Letters to a Non-Believer
by Thomas Crean O.P.
This book is now available and costs £9.95 (in UK)
In his best-selling book A Catholic Replies to Professor Dawkins, Thomas Crean gave a clear and sophisticated response to the modern atheist phenomenon. In Letters to a Non-Believer he goes beyond the mere existence of God to look
detail at the more distinctively Catholic aspects of Christian belief: Christ's death and Resurrection; questions
of evil, suffering and free will; and the need for the Church and the Sacraments.
Writing in his usual clear and precise style, Crean makes the rational arguments which underpin
Catholic teaching accessible to every reader, marking himself out as a true philosophical heir to great medieval
thinkers like St Thomas Aquinas, and the literary heir to modern Christian expositors such as C S Lewis.
Fr Thomas Crean is a Dominican friar, a hospital chaplain in Leicester, and a tutor for the Maryvale
Institute. In addition to A Catholic Replies to Professor Dawkins (published in the United States as God is No Delusion), he has also written The Mass and the Saints, a commentary on the liturgy.
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To Our Lady of Fatima
Preface . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. .. 11
Letter 1 On the existence of God . . . . . .. . . .. 12
Letter 2 On the nature of God . . . . . . . . .. . .17
Letter 3 On the Holy Trinity . . . . . . . .. . . .. 23
Letter 4 On faith . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. .. 28
Letter 5 On the trustworthiness of the Gospels . . . 33
Letter 6 On Jesus Christ . . . . . . . . . .. . . . .38
Letter 7 On the Incarnation . . . . . . . . . . . . 43
Letter 8 On the Resurrection . . . . . . . .. . . . .48
Letter 9 On Christs death . . . . . . . . .. . . . .54
Letter 10 On Christs death (contd.) . . . . . . . 58
Letter 11 On the Fall of Man . . . . . . . .. . . . 63
Letter 12 On science and the Fall of Man . .. . . . .68
Letter 13 On the love of God . . . . . . . .. . . . 74
Letter 14 On love for our enemies . . . . . . . . . 79
Letter 15 On the soul . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 84
Letter 16 On life after death . . . . . . . . . . . 90
Letter 17 On free will . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . .95
Letter 18 On evil and suffering . . . . . . . . . .102
Letter 19 On the need for the Church . . . .. . . . 108
Letter 20 On recognizing the true Church . .. . . .114
Letter 21 On the Pope . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .121
Letter 22 On the unchangeableness of the faith. . . 127
Letter 23 On an objection to the last letter. . . . 132
Letter 24 On the Sacraments . . . . . . . . . . . .137
Letter 25 On holy baptism . . . . . . . . . . . . .142
Letter 26 On fasting and forbidden foods . .. . . .147
Letter 27 On those outside the Church . . . . .. . 152
Letter 28 On those outside the Church (cont . .. 156
Letter 29 On prayer . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 161
Letter 30 On eternity . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 166
Letter 31 On marriage . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 171
Letter 32 On fruitfulness in marriage . . . . . . .177
Letter 33 On following Christ . . . . . . . . . .. 182
St Peter told his spiritual children to be ready to satisfy those who might seek a reason for
their hope. The present work is a modest attempt to do just that. The
letters are addressed not to a hostile non-believer, who desires Christianity to be false, nor to a careless nonbeliever
who assumes that it is, but to a honest enquirer,
who wants to follow the argument wherever it leads.
It may be asked why the recipient of these letters is a Muslim, or at least has an Islamic name. A letter must
addressed to someone, and many people in our society bear Islamic names. If any of them should ever see this book,
I hope that they will be pleased that the letter
writer has considered some questions or objections that Muslims have before now put to Catholics. But the work
as a whole is not offered to Muslims only. It is offered
to anyone who is looking for truth amid the conflicting opinions of the world, and who does not despair of finding
Thomas Crean O.P.
Feast of St Bonaventure,
Your last letter raised some big questions. You ask: "What do Catholics
say will happen to those outside the Church? Some Muslims say that all non-Muslims will go to Hell. Do you say
the same about non-Catholics? Many people surely never hear about baptism or about Jesus Christ. Do they have any
chance of being saved?"
As I wrote once before, when I was speaking about the "problem of evil", God's will is simple, but when
it touches our disordered world it can seem complicated, like the beam of light falling on to a shattered mirror.
So we have to use many words to try to explain how God deals with mankind, as if God were complex when in fact
it is we who are.
To begin, then, our faith teaches us that "God wills all men to be
saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth". That's the unchanging beam of
light, so to speak, that falls upon the human race. Mankind was meant to reflect that desire of God as perfectly
as a pure mirror reflects the light of the sun.
