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C.S. Lewis Defends Purgatory

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By Fr. Dan Cambra, MIC (Sep 5, 2018)
Did you know that among the great gifts C.S. Lewis gave to the world is a rigorously logical defense of the doctrine of Purgatory and the need to pray for the dead?

"Our souls demand Purgatory, don't they?" he writes in his posthumously published book Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (Geoffrey Bles Ltd, 1964), just one example of many.

This constitutes no small matter, considering the fact Lewis was Protestant.

In developing his theology of salvation, Lewis, an Oxford theologian and popular author of poetry, science fiction, and children's books — the man who earned the label "the Apostle to the Sceptics" — couldn't find a way around the Catholic Church's doctrine of Purgatory.

Mind you, Catholics and Protestants agree that only the perfectly purified enter Heaven, as Scripture makes clear (see Heb 12:14; Rev 21-27). The difference is, most Protestants believe the souls of the faithful are made perfect in holiness at the point of death.

Moreover, because it smacks of salvation by good works rather than by faith and grace, most Protestants reject the idea that the living can pray the dead into Heaven — that our sacrifices, prayers, corporal and spiritual works of mercy, and almsgiving aid the release of souls from Purgatory.

By contrast, Catholics — and Lewis himself — find no sense in the notion that God suddenly transforms our sinful hearts upon our deaths so as to make us instantly fit to spend eternal life with Him. For Catholics, purification is a process, one we enter into by our free will here on earth and, if need be, in Purgatory.

I'm so thankful "our side" includes one of the greatest writers of the English language.

For example, in A Grief Observed (Faber and Faber, 1961), Lewis' collection of reflections on the experience of bereavement following the death of his wife, Joy, he writes, "I thought it immensely improbable — that the faithfulest soul could leap straight into perfection and peace the moment death has rattled in the throat. ... I know there are not only tears to be dried but stains to be scoured."

Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, which gives a fictional friend advice about the spiritual life, contains perhaps Lewis' most explicit defense of Purgatory. In Letter 20, when his fictional friend challenges him that he's just promoting Catholic doctrine, Lewis responds: "Well, I suppose I am. ... I believe in Purgatory."

In Lewis' view, by the 16th century the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory had become distorted and misunderstood — such that people viewed it as "temporary hell," punitive rather than transformative. Lewis describes with distaste that "the very etymology of the word purgatory has dropped out of sight. Its pains do not bring us nearer to God, but make us forget Him. It is a place not of purification but purely of retributive punishment."
Logic — that Purgatory is a natural theological implication of Scripture — leads Lewis to support the Church's true doctrine of Purgatory. He drew inspiration from the likes of Blessed John Henry Newman, whose poem "The Dream of Gerontius" defines the purifying fire of Purgatory as evidence of God's "Everlasting Love" for us. Purgatory, by the true Catholic definition, is where we meet the merciful Lord who loves us, and we lovingly accept His pardoning love.

In Letters, Lewis writes of souls upon death encountering God who loves us even in our sinfulness:

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."

Lewis continues:

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.

I find Lewis' defense of Purgatory quite refreshing, not least of all because his works have endured into the present age. The Hollywood films of his series "The Chronicles of Narnia" have become a cultural rite of passage for young people, on par with J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. Thankfully, Lewis' view on Purgatory hasn't gotten lost in the mix, as evidenced by a number of prominent Protestant thinkers who continue to shed light upon it.

Among them is Jerry L. Walls, whose book Purgatory: The Logic of Total Transformation (Oxford University Press, 2011) contains a chapter titled "C.S. Lewis and the Prospect of Mere Purgatory." In it, Walls suggests that Lewis' view of Purgatory can serve as a model for evangelicals and other Protestants. Walls writes of Purgatory as a common-sense extension of our free will pursuit of holiness in this life, a journey aided by God's grace. Like Lewis, Walls says it only stands to reason that the journey continues upon our death.

In a talk available on YouTube, Walls says, "If you think God takes our freedom seriously, it's unlikely he would unilaterally zap us at the moment of death," thereby rendering us purified.

Walls agrees with Lewis that "our souls demand Purgatory." He says, "It's the cry of the heart that says 'God take away whatever is standing in the way of me fully enjoying the Trinitarian dance, whatever is keeping me away from being like Jesus.'"

Popular evangelical author John G. Stackhouse, Jr., recently joined the conversation, inspired by Walls' book.

"To suggest ... that Christians will enjoy a kind of express executive elevator at the time of death is to suggest that those who work hard on holiness in this life are wasting their efforts," Stackhouse wrote in a recent essay published in the Protestant magazine The Christian Century. Sanctification, Stackhouse said, "remains a demanding, incremental process that cannot be short-circuited in this life. Why should we think there are shortcuts in the next?"

To our brothers and sisters in Purgatory, may our prayers for you continue to grow in strength and in numbers, joined by the prayers of our Protestant friends.

Just another reason to thank God for the great C.S. Lewis.

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