Last year, Pope Francis wrote a long, open letter to the founder of the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, Eugenio Scalfari, addressing a list of questions Scalfari posed about Christianity. News outlets highlighted one passage from Francis’ letter in particular because it raised the question of whether people who don’t believe in the Christian God can go to heaven. “You ask me if the God of the Christians forgives those who don’t believe and who don’t seek the faith,” Francis wrote. “I start by saying—and this is the fundamental thing—that God’s mercy has no limits if you go to him with a sincere and contrite heart. The issue for those who do not believe in God is to obey their conscience.” This ambiguous passage led to rampant speculation that the pope was denying the need for faith in God. But we shouldn’t be so quick to assume Francis was overturning traditional Christian doctrine—because both the Bible and historic Christian confessions are plain regarding this matter.
For 2,000 years Christians have taught that no one who refuses to believe in the God of the Bible can go to heaven. The fourth-century Athanasian Creed affirmed that “whosoever will be saved: before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith.” The Church of England’s 39 Articles state, “Holy Scripture doth set out unto us only the Name of Jesus Christ, whereby men must be saved.” According to the Westminster Confession Faith, “The wicked who know not God, and obey not the gospel of Jesus Christ, shall be cast into eternal torments.” More recently, the Baptist Faith and Message put it this way: “There is no salvation without personal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord.”
The Bible is as clear as the confessions.1 It says God counts humans as worthy of heaven—even though we’re not worthy in ourselves—if we believe specific content about Jesus known as the gospel. In particular, we must believe that Jesus is God in the flesh, that He died to pay the penalty for humanity’s sin, was buried, rose from the grave, and ascended to heaven, where He reigns and saves. Peter outlined this message on the Day of Pentecost, and all who believed it and turned from their sins received forgiveness (Acts 2:38). Likewise, Paul said people are “saved” from eternal judgment if they “hold fast” to this message (1 Corinthians 15:2).
Many other Bible passages also teach that a person must believe in order to have eternal life in heaven. In every instance, the implied content to be believed is the gospel: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). “It pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe” (1 Corinthians 1:21). Of course, good deeds are required of every believer, but those good deeds are inevitable fruit of Christian faith, not a means of earning salvation (James 2:14-26).2
Can someone who doesn’t believe in the Christian God go to heaven? No. Some may consider this bad news. In reality though, it’s the best news imaginable because it opens heaven’s doors to even the worst sinners if they will only turn away from their sin and trust God’s Word.
1 Confusion can arise, at least in part, because some Scripture passages speak of people going to heaven or hell based on their deeds. For example, John 5:29 says that “those who have done good” will experience the “resurrection of life” and “those who have done evil” the “resurrection of judgment.” If such passages were the only teaching we had on eternal life, we might infer that a non-believer could go to heaven if he or she just did enough good deeds and abstained from enough bad deeds. But the Bible says more, warning that “none is righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10) and describing all humankind as “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). In other words, it is theoretically possible to earn a spot in heaven by righteous deeds. But in practice, no one is good enough to do that. It would require moral perfection (Matthew 5:48).
2 The life of Paul illustrates the inability of good deeds alone to save. Before Paul came to personal faith in Jesus Christ, he was “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness, under the law blameless.” But all those things were “rubbish” to Paul with regard to their ability to earn him eternal life (Philippians 3:2-11).