Published in 1678 by the English writer and preacher John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress is an extended allegory about the journey of the main character, a man named “Christian,” from the City of Destruction where he was born to the celestial Kingdom of Heaven. Along the way he encounters a variety of companions, as well as many trials and tribulations which threaten to put an end to his pilgrimage. A sequel, published in 1684, recounts the journey of Christian’s wife and children to the celestial country, following in his footsteps.
The Pilgrim’s Progress is not an apologist book in the usual sense, in that it does not actually present arguments for Christianity’s being true. Instead, it simply assumes Christianity is true and depicts all arguments to the contrary as hazards and traps which the Christian must overcome on his way to salvation. Ordinarily I would not review such a book, since there is little of substance in it to critique, but this one is different. This book is widely claimed to be one of the best-loved and most widely read books in the entire category of Christian literature, second only to the Bible. For that reason, thoroughness demands that I read it and offer some thoughts, and so I shall. By unearthing and critiquing the underlying assumptions of this allegory, it should be possible to provide a new perspective on the real thing.
Bunyan’s book opens with the title character clothed in rags, bearing a heavy burden on his back and reading from the Bible. The more he reads from it, the more agitated and frightened he becomes. When he returns home and his wife and children ask what is the matter, he answers that he has learned from this book that the city in which they live is destined to be destroyed by fire from Heaven, and he knows of no way to escape this fate. His family, believing he has gone insane, try to console him, but grow angry at him when he will not be consoled.
While walking in the fields one day, Christian meets a man named Evangelist, who asks the cause of his distress. When Christian answers that he fears destruction but does not know how to escape it, Evangelist informs him that there is a way: by heading for a light which he can see in the distance, he will arrive at a gate where he will receive further instructions.
In a disturbing passage, Christian abandons his family to seek his own salvation:
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.
Christian is pursued by two neighbors, Obstinate and Pliable, who catch up with him and attempt to persuade him to return. When he refuses to relent, Obstinate quickly becomes frustrated and gives up, but Pliable is intrigued by Christian’s descriptions of heavenly glory and accompanies him. Christian convinces him of the truth of his faith in this way:
Pli. And do you think that the words of your Book are certainly true?
Chr. Yes, verily; for it was made by him that cannot lye.
Immediately upon completing this conversation, however, the two of them unexpectedly tumble into a bog called the Slough of Dispond (Swamp of Despair would be the modern English version), into which they sink and are trapped. Infuriated at this ill fortune, Pliable manages to struggle free and flees home, leaving Christian alone in the mire.
Christian struggles alone fruitlessly, but is finally saved by a traveler named Help, who pulls him free of the bog. When Christian asks why this hazard was not paved over, Help explains that the bog cannot be drained; it is formed from the initial feelings of despair of people who realize their inherent sinfulness and the danger of their lost condition, all of which settle in this place. Help further explains that at God’s direction, thousands of cartloads of “wholesome instructions” have been dumped in the bog in an attempt to fill it, but to no avail; and though there are stepping stones through its midst, most people overlook them.
Continuing on alone, Christian crosses paths with another man, Mr. Worldly Wiseman, who recognizes Christian and has heard of his journey. He advises Christian that Evangelist’s advice was bad and will lead to many perils, whereas he knows a much simpler way for Christian to be freed of his burden, namely to visit a man named Legality in the village of Morality, which lies atop a nearby hill. Christian takes what seems to be this good advice; but when he reaches the hill Mr. Wiseman spoke of, it seems catastrophically high and threatens to fall over on him. Standing there paralyzed with fear, Christian again encounters Evangelist, who chastises him severely for being led astray from the right path.
The glaring circularity of Christian’s argument for the Bible stood out to me; in the entire book, it is the only thing that even comes close to explicitly arguing for the truth of Christianity, rather than taking it for granted. I have to wonder if Bunyan himself did not notice the blatant logical fallacy here, or if he was simply confident that his readers would not question it.
