Lewis, Newman, Purgatory & Writing

May 10, 2018 — 14 Comments

csl & newman.png

Those who despise C.S. Lewis seek to eradicate his influence in the Christian Church. They care not that Lewis remains one of the most effective Christian apologists the world has ever seen. Only the Lord knows how many people (literally) have been encouraged in the faith by Lewis’ ministry.

When examining Lewis’ theology, it is necessary to keep in mind several facts. First, he often reminded his readers that he was not a theologian, simply a faithful layman. Second, he formally espoused and practice the orthodox Trinitarian faith as professed by the Anglican communion. Third, Lewis consciously sought to introduce timeless truths to his readers via reason and, more effectively, through fiction and imagination. (The Great Divorce offers a fascinating yet fully fictional exploration of how purgatory might work.)

Thus, Lewis critics will always be able to gather fuel for the foot of his stake. A primary example of this comes in Lewis’ emotive receptivity to the doctrine of purgatory. It is taught only by the Roman Catholic Church, although individuals from other denominations may also be sympathetic to it.

For example, Protestant philosopher Jerry L. Walls includes a chapter in his recent book on purgatory entitled, “C.S. Lewis and the Prospect of Mere Purgatory.”

Although not a Roman Catholic, C.S. Lewis, the most popular Christian writer of the twentieth century, believed in purgatory. This is significant because his influence in Protestant and evangelical circles is perhaps especially strong.

This chapter shows not only that Lewis believed in purgatory, but also that it is integral to his theology of salvation. It explores how he understood the doctrine by examining his comments on Roman Catholic theologians John Fisher, Thomas More, and John Henry Newman. While he was quite critical of Fisher and More, he saw in Newman the recovery of the true substance and spirit of the doctrine.

It is fair for us to acknowledge that Lewis’ understanding of justification was imperfect. Salvation comes through faith (Romans 5:1), not through penitential or purgatorial efforts. But let’s read about his position in his own words. The following comes from Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, which is, itself, a collection of thoughts “shared” with a fictional friend.

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 reclaimed 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.”

This is where I acknowledge Lewis’ view on justification to be deficient. Of course we would wish to be fully washed and clean before standing in our Creator’s presence. And that is precisely how we enter into his presence. Clothed not in our own filthiness and rags—but in the radiant righteousness of our Savior.

As the Apostle John wrote in his first epistle, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. . . . If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:7, 9)

Lewis’ greatest contribution to the Christian Church is found in his skilled apologetics based on the core essence of our faith. Lewis communicated the divine hope that is within us in his lectures, speeches and broadcasts. But it was through the written word that his inspiring words have touched the greatest number of people.

On the Subject of Writing

It is possible that Lewis was familiar with the following advice from Newman about effective writing. Certainly, he agreed with a number of the cardinal’s literary precepts. The following passage relates specifically to writing sermons, but it possesses far broader application. It comes from The Life of John Henry Cardinal Newman.

Newman’s own feeling as to the most effective way of imparting truth by writing is conveyed in the following notes, dated 1868, on the writing of sermons:

A man should be in earnest, by which I mean he should write not for the sake of writing, but to bring out his thoughts.

He should never aim at being eloquent.

He should keep his idea in view, and should write sentences over and over again till he has expressed his meaning accurately, forcibly, and in few words.

He should aim at being understood by his hearers or readers.

He should use words which are likely to be understood. Ornament and amplification will come spontaneously in due time, but he should never seek them.

He must creep before he can fly, by which I mean that humility which is a great Christian virtue has a place in literary composition.

He who is ambitious will never write well, but he who tries to say simply what he feels, what religion demands, what faith teaches, what the Gospel promises, will be eloquent without intending it, and will write better English than if he made a study of English literature.

Reading this helpful advice from Cardinal Newman reminds us we can learn valuable lessons from people with differing theology. And that truth should be quite encouraging, since none of us possess perfect doctrine.

* The full title of the work to which Lewis refers here is The Dream of Gerontius. (You can read it here.)


14 responses to Lewis, Newman, Purgatory & Writing


    Seems to me Cardinal Newman’s views on writing were a precursor to Ezra Pound and the imagists, perhaps even an uncredited influence?


      Quite possible, but there are so very many parallels in writing guideline lists. That would be an interesting thesis for research purposes–a comprehensive study of all such efforts throughout history.

    jamesbradfordpate May 10, 2018 at 4:08 pm

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.


    While rejecting belief in purgatory, I’ve found myself going back to “The Great Divorce” just for the metaphorical beauty of Lewis’ understanding of the gulf between our fallenness and the “weight of glory.” The shadowy, substancelessness of the self apart from God contrasted to the immortal weight of one clothed in the light of God: those images have always stuck in my mind for the simple yet almost indefinable truth they contain. Lewis was a master at translating vast concepts into a manageable bite.

    It’s been awhile since I last thanked you for your entertainingly informative posts, so once again, thank you, and looking forward to your next post as always!


      The Great Divorce is my favorite Lewis book. It is filled to overflowing with wisdom and makes clear sense of how a loving God would not, in the end, force heaven on the unwilling. Hell exists because some people and angels choose it.