But at the beginning of time the mirror was shattered, when Adam fell. So children now are born without divine
grace, and if they die in that state, before they've become responsible for their actions, they won't have the
power to look upon the face of God. We believe that God will take such children into His care and see that their
souls suffer no harm: but we do not count them among the blessed. That's the first complexity that sin has introduced
into what would otherwise have been simple.
If a child lives, but is not baptised, what then? The Church says that God offers everyone who lives beyond infancy
the possibility of entering on the way of salvation, but she doesn't go into many details about how. But I'll tell
you what one of our greatest theologians said St Thomas Aquinas, who lived in the 13th century.
He wrote that whenever a child lives beyond infancy, the day must come when he reflects about himself and his place
in the world. He has to decide what to live for. In fact, until he does this, he's not in a position to make any
free choices. All the lesser choices we make about what to do and what not to do presuppose that there's something
that we love above all else.
Just as we can't measure changes in temperature unless we have a thermometer whose markings don't change, so we
can't decide between different actions unless we have some fixed scale of values, and some idea of what we ultimately
want from life.
Now, St Thomas said that whenever a boy reaches this moment of decision, he has the duty to turn to God and choose
to live for Him. True, the child can't yet love God as his Father. But he can know that God exists, and desire
to reach out towards Him. Even though his soul is still unsanctified, and, so to speak, in the dark, he has the
power to do this.
But our theologians have a saying: "God does not deny grace to those
who do what lies within them." So St Thomas wrote that if a child, on coming to
the age of reason, does all he can to direct himself to God, then God will grant that child a grace to heal him
of original sin. And since Jesus Christ has said: "No man comes to
the Father except by me" I think this grace must be that Christ reveals Himself
in some way to that child. Then the child can believe in Him, even if perhaps he doesn't yet know Him by name.
How often this happens, I don't know: God knows. St Thomas warns us that even though God always offers the necessary
help, it's not easy for an unbaptised child to turn to Him, precisely because he is without grace. So I don't see
how we can suppose that it happens often. Yet it is possible, because God is good, and because He lets Himself
be found by those who seek Him.
Perhaps someone might object: "What if the child has been brought
up by atheists? He can hardly turn to God if he doesn't even know that God exists!"
I think our theologians might reply that every child, when he comes to the age of reason, has some kind of knowledge
of God. Just by experiencing creation, the child has a spontaneous knowledge of the Creator, even if his parents
and teachers have kept the word "God" from his ears. It's only later on, when he'll be old enough to
listen to sophistry, or be dominated by passions or pride, that he risks losing this early knowledge of his Maker.
But while his reason is still fresh, he knows that there is a power who governs all things, whom it's right to
If the child doesn't begin his moral life by turning to God, he must choose something else to be his ruling principle:
probably his own happiness. If he does that, he doesn't become entirely corrupt. He'll still know right from wrong,
and be able to perform some good acts. But he'll only be living a natural life. Even if he grows up to believe
that God exists and learns to recite prayers to Him, he won't be freed of original sin, nor will he yet have a
friendship with God. His soul will still be dead. Yet God can give him other opportunities to convert, sending
him preachers of the Gospel later on.
But what happens to the first child, as he grows up? If Christ has revealed Himself to him, and he has believed
in Him, he will also believe Christ's preachers, when he hears them. Then he'll be able to ask for baptism and
truly become a child of God.
But what if he dies before hearing about the need for baptism? After all, there may be no Christians in his country,
or none who speak to him about divine things. The Church says this: if it should ever happen that someone dies
believing in Christ and the Holy Trinity, loving God and being sorry for his sins, yet without having been baptised,
then God will not exclude such a one from heaven. For God is just, and He can never blame someone for what was
not his fault.
But is such a person then saved outside the Church? No, we don't say that either. Remember that the Church isn't
just a visible society, like a club or a political party. It's also the Communion of Saints: the union of all those
who live by Christ's grace. So as soon as anyone has the smallest degree of this grace in his soul, he belongs
in a certain way to the Church. His soul is inside it, we might say, even if his body isn't. And after death, if
not before, he will discover the name of the great family into which he has been adopted.
With best wishes,
* * * * *
You write as follows: "Apparently it's very hard for an unbaptised
child to turn to God; but if he doesn't, he remains without God's grace. So if God really desires the salvation
of all human beings, why does He allow so many children to be born outside Christian families, and in countries
where they may never meet a Catholic priest? Is it fair on them?"
My friend, we cannot hope to know the reasons of all God's actions in particular. That is something we shall only
see on the last day. So if you ask me why this child is born into this society and has these teachers, then I can't
tell you. But if you are asking me, as a general question, why God allows so many to be born and raised outside
the Church, then I can offer you some general answers, or at least, suggestions.
The first question is surely: why is the Church herself not more widespread? For one could hardly expect God by
a miracle to prevent non-Christian parents from having children! So let's try to answer this first question first.
