Everyone…Even the Atheists

By Jacob Rennaker


Recent remarks by Pope Francis have caused quite a stir. Reuters summarized the essence of this message, saying “Atheists are good if they do good.” But the Pope’s remarks actually went much further. According to Vatican Radio, Pope Francis stated, “The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists.”


Pope Francis braves the rain before his general audience at the Vatican on May 29, 2013

Pope Francis braves the rain before his general audience at the Vatican on May 29, 2013


This seems to be a change of pace from the previous pope, who made some strong statements against atheism. The Vatican itself seemed a bit startled at Pope Francis’ comments, and went so far as to issue an “explanatory note” correcting this recent pronouncement.


What could possibly move Pope Francis to make such jarring statements? The larger context of this statement sheds some light on the matter:

The Lord has created us in His image and likeness, and has given us this commandment in the depths of our heart: do good and do not do evil. The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics Everyone! “Father, the atheists?” Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all! And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. “But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!” But do good: we will meet one another there. (emphasis added)


Setting aside questions of what the pope meant by “redemption” in this address, I would like to focus on his vision of a population unified in doing good and its biblical underpinnings. The idea that humanity was created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26-27) appears to provides the foundation for such optimism. But what does it mean to be created “in the image of God?”


A worshiper approaches the divine image / statue of the goddess Ishtar

A worshiper approaches the divine image / statue of the goddess Ishtar


Like the pope’s recent remarks, this statement in Genesis 1 was fairly revolutionary in its own social and religious environment, though not in the way you might think. For the nations surrounding Israel (especially the Babylonians), their gods were represented by physical images (statues), which were very carefully constructed and over whom prayers were said to endow the image with the essence of the deity. These images of the gods were regularly washed, anointed, clothed, and fed by priests within sacred houses (temples) constructed for them. This was a very tangible way in which worshipers could “serve” the gods. Such “service,” however, was limited to certain classes of priests, and for the most part, these “images” of the gods were hidden from the sight of the masses.


Genesis 1 turned the concept of a remote, rarely visible god on its head: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them” (v. 27). Thus, from the perspective of Israel, each individual was seen as an “image” of God and bore the stamp of his or her Creator. This sort of paradigm makes the “image” of God more proximate, more visible, more real.



What, then, are the implications of such a view? Whereas the more prevalent view held that the images of gods were a scarce commodity, for the Israelites the world was overflowing with images of God. Every encounter with another person was an encounter with the image of God, and every kindness done to another was a “service” to the image of God (for an intriguing parallel in Mormon scripture, see Mosiah 2:17). From this point of view, the prohibition against making and worshiping “graven images” (Exodus 20:4-6) becomes a prohibition against limiting one’s love for God and being constrictive in one’s devotion toward him and his ever-present images.


“Golden Rule” by Norman Rockwell (1961)

“Golden Rule” by Norman Rockwell (1961)


Here’s where our discussion intersects once again with the pope’s remarks. Pope Francis sees in the shared divine heritage of humanity — created in the image and likeness of God — a shared imperative to do good and to be good. He suggests that this impulse has been placed “in the depths of our heart,” and that the realization and development of this impulse will lead to what the pope describes as a “culture of encounter,” an everyday encounter with the images of God. “We must meet one another doing good,” he continues, for it is in seeing the good in others that we come to see God.


According to some early Christian writers, this “culture of encounter” wherein one can somehow “see” God was intimated by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5:8 reads, “Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.” No elaboration or explanation is given, but the prolific early Christian scholar Tertullian (AD 160-220) restated this idea in the following:


Vidisti…fratrem, vidisti dominum tuum

“[When] thou hast seen a brother, thou hast seen thy Lord”

De Oratione Liber (the text in its entirety can be read in English here)


According to Tertullian, there is a deep connection between seeing another human and seeing deity. Mormon Prophet Harold B. Lee made this connection more explicit:


If you would see God, you must be pure… You can see only that which you have eyes to see… Only if you are the pure in heart will you see God, and also in a lesser degree will you be able to see the “God” or good in man and love him because of the goodness you see in him. (Decisions for Successful Living [Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1973], p. 59)


To the degree that we are willing to cut through various layers of prejudices and recognize the good in another — any other — person, to that same degree we will be able to see God, or in other words, the “image” of God standing before us in all his or her glory. C.S. Lewis came to the conclusion that “it is safe to tell the pure in heart that they shall see God, for only the pure in heart want to” (The Problem of Pain [New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2009], p. 149). Seeing the image of God or good in others takes serious, sustained effort. Such a faith-filled effort is rewarded with a more expansive and ennobling view of human potential for good — a small-scale theophany, or manifestation of God, if you will.


Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (now Pope Francis), archbishop of Buenos Aires, washes the feet of an unidentified woman on Holy Thursday at the Buenos Aires’ Sarda maternity hospital on March 24, 2005.