I have remarked elsewhere on the immorality of a religion that encourages its adherents to abandon their friends and loved ones in a quest for individual salvation. Like the Ghost who becomes a Spirit in Lewis’ Great Divorce, Christian never returns to seek the rescue of his family. Bunyan repairs this in the sequel, where Christian’s wife and children follow in his footsteps; as in most Christian literature, all the main, sympathetic characters wind up saved in the end so that the reader is never forced to confront the evil doctrine of Hell at the heart of Christianity. But what if it had not been so? What if, as Christian feared, the city of his birth was eventually destroyed by God and its inhabitants damned? Would he still spend his eternal days glorifying the deity who consigned his wife and children to endless torment? Needless to say, that is a question that this book steers well clear of.
The most interesting thing in this chapter, to me, was Bunyan’s Slough of Dispond. In the essay “Into the Clear Air“, I wrote that one common part of deconversion to atheism is a period of depression in which the person’s former religious worldview has fallen, but they have not yet found a new set of principles to guide their life. This chapter would seem to imply that even Christians go through something similar, and I wonder if the stages I mentioned are not unique to atheism but can be found in major, life-changing experiences of all kinds. Certainly such an experience would cast doubt on any claim that atheism is a uniquely depressing or gloomy worldview.
Standing at the foot of the mountain, Christian falls to his face, believing himself doomed, but Evangelist forgives him of his transgression and explains that no one was ever rid of their burden of sin by following the advice of Legality.
After this Evangelist called aloud to the Heavens for confirmation of what he had said; and with that there came words and fire out of the Mountain under which poor Christian stood, that made the hair of his flesh stand.
He does, however, warn that another sin will doom Christian, who hurries to the gate that was previously mentioned. Christian converses with Good-Will, the gatekeeper, who lets him in and instructs him to follow the “straight and narrow” road that leads onward from the gate.
Along the way, Christian stops at the house of Interpreter, whom the gatekeeper said would show him things that would be of help to him on his journey. In the house he is shown a variety of metaphors, such as a dusty room which a man enters and begins to sweep, only causing the dust to fly about and choke everyone there; only once a woman enters and sprinkles water on the dust can it be cleaned. Interpreter explains that the dust represents sin, and the sweeping represents the Old Testament law, which cannot cleanse sin but only stirs it up all the more, whereas the water of the Gospels vanquishes it.
More disturbingly, there is a dark room with a man locked in an iron cage. The man explains that he was once a pilgrim like Christian, but turned aside from his quest to sin, enjoying “the Lusts, Pleasures, and Profits of this World”; as a result, he has “crucified [Jesus] afresh” and must now be shut out from all the promises of grace and salvation.
Man. God hath denied me repentance: his Word gives me no encouragement to believe; yea, himself hath shut me up in this Iron Cage; nor can all the men in the world let me out. O Eternity! Eternity! how shall I grapple with the misery that I must meet with in Eternity!
A similar parable graphically describes the day of judgment, and the fate of the lost souls who had not been believers:
I heard it also proclaimed to them that attended on the Man that sat on the Cloud, Gather together the Tares, the Chaff, and Stubble, and cast them into the burning Lake. And with that, the bottomless pit opened, just whereabout I stood; out of the mouth of which there came in an abundant manner, smoke and coals of fire, with hideous noises.
Again, as in the previous chapter, the idea of Hell is presented only as a club to threaten the reader, with no eye to its more serious moral implications. All the people sent there are described as deserving it, and no character for which the reader has developed any sympathy is sent there in the end. This fits with the all-too-common fundamentalist worldview that classifies the world into a simple dichotomy of black and white, good Christian and evil non-Christian; but it fails against the complexities of reality. If it had not been some nameless professor but Christian’s wife, or one of his parents (since he obviously was not raised as a believer) sitting in that iron cage, forever shut out from the promise of grace, would it have been right for him to leave them and continue on his own quest? Only a person with a severely defective conscience could condone such heartless behavior, or believe that such sadistic punishment could ever be justified for any human deed.
More interesting was Christian’s leaving and then regaining the true path. Why should Christian have obeyed Evangelist and not Mr. Wiseman? Because Evangelist can do miracles to confirm what he says? That would indeed be something, but this part of the analogy fails to transfer to the real world. No controlled scientific study has ever confirmed that Christians or theists of any kind have any ability to defy the laws of physics, or that prayer affects the outcomes of an event in any detectable way. Or should Christian have turned back because he feared that the mountain would fall on him? But as this very book states later on, “he that trusts his own heart is a fool” (Proverbs 28:26). By Bunyan’s own logic, Christian’s mere inner feelings of fear and distress are not a reliable guide when it comes to determining the correct path.
