C. S. Lewis on Purgatory

Some of his fan base may be unaware that C. S. Lewis believed in Purgatory. Because of Lewis’ popularity and winsome appeal, this fact is being seized upon with delight by some Roman Catholics. However, more and more nominal Protestants (e.g. Prof. Jerry Walls Of Houston Baptist University) are also evincing attraction to Lewis’ doctrine.

Lewis’ arguments are presented in compact form in Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. 1964) and all of the quotes I give in this essay are from pages 107-110 of that work. The smattering of references throughout the rest of his works is to the same effect. The purpose of this essay will be, first, to show that Lewis’ view of Purgatory is not compatible with Rome’s, and second, to analyze critically the arguments Lewis presents for his version of Purgatory.

Lewis’ view is not the “Romish” doctrine, at least that which “the Reformers had good reasons for throwing doubt on.” He seems to reject a penal or punitive basis for Purgatory when he says “no nonsense about merit.” Putting it that way is a little ambiguous, since the question should rather be whether there is any “nonsense” about demerit, not merit. (However, the rejection of “merit” would at least entail a denial of the Roman theory of the church’s “treasury of merits” being applied through indulgences to shorten the time in Purgatory.) He also says, oddly, “I don’t think suffering is the purpose of the purgation,” which is a strange denial, since no one would say that the purpose of sanctification is to suffer. So it is a sloppy statement, but the intent seems to be to veer away from the penal view. The Protestants that I have seen that have latched onto his view emphasize that it is a cleansing, not punitive model.

If so, his view is strictly incompatible with the Roman theory, which states unequivocally that Purgatory is a temporal punishment for sin: Baltimore catechism #1381 states, “Purgatory is the state in which those suffer for a time who die guilty of venial sins, or without having satisfied for the punishment due to their sins.” (Note that this also implies that Purgatory cannot be necessary for full sanctification unless it is the case that all persons not fully sanctified “die guilty of venial sins, or without having satisfied for the punishment due to their sins.”)

Moreover, to this day, though many Protestants and Catholics alike are unaware of it, indulgences are granted to relieve the torments of the dead: “All members of the faithful can gain indulgences, partial or plenary, for themselves, or they can apply them by way of suffrage to the dead” (Can. 994). But if indulgences, based on the church’s treasury of merits, can reduce the time in Purgatory, then it can’t be that that time in Purgatory was strictly necessary unto sanctification. To be sure, they say it is also cleansing (Baltimore #1383), and there is some tension between the concepts, in that #1383 says it ends “as soon as they are completely purified,” but that is a heteronomous principle both to the just infliction of unsatisfied punishment and to the granting of indulgences. At its foundation, it is still based on temporal punishment for venial sins. So Romanists that want to “claim Lewis” here are either dishonest or ill-informed. It would probably be good to make up two different names to emphasize this incongruity whenever there is danger of falling into it: for example, we could contrast Rome’s Punigatory with Lewis’ Catharatory. Thinking two ideas are the same just because the same word is used for them is an elementary, yet pervasive mistake. Nevertheless, I will continue to use the historical “Purgatory” to refer to Lewis “Catharatory,” to avoid the charge of being cute.

Let us examine Lewis’ view on its own merits. There are two basic arguments. (1) He wants to pray for dead people, therefore they must be in a state that would ratify this urge. (2) The soul itself will demand a Purgatory after death.

The first reason seems so patently unwarranted — indeed, bordering on mere schoolgirlish wishful thinking — that I give the quote nearly in full:

Of course I pray for the dead. The action is so spontaneous, so all but inevitable, that only the most compulsive theological case against it would deter me. And I hardly know how the rest of my prayers would survive if those for the dead were forbidden… What sort of intercourse with God could I have if what I love best were unmentionable to Him?