      I’m glad you’re enjoying Mere Inkling, and have been reading it for so long.


        It’s wonderful how he shows every individual’s choice of heaven or hell actually begins on earth. We bring, in a sense, our own judgment upon ourselves, rejecting the gold of the ego-crushing Cross for the dross of the ego-pandering world. It’s an unforgettable book, a theological masterpiece in its way.


        True. It’s a good reminder that every choice we make matters. There is a consequence.

        In teaching and counseling I work hard to dispel the common mindset that a person’s relationship with Christ can be static. The truth is, each moment of every day, if we aren’t drawing closer to the Lord, we’re drifting farther from him.


    Hello Rob,

    I always felt like Earth is a purgatory in itself. It is the in between life of death and eternity. It is here that we find the effects of sin and redemtion in Christ’s forgiveness. The trials in our faith break us away from our flesh and we see the soul purified.

    Just a thought,



      I’ve met others who have made that connection. It makes sense, viewed as you present it. In this life we are “sanctified,” in one sense, as we draw closer to our Lord. (The Bible also uses “maturity” language for this.)

      However, for most Protestants (including myself) justification is something completely different. We are made righteous not by our sanctification and some sort of progressive “redemption.”

      Our salvation is 100% a gift of God, given solely by grace… grace received simply through faith in Jesus.

      The process of Christian growth is very important, but it is not the measure of our salvation. Just as we do not require personal righteousness or purity to be cleansed to stand in the presence of our Creator with confidence.


    Mere Christianity was one of the first books I read when I left Roman Catholicism and learned the truth of the verses you posted: But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. . . . If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:7, 9)
    Thanks for an interesting post.


      When we know our righteousness comes from Christ, and that we aren’t dependent upon our own efforts, we are freed from the guilt and insecurity that follow our inevitable stumbling.

      So now we get to serve God joyfully–because we actually desire to–rather than out of fear or uncertainty about the Lord’s love for us.

      By the way, there are plenty of Protestants who have confused views about this too.


    You don’t believe Catholics actually think that beatification marks the transition from Purgatory to Heaven, right? The image at the top of this post is purely tongue-in-cheek, yes?

    Regarding Lewis’ logic concerning Purgatory, I’m not sure if you’ve really addressed it. If we transformed it into a syllogism, it’d look something like this:

    1. Even holy Christians die with sin and attachment to sin
    2. Nothing unclean can enter Heaven
    3. Therefore there is some purgation after death

    This just makes sense to me. There are two members of my family who, after a significant falling-out, no longer speak to one another. Yet they both profess faith in Christ. If these two people end up together in Heaven while remaining in their current state, I’m pretty sure Heaven won’t remain “heaven” for very long… I am certain that a work of God’s grace must take place within both of their hearts before they’ll be ready to worship before the same throne. When this happens it will not be a pleasant experience for either one of them, just as the process wouldn’t be painless if they reconciled while alive on earth. Letting go of pain is often painful in and of itself. However, I fail to see how such hurt could be carried with them past Heaven’s gates. Rancid wounds must be lanced if they are to heal…


      Well… I can’t speak for what individuals of any formal profession actually believe, but I think that the dogmatic logic of the process requires this (i.e. a transition from purgatory to heaven). Unless I misunderstand the teaching, all sin must be purged before the individual can proceed to heaven.

      It follows that if they have entered heaven (and serve as intercessors since they are then in the Lord’s presence) purgatory has done its job. Now, I recognize that it is not the church’s formal process that makes this move possible. Obviously, ecclesiastical authorities are simply formally recognizing that this move has taken place.

      If I’m incorrect, please direct me to authoritative Roman Catholic documents. This article from the Catholic News Service says:

      “In addition to reassuring us that the servant of God lives in heaven in communion with God, miracles are the divine confirmation of the judgment expressed by church authorities about the virtuous life” lived by the candidate, Pope Benedict said in a speech to members of the Congregation for Saints’ Causes in 2006.”

      Now, the appeal to the reasonableness of the doctrine of purgatory certainly does “make sense,” even to me. If I were to control the process of redemption, I would most definitely include something akin to it. (I’m not being trite.)

      However, a principle of the sixteenth century reformation of the church was sola scriptura, i.e. that doctrine must find its source in God’s Word, rather than another source.

      What it boils down to, is whether Christ’s sacrifice is fully sufficient for our salvation or whether we must finish the process ourselves. I don’t know the moment when all our sinfulness is literally gone; perhaps it will transpire at the moment of our death (in faith) as we (like the penitent thief) join our Lord in Paradise.

      Yes, the conversation in the graphic is rather tongue-in-cheek and I doubt the two men had such a conversation. I don’t want any of Mere Inkling’s many Roman Catholic readers to be offended. However, its provocative nature has already stimulated this worthwhile conversation, for which I am grateful.

      If you can point me to catechetical sources that contradict my understanding of the basic meaning of beatification, I welcome them.

      On the subject of estranged family members… I’ve offered a prayer for those to whom you referred. I’ve witnessed God’s healing of deep wounds in my own family, and pray they do not need to wait until heaven to have their familial bonds restored.

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