How Pilgrim’s Progress Helps Us Die
In the midst of churning waters, Hope directs our gaze.
This article was adapted from episode one of The Way to Glory.
Each week on The Way to Glory, we take a fresh look at a character from Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan's 300-year-old masterwork. The first episode premieres Thursday, February 21st. Subscribe now in iTunes, Google Podcasts, or Spotify.
We plan for college, family vacations, long road trips, and we spend most of our adult lives planning for retirement. But how do we plan for death? What moves someone from dying to dying well?
According to Donald Whitney, and John Bunyan, the difference is hope.
Donald Whitney is the author of Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life and professor of Biblical Spirituality at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. When he tells students to read John Bunyan’s classic work Pilgrim’s Progress, an assignment he has given to over a thousand students, he usually starts with a stern assertion alluding to the book’s overwhelming success over three centuries: “You don’t get to judge this book. At this point, it judges you.”
Pilgrim’s Progress isn’t just a book about theology. It’s not simply the prime example of allegory. Pilgrim’s Progress is alive with promises for today, with ideas meant for readers in 2019, even while it was published in 1678.
As Christian, Bunyan’s protagonist, traverses to the Celestial City, he encounters many redirects and roadblocks, including sadistic creatures and discouraging delays. Christian ultimately succeeds, not due to his own perseverance or steadfast faith but due to the help of others. After leaving Vanity Fair, he joins ranks with newly-converted Hopeful. Together they face down flooding meadows, Giant Despair, and churning rivers. Finally, with Hopeful by his side, Christian arrives at the Celestial City.
“It's comforting both to the grieving and to those who are anticipating death,” says Whitney. “When someone is going to move they start looking at maps of the new place. They start looking at pictures and websites that relate to the place that’s going to be their home in the near future.
“With every passing year, that's the way it is for me spiritually. Every day I'm closer to heaven, and I get more and more interested with the place, just as Christian and Hopeful did toward the end of their pilgrimage.
So I saw in my dream, that they went on together till they came in sight of the gate.
Now I further saw, that betwixt them and the gate was a river; but there was no bridge to go over, and the river was very deep.
At the sight, therefore, of this river the pilgrims were much stunned; but the men that went with them said, You must go through, or you cannot come at the gate.
“Whenever I've conducted the funeral of a Christian, I will read this. It helps people see a little bit of what the person just experienced, and it’s also comforting to think that your loved one is going through these glorious events.”
Overwhelmed by the current, Christian almost drowns in the river. Captivated by the Celestial City and drifting away from Hopeful, Christian is unable to keep his own head above water. Here Bunyan captures a liminal space we all inhabit as we press toward the celestial shores. To be on the borders of heaven, the only thing that eases pain and fear while buoying us enough to continue that last leg well is hope.
Hopeful therefore here had much ado to keep his brother’s head above water; yea, sometimes he would be quite gone down, and then, ere a while, he would rise up again half dead.
Hopeful did also endeavor to comfort him, saying, Brother, I see the gate, and men standing by to receive us;
but Christian would answer, It is you, it is you they wait for; for you have been hopeful ever since I knew you.
And so have you, said he to Christian.
Ah, brother, (said he,) surely if I was right he would now arise to help me; but for my sins he hath brought me into the snare, and hath left me.
* * *
Hopeful added these words, Be of good cheer, Jesus Christ maketh thee whole.
And with that Christian brake out with a loud voice, Oh, I see him again; and he tells me, “When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee.” Isa. 43:2).
While we all hope for a glorious transition from this world to the next, there are many believers who will struggle with their sins and doubts, with pain and suffering, with lives left unlived. As eternity looms in the distance, it is often much easier to remember one’s known sins rather than promised assurance.
But as Whitney points out, it’s not our grasp on Christ that that saves—it’s his grasp on us.
They therefore went up here with much agility and speed, though the foundation upon which the city was framed was higher than the clouds; they therefore went up through the region of the air, sweetly talking as they went, being comforted because they safely got over the river, and had such glorious companions to attend them.
* * *
And then the pilgrims gave in unto them each man his certificate, which they had received in the beginning: those therefore were carried in unto the King, who, when he had read them, said, Where are the men? To whom it was answered, They are standing without the gate. The King then commanded to open the gate, “That the righteous nation (said he) that keepeth the truth may enter in.”
* * *
What must we do in the holy place?
To whom it was answered, You must there receive the comfort of all your toil, and have joy for all your sorrow;
This is the consummation of the pilgrimage—full of glory, hope, and beauty.
But as believers, we only reach this celebration after facing the stark reality of death. Just like Christian, we have troubled waters, existential doubts, and rejections in this world. The Celestial City is surrounded by a river that represents death. It's something we all must walk through before we can cross into eternity—there are no exceptions.
But we do have some control over how we adjust to our own death and how well we choose to die. Will we flounder like Christian in the river, consumed with uncertainty? Is it even possible to be confident and peaceful?
“The older I get, the more sins I accumulate,” says Whitney. “Any accumulation of righteousness I may presume to have over the years seems to be overshadowed by the accumulation of sins. So I pray God would give me grace and mercy in the hour of my death. In part so that I would not dishonor him by doubts or fears, and I think of Christian every time I do that. But also, it’s a reminder to look to the king. It's about him, faith in him, and what he has done.”
Hope isn’t something that you invest in at the tail of life’s journey. Hopeful wasn’t an add-on at the very end of Christian’s trek, right before he reaches the Celestial City. Quite the opposite, Hopeful was an intregal part of Christian’s story as he managed his way through many different obstacles. If we’re only worried about shoring up enough hope for the very end of our lives, there might not be enough supply to get us across that river and point us to the king.
As Whitney says, there’s a beauty that comes in hoping, in planning, in mapping ahead and looking longingly at the shores, maybe even picking out your favorite house. Before hope runs out later, the challenge is learning how to invest in hope today.