This is all the more true when one considers that believers fear and scorn good deeds because they have been indoctrinated into believing so. As Interpreter’s house shows, Christianity denies the goodness in humanity and esteems all our good deeds as worthless; it elevates dogma over conscience by teaching that efforts to live a good life are pointless, and that only those who utter the “correct” words and attend church at the “correct” places can attain salvation.
Following the road to salvation, Christian comes upon a cross and a sepulchre standing by the side of the road. As he looks upon them, the burden which he had been carrying since the beginning of the book falls from his back and is gone. He then encounters three Shining Ones, who wash and clothe him and give him a scroll which he is to present at the gates of the Celestial City to gain access.
In the way is a hill, named Difficulty, which Christian resolves to climb. The going is, as one might expect, difficult, and midway up he stops at an arbor to rest. While reading the scroll he was given, he falls asleep and it slips from his hand.
When he awakes, he proceeds up the hill, but near the top encounters two men, Mistrust and Timorous, who warn him that there are lions waiting at the hilltop to maul travelers. Distressed by this news, Christian tries to find his scroll that he may read and be comforted, but finds it gone. A great misery comes upon him as he realizes it is lost, and he heads back in a desperate attempt to find it:
Then was Christian in great distress, and knew not what to do; for he wanted that which used to relieve him, and that which should have been his pass into the Coelestial City…. But all the way he went back, who can sufficiently set forth the sorrow of Christian’s heart? Sometimes he sighed, sometimes he wept, and oftentimes he chid himself for being so foolish to fall asleep in that place, which was erected only for a little refreshment for his weariness. Thus therefore he went back, carefully looking on this side and on that, all the way as he went, if happily he might find his Roll, that had been his comfort so many times in his Journey. He went thus till he came again within sight of the Arbor where he sat and slept; but that sight renewed his sorrow the more, by bringing again, even afresh, his evil of sleeping into his mind. Thus therefore he now went on bewailing his sinful sleep, saying, O wretched man that I am, that I should sleep in the daytime! that I should sleep in the midst of difficulty!
After much trembling, weeping and self-chastisement, Christian returns to the arbor and finds his scroll, and he is joyous and thankful to God for assisting him to find it. Though it is dark by now, he heads back up the hill, and near the top sights a lodge named Beautiful, where he resolves to spend the night. The porter of the lodge, named Watchful, shouts to him that the lions are only there as a test of faith, and are chained so that they cannot harm travelers. Christian makes it past them and into the lodge, where the porter and his daughters Discretion, Prudence, Piety, and Charity dine and speak with him about his journey so far. Prudence asks him an interesting question about his experiences in the City of Destruction:
Prud. Do you not yet bear away with you some of the things that then you were conversant withal?
Chr. Yes, but greatly against my will; especially my inward and carnal cogitations, with which all my countrymen, as well as myself, were delighted; but now all those things are my grief; and might I but chuse mine own things, I would chuse never to think of those things more…
The episode in this chapter of Christian losing his scroll is a perfect, though unintentional, illustration of the irrational nature of the concept of salvation in Christianity and the immoral implications that result. Instead of living a worthy life based on compassion and conscience, Christianity encourages its followers to think of salvation in one and only one way: whether a person knows the secret password to get into Heaven. Anyone who knows that password is admitted regardless of what kind of life they led, while anyone who does not know it is shut out, regardless of what good they did. Christian’s self-flagellation is an outgrowth of the fear and shame this irrational and arbitrary standard creates. What kind of good and moral deity would deny salvation to a good person just because they lost this insignificant token which they were given? What is the point?
Christian’s conversation with Prudence is a further insight into the bizarre way Christianity conceptualizes the plan of salvation. As this site has elsewhere asked, if God truly loves humanity and desires that as many as possible be saved, why would he give people a set of strong sinful inclinations whether they wanted them or not? This ensures that a vast majority of people will, indeed, be unable to resist these inclinations and will end up damned. Why not make humans so that they are tempted to good, rather than evil? Instead of original sin, why not original virtue?