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (now Pope Francis), archbishop of Buenos Aires, washes the feet of an unidentified woman on Holy Thursday at the Buenos Aires’ Sarda maternity hospital on March 24, 2005.


Pope Francis suggests that by believing in humanity’s genesis from God, Christians can envision a world where every human being has the potential to do good, and that good must be both recognized and nurtured — served — in order to “reveal” the image of God more clearly to the world. The Pope describes this process of actively searching for and responding to the good in others as “a beautiful path towards peace.” The Pope has worked to make this path more recognizable and accessible, as demonstrated by his service to the images of God. In his controversial remarks, the Pope calls for a recognition that all have the capacity for good, and that our interaction with others — social, political, and religious — must begin with the assumption that they can, in some way, do good in the world. He calls us to “do good [because] we will meet one another there.” In doing good and fostering good in others, we will not only “meet one another” on the common ground of realized human goodness, we will also meet God there.


What would such a world look like? How would this change what we expect from ourselves and from others? How would this change our social, political, and religious discourse? These questions are a cause for serious reflection, and should be carefully considered by all who believe in a benevolent God, regardless of religious affiliation. The idea that such a God has created all of humanity is a potent idea, one that has only begun to be excavated in public discourse. Its effects have the potential to radiate outward to all of humanity – to “Everyone…Even the atheists.”


Jacob Rennaker is a Ph.D.Candidate in Religion at Claremont Graduate University and blogs at Believing is Seeing.

Comments (3)

  1. Brandon Dabling

    June 12, 2013 at 6:02 pm

    Jacob, this is a wonderful article. I like how you’ve seen something so beautiful in a comment mired in so much controversy. I’m curious what you think are some of the ways we see the image of God in other human beings. Especially in light of the Fall, which takes place after the scripture you quote in Gen. 1, how much can we say we, as God’s children, are still created in God’s likeness? What has been preserved that is worth reverencing or treating as sacred?

  2. John Hancock

    June 13, 2013 at 2:23 pm

    Well done Jacob. This piece reminds me of President Monson’s admonition to “develop the capacity to see men not as they are at present but as they may become.”

  3. Jacob Rennaker

    June 13, 2013 at 3:08 pm

    Great questions.

    First, I think it’s important to recognize that the description of humanity being created in the “image of God” doesn’t seem to be directly refuted in any scripture within contemporary Jewish or Christian canons. In fact, Genesis 5:1-3 seems to suggest that this “image” was passed on to Adam’s posterity: “God created man, in the likeness of God made he him; male and female created he them; and blessed them, and called their name Adam, in the day when they were created. And Adam…begat a son in his own likeness, after his image; and called his name Seth.” In this passage, the Hebrew words used to describe the heritage of Adam’s son are identical to the words used to describe God’s creation of humanity. It appears as though there is a conscious comparison of the two creations, suggesting that God’s image was perpetuated, even after Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden.

    Next, as odd as this might sound responding to a post on Christianity and Judaism, I think that Hinduism provides a helpful model for understanding how God’s image might be made manifest (and recognized) in individuals. According to one religious scholar,

    “The Hindus have represented God in innumerable forms. This, they say, is appropriate. Each is but a symbol that points to something beyond; and as none exhausts God’s actual nature, the entire array is needed to complete the picture of God’s aspects and manifestations.” (Houston Smith, The World’s Religions [San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991], 38).

    I think that Christians and Jews would agree that God isn’t easy to comprehend (e.g. Isaiah 55:8-9), requiring a plurality of voices to describe God’s nature and attributes (hence the many individual texts that have been included in the various canons of scripture). I believe that the infinite variety of humanity’s circumstances and experiences provide each person with an entirely unique environment wherein he or she can develop certain Godlike attributes. Because of this, it is possible that each person we come into contact with can give us a unique glimpse into one (or more) of the attributes of God.

    I think that a slight reworking of the previous quotation about Hinduism describes what I’m getting at:
    “God has been made manifest through innumerable ‘images of God’…Each ‘image’ or person can serve as a symbol that points to something beyond; and as no individual ‘image’ exhausts God’s actual nature, the entire array is needed to complete the picture of God’s aspects and manifestations.”

    The difficulty, then, comes in trying to identify what godlike attribute each person has developed and to what degree he or she has developed that attribute. In a practical sense, I suppose one way to do this would be to compare the words or actions of another to the attributes of God described in scripture. If, for instance, an individual’s charitable actions resonate with the sort of charity we see depicted by God in scripture, then I think we would be safe in saying that we could learn something more about God’s charitable nature by engaging with that person on some level. These manifestations of God’s attributes would definitely be worth reverencing or treating as sacred.

    Does that make sense?

The comments are now closed.