The last sentence is a bit of a cheat. “Mentioning” someone does not necessarily entail praying that their pains in a Purgatory might be lessened, or that they would “learn their lessons” of sanctification more quickly. Why would it, even for the living? There are many ways that people, dead or alive, can be “mentioned.” Possibly, most of us would do well to limit our prayers concerning sanctification to our own, even when other persons are being discussed. The danger of self-righteousness is too great otherwise.

Even if Purgatory exists, how can Lewis be so sure that its temporal duration is so long that all of the people he wants to “mention” are still there, “right now”? But if even one of them has passed from Purgatory to Paradise by the time of Lewis’ prayer in which they are “mentioned,” then the force of his argument falls flat. If even one might have already graduated, then they all might have, and so he is left in exactly the same position as if facing a Fundamentalist that denied Purgatory outright, so far as this particular argument is concerned.

Perhaps Lewis would try to sidestep this argument by an appeal to his B-theory of time. In several places of the opus, he suggests, not just that God is timeless, which all orthodox affirm, but that every temporal moment is “simultaneously” present to Him. Even in our passage here, p. 110, he says

Whether we pray on behalf of the living or the dead, the causes which will prevent or exclude the events we pray for are in fact already at work. Indeed they are part of a series which, I suppose, goes back as far as the creation of the universe. The causes which made George’s illness a trivial one were already operating while we prayed about it; if it had been what we feared, the causes of that would have been operative. That is why, as I hold, our prayers are granted, or not, in eternity.

If our prayers are answered in eternity, it seems to open up the possibility of prayer that violates our intuitive understanding of causality, i.e. that prayer affects the present and future, but not the past. If our prayers are situated in the B-theory stasis of eternal presentism, then they could be answered, from eternity, in respect to events bearing the relation of “earlier than” the prayer. By an exactly similar argument, then, they could apply to “orthogonal” events such as purgatorial time.

However, there is something odd about this notion. Imagine you rode the train to visit Lewis, and he picked you up at the station. Then this dialogue:

Lewis: Before we proceed, let’s take a moment to pray that your train will arrive safely.

You: But it already did arrive safely.

Lewis: Ah, you insist on looking at it from the time-bound perspective.

You: Shouldn’t we be thanking Him that it did arrive safely, rather than petitioning him that it might?

This kind of problem is one of the ways that B-theory speculation about time can lead one into absurdity. Part of the reason God effects outcomes based on prayer is that his people would give him thanks. But prayer for/thanks for is rooted in prior/subsequent temporality of the event. The rigid past/future directionality and irreversibility of our temporal existence must be a reality that God wishes us to conform our thinking to.

Perhaps a distinction could be made here between our knowledge vs. lack of knowledge of the outcome of an event. Apparently Lewis taught elsewhere that an event known to be accomplished can no longer be prayed for, for then His will is already known, and we should not pray for it to be different. Thus, for example, we cannot pray that the Germans should win the battle of Stalingrad, for the outcome of that battle is already known. This is an intriguing thought, but there is a problem. What if we don’t know the outcome of the battle yet, we are just starting to read a history about it. Would it be appropriate to pause, before reading on, to pray for a German victory? Perhaps even set the book down and organize a prayer meeting for that very purpose with other Christians that also don’t know the outcome? Everyone, I think, would recognize that this is absurd — after all, the actual outcome is already written down later on in the book. However, the outcome of more mundane events — say, whether your friend arrived safely on his flight — are also usually known by someone; so how is the distinction to be unpacked to save one but reject the other? It seems like making my personal knowledge definitive in whether I can pray for outcomes that are already accomplished introduces a subjectivity into the way God governs the world that is unwarranted.

In any case, we can move on, because Lewis’ mention of the B-theory in this context is only to address his imaginary friend’s objection that the dead are not “in time,” not to defend counter-causal prayers.

Our prayers, and other free acts, are known to us only as we come to the moment of doing them. But they are eternally in the score of the great symphony. … For though we cannot experience our life as an endless present, we are eternal in God’s eyes; that is, in our deepest reality.

