C. S. Lewis’ Second Argument for Purgatory

The introduction to Lewis on Purgatory, and discussion of his first argument, is here.

The second major argument is the soul’s “demand” for a 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 joy”? Should we not reply, “With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleansed first.” “It may hurt, you know”—”even so, sir.”

The audacity of this vignette is truly astounding.

1. Notice that God is willing for him to enter heaven; therefore, all violations of His Justice and even his divine “sense of propriety,” that would provide an impediment to a sinner entering heaven have been satisfied. But this is not good enough for Lewis’ pilgrim. His sense of Righteousness and Propriety exceeds that of God Himself.

2. Evidently, the idea of God saying, “we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things,” is meant to be a spoof on the traditional Protestant position. But this is a simple mistake that could easily have been corrected. The Presbyterian confession, for example, says “after death … the souls of the righteous, being then made perfect in holiness, are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God” (emphasis added). In other words, Protestants do not believe that God lets people into heaven while still dripping with mud and slime.

So Lewis is in two very serious respects already on very shaky ground with this pilgrim’s case: in danger of being more righteous than God Himself, and of attacking a caricature of the Protestant position that is the opposite of the case. Lewis is persuaded that, before a departed sinner would be ready to enter heaven, two elements will be needed to complete his sanctification: time, and suffering. Is this the case?

Here, we are examining a different aspect of time than was done in the earlier post. There, the question of comparative durations between worlds was examined. Here, we now ask whether subjective duration as such is needed to complete one’s sanctification prior to entering heaven. That is, even if the “process,” contrary to Lewis’ assumptions in the first argument, were instantaneous as measured from an earthly frame of reference, will it not require a duration of time subjectively in the frame of reference of the departed one?

The opposite view is that, even if a hot fire were needed to burn off our dross, could that transition not be a singular event, like a line going through a point, or death itself? Must it needs involve duration?

Obviously, Lewis thinks so, but unfortunately, it was so obvious to him that he did not see the need to state the premise that makes the necessity clear. It is an enthymeme. Thus, I will make two proposals for what the “missing premise” might be.

(a) To maintain identity of person through such a radical change, a step-wise sequence would be needed; otherwise, it would not be the same person. This would perhaps couple to Lewis’ neo-Kantian view of change that is at the basis of his essay Miracles. The idea is that to live in a coherent world, transition must be in incremental stages, rooted in causality. Otherwise, things could appear and disappear seemingly randomly, and we would be in a kaleidoscope, not a world. Thus, to the question, “how are miracles possible?” Lewis answers by pointing out that the miracle at Cana can be thought of as a mere “speeding up” of the ordinary process by which water is transformed into wine. Therefore, miracles need not entail a rejection of the Kantian principle. The application here, then, would be that to go from “dripping in mud and slime” to a saint fit for heaven might be more or less fast, but cannot be instantaneous in any case.

Note however that Kant’s theory had to do with the subjective experience of phenomena. But an identical object that is not continuously under observation can obviously “appear” to have changed suddenly. You go into the kitchen to make a cup of coffee, and when you come back, the cat is lying in an entirely different posture. In this world, presumably the cat underwent the change gradually “in principle,” but it is not experienced as such by an observer when a temporal gap has occurred. Thus, when Lewis emerges on the other side of Purgatory and greets his friends again, for them, whatever change he has undergone is just the same as if it had been instantaneous. Yet, we hope, he expects that they will still recognize him as “Lewis,” and not some different person. What I am getting at is that identity is somehow maintained even when change, as observed between two separate moments, appears instantaneous. There are thus two identity principles at work: Lewis as he changes gradually in Purgatory, and Lewis identified as the same man before and after by his loved-ones, that were not privy to the process. This duality — two identity principles that are heterogenous — should serve as a clue that, even on Kantian presuppositions, there is no contradiction in supposing that change is instantaneous upon being thrown from one world into another.

(b) If an argument based on identity through change fails, Lewis might change tack to this: To be meaningful personal change, change must involve the will, at least at the level of consent. But will cannot be coerced, by its very nature. Thus, a time of simmering under the influence of “persuasive measures” is needed. Moreover, in all cases except perhaps exceptional saints, a sequence of steps would be needed, each discrete. There is a structure to the healthy soul; it can no more be brought about in one fell swoop, than a roof can be installed on a building before the foundation is laid. So, for example, let us suppose a Christian at death is still full of murderous rage. But this rage is caused by excessive intoxication; this desire to be intoxicated is due to compulsive gambling (which environment conduces to drinking), which in turn is based on covetousness. So, it is not as simple as simply “overcoming his rage.” To become rid of his rage, he needs to first stop coveting, which will then allow him to overcome the urge to gamble, which will then allow him to overcome the excessive drinking, and only then will he be able to conquer his rage.

Two things need to be said in criticism of this model. The covetousness/gambling/drinking/rage nexus is like a tightly sprung complex of sins, but could they not all be released simultaneously by pulling the lynchpin out of the first in the chain? Why is a temporal sequence absolutely necessary?

The Protestant view of conversion is that a singular, miraculous change takes place in which the heart of stone is replaced with a heart of flesh. The nature of faith is inherently to be entirely directed to Christ as one’s Righteousness, by which his Righteousness really becomes ours by the “great exchange.” It is instantaneous. Yes, God has seen fit to allow us still to be beset by sins, but these sins are now of a different character than before the great transformation. Take the image of a runner who is caught in a mud patch. He slips, he falls, he gets back up, progress seems to be slow. But if that mud-patch were suddenly dried up, off the runner would go.

This is a mystery. The besetting sins are truly “ours,” they are not something imposed extraneously. Yet though “ours,” the Christian’s eye is on God, and if relieved of those sins instantaneously, his sanctification would be complete, without any sense of being a different person — that change already took place at regeneration. Instead, the new principle is relieved of those burdens under which he previously groaned. There is thus no contradiction in supposing that the relief-process could be instantaneous after death without violating some “structure of righteousness” that needed to be built up in stages.

On this view, then, since different saints are taken at different stages of sanctification, it cannot be that the purpose for continuing to dwell on earth burdened by besetting sins, was because time was needed to remove them. Our life on earth is then for other purposes. If that is not the purpose of life on earth, then it is also not necessary that an additional time of purgation is needed.

2 thoughts on “C. S. Lewis’ Second Argument for Purgatory

  1. We are instantly clothed through faith in Christ, and in the righteousness of Christ. Believers, in the Body of Christ- as the Bride of Christ. No “doing our time” waiting in the laundromat before the wedding!

  2. Tom — true, but we also need to remind ourselves that it is not as if a final cleansing is not required. The Westminster Confession states, “after death … the souls of the righteous, being then made perfect in holiness, are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God.”
    But good point.

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