They may have been evil, murderous and misdirected. But, the perpetrators of 9-11 were also likely sincere and authentically following their consciences. I thought about this fact last week when Pope Francis made some unfortunate comments – ironically, on the same day that Americans remembered the 12th Anniversary of 9-11.
I’m sure to many, the Pope’s comments and 9-11 were unrelated. Yet, I thought their juxtaposition was uncanny. You see, on 9-11, Pope Francis suggested in an open letter to a prominent atheist that all one needs to do to be saved is to follow one’s conscience.
“(Y)ou ask me if the God of Christians forgives one who doesn’t believe and doesn’t seek the faith,” Francis wrote. “. . . The mercy of God has no limits . . . (T)he question for one doesn’t believe in God lies in obeying one’s conscience.” Sin, Francis continues, “exists when one goes against one’s conscience.”
I understand this notion is widely embraced today – that it doesn’t really matter what you believe, as long as you follow your belief sincerely. Yet, according to this maxim, the 9-11 terrorists weren’t culpable. After all, they were following their consciences when they attacked America, so how could God possibly hold their egregious sin against them?
Yet, nowhere in Scripture is the notion of following one’s conscience upheld. Jeremiah says, “The heart is deceitful above all things.” Similarly, Proverbs 28:26 warns that “he who trusts his own heart is a fool.”
But, does God overlook this foolishness? John clearly states in his gospel: “Whoever believes in Jesus is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”
Certainly, Pope Francis knows these passages. My guess is he simply went too far in an effort to reform his church’s image and promote dialogue with unbelievers. Yet, as hard as it is, we Christians need to faithfully communicate the hard truth about salvation to unbelievers. Otherwise, we simply convey false hope – not just to would-be terrorists, but to honest skeptics, as well.