There is something a bit exhibitionist about this metaphysical digression, since it is only marshaled for the thesis, “whether [the dead] share the divine perception of timelessness.” But this objection doesn’t scratch the surface of the deeper objection that obtains, even when the dead are rightly regarded as being “in time.” For to cash out his intuition of praying for the dead, he must not only know at least some things about the minimum temporal duration that would be required for Purgatory to “do its job,” but also, that that purgatorial time lines up with earthly time metrically.

Only if Purgatory is correlated with our world spatio-temporally, could such a move be made. But surely no one has ever believed that. Then it would be located somewhere specific — below the earth’s crust, or on the planet Uranus. The duration of time would be directly measurable by our clocks. The mind balks at such suppositions. Moreover, to suppose that the recently deceased have gone to Purgatory for some definite minimum duration of time entails that the time when our Lord “cometh to judge the quick and the dead” (Apostle’s Creed) is known to be postponed for at least that long — contrary to our Lord’s direct statement, that this is not knowable by men. At some time in history, that moment will be five seconds away. Purgatory runs out of time on this model.

It is rather amazing that the same man could make this mistake, who also wrote the stories about children making several trips to Narnia, between which trips vast amounts of Narnian time could transpire, and even time setbacks. Lewis the story-writer achieved a deep metaphysical insight which Lewis the garrulous letter-writer forgot all about: different worlds have space and time structures that do not “line up” with each other. If they did, they would not be different worlds. And if they don’t line up, then it is impossible to relate a time-duration in one world to that of another (see further discussion of this point here). So, even if Purgatory required a million years of subjective time to do its job, that entire event sequence might be instantaneous in respect to our time. Indeed, it is instantaneous, unless God were to stitch that time-line back into ours (say, by a return of a dead person), which, if Purgatorial time has time that is metrical, and whose duration can be measured by devices similar to our own (e.g. clocks), would establish at least an average time-duration relation with respect to the exit and entry events, though it would still tell nothing of the relation of interstitial events. But what possible reason would there be for even thinking that time duration in two systems has a metric that can be compared?

Interestingly, according to this blog, a former pope agrees with the analysis of temporality I just presented.

The transforming ‘moment’ of this encounter cannot be quantified by the measurements of earthly time. It is, indeed, not eternal but a transition, and yet trying to qualify it as of ‘short’ or ‘long’ duration on the basis of temporal measurements derived from physics would be naive and unproductive. The ‘temporal measure’ of this encounter lies in the unsoundable depths of existence, in a passing-over where we are burned ere we are transformed. To measure such Existenzzeit, such an ‘existential time,’ in terms of the time of this world would be to ignore the specificity of the human spirit in its simultaneous relationship with, and differentiation from, the world.

–Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, p. 230

It is good to see that even some Romanists have “seen through” the shoddiness of Lewis’ first argument. (What the Cardinal failed to realize, however, is that this insight also kicks all the exegetical and traditional props out from under his own stage — indulgences, prayers and masses. On the basis of the view of time he has just expounded, none of these can have any foundational relation to Purgatory any more.)

Lewis’ first main argument, then, fails. In a subsequent post, I will analyze his second main argument, that the soul “demands” Purgatory.

9 thoughts on “C. S. Lewis on Purgatory

  1. Todd,

    Actually Jon does not cover it very well. For example, he doesn’t address any of the arguments I present in this post.

    Despite his denial, the Roman doctrine of Purgatory does still include a penal aspect, as I showed in part 1 of this post. And if that is not enough, I can post a foto I took in the Basilica San Paolo in Roma last summer, in which people are invited to give money to buy indulgences for those in Purgatory. Which makes no sense, if it is simply a necessity for becoming pure.

    He says Lewis’ belief in Purgatory “falls into reason, as CS Lewis was an Anglican.”

    But Article 22 of the Church of England declares “the romish doctrine concerning Purgatory… vainly invented, and grounded upon no warrant of Scripture; but repugnant to the word of God.”

