Rethinking Purgatory: C.S. Lewis on the controversial doctrine

Why C.S. Lewis believed in purgatory – and why Protestants need to think about it.

LewisC.S. Lewis may be best described as a “mere” Christian in search of a “mere” Christianity. In the preface to his appropriately titled book, Mere Christianity, Lewis describes himself as “a very ordinary layman of the Church of England” whose intention in the book is to “explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.” In his attempt to explain a mere Christianity, Lewis often avoids controversial topics that Christians typically disagree on. This is why it is ironic that Lewis is not silent about his belief in purgatory, given that purgatory is a doctrine that has created strongly divergent and controversial views within the church from the time of the Reformation.

Believing in Purgatory

So why would Lewis profess to believe in a doctrine that Protestants nearly universally object to? The answer revolves around Lewis’s understanding that purgatory is a process more than a place. Lewis viewed purgatory as a continuation of the process of sanctification that began before death. Therefore purgatory, like sanctification, was voluntary and therefore not a means for retributive punishment.

In Letters to Malcolm, Lewis’s book on prayer and the last book that he wrote, Lewis describes purgatory with the help of the dentist’s chair. He says, “My favorite 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.”[1] The mouthwash that Lewis describes is not separate or distinct from the pulling of a tooth, rather it is necessary and intrinsically part of the process. In the same way, Lewis believed purgatory was necessary in the continuing process of individual sanctification after death.

Lewis places emphasis on individual sanctification because he believes that the goal of our lives is to be in full union with God and that we cannot be in full union with Him until we have been made perfect. In the Problem of Pain Lewis says, “Love, in its own nature, demands the perfecting of the beloved.”[2] Full intimacy and full union with God requires our being made perfect which, according to Lewis, does not happen in this life: “Those who put themselves in His hands will become perfect, as He is perfect – perfect in love, wisdom, joy, beauty, and immortality. The change will not be completed in this life, for death is an important part of the treatment.”[3]

In Letters to Malcolm, Lewis elaborates on how purgatory is a decision on our behalf to be made perfect:

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.’[4]

Lewis does not believe we are subjected to purgatory against our will, and he also does not believe that we can be fully sanctified apart from our will. Both processes are intrinsic to the way that God imbued creation with free will. For free will, “though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.”[5] After all, God cannot ravish, “He can only woo.”[6]

Protestant Objections

However, believing that sanctification continues after death is difficult for most Protestant believers. Protestants traditionally reject purgatory with three major objections: first, purgatory allows the possibility of universalism; second, purgatory offers a kind of salvation through works; and third, purgatory lacks scriptural support. And yet Lewis, aware of all of these objections, still chose to believe in purgatory.

On the first objection, if purgatory is a process that continues after death it may open the door to universalism where all, given enough time, will be saved. The concern is certainly apt when it relates to Lewis. George MacDonald, a significant influence on Lewis and his guide through purgatory in The Great Divorce, never believed in the finality of hell because he did not believe that individuals would choose to remain in hell once they understood what hell is really like. Lewis however does not follow MacDonald in his universal understanding of salvation because he believes that finality is possible. In The Problem of Pain, Lewis says, “I believe that if a million chances were likely to do good, they would be given… Finality must come some time, and it does not require a very robust faith to believe that omniscience knows when.”[7]

For Lewis, this finality comes before death because the destination of heaven or hell is not dependent on a single decision; rather it is dependent on a long series of choices, which Lewis would define as our character. For example, Lewis says, “what really matters is those little marks or twists on the central, inside part of the soul which are going to turn it, in the long run, into a heavenly or a hellish creature.”[8] In other words, it is the formation of our character that determines whether we will find ourselves in heaven or hell. Sean Connolly sums up Lewis’s point well when he says, “At death the myriad choices we have made will crystallize to form our fundamental choice: we have either chosen to allow God to love us as he wills, or we have not. Purgatory, far from being any process of additional choice on our part, is rather the painful procedure by which we give up self-love and let God love us more.”[9] This is why Lewis can believe in purgatory without believing in universal salvation.

Secondly, traditional Protestant thought rejects purgatory because entrance into heaven is not dependent on an individual’s ability to make themselves perfect. Instead, the process of sanctification is completed at the moment of death. As Jonathan Edwards has eloquently said: “At death the believer not only gains a perfect and eternal deliverance from sin and temptation, but is adorned with a perfect and glorious holiness. The work of sanctification is then completed, and the beautiful image of God has then its finishing strokes by the pencil of God, and begins to shine forth with a heavenly beauty like a seraphim.”[10] This is a beautiful picture of the fate of a believer at the moment of death, but it is Lewis’s contention that this picture is also not complete.

Lewis departs from the traditional Protestant understanding because, as mentioned earlier, he believes that death is part of the process of sanctification and not simply the fulfillment of it. Lewis does not deny that individuals cannot receive salvation or become sanctified on their own, but he does acknowledge that there must be “two-way traffic” in the process.[11] Lewis understands that the danger of a legal declaration of righteousness at the moment of death means that an individual could easily disregard transformation as essential to the Christian life. Instead, Lewis insists on the necessity of free will to choose to be surrendered to God, where the individual freely chooses to say ‘I am not my own’ instead of ‘I am my own.’

