Recently Pope Francis was widely reported as having sought to build bridges to atheists and agnostics. What particularly took the media spotlight was a statement in which he is reported to have said that what matters most is obeying one’s conscience.
Apparently he was responding to a series of questions in an Italian newspaper editorial. He wrote, “You ask me if the God of the Christians forgives those who don’t believe and who don’t seek the faith. 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.”
The Pope has been widely applauded for this attempt to be inclusive and to move away from the idea that all those who don’t have faith in Jesus will go to hell.
The big question is whether Pope Francis is right. There are two things that we ought to keep in mind.
The first is that anyone who has heard the gospel and who rejects it will not see life. Scripture is very clear about the fate of those who refuse to believe the gospel. John, in the third chapter of his gospel makes that well known and much loved statement – in what is probably the most well-known verse in the Bible: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” But John ends that chapter by saying, “whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.” That doesn’t leave us much “wriggle room”. It certainly knocks on the head any idea that we’ll make it with God as long as the good that we do outweighs the bad.
But there is a second thing we ought to consider: What about those who have never heard the gospel? That’s a question I have been asked many times as a Pastor by my congregations and as a Dad by my children. It seems to me that Paul addresses that issue in the second chapter of his letter to the Romans – although he does so in terms of law, rather than gospel. It’s at that point that Paul too speaks of obeying one’s conscience. Paul’s argument is that if we know God’s law and we then sin by breaking that law then we are guilty before God. But if those who don’t have the law do by nature what the law requires then they are a law to themselves. And then Paul makes the point that the law has been written on the human heart – and that is where conscience kicks in.
It seems then that Pope Francis has a point. Unbelievers who have not specifically had the opportunity to reject the gospel will be judged by whether or not they have obeyed their conscience. That sounds good – except for one thing: Show me one person who has never ever done anything against their own conscience. Honesty compels us to admit that there have been times when our conscience has told us that something was wrong but we did it anyway. Paul too makes that point in Romans 2. He says that the thoughts of these people sometimes accuse them and sometimes defend them.
The point Paul is making that whether we are people who grew up knowing God’s law or whether we grew up living by our conscience, we are all sinners in need of the gospel of Christ. If that were not so then there would be no need to bring the gospel to conscientious pagans.
Pope Francis should have gone further and said, “The issue is for us to obey our conscience, but since no one ever does that perfectly we’d better put our trust in Jesus if we want to make it with God.”