Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like streams in the Negeb!
Those who sow in tears
shall reap with shouts of joy!
Psalm 126: 4-5. (ESV).
John Bunyan wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress in 1678. This was a rich time in English history, filled with political and religious controversy. Bunyan was a Nonconformist –someone who dissented from the teachings of the Church of England at the time. He was allied with the Puritans and with Calvinist doctrine, recognizing the Bible as the sole source of religious authority. He was imprisoned for a time for his beliefs.
The Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegory, or what Webster’s partially defines as “the written, oral or artistic expression by means of symbolic fictional figures and actions of truths or generalizations about human conduct or experience.” The story—described as a dream by the author-- is filled with characters like Mr. Christian, Mr. Faithful, Mr. Worldly-Wiseman, Mr. Pliable and Mr. Money-love.
It is a work of fiction that challenges and stimulates the imagination while remaining true to core Biblical principles. It is a difficult book to summarize other than to say it is indeed a pilgrimage—someone travels from one place to another, having adventures, talking to people, and learning and growing along the way. The place that Christian is traveling to, however, is nothing less than the Celestial City, or heaven. He is convinced he must make this pilgrimage even if he must leave his wife and children behind. (They do in fact decide to follow him in the second part of the story.) After talking to Evangelist, Christian does not simply want to walk to heaven, he wants to run:
So I saw in my dream that the man began to run. Now he had not run far from his own door, but his wife and children perceiving it began to cry after him to return: but the man put his fingers in his ears, and ran on crying, “Life, life, eternal life.” So he looked not behind him, but fled towards the middle of the plain. (p.53).
It is clear from the beginning that this pilgrimage is a serious matter.
Christian’s neighbors, Obstinate and Pliable, question him about where he is going. An interesting dialogue ensues:
Christian: There is an endless kingdom to be inhabited, and everlasting life to be given us; that we may inhabit that kingdom forever.
Pliable: Well said, and what else?
Christian: There are crowns of glory to be given us; and garments that will make us shine like the sun in the firmament of heaven.
Pliable: This is excellent; and what else?
Christian: There shall be no more crying, nor sorrow: for he that is owner of the place shall wipe all tears from our eyes.
Pliable: And what company shall we have there?
Christian goes on to answer very eloquently but one wonders if anything will satisfy these questioners. Pliable does follow Christian for a time but it is not long before they encounter the Slough of Despond where they find themselves sinking in the mire. Pliable is shocked at this difficulty. He frees himself from it and returns home. Christian struggles to get to the other side of the Slough. Thankfully, it is not long before Help comes along.
Help explains what the Slough of Despond is:
This miry slough is such a place as cannot be mended; it is the descent whither the scum and filth that attends conviction for sin doth continually run; and therefore it is called the Slough of Despond: for still as the sinner is awakened about his lost condition, there arise in his soul many fears, and doubts, and discouraging apprehensions, which all of them get together, and settle in this place; and this is the reason of the badness of this ground. (p.58).
Imagine a work of literature speaking to us across the ages in such succinct terms. Even if we are Christians, we are still liable to become discouraged or depressed on our journey. There is only one thing to do: get Help!
The story goes on. It is not a simple adventure, being a Christian pilgrim. He visits also with Piety, with Charity and with Prudence. They are kind to Christian. They let him stay in a large upper chamber called Peace. He awakens in the morning and joyfully sings:
Where am I now? Is this the love and care
Of Jesus, for the men that pilgrims are?
Thus to provide! That I should be forgiven!
And dwell already the next door to heaven. (p.98).
There are some rewards for the Christian even as he makes his way through great difficulties.
Perhaps the triumph of Pilgrim’s Progress is the way it reverses our normal expectations of a happy ending. In a typical human story, the hero has adventures and survives them due to his own courage and resourcefulness. Here, the death of Christian—the crossing of the River—is in fact the beginning of a whole new glorious story, one that will never end, thanks to our Savior:
But glorious it was, to see how the open region was filled with horses and chariots, with trumpeters and pipers, with singers, and players on stringed instruments, to welcome the pilgrims as they went up and followed one another in at the beautiful Gate of the City. (p.385).
We can share in the joy of this biblically based work of fiction, this dream which somehow echoes through the centuries into our own lives. We can and we should feel excited about the prospect of going to heaven—even as we cherish this life, this opportunity to share the good news of Christ with our neighbors. Praise God!
In faith and fellowship,
 John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress ed. Roger Sharrock (London: Penguin) 1987.
 Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (Chicago) 1981.
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