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Lewis and the Idea of Purgatory? Another Look at The Great Divorce

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During each academic year for nearly two decades, I've urged my Christian undergraduates to read C. S. Lewis critically. His narrative gifts and spiritual insights are many, and with good reason Christians today appreciate his continuing influence.

At times, though, appreciation of a writer can raise intriguing and important but extraneous questions.

How so for C. S. Lewis? Within his lucid prose and practical wisdom lie a marvelous range and depth of scholarship in medieval literature (which to Lewis included what we call the Renaissance) and a thorough integration of literary texts and Anglicanism. Some of his most enduring work is, of course, fantasy (Narnia, the Space Trilogy), but how theologically should such fantasies be read? Can authentic personal commitment to theological purity tweak a fantastic story into a supposed theological disclosure that the author did not intend?

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I ask in response to a recent Voices article in CP ("CS Lewis on Purgatory and George MacDonald: What Does This Mean for Protestants?" 19 May 2018). According to that article, The Great Divorce leaves the impression that Purgatory is real and that Lewis's view of the afterlife is more Catholic than Protestant.

On the contrary, Lewis was doctrinally as Protestant as any Anglican ever was. In particular, his depiction of life after death in Divorce and other fantasies does not comment on the idea of Purgatory but reflects his literary use of Homer, Vigil, Dante, and Milton.

This brief article offers three notes about the Divorce as a fantasy and a few observations about Lewis and the American church today.

First and perhaps most important, The Great Divorce (1945) is not, as the earlier article claims, "an allegory." The Preface to the book—written by Lewis himself—states clearly: "I beg the reader to remember that this is a fantasy." Space here does not permit a full definition of what fantasy meant to Lewis but it has been discussed at length in quite accessible sources (e.g. Lewis's On Stories, The Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis, etc.).

In short, fantasy was Lewis's portal to re-insert the reality of the supernatural into a twentieth-century England enthralled by naturalistic philosophy and scientific research.

Much of Lewis's literary context for his fantasies is ancient and medieval poetry--the epic and the dream vision, to cite two examples. The Divorce is not an allegory but a fantasy and a dream vision as well, the latter explaining the final sentences of the book. There the narrator realizes that he has fallen asleep and imagined the entire story.

Dreams and visions appear in George MacDonald as well (Phantastes, for example), and Lewis did indeed acknowledge MacDonald as his master. What did he mean? A theological expert? Hardly. In 1946, Lewis published a collection of MacDonald's works and noted in his introduction: "Most myths were made in prehistorical times . . . But every now and then there occurs in the modern world a genius--a Kafka or a Novalis--who can make such a story. MacDonald is the greatest genius of this kind whom I know."

A few lines later, Lewis adds that Phantastes had "baptized" his imagination: "The quality which had enchanted me in his imaginative works turned out to be the quality of the real universe, the divine, magical, terrifying and ecstatic reality in which we all live." Here, then, is MacDonald masterful display of what truly exists, and Lewis is humbly grateful for it.

Second, and still in Lewis's Preface to Divorce, he wrote the book not to assert that Purgatory was real but to refute eighteenth-century writer William Blake's notion of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (a long work finished around 1790). Blake essentially rejects the cosmic separation of the two realms, instead proposing a dreamy unity of all religious faiths (for context, see his "All Religions Are One").

Lewis would have none of it. The title is especially telling. It corrects Blake's heresy by way of an imaginary bus ride by residents of Hell (the "Grey Town") journeying to Heaven. Before long, sadly, the riders express their self-absorbed animus of Heaven with its many solid natural elements that make it a place of substance, not image. The visitors, one by one, come to voice their desires to return to Hell, shocking readers with the truth that the doomed (the "ghosts") and the blessed (the "spirits") exist in two places worlds apart.

Third, readers may understandably perceive Divorce to present Purgatory as an actual place. After all, the story requires a setting: the characters have to be somewhere, spiritually anyway. Where are they? Literally, they are in Heaven, for the most part. Literarily, they are on an adventure, a voyage. The unifying feature of Lewis's story is less a place than a motif, the medieval journey taken by one or more pilgrims.

Again, the classical literary greats, wove their stories around wayfarers on long trips. Thus, and perhaps tongue in cheek, the Lewis and MacDonald characters in Divorce do not stand for the two actual men. They are no more real in the story than the bus riders are in a kind of limbo. The book as fantasy is all the more true, as ironic as that sounds, because it defines reality not simply as nature, the physical world, but as nature and supernature.

The Final Judgment of the redeemed and the unredeemed (see ch. 9) dramatizes the great divorce and the most pointed rebuke of Blake. There the MacDonald character explains the situation to the Lewis in the story, a comment with allusions to Matthew's Gospel [Authorized Version]): "There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,' and those to whom God says, in the end, 'Thy will be done.' All that are in Hell choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened."

I cite this passage to add that ch. 9, read in Lewis's context (not ours), to show that The Great Divorce is theologically about separation, not about the afterlife. Roman Catholic teaching about Purgatory is simply not there.

* * *

What, then, does Lewis offer to the American church today? Plenty but an important qualification is in order: Lewis's intended primary readers were not American Christians but unsaved Brits. He was hoping to engage them in a lively, practical description of how biblical truths challenge a culture that exalted science.

This targeted audience of his, in turn, reminds readers of the important differences between a writer's purpose and a reader's desire. Readers have—and should have—their own motivations for reading a story, but that interest must also defer to the guidance of the writer's intent. A story does not mean simply what readers want it to mean, regardless of how esteemed a given writer may be.

After all, as Lewis noted in An Experiment in Criticism, readers must engage a writer's text first as that writer wanted it to be read. Such is why his thin volume A Preface to "Paradise Lost" lays out Milton's literary context of the epic before Lewis discusses theological dimensions of it. Through this other "Preface" by Lewis, readers are taught to meet Milton on his own ground first.

Doing so with The Great Divorce is demanding, more so than is apparent in its intriguing plot and fluid style. Nevertheless, reading Lewis-like is reading biblically (Philippians 2), i.e. emptying oneself in order to experience things (to the fullest extent) as the author experienced them. The process does not stop there, of course, but it must begin there.

More broadly, starting in the right place points back to Lewis's defense of the supernatural in On Miracles. He encourages readers to begin in the right place. Starting with the question "Are miracles possible?" leads to dreadfully unproductive efforts ending in a mix of unhelpful opinions. But beginning with the proper first question, "Is there a God?" leads to a much more useful, logical, and (most importantly) true response.

Ultimately, Lewis's call to prioritize beginnings, whether in reading a book or in tackling the difficult issues of life, can help to bring life to the dry bones of American culture today.

Branson Woodard is an English professor at Liberty University, where he offers courses in English literature, fantasy, and literary criticism. His work has appeared in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, and The Complete Literary Guide to the Bible. He and his wife live in Lynchburg, VA.

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