Christian’s stay in Watchful’s lodge continues into the next day, as the owners of the house show him records and artifacts from the Bible:
Then they read again in another part of the Records of the house, where it was shewed how willing their Lord was to receive into his favour any, even any, though they in time past had offered great affronts to his Person and proceedings.
I suspect the man in the iron cage would have something to say about that.
They then equip Christian with a set of armor and a sword from the house’s armory, in case he meets with any threat on the way. As he sets out, he learns from the porter that an old friend of his, named Faithful, has recently passed by, and resolves to try to catch up with him.
Christian leaves the house and descends into the Valley of Humiliation, where he meets a monster named Apollyon, after the biblical destroyer. Apollyon claims that all this country is his, and that Christian is therefore one of his subjects; and he is naturally none too happy to hear that one of his “subjects” plans to abandon him. He attempts to kill Christian, and the two of them fight. Though Christian is wounded (in the head, hands and feet, echoing Jesus’ wounds), he ultimately prevails, wounding Apollyon with a sword thrust and forcing him to flee.
At the end of the valley there is another, even worse: the Valley of the Shadow of Death. On the border, Christian meets two men: descendants, Bunyan tells us, of the Israelite scouts that Moses sent into the land of Canaan (in Numbers 13) and that returned a discouraging report of the strength of its heathen inhabitants. Following that tradition, they tell Christian that the valley is a terrible, evil place, populated by monsters and damned souls. Nevertheless, Christian presses on, taking a narrow road that is the only safe way through the valley between a gaping chasm and a noxious bog.
While he proceeds through the dark valley, a demonic spirit creeps up behind him, “and whisperingly suggested many grievous blasphemies to him, which he verily thought had proceeded from his own mind”. Christian is even more distressed by this, but prays fervently and his spirit is lightened a little, enough to let them complete the journey through the valley.
At the end of the second valley is a cave, where, as Bunyan tells us:
…two Giants, Pope and Pagan, dwelt in old time; by whose power and tyranny the men whose bones, blood, ashes, &c. lay there, were cruelly put to death. But by this place Christian went without much danger, whereat I somewhat wondered; but I have learnt since, that Pagan has been dead many a day; and as for the other, though he be yet alive, he is by reason of age… grown so crazy, and stiff in his joints, that he can now do little more than sit in his Cave’s mouth, grinning at Pilgrims as they go by…
Passing out of the valley, Christian finally meets up with his friend Faithful, and they rejoice to be reunited. Faithful explains how Christian’s departure convinced him to set out on his own pilgrimage, and how he too met with and evaded dangers on his way to the wicket gate.
The demon that haunts Christian in the Valley of the Shadow of Death is another example of Bunyan’s apologetics strategy, which seems to be this: claim the Bible is true using circular arguments (“it must be true because it says it was written by someone who says he only tells the truth”), and stifle any objections or counterarguments, or indeed any awakening of the rational faculties at all, by declaring them to be the whispering of the evil one that must be rejected out of hand. When both sides have this attitude, as is often the case, there is no way to resolve religious debates except by fire and the sword, which is illustrated by the mention of the two giants Pope and Pagan. It seems not to have occurred to Bunyan that what motivated these persecutions was a dogmatic attitude that is the mirror image of the one he seeks to instill in his own readers.
Another notable passage is when Apollyon asks Christian why God does not simply come to deliver his followers himself, if he is so powerful. Christian says this:
His forbearing at present to deliver them is on purpose to try their love, whether they will cleave to him to the end…
But what can the purpose of this be? Unless God is not omniscient, he knows whether his followers will remain true without putting them through so much needless suffering. The common Christian reply is that suffering is meant to show the people who undergo it the depth of their commitment to God, but again, what purpose would that serve if God himself knows that their faith will not waver and that they will be saved in the end? Would people who never underwent suffering for God’s sake end up being unfaithful to him in the afterlife? Then how do Christians account for the millions of dead children and infants who are supposedly granted a free pass to Heaven because they died before reaching the “age of accountability”?