    Real quickly on his main points:

    “will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come”

    1. To infer Purgatory from this is a logical howler. Any more than it would follow from the sentence, “Jon will not learn logic, neither in this age nor in the age to come,” that it follows that there are some people that will learn logic in the age to come. Actually, no it doesn’t follow.

    2. Note that the underlying concept of this verse is forgiveness. If forgiveness ensues “in the age to come,” then it is not complete in this age, and thus there is a punitive aspect to Purgatory, despite his denial.

    ” I will grant him that there is no explicit verse, just as there is no explicit verse to detail the Trinity. ”

    This is a subterfuge. For, the trinity is a covering concept we are forced into, to account for many passages of Scripture. It is a necessary inference. Whereas, Purgatory is by no means a necessary inference.

    I Cor. 3:10-15 He has “yet to see a Protestant explanation of these verses.” Then he hasn’t looked very hard. There are tons of Protestant explanations of them.

    Mt 12:32 — see above comment on logic.

    I Cor. 15:29 — Do the Roman Catholics “baptize on behalf of the dead”? No. Thus, they can hardly use this verse to support Purgatory.

    Heb. 12:22-24. His answer assumes the thing that is to be proven.

    If in the final day, it turns out there is a Purgatory, then the Christian’s response will be, “thy will be done.” However, I am concerned about the triumphalist glorying in the doctrine shown by Romanists. The place that Purgatory plays spiritually is to give license to sin. The sinner would gladly trade a little extra time in Purgatory later on for the chance to fornicate just one more time. “Buy now, pay later.” This, I believe, is why they are so evangelistic about the notion. There is no other reason to love the idea so much.

  2. I need to apologize for my statement in the OP attributing “baptism for the dead” to popery, while in comment #2 denying it. The denial is correct: I’m not sure what caused me to write the affirmative in the OP. Merely a “senior moment” I trust. I will delete it later after the confusion has had a proper time to be acknowledged.

  3. TJH,

    I happened across your blog and found your critique in the comments of my post interesting. I have been away from my blog for a few months but am thinking of answering your critique thoroughly in a future post. To start though, I wonder if you saw the second part of my Purgatory post titled “Purgatory Part 2; What about Temporal Punishment” in which I deal with perhaps one or two of your concerns.

    Grace and Peace,



  4. I will state now, that despite the academic, but refutable merit of much of your post, this comment is not just inaccurate but shows complete misunderstanding if this concept if Purgatory.

    “If in the final day, it turns out there is a Purgatory, then the Christian’s response will be, “thy will be done.” However, I am concerned about the triumphalist glorying in the doctrine shown by Romanists. The place that Purgatory plays spiritually is to give license to sin. The sinner would gladly trade a little extra time in Purgatory later on for the chance to fornicate just one more time. “Buy now, pay later.” This, I believe, is why they are so evangelistic about the notion. There is no other reason to love the idea so much.”

    A cursory look at Catholicism would clearly show fornication as a mortal sin, a sin that separates us from God’s gracious gift. A sin requiring the sacrament of reconciling including TRUE repentance to be absolved of. Purgatory should not factor into this other than as a side note.

    To say Purgatory creates a license to sin is pretty mistaken. In fact, the only theology that I am aware of that gives a license to sin is the. “Once Saved Always Saved” Doctrines of Baptists and Evangelical Protestants. If the Catholic Church held such a position, the issuing of get out of hell free cards at mega church rallies would be much simpler than Purgatory.

  5. Jon,

    I’ll join with you in refuting the errors of Baptistic thinking — however, the “once saved always saved” attitude is typically baptistic, not shared by all, or even most evangelicals.

    Your new post seems to concede that there is a punitive aspect to Purgatory, so I rest my case. No protestant ever confused the punitive aspect as being “eternal” as opposed to “temporal.”