Do you remember what I said when we spoke of original sin? I wrote that it's only because God honoured our first
father so highly that his sin affects us so deeply. God gave Adam the possibility of being the spiritual father
of the whole race. He gave him the power to pass on many good things to us: but this meant that his fall deprived
us of those same good things. We can say something similar about the spread of the Church. God has made Christians
into His adopted children. He gives us the power of spreading His kingdom. He honours us in this way for the sake
of His Son, whose name we bear.
But it follows that if Christians are unfaithful to their calling, through laziness or sin, then God's kingdom
suffers. If God has really given us the power to cooperate with Him in spreading the Church, then necessarily,
if we do not co-operate, the Church will not be spread, and if we only cooperate in a lukewarm manner, then the
Church will only be spread slowly.
It's true that it's not easy for an unbaptised child to turn to God when he reaches the age of reason. But then
it's not easy for a baptised child to remain in grace all his life long. Salvation is always difficult. As Job
said: "Man's life on earth is a warfare."
Salvation can never be easy, because we're made of both flesh and spirit, and these two don't tend in the same
direction. No doubt, a Catholic has special remedies to help him if he falls, such as the sacrament of Confession.
Yet if he doesn't use what's offered to him, and especially if he rejects it with contempt, then he may fall to
a worse state than many an unbaptised person. The very fact that he's received such blessings from God makes his
sins more serious.
So it may be easier for an unbaptised person to find pardon after a certain sin than it would be for a baptised
person who has committed the same sin, and then rejected the Church's remedies. Jesus Christ said: "Of those to whom much has been given, much is expected."
It follows that less is expected of those to whom less is given.
For example, in some places women were taught from childhood that it was a wife's duty to die on her husband's
funeral pyre. If a woman honestly believed this, then she surely wouldn't have been condemned for dying in this
way, even though a Christian knows that suicide is always forbidden. So Christians expect to be judged more strictly
But you want to know more about how God deals with those who never hear the Gospel. Let's imagine a country that
has neither priests nor, as far as we can tell, sacraments. If God desires the inhabitants of this land to be saved,
why does He leave them in such a plight? First, remember that God's desire for our salvation doesn't lessen His
justice. It may be that the inhabitants of the land have sinned in some especially grievous way, or at least that
many have done so. God may be leaving them without missionaries or sacraments because they have made themselves
so unworthy of his gifts. For a land where the majority of the inhabitants was trying hard to keep the law that
God has written on our hearts wouldn't be left for long without His preachers.
Yet even if God punishes a land by depriving it of the sacraments, his mercy will still be at work. God's justice
is never found without His mercy, since in Him mercy and justice are one. God may know that if He sent missionaries
to this sinful land, then the people would reject them, blaspheming the Gospel, and so adding a new and worse sin
to their former ones. So God, wishing to prevent them from falling further into evil, doesn't allow his missionaries
to travel to that land. Or it may be that He allows their sins to grow so that one day they'll come to their senses,
suddenly aware of their degradation. When that happens, perhaps God will finally send them His preachers.
But remember that even a land without priests or sacraments may have retained some of the original revelation that
God gave first to Adam and later to Noah. So the people may know that there is one God, that He alone is to be
worshipped, that He loves justice, and that He will judge all men according to their deeds. Perhaps some of the
people, guided by this primitive revelation, are "feeling after God", as St Paul puts it. Their efforts aren't enough to save them, true: but a man who offers sincere
prayers and tries to act justly to his fellows surely attracts God's mercy to himself, even if his nation might
seem to be forsaken.
After all, just as every human being stands before God at the beginning of his moral life, so must it often be
at the end. I don't mean at the judgment after death, for then there'll no longer be opportunity for anyone to
convert. I mean in the last moments before death. Who knows what passes in a soul when a man lies unconscious,
no longer able to communicate even with his friends? Surely the soul becomes more aware of God as its senses begin
to be sealed up, and it prepares to depart from the body. Maybe Christ uses these moments to make good the deficiencies
of His preachers, and comes in person to those who have never heard the Gospel. Maybe He lets the approach of death
humble those who might have refused His message while they were still vigorous and ambitious, but who are now ready
to receive it. Are there people who have lived without faith in Him all their lives, but who come to know Him at
the very end? Why not? How many, only God knows.
Of course these are only speculations. Christ told the apostles to preach the Gospel to all nations, and that's
what the Church tries to do. All I've been trying to show you is that there's no contradiction between God's desire
to save all mankind through His Son and the actual state of the world, where families, villages and sometimes even
whole countries may not hear the public preaching of the gospel, at least for a time. God's arm is not made short,
and He can help anyone who truly seeks Him. Yet all the same, Catholics fear for those who haven't yet entered
the Church, and we constantly pray God to save them.
With best wishes,
Version: 4th September 2009