The Pilgrim’s Progress from this World to that Which is to Come;
Death and Glory
While revelling in the beauties of the Country of Beulah, Christian and Hopeful were warned that they had two more difficulties to face before they would enter the Celestial City. What were these two difficulties? One writer has commented that they were “death without and unbelief within.” Certainly, death is the obvious trial that stands between every believer and glory but what of the second? Is there an unbelieving nature in every Christian that endeavours to triumph over the faith which God has given? The encouragement is, however, that ultimately faith will win and gain the victory.
The River of Death
As the pilgrims looked beyond and upwards to the glories of the Celestial City they looked downwards and saw a deep swift river and there was no bridge. When enquiring if there was no other way they could reach the city they received the response:
“…there hath not any, save two, Enoch and Elijah, been permitted to tread that path, since the foundation of the world.”
The final words of help they received though before coming to the waters are among the most profound that Bunyan wrote in his allegory:
“…you shall find it deeper or shallower, as you believe in the King of the place.”
As they entered the waters Christian had a great more difficulty than Hopeful. Indeed, without the encouragement of his fellow pilgrim Christian would not have made it across the river. While Hopeful could feel the bottom, Christian could not and so be cried out:
“the sorrows of death have encompassed me about; I shall not see the land that flows with milk and honey”
Troubled by his sins, Christian felt that he would not make to the bank. Troubled by a lack of assurance Hopeful kindly reminded Christian of the Scripture:
“My brother, you have quite forgot the text, where it is said of the wicked, ‘There are no bands in their death; but their strength is firm. They are not in trouble as other men, neither are they plagued like other men.’ ” (Psalm 73:4-5)
There is encouragement here for Christians who are troubled with fears and forebodings as they approach the place of death. Are there any without some apprehension when leaving this mortal life behind? Christian’s courage and faith, however, were strengthened by word of God:
“When thou passest through the waters I will be with thee and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee.” (Isaiah 43:2)
Both men together, found firm ground and eventually made it across. While our faith, will be weak, the promises of God word will prevail, through which we will triumph in the final hour of physical frailty and mortal weakness.
To the Gates
Bunyan now indulges in an imaginary description of the period between time and eternity. The angels of God are waiting for Christian and Hopeful as they come out of the waters of death, to escort them to the city. This is based largely upon the story of Lazarus where the angels convey him to Abraham’s Bosom. Paul also wrote that the angels are “ministering spirits” who serve the “heirs of salvation” (Hebrews 1). Christian and Hopeful leave their “mortal garments” behind as we too will leave our bodies of dust and clay behind as we make our way to glory.
As the angels carry Christian and Hopeful in their arms they described the “beauty and glory” of the Celestial City:
“You are going…to the paradise of God…you shall not see again such things as you saw when you were in the lower regions…You are going now to Abraham, to Isaac and Jacob…You must there receive the comforts of all your toil, and have joy for all your sorrow…There also you shall serve him continually with praise, with shouting, and thanksgiving…There your eyes shall be delighted with seeing and your ears with hearing…you shall enjoy your friends again…You shall be clothed with glory and majesty…”
At the Heavenly Gates
Christian and Hopeful were greeted with the sound of the trumpet and with the heavenly host who declared; “Blessed are they which are called unto the marriage supper of the Lamb.” Across the gate was written the words taken from Revelation 22:14:
“Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city.”
This part of the narrative is not only intended to comfort Christians who are going to the Heaven, it is also intended to challenge because not everyone will enter the gates. Therefore, at this stage the pilgrims are asked for their certificates. These represent their regeneration, justification and adoption. Without God’s grace no-one can enter. Upon presentation the gates which have remained closed, up to this point are opened with words from Isaiah 26:2; “The righteous nation which keepeth the truth may enter in.”
Bunyan now describes what he saw through the opened gates. The pilgrims were “transfigured” being given garments which “shone like gold”. He saw harps and crowns and he heard voices saying “Blessing and honour and glory and power be unto him that sitteth upon the throne and unto the Lamb forever and ever” (Revelation 5:15). With the gates now opened wide the dreamer saw a city shining like the sun, streets paved with gold and many men with crowns on their heads and harps on their hands. Then the gates closed leaving John Bunyan with a longing that we all must share:
“I wished myself among them.”
We too can only peer through those gates from a distance but one day we too shall be among them.
The Tragedy of Ignorance
One might think this is a fitting place to end the narrative but not Bunyan. Throughout his story he challenges self-righteousness and hypocrisy. He is ever concerned for those who think they will be heaven but do not have the credentials.
Some time back a young man called Ignorance entered the way through a false access and followed Christian and Hopeful. He too reached the River of Death but managed to secure a ferry crossing with one called “Vain-Hope”. Sadly, there are many who come to place of death with nothing but vain hope in their hearts. They seem to have peace but it is false, the mirage in the desert. Ignorance was not met by the angels, nor were there a fan-fare of trumpets to greet. He was a lonely figure climbing the hill to the gates of the city. Fumbling for his certificate he could not find it. The same angels who conducted Christian and Hopeful were ordered to bind Ignorance hand and foot and led him away. This leads the reader into a most startling, even terrifying, and deeply challenging conclusion:
“Then they took him up, and carried him through the air, to the door that I saw in the side of the hill, and put him there. Then I saw that there was a way to hell, even from the gates of heaven, as well as from the City of Destruction! So I awoke, and behold it was a dream.”
This conclusion calls us to make our calling and election sure. It reminds us that not everyone who says “Lord, Lord” will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. But all those who possess Christ and who have been saved by His grace alone will enter the gates of glory.