Faithful continues relating the story of his own adventures to Christian. In a truly bizarre episode, Faithful narrates the story of how, after nearly being tempted from the path on one occasion, he was assaulted by a mysterious stranger who beat him severely, knocking him back down each time he tried to rise. When Faithful pled for mercy, the stranger replied that he did not know how to show mercy, and would have killed him if not for a second passing stranger who bid the first to cease. When Faithful saw wounds in the hands and side of the second stranger, he realized that it was Jesus. As Christian then explains, the first man was Moses, who “spareth none, neither knoweth he how to shew mercy to those that transgress his Law”.
As the two travelers proceed, they meet up with a third man, Talkative. He professes to be heading to the Heavenly Country the same as them, and eagerly accepts Faithful’s offer to “spend our time in discoursing of things that are profitable”, expressing his willingness to talk about any topic at all. However, after some time in conversation, Christian advises Faithful that he knows this man and that he is not a true believer: “all he hath lieth in his tongue, and his Religion is to make a noise therewith”. Christian condemns him with unusual harshness:
There is there neither Prayer, nor sign of Repentance for sin; yea, the brute in his kind serves God better than he. He is the very stain, reproach, and shame of Religion… Men that have any dealings with him, say ’tis better to deal with a Turk than with him; for fairer dealing they shall have at their hands.
…The Soul of Religion is the practick part: Pure Religion and undefiled, before God and the Father, is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world. This Talkative is not aware of; he thinks that hearing and saying will make a good Christian, and thus he deceiveth his own soul.
Following Christian’s suggestion, Faithful asks Talkative what good deeds he has done and in what ways he follows God’s will besides just talking about it, and Talkative soon becomes offended and storms off.
Yea, if a man have all knowledge, he may yet be nothing; and so consequently be no child of God. When Christ said, Do you know all things? and the Disciples had answered, Yes; he added Blessed are ye if ye do them. He doth not lay the blessing in the knowing of them, but in the doing of them.
Passing through a wilderness, Christian and Faithful catch sight of a town named Vanity, and the fair, Vanity Fair, that is held there year-round.
The bizarre, and frankly rather amusing, episode at the beginning of this section appears to represent Bunyan’s making excuses for the harshness and anger of the Old Testament god by blaming all those actions on Moses, or at least on the Jewish law. However, this is not what the Bible says. The Old Testament clearly considers God, and not anyone else, responsible for the harshness and cruelties therein; on one occasion, God even threatens to kill all the Israelites and Moses is the one who talks him out of it (Exodus 32:9-14). And Jesus, according to the Christians, is one in being with this harsh and cruel god. To make this section more biblically accurate, Jesus should have been the one who approached Faithful, knocking him down and beating him severely for no apparent reason, only to suddenly change his mind and walk away. But perhaps that would have presented a less consistent view of God than Bunyan would care to depict.
Talkative was another strange character. No doubt some people would claim this review exemplifies the traits he embodies, but I see his appearance as the next step in the subtle indoctrination this book attempts. From Christian’s first proclamation that the Bible is true because it says it is true, to the mountain threatening to fall on those who obey Mr. Worldly Wiseman, to the demonic spirits that cause glimmers of doubt and despair, and finally to Talkative who not-so-subtly sends the message that excessive debate with nonbelievers should be avoided, the entire book is calculated to deliver the message that excessive critical thought must be avoided at all costs. Believers should obey the Bible, should train themselves not to question, and should not associate with people who think differently. (Although Bunyan’s usual stereotypical depiction of a non-Christian is galling, it is interesting that he recognizes that a person can be thoroughly familiar with the ideas of Christianity and still not believe them. This at least is better than those Christians, like Jack Chick, who seem to seriously believe that a person can be an atheist only because they have never heard of Jesus.)
The narrator explains the origin of Vanity Fair, which he says was set up about five thousand years ago by Beelzebub and other devils, and which sells worldly goods, riches and sins of all kinds. “[O]ne commodity is as the chief of all the Fair, so the ware of Rome and her
Merchandize is greatly promoted…” He says that the fair lies across the road to the Celestial City, and the only way to reach that destination without passing through it is to “go out of the world”.
Christian and Faithful are stopped while passing through the town, and asked what they would buy. They say that they are only in the market for truth, which offends the ruler (the “Great One”) of the fair. Accordingly, he has them beaten and imprisoned in a cage, where they are mocked and reviled before all the inhabitants of the fair. They bear this abuse with patience and meekness, however, which only seems to further enrage most of the people there.
