Among the patriarchs of Christian theology C.S. Lewis, deserves a spot in the top five. From his classics like Mere Christianity and Screwtape Letters to his beloved Chronicles of Narnia series, he has captivated readers of all ages. However, some of his beliefs aligned closer to Catholicism, rather than Protestantism. His ties to Catholicism are fitting, JR Tolkien, who was Catholic, was one of the main influencers of his faith.
Lewis' stance on the afterlife will take some modern-day evangelicals off guard and it should. We must remember all theologians should be held to scripture, even the great C.S. Lewis.
Writings of his belief in purgatory are found in his allegorical tale, The Great Divorce.
In the book, Lewis appears in the afterlife, and his guide, George MacDonald, leads him through a series of events. The fact MacDonald is his guide should alarm Protestants and Catholics alike. I will highlight why later in the article.
Spoiler Alert: The book begins with Lewis, in ghost form, near a bus station in "Grey Town." Grey Town can be a purgatory-like state or a hellish-like state; it depends on how one perceives it. He finds it fitting to join the small crowd and takes a seat on the bus. The bus' destination is what Lewis describes as the foothills of heaven. As the bus is in flight, he notices little specks of light in the distance. A passenger explains to him these are people who have chosen to wander further away from the bus station instead of riding the bus to the foothills of heaven.
Lewis continues on the bus until he arrives at the foothills of a great mountain. He arrives to new earth covered in illuminating light. Everything he see's is in perfect order, a paradise-like state. The passengers exit the bus, and immediately want to go back to Grey Town. On the foothills, the grass is sharp and difficult to walk on. All the material in the new world is abrasive but beautiful. In the distance, a group of tall, angelic looking people appears. They turn out to be those who have pressed through the pain and made their way toward the great mountain; they return to help guide the new passengers.
At this point, Lewis meets his guide, George MacDonald. All the passengers meet their guides and discover God dwells on the mountain. The story follows some of the passenger's experiences in the new world and how they ultimately choose to go back to Grey Town. Many of the passengers turn back because they're consumed with their former life. Their guides plead with them to put earthly matters aside and come to the knowledge of Christ. All of them ultimately turn away and cling to their self-pursuits wanting nothing to do with God.
George MacDonald explains to Lewis that all who want to continue to the mountain must endure the pain of the harsh landscape. There is hope, MacDonald informs Lewis he will grow accustomed to it and become stronger the closer he is to the peak.
On his journey toward the mountain, Lewis asks MacDonald a series of questions. One of MacDonald's responses is rather intriguing. He tells Lewis those who ultimately end up in Grey Town choose it. They choose to reject the grace of God. Because of their rejection, they will wander further and further away from God and into misery. He goes onto say that even Heaven would be Hell for those who don't desire God.
Therefore Grey Town is purgatory for those who desire to pursue God. It can also be Hell for those who wander from God and plagued with self-inflicted wounds.
This is a high overview of The Great Divorce, but it captures theological points I would like to highlight.
It shows us a different side of Lewis. The theology behind purgatory is the idea that souls (who are heaven bound) can make choices concerning their salvation after death. The abrasive landscape described in The Great Divorce is symbolism for the purging of one's sins. It's the belief we are not fully saintified after death. Thus we must continue to work out our salvation in the afterlife.
On the contrary, one might choose to hold on to their sinful desires after death and run further from God. They will wander further and further away from his presence, into the gates of Hell. The Great Divorce does not hold a traditional definition of purgatory, but it has many of the same elements.
However, this is not the only alarming aspect of the allegory. I mentioned earlier the concern about, MacDonald. George MacDonald believes when the end of all things come, God will win even the most stubborn of souls. They may wander astronomical distances from him, but eventually, they will bow to God's love and come to the knowledge of Christ. In short he believes no one will spend eternity in Hell.
Does this sound familiar?
Love Wins, by Rob Bell.
C.S.Lewis wrote this concerning MacDonald,
"I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master; indeed I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him."
Master is a strong word.
How should we digest this theological web?
It's important to note; this is not Universalism. It might land far left on the Christianity spectrum, but indeed I believe it stays within the boundaries.
Universalism believes all religions are pathways to God. George MacDonald acknowledges Christ as the only way to God; it's a common misconception, to mistake the two theologies because they have the same results.
Although MacDonald's teachings influenced Lewis, there is a strong indication he does not believe, as MacDonald, love wins in the end.
We find it at the end of the allegory; Lewis writes,
"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. Those who knock it is opened."
This is a strong indicator he believed there would be a final judgment. We also see it played out in his fiction work The Chronicles of Narnia.
C.S. Lewis wrote the Chronicles of Narnia with a young audience in mind. Though it may be written for children, he packed it full of theological nuggets.
In the last book of the series, The Last Battle, Lewis gives us another glimpse of his belief on life after death.
Spoiler Alert: In one of the last scenes of the book, Aslan stand's in front of the door to Aslan's Country. Every creature in Narnia's past and present stand before him. Those who love Aslan are beaming with glory and enter the door. Then there are those who hate Aslan who vanish into the darkness, never to be seen again.
In this scene, it is clear Lewis is depicting that every soul will either be with God for eternity or be eternally separated from him.
In the last scene of the book. The main protagonists enter the door and appear in Aslan's Country on the foothills of a great mountain. Sound familiar?
In the scene, there are a group of dwarfs who happened to find there way into the door. There is something quite different about them; they're stumbling around and complaining about Aslan's Country. The back story of this particular group of Narnians is interesting. At one time the dwarfs were faithful to Aslan. Unfortunately, through a series of events, they lost their faith in Aslan, and their hearts were hardened. It appears in Aslan's grace they entered his country. However, they still chose to reject Aslan's grace.
Aslan tries to open their eyes, but they choose not to follow him to his mountain.
"They will not let us help them," Aslan explained. "They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own mind, yet they are in that prison, and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out."
If we were to compare the passengers in, The Great Divorce, and the dwarfs in The Last Battle. We will find the same behavior, and we also find the same result from their actions. Both of the character groups choose unbelief and or rejection of the truth. Thus God lets them go into their misery.
It's a foreign thought for those in the Protestant faith that a soul can make choices concerning salvation after death. As a Protestant, I find it interesting the Church looks over The Great Divorce. Take for example the backlash on Rob Bell; I would expect similar results after reading The Great Divorce.
I dare say Lewis' might have welcomed some of Bell's theology. If you are appalled by the idea of that, try to make sense of his love for MacDonald. Rob Bell and MacDonald travel similar paths, and Lewis obviously thought highly of MacDonald.
What are we to do with this? Evangelicals pack the movie theaters every time a Narnia movie comes out. Yet, the man who wrote the books might endorse theology they despise. I think it's important to remember C.S. Lewis is human, and because of that fact, we shouldn't throw the baby out with the bath water.
His classics like The Weight of Glory and Mere Christianity are masterpieces. His writings inspired millions of believers, deepening our understanding of a merciful, loving, redeeming God. For this we should be eternally grateful.
I'm a huge fan of C.S.Lewis, and his writings shaped my theology, but as a follower of Christ, I must read everything through a biblical lens. We need to discern and study everything we read and back it up to the ultimate authority, scripture.
As for The Great Divorce, it's a great read, but biblically speaking tread carefully.