Do atheists go to heaven?
For most atheists, the obvious answer is, “No.”
Ironically, atheists agree with traditional Christians on this point. It’s just that atheists don’t think anyone else goes to heaven, either. And traditional Christians think that atheists go to hell—an idea that atheists reject.
Then again, Christians and atheists can’t even agree on how to define “atheism.”
- Christians tend to define atheism as a belief that there is no God.
- Atheists tend to define atheism as a lack of belief in gods.
What strikes me about both of these definitions is that they’re all about belief or lack thereof. And these days belief is seen as something we do with our head, meaning with our intellect.
Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.”
Not “in their heads,” but “in their hearts.” Saying in your head that there is no God, as your average present-day atheist does, is very different from saying in your heart that there is no God.
So before we get to whether atheists go to heaven, let’s look more closely at what the Bible means when it talks about believing or not believing in God.
Does the Bible contradict itself about who goes to heaven?
The problem with traditional Christian ideas about believing in Jesus, and believing in God, is that they cause the Bible to contradict itself about who goes to heaven.
Christians often point to John 3:18 to support their view that anyone who doesn’t believe in Jesus Christ goes to hell. Here it is:
Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
According to traditional Christian doctrine, God condemns anyone who doesn’t believe in Jesus. But if you read on, the Bible makes it clear that it is not God who condemns, but nonbelievers who condemn themselves by their actions:
And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. (John 3:19–20)
John 3:18 is not talking about those who merely don’t believe in Jesus with their heads. It’s talking about “people who love darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil.”
Those myriad Christian preachers who say that even though nonbelievers do good deeds, they will still go to hell because they don’t believe in Jesus are causing the Gospel of John to contradict itself.
They are also causing John 3:18 to contradict what Jesus says in Matthew 25:31–46 about who goes to heaven and who goes to hell:
- Those who feed the hungry, give the thirsty something to drink, invite in strangers, clothe the naked, tend to the sick, and visit those in prison will go to eternal life.
- Those who do not feed the hungry, give the thirsty something to drink, invite in strangers, clothe the naked, tend to the sick, and visit those in prison will go to eternal punishment.
This is precisely what traditional Christians deny—especially the evangelicals and fundamentalists in the Protestant wing of Christianity. They say that if you believe in Jesus you go to heaven, and if you don’t believe in Jesus you go to hell. They say that although you should do good deeds, this has nothing to do with your salvation. In other words, they reject Christ’s own teaching about who goes to heaven and who goes to hell.
What does the Bible mean by “belief”?
That’s because they don’t understand what the Bible means by “belief.”
The Biblical concept of belief is very different from our present-day concept of belief.
In this age of science, reason, and intellect, we think of belief as a mental or intellectual acceptance of some idea—as thinking in our head that something is true.
But in the Bible, belief is something we do with our whole self, including our heart and our hands. From a Biblical perspective, believing without living by that belief is not belief at all. Here’s how the Apostle James put it:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? . . . But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. (James 2:14, 18–19, emphasis added)
For James, what we do shows what our faith is.
When the Bible talks about faith and belief, it is not talking about something we do with our head. It is talking about the beliefs and principles that we live by.
What does it mean to believe in God?
What, then, does it mean to believe in God?
The Bible says that those who believe in Jesus are not condemned, but those who don’t believe are condemned already.
It also says that those who love their neighbor by doing good deeds for them will go to eternal life, while those who do not will go to eternal punishment.
Is the Bible contradicting itself?
No, it is not.
Instead, it is saying that believing in Jesus, and believing in God, means loving our neighbor and doing good things for our neighbor. That’s why Jesus says:
Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my Father in heaven. (Matthew 7:20)
To put it in more abstract terms, when we believe in and live by what is good and true, we are believing in God, whether or not we call it God. And when we believe in and live by the things Jesus taught, we are believing in Jesus whether or not we say we believe in Jesus.
For more on belief from the Bible’s perspective, see the article, “Is Jesus Christ the Only Way to Heaven?”
When is an atheist not an atheist?
With that under our belt, let’s look again at the question of whether atheists go to heaven.
The question is, atheists by whose definition?
Today, atheists roundly reject the old definition of atheism as “godless, wicked, and sinful.” And yet, that is precisely what the Bible means when it talks about people who do not believe in God.