Finally, the two of them are put on trial. Faithful takes the stand in his own defense, boldly denouncing the ruler of Vanity Fair as an enemy of God and refusing to recant, and is accordingly sentenced to death. He is tortured and burned at the stake, but immediately afterward, a chariot is waiting for him and takes him straight to the gates of the Celestial City, trumpeting and praising his martyrdom all the while. Christian is remanded back to prison, but soon afterward escapes by God’s will. He soon finds a new companion, however, a former resident of the fair named Hopeful who was inspired by Christian’s patient forbearance of suffering and thereby persuaded to join him.
There is little to comment on in this chapter, except to point out that Bunyan’s description of true Christians as patient and meek is wildly inaccurate when compared to the historical record. Even if we exclude the Roman Catholic church from consideration, as Bunyan would have us do, the fact remains that Christians of virtually all denominations have been killing, torturing, oppressing and enslaving both each other and people of other cultures for centuries – Bunyan’s own denomination, the Baptists, not exempt. If this is the behavior displayed by true Christians, then one would have to conclude that the number of true Christians that have ever existed is very small indeed.
The first part of this section deals mostly with Bunyan’s remonstrances against those who become religious for the sake of material gain.
Christian and Hopeful are challenged by a band of miscreants who proclaim that religion is an acceptable path to pursue if one seeks worldly wealth, then encounter a silver mine whose owner, Demas, invites visitors to dig up treasure for themselves. Christian and Hopeful pass both dangers by, though the greedy miscreants they encountered earlier fall victim to the mine and are lost within its depths.
The second half of this section begins with Christian and Hopeful discouraged and footsore from the rough path they have been treading, and when they see a fenced meadow paralleling their trail, they decide to climb over the fence and walk through the meadow for a while. However, as night falls, a dreadful thunderstorm begins, and the pilgrims grow frightened and become lost. But before they can find their way back to the path, they are seized by a giant, named Despair, who owns this land and treats travelers without mercy. Christian and Hopeful are imprisoned in Doubting Castle, where Despair beats them mercilessly and encourages them to commit suicide so as to escape their suffering. Christian is tempted to do so, but Hopeful convinces him that suicides will be damned by God, and that if they remain patient in their affliction, they may find a way to escape.
Again, as with the last chapter, Bunyan’s point about the futility of seeking wealth is well-taken but serves to exclude the vast majority of those who would identify as Christians throughout history and today. Not just the Roman Catholic church, but the large majority of mainstream Protestant denominations and especially the unaffiliated evangelical churches use religion as a means to an end, to enhance their own power and prestige. Popular preachers such as Joel Osteen and best-selling works teach the “prosperity gospel”, that by following Christianity a person can hope to become rich. Bunyan and others would no doubt say that people who follow these teachings are hypocrites and not true Christians, but really, if they so significantly outnumber the so-called “true” Christians even within the church, then perhaps Christianity’s claim to be able to change people’s hearts should be reevaluated.
In contrast to the confidence of those who know that the truth will withstand questioning, Bunyan also implies in this chapter that even one step onto the path of doubt will lead to disaster. The contrast is instructive: In the context of a potential convert to Christianity, doubt and despair are considered beneficial, helping to awaken the person to the gravity of their sins; but once a person has become a Christian, they become evils to be avoided at all costs.
After several days of suffering in Despair’s dungeon, Christian remembers that he has a key, called Promise, that he believes will unlock their dungeon. He tries it, and it works, enabling the two of them to escape the giant’s castle and return to the highway.
The next step on the pilgrims’ journey is the Delectable Mountains, which Bunyan describes as a beautiful garden country attended by shepherds. From the top of the highest hill there, Christian and Hopeful can see nearly to the gates of the Celestial City. However, despite Bunyan’s belief that this country is beautiful, the things it contains would seem to cast some doubt upon that interpretation. First, the shepherds of the country show Christian and Hopeful a hill, which is named Error:
So Christian and Hopeful looked down, and saw at the bottom several men dashed all to pieces by a fall, that they had from the top. Then said Christian, What meaneth this? The Shepherds answered, Have you not heard of them that were made to err, by hearkening to Hymeneus and Philetus, as concerning the Faith of the Resurrection of the Body? They answered, Yes. Then said the Shepherds, Those that you see lie dashed in pieces at the bottom of this Mountain are they; and they have continued to this day unburied (as you see) for an example to others to take heed how they clamber too high, or how they come too near the brink of this Mountain.
