C S Lewis’s belief in purgatory


The other night, I found myself reminding a classroom full of (I imagined) rather incredulous Bethel Seminary students that “Saint Lewis” himself believed in purgatory. I’ve known that this was primarily expressed in his Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer. Now I find someone has kindly collected those remarks:

Lewis professed a belief in purgatory. In Letters To Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer he wrote:

I believe in Purgatory. Mind you, the Reformers had good reasons for throwing doubt on the ‘Romish doctrine concerning Purgatory’ as that Romish doctrine had then become . . .

. . . The right view returns magnificently in Newman’s DREAM. There, if I remember it rightly, the saved soul, at the very foot of the throne, begs to be taken away and cleansed. It cannot bear for a moment longer “With its darkness to affront that light.” Religion has claimed Purgatory. Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, “It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy?” Should we not reply, “With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.” “It may hurt, you know”—”Even so, sir.”

I assume that the process of purification will normally involve suffering. Partly from tradition; partly because most real good that has been done me in this life has involved it. But I don’t think the suffering is the purpose of the purgation. I can well believe that people neither much worse nor much better than I will suffer less than I or more. . . . The treatment given will be the one required, whether it hurts little or much.

My favourite image on this matter comes from the dentist’s chair. I hope that when the tooth of life is drawn and I am “coming round,” a voice will say, “Rinse your mouth out with this.” This will be Purgatory. The rinsing may take longer than I can now imagine. The taste of this may be more fiery and astringent than my present sensibility could endure. But . . . it will [not] be disgusting and unhallowed.

The “someone” here is Pastor Brian Carpenter, who goes on to make the case (also made in a comparatively recent book by the biographer/Roman Catholic apologist Joseph Pearce) that Lewis was so high church as to be against Protestantism itself. That I find quite an incredible claim (and commenters at the site linked above conclude that thus one should “stay away from” Lewis, also ludicrous). But Lewis’s reflections on purgatory are nonetheless interesting, aren’t they?

Protestant appreciations of purgatory by Baptist historian and author of the wonderful Story of Theology, Roger Olson (previously a professor at Bethel College, my seminary’s sister institution) may be found here, and by Twin Cities Baptist megachurch pastor and author (also previously a professor at Bethel College; hmmm) Greg Boyd, here.

What do y’all think, gentle readers?  FYI, this post goes deeper into the matter of CSL’s “Catholic” beliefs and practices.

18 responses to “C S Lewis’s belief in purgatory

  1. Pingback: C.S. Lewis: Christian Champion … or Contrarian? | Veracity

  2. Pingback: Weekly Meanderings | Jesus Creed

  3. Pingback: Was Purgatory the First Doctrine? | Unsettled Christianity

  4. In the Letter to Malcolm Lewis was struggling with much more than the subject of pugatory. His late in life marriage to Joy had ended in her death due to cancer. He had also lost his mother in this way. This was a huge strain on him and he questioned his relationship to God. I do not want to say that it caused or resulted in his doubt. May thought Lewis had lost his faith in this part of his life and he died before the public knew any different. As I understand it, the Letters to Malcolm were published posthumously. And in these letters it was apparent that Lewis had worked through his doubt. I do not have my copy any longer but I believe it was his reflection on Jesus prayer in garden of Gethsemane that his doubt was overcome. This insight may or may not have application to the present discussion.

  5. I think it was difficult to be an Anglican in the era which formed Lewis and many other English thinkers and theologians. “High churchmanship” was pervasive, and I believe it is only now that Anglicans are beginning to sort out what was their own genuine Anglican theology based in Cranmer and Hooker et al, and what was borrowed from the Romanesque followers of Pusey and Newman. The Eastern church has a deep-seated theology of not purgatory but a purgation as the soul approaches God. It is described as a drawing upward, past the terrors of the “demons of the air” and Orthodox Christians are enjoined to keep their confession pure and their practices holy so that their unrepented sins will not drag them down. This is, of course, highly metaphoric but often preached as reality.

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