In Psalms 14 and 53, after saying “Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God,’” it goes on to say:
They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is no one who does good.
These Psalms, and the Bible as a whole, are not talking about people who do not intellectually accept the concept of God. No, the Bible is talking about people who reject everything good and true that God stands for by living corrupt, evil, and destructive lives.
Does that really describe your average philosophical atheist in the world today?
Of course, there are some atheists who are terrible, evil, and destructive people. But there are also some religious folks who are terrible, evil, and destructive people. Both of these groups—the religious evildoers and the non-religious evildoers—are atheists as the Bible defines atheism. They both reject in their lives the good and true things that come from God.
But atheists who care about their fellow human beings and the good of humanity, and who honestly believe that a lack of belief in God leads to a better, more enlightened, and more just world, are not even atheists by the Biblical definition. That’s because even though they do not say “Lord, Lord,” they actually do the will of our Father in heaven by working to make the world a better place for everyone in it.
In short, to fully accept the Bible’s teachings about who goes to heaven, and specifically about whether atheists go to heaven, we must broaden our definition of God, and of belief in God.
Traditional definitions of “belief” require a person to believe in a specific being (or beings) that we call God.
But in a broader definition suggested by the Bible passages quoted above, and many others, believing in God means believing in a higher good than merely benefit for oneself, and believing that there is a truth we are meant to seek beyond our own particular knowledge and the ideas we gravitate toward because we think of them as benefiting ourselves in some way. In Christian terms, we must include in our definition believing by our actions in the Holy Spirit—which is God’s love, wisdom, and power flowing out into the whole universe, and into human society.
Conscientious atheists commonly strive for a higher truth and a greater good than themselves and their own benefit. And whenever they do so, they are believing in what comes from God even if they do not accept the concept of God. And as long as they believe in some higher good and some higher truth, and live by it, they find their place in heaven, not in hell, when their life on this earth is over. In this way, they are held to exactly the same standard as those who believe in God.
Why are atheists atheists?
Traditional Christians—especially fundamentalist and evangelical ones—can be very harsh in their condemnation of atheists and their insistence that atheists will go to hell.
And yet, their own faulty, non-Biblical doctrines have a lot to do with the growth of atheism in recent centuries. (For some examples of those non-Biblical doctrines, see “‘Christian Beliefs’ that the Bible Doesn’t Teach.”)
It is no accident that some of the most diehard atheists grew up in conservative Christian families and communities. They had harsh, irrational, unloving doctrines shoved down their throats—doctrines about God condemning to hell billions of good, honest, loving, conscientious people just because they didn’t believe in Jesus.
I’ll put it bluntly. These teachings about God are false. And when atheists reject these terrible, false beliefs about God, they are not rejecting God as God really is. They are rejecting false gods. Unfortunately, the false gods they were raised on so tainted the very idea of God in their mind that many will never be able to believe intellectually in God as long as they live.
And yet, the very fact that they have rejected a harsh, angry, arbitrary, unloving, and unjust God means that they value the qualities opposite to those falsely attributed to God. They value kindness, good will, reasonableness, justice, and yes, even love.
Do atheists go to heaven?
Will people who believe in these things, and live by them, really go to hell? Will people who live by the good qualities that God really is not find themselves in heaven?
Heaven is the eternal home of those who love what is good and true simply because it is good and true. And that is a very good description of many sincere atheists who only want the world to be a better, more rational, and more just place for everyone.
As Jesus says in Matthew 25:31–46, when we figuratively stand before the throne of God after we die, God will not ask us what we believed. Instead, God will ask us what we did. And all those who loved and served God’s brothers and sisters here on earth are loving and serving God, no matter what their intellect thought or their lips said about God.
Do atheists go to heaven?
If they love their neighbor as themselves, the answer is yes.
In doing so, they are loving God and showing by their actions their belief in the true character and reality of God.
For further reading:
- Is Jesus Christ the Only Way to Heaven?
- “Christian Beliefs” that the Bible Doesn’t Teach
- Faith Alone Is Not Faith
- Can We Really Believe the Bible?
- Who is God? Who is Jesus Christ? What About that Holy Spirit?
- Can Gang Members Go to Heaven? (Is Life Fair?)
- Heaven, Regeneration, and the Meaning of Life on Earth