Praying for Atheists
by Mark Shea
After a series on the flaws of atheism it's not hard for an atheist reader to conclude that I have nothing good to say about atheists and for a certain sort of Christian to conclude that I assume the damnation of atheists.
The truth, of course, is that there is always a difference between an idea and the person that holds it. I have been arguing against atheism, not predicting the fate of atheists. This is in keeping with the Catholic habit of mind of opposing the sin, not the sinner. About the fate of atheists (or of anybody else), the counsel of the Church is always to hope and pray since the judgment of souls is above our pay grade.
That is why I never have a problem with prayer for the souls of atheists. But I suppose that when I do pray for them (as I prayed sometime back, on my blog, for the soul of atheist Stephen Jay Gould), I guess I shouldn't be surprised when somebody writes and says:
Could you clarify this statement concerning S.J. Gould: "God have mercy on his soul and grant him everlasting life through Christ."
As a Protestant, I believe that if a person doesn't believe in Jesus, then that person is lost. There is no "second chance" after death.
There are two ways of looking at the inconsistencies of atheism and, more importantly, of atheists. One can complain that atheists are inconsistent and therefore hypocrites (because they affirm enough freedom and moral responsibility in their materialist universe to have enough ammo to use against theists). But there is, of course, another approach. We can also rejoice that most atheists are what I call "eupocrites": which is to say they are better and more human than their ugly materialist philosophy.
Eupocrisy is a universal human experience. We see it, for instance, in the story of the two sons that Jesus told. The father asked the older son to go work in the Vineyard and he said, "Yes" but didn't go. The younger son said, "No" but then went. Jesus' asks simply, "Which one did his Father's will?" And the answer, of course, is that the one who said "No" is the one who obeyed. In short, it is possible for humans not only to be worse than their best rhetoric, but to be better than their worst rhetoric. Most atheists fit this bill, which gives me hope that the Holy Spirit may be up to more than they realize in their own hearts.
That is not to say that real rejection of God is impossible. It's merely to say that we humans are notoriously bad at knowing not just the hearts of others, but even our own hearts. An atheist whose philosophy tells him that human life is the product of a ruthless struggle for survival between the fit and the unfit, yet who passionately labors to care for the powerless and victimized is gloriously inconsistent. And some of us might be forgiven for saying that his heart is listening to other voices than those of Darwin or Herbert Spencer.
Of course, good deeds—whether by atheists or Christians—do not save, Christ does. But on the other hand, acts of love are evidence of the work of Christ's Spirit in the human soul. So the Church has never hesitated to pray for "those of good will". We know where the Church is. We do not know where it is not.
Catholics, of course, reject the idea of second chances after death for those in mortal sin. As the Catechism makes clear: (CCC 1035): "The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, 'eternal fire.' The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs."
However, no one knows who, if anyone, has died in mortal sin. An atheist's failure to "ask Jesus Christ into his heart as personal Lord and Savior" in a way recognizable to your average Protestant (or his failure to be baptized) is no infallible index in determining whether or not he was open in some mysterious way to the working of the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ. If he was open to the Holy Spirit in some way, then our task is to pray in hope that, with not a few atheists, he may hear with amazement: "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me."
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Mark P. Shea is a senior editor at www.CatholicExchange.com and a columnist for InsideCatholic.com. Visit his blog at www.markshea.blogspot.com. Copyright © Mark Shea and InsideCatholic.com. All rights reserved.