    As to the fornication question,

    1. That was just an example — fill in with your favorite venial sin.

    2. It’s not clear that fornication is necessarily a mortal sin, for the distinction is defined subjectively, not denotatively, (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mortal_sin) and I have no doubt that many Catholics regard it as venial. Go check out the situation in any historically Catholic “ghetto,” such as Italian, Irish, or Polish. None of the “lists” I find with a quick google search make it crystal clear that this would count as a mortal sin.

    3. That your typical Catholic layman is not likely to make such fine distinctions is indicated by considering abortion, which according to the canon law leads to automatic excommunication, so grave is it considered to be officially. Yet, Catholics procure abortions at a higher rate than Protestants. http://www.factcheck.org/2007/12/abortions-comparing-catholic-and-protestant-women/
    Yet they don’t consider themselves excommunicated, nor does officialdom — or if they do, then the statistics of membership numbers needs to be drastically reduced to remove the vast numbers of excommunicated.

    Moreover, if you considered Whites as a separate class, the disparity would be even greater, as most Negroes self-identify as Protestants.

  6. Well,

    I will agree with you that a clearer distinction needs to be made regarding Catholics and practicing Catholics when bringing in surveys and statistics. There are 3 people who are only Catholic because they were baptized as a baby for every 2 practicing Catholics.

    If i was dedicated a Protestant or Evangelical as an infant, and in a survey said I was so, but now am a practical atheist or secularist, would you blame evangelicalism for my mischaracterizations and sins?

    Of course not

    Likewise don’t judge Catholic theology on how people practice it or fail to practice it, but instead on what they are taught and commanded to do.

    You can learn more about mortal sin from St Thomas Aquinas,


    It clearly lists fornication as always grave matter and when done with full knowledge and will constitutes mortal sin.

  7. Jon,

    Aquinas is just an opinion. Not everything he says it is canonical.

    Even so, note the inevitable qualification “with full knowledge and will” — this is just the subjective factor that I mentioned. Thus, you can not conclude that fornication simpliciter is a mortal sin.

    In reality, however, the mortal/venial distinction is not spiritually healthy. Any sin, however small, when done “with full knowledge and will” can send one to hell per se. It is not good for one’s soul to be making these qualifications. It is a varnished form of excuse-making. And that’s what goes to the heart of the problem with the Purgatory concept.

    The ratio of sincere practitioners to dead wood is asymmetric with respect to Protestantism and RC. For, no one makes the argument that one should accept (say) Reformed doctrine “because there are so many practitioners” etc. On the other hand, the vast numbers on the roll is a big part of the attraction people feel to RC. If the number of members claimed reflected reality, the RC would clearly be seen as just another sect, not the august claimant to being the holy catholic and apostolic church. So no, the numbers do not prove the verity of the doctrine, but they do play a big role in why people are attracted.

    That being said, however, your proposal of a ratio of 3:2 is way off. I think it is as provable as any empirical conclusion is provable, that the ratio is more like 10 or 20 to 1. All you have to do is compare how many people in a typical diocese are counted as RC compared to how many are actually going to confession and mass regularly.

    The disparity becomes even greater in nominally RC lands like Italy and Mexico, where I suspect not one male in 100 actually believes anything more than a bare theism scarcely distinguishable from paganism. Yes, they show up for weddings and baptisms, because that’s part of their cultural heritage. That’s ALL it is.

    With respect to Purgatory, however, we should move past the numbers and sin-lists — that is only an ancillary aspect. The real problem is the complete lack of compelling arguments for accepting it, which was the subject of the OP.

  8. There is an episode of Sopranos (season 2, episode 9, “From Where to Eternity”) that illustrates my thesis that Catholics are prone to take the doctrine of Purgatory as license to sin. Christopher has an out of body experience that leads several characters to have a temporary terror that their life of crime will lead to hell. But Paulie becomes assuaged by recalling Purgatory, and rightly argues that even thousands of years there will be like nothing compared to eternity. He even has a formula for the amount of duration: 50 years time the # of mortal sins + 25 times # of venials.

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