Can atheists go to heaven?

The Question

Recently, one of my good friends became an atheist, and I worry for her. I know that the Bible says that the only way to God is through Jesus, and that the ultimate unforgivable sin is not accepting Jesus as Savior and believing in God. If my friend dies an atheist, is there any possible way that she can go to heaven, or will she automatically go to hell? Is there anything that I can do to help her?

- L. from Chicago


The Answer
Part 1: Why an atheist?
Part 2: Eternity for atheists
Part 3: Ways to help

Why an atheist? (Part 1)

It is interesting that you said your friend recently became an atheist. I wonder what has happened in her life to prompt that and I wonder what she believed before. I mention it because while most atheists credit "reason" or "logic" for the basis of their belief that there is no God; my theory is that the real root is usually emotional.

The most natural and normal thing in the world is to believe in God. "For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made." (Romans 1:20) Those who don't see it that way are clearly in the minority and always have been. A recent poll shows that 90% of Americans believe in God.

Back in 1963, a lady named Madalyn Murray O'Hair founded "American Atheists" and was responsible for filing the Supreme Court case which effectively removed prayer from the school room. She always maintained that solid thinking brought her to her atheist conclusions but I see something different.

According to biographical information, O'Hair incurred some severe emotional wounds from religion. Her son (who became a born again Christian as an adult) says she had deep personal hatred for followers of Christianity which overshadowed her whole life.

Now, about your friend. Has she had emotional upheaval? Is she angry with God? Did someone who represents God hurt or reject her? Is she the victim of the hypocrisy of some church? Often, when we feel that the trustworthiness of God fails, we become angry and bitter. It is better not to believe at all then to experience such hurt. So…an atheist is born.

For such a one, is there any possibility of heaven?


Eternity for atheists (Part 2)

You are correct that the Bible says that the only way to God is through Jesus. Acts 4:12 says; "'And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved.'"

Regarding hell and who ultimately goes there, Jesus says in Mark 16:16; "'He who has believed and been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned.'"

Yes, that makes things sound very grim but remember that your friend is not dead yet. She has not really made that final decision - at least we hope not. Many people go through an atheist or other non-believing "phase" in their life and for most people it does not last. It is not an unforgivable sin to not accept Jesus as Savior unless you go to the grave that way.

God extends hope and salvation up to the moment of death and many who are facing the reality of an eternity without God acknowledge and receive him finally at the end. Those who do not are making their own choice. God is not condemning them to hell as much as they are condemning themselves.

Is there anything you can do to make sure this does not happen to your friend?


Ways to help (Part 3)

There are definitely things that you can do to help your friend. There are also things you can avoid doing which will be more harmful than helpful. For instance, please don't argue with her. Don't spout scripture to her in a way that is condemning. Don't judge her heart or take a self-righteous approach.

Remember Zacchaeus? He was converted when he had an encounter with Jesus in a tree and the Lord asked if he could come to his house. (See Luke 19:1-10) In the end of that story Jesus said: "'For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.'"

This is just as true today. Jesus has a plan and a strategy to encounter your friend. Once she has had a genuine experience with the true and living God, disbelief will fall by the wayside. Through prayer, you can ask how you can participate in God's plan. Be obedient to anything the Lord asks you to do.

Pray for her daily and treat her with love and kindness. Remember that actions speak louder than words. Does your own life reflect that you are a disciple of Christ? Live as if it does and you will become a living sermon to your friend. She will observe you even if you never say a word.

A final thought: don't grow weary or give up hope no matter how long it takes. It is a good thing that you "worry for her." That means you care and in the end that may be the most significant thing you have to offer as you trust God to reach her before it is too late.

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