Finally, and perhaps most contentiously, Protestant theology generally rejects the doctrine of purgatory because the experience of pain after death is not supported in scripture. John MacArthur argues that “nothing in Scripture even hints at the notion of purgatory, and nothing indicates that our glorification will in any way be painful.”[12] This view is undoubtedly in the spirit of the Reformers who correctly challenged the aberrant Roman Catholic use of scripture to support an oppressive and exploitive doctrine of purgatory. For example, in reaction to the doctrine of purgatory put forward by the Roman Catholic Church, John Calvin said, “we must cry out with the shouting not only of our voices by our throats and lungs that purgatory is a deadly fiction of Satan, which nullifies the cross of Christ, inflicts unbearable contempt upon God’s mercy, and overturns and destroys our faith.”[13]

Few could defend the 16th century Roman Catholic use of purgatory, as Lewis himself does not attempt. Lewis says, “Mind you, the Reformers had good reasons for throwing doubt on ‘the Romish doctrine concerning Purgatory’ as that Romish doctrine had then become.”[14] What Lewis wishes to do here is to distinguish the Romish doctrine of purgatory from purgatory properly understood. The Romish doctrine of purgatory, put forth most strongly by writers like Thomas More and St. John Fisher, was a place of torment and a place of retributive punishment. This understanding had strayed far from the writings of Dante, so 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.”[15] Lewis, like the Reformers, is rejecting the Romish doctrine of purgatory.

Nevertheless, the question of whether purgatory is scriptural remains. For example, Article XXII of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion of the Anglican Church clearly states that the Romish doctrine of purgatory was rejected because it was “vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture.”[16] Are the post-mortem pains that Lewis ascribes to purgatory scripturally justifiable? Perhaps, but probably not in the way most Protestants wish. The difficulty is that the history of biblical interpretation goes beyond the literal interpretation that many Protestants currently hold. Many parts of the Christian church throughout history, like the Roman Catholics, have used a spiritual or allegorical interpretation as part of a tradition of biblical interpretation because “the message of revelation is opened to the reader by the operation of the Spirit and not directly by the text of the Bible.”[17] As a result, Lewis’s emphasis on tradition and the role of the Spirit in his treatment of topics like purgatory and the Eucharist have prompted many Roman Catholics to ask, “Why then wasn’t C.S. Lewis a Catholic?”[18]

So, although Lewis himself remained a Protestant in the Anglican Church to the end of his life, the point to be made is that Lewis’s treatment of purgatory should not be simply passed out of hand because it does not fulfill the Protestant requirement of a literal interpretation of scripture. This undoubtedly simplifies many of the Protestant approaches to interpreting scripture, but I think this identifies the primary reason upon which purgatory is most commonly rejected among Protestants.

Theological Consistency

For Lewis, what matters most is the internal consistency of our theology. He is not quick to dismiss the possibility of post-mortem pain just because it cannot be read literally. Instead, Lewis is willing to accept the doctrine of purgatory and the idea of post-mortem pain because he found it to be consistent with all aspects of his theology and scripture reading and experience, which is why he says rather emphatically, “Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they?”

If it is true, that our souls do indeed demand purgatory because of its logical consistency as Lewis argues, should Protestants look to reconsider the doctrine of purgatory as Jerry Walls has tried to do in his recent book, Purgatory: The Logic of Total Transformation? Maybe, maybe not. Important objections and issues like the interpretation of scripture still remain. However, we must not dismiss purgatory out of hand just because the word “purgatory” is not found in scripture. These issues require thoughtful care, not hasty judgment. But, if at any point we feel like we are treading into controversial territory, even Lewis, the mere Christian himself, ends Letters to Malcolm, with these words: “Guesses, of course, only guesses. If they are not true, something better will be.”[19]

[1] C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (London, UK: Geoffrey Bles Ltd, 1964) 141.

[2] The Problem of Pain in C.S. Lewis, The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2002) 573.

[3] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001) 207.

[4] Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer  140.

[5] Lewis, Mere Christianity  47-48.

[6] C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001) 39.

[7] The Problem of Pain in Lewis, The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics  624.

[8] Lewis, Mere Christianity  119-120.

[9] Sean Connolly, Inklings of Heaven: C.S. Lewis and Eschatology (Leominster, UK: Gracewing, 2007) 25.

[10] Jonathan Edwards as quoted in Jerry L. Walls, Heaven (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2002) 53.

[11] Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer  71-72.

[12] John F. MacArthur, The Glory of Heaven: The Truth About Heaven, Angels and Eternal Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1996) 125.

[13] John Calvin quoted in Walls, 52-53.

[14] Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer  139-140.

[15] Ibid.  139-140.

[16] Anglican Church of Canada, “39 Articles of Religion”  (accessed October 29 2011) Available from

[17] Zachary Hayes, “The Purgatorial View,” in Four Views on Hell, ed. William Crockett (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992) 102.

[18] Joseph Pearce, C.S. Lewis and the Catholic Church (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2003) xx.

[19] Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer  158.