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.)