his flesh, he was corrupted human being, just like the rest of us. He was born with corrupted flesh from a human woman. He was born mortal.

    1Cr 15:42 So also [is] the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption:
    1Cr 15:44 It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body.
    1Cr 15:53 For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal [must] put on immortality.
    54 So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.

    By the way – we’ve all known that Catholicism is heretical for centuries. They worship Mary as a god, and other human beings (saints) in a pagan, polytheistic manner. They believe in baptismal regeneration, they practice compulsory fasting, celibacy, idolatry, and they continue to celebrate pagan festivals (Lent, for example). The Bible describes the church as the Bride of Christ. If that is the case, then Catholicism is the harlot described in Revelation – as she has thoroughly corrupted herself with Babylonian paganism.

    See this:

    This is part 22 of the series “Know Your Enemy”. Parts 23 and 24 show just how inundated with Satanic symbols Catholicism is. That “enemy” is, of course, Satan. This thorough and illuminating series describes Satan’s seat of power throughout history from Nimrod and Semiramsis to Baal and Asherah to the Catholic church, to the world’s rich and powerful Rothchilds and the world’s financial systems – through to the book of Revelation. It is definitely worth watching the whole series. It will change the way you see the world to see how pervasive Satanic influence is in the world today – even in corporations, Hollywood, and governments. It shows the root of all the world religions leading back to a single, Satanic source just after Noah’s flood. It will blow your mind.

    • Eek… You’re trafficking in some stereotypes there re: Catholicism. I agree that only God is good but by His grace He causes good to happen through even people who don’t know Him. We only get to enjoy the good we get to participate in if we give all the glory to Him which requires being delivered from our self-idolatry by the cross.

  7. Pingback: More Holy Madness | Spirited Theology

  8. Bravo to pope, and bravo to you. Excellent post, Morgan.
    Except…your wife may be more capable… 🙂
    I’m enamoured of this pope. Amazed even.
    When he washed women’s feet as well as men. A Muslim woman!
    Like St. Francis of old he would meet our so-called enemies in love and humility, on their turf.
    I’m with you, I am tempted to follow the pope in his Church. He is is just awesome.
    He is showing the whole world the gospel.
    Pray for him for his continued (via Holy Spirit) insights, his health and safety.
    Still, I’m Methodist.
    I love homespun Methodism, Wesley, And the old hymns.

  9. My camp is in a twist because some see this as a negation of joint declaration on the doctrine of justification. It’s amazing to me how often we are blinded by our own set of theological lenses. I do not think he was going for works righteousness at all. But it seems to have been interpreted as if he were. That, or as a statement of universalism.

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