Then the pilgrims are shown a graveyard, where blind men wander about hopelessly. The shepherds explain that these were other victims of the giant Despair:
…where, after they had been awhile kept in the Dungeon, he at last did put out their eyes, and led them among those Tombs, where he has left them to wander to this very day, that the saying of the Wise Man might be fulfilled, He that wandereth out of the way of understanding, shall remain in the congregation of the dead.
Then I saw in my Dream, that the Shepherds had them to another place, in a bottom, where was a door in the side of a Hill, and they opened the door, and bid them look in. They looked in therefore, and saw that within it was very dark and smoky; they also thought that they heard there a rumbling noise as of Fire, and a cry of some tormented, and that they smelt the scent of Brimstone. Then said Christian, What means this? The Shepherds told them, This is a by-way to Hell, a way that Hypocrites go in at…
Perhaps Bunyan’s Christian readers see nothing unusual about the fact that this supposedly blessed country, inhabited by godly shepherds, contains so many scenes of suffering, torment, and destruction. After all, something similar is true of the Bible itself, with its bizarre fusion of messages advocating love and forgiveness with messages advocating hatred, damnation, dogmatism, and divine wrath, often together on the same page. But atheists, who are not blinded by faith to the incongruity here, can see it for what it is and wonder.
Indeed, it is the Christians we should wonder about. They seem to see nothing odd about the idea that a deity that commands them to forgive their enemies seventy times seven times and pray for those who hate them will shatter men’s bodies and condemn them for eternal suffering for even a minor error in interpretation, or about the idea that all the love and compassion a human being can feel and put into practice is worthless if that human being does not believe exactly as God wants them to believe, even if their error was unintentional and made in good faith. This is consistent with Bunyan’s elsewhere elevating the shallow, superficial and intrinsically meaningless aspects of faith over the genuinely meaningful aspects of substance and intent (see section 3).
Leaving the shepherds’ country, Christian and Hopeful find a place where the road forks, and do not know what to do. Then they meet a man named Flatterer, dark-skinned but clad in a white robe (this may be a subtle racism on Bunyan’s part) who advises them on which way to go. They take his advice, and end up falling into a net and becoming trapped. An angel with a whip of cords soon arrives to release them and lead them back to the right path, but then beats them soundly with his whip “to teach them the good way wherein they should walk”.
The pilgrims’ next encounter, for obvious reasons, I found the most interesting part of the whole book. They meet a man, walking away from the Celestial City, whose name is Atheist. When he greets them and they say where they are going, he laughs at them: “There is no such place as you dream of in all this World… When I was at home in mine own Country, I heard as you now affirm, and from that hearing went out to see, and have been seeking this City this twenty years; but find no more of it than I did the first day I set out.”
This is a surprisingly strong argument for a Christian to put in the mouth of an atheist, and the pilgrims’ reply seems somewhat confused: “What! no Mount Sion? Did we not see from the Delectable Mountains the Gate of the City? Also, are we not now to walk by Faith.” Bunyan seems to be trying to have it both ways: he wants to urge Christians to have faith in something they have never seen and know nothing about, despite crafting an analogy where Heaven is a real place that living people can see. If anyone could really see to the gates of Heaven in this world, there would be no atheists.
In the end, despite having no convincing reply to make to Atheist, Christian and Hopeful resolve to ignore him: “Cease, my Son, to hear the instruction that causeth to err from the words of knowledge. I say my Brother, cease to hear him, and let us believe to the saving of the Soul… As for this man, I know that he is blinded by the god of this World. Let thee and I go on, knowing that we have belief of the Truth, and no lie is of the Truth.”
Further on, Christian and Hopeful get to talking. Interestingly, Hopeful states that when he first began seeking conversion, God would not reveal himself despite his best efforts to pray: “Not at the first, nor second, nor third, nor fourth, nor fifth, no nor at the sixth time neither.” However, because he “believed that that was true which had been told me”, and feared damnation in Hell, he continued to pray until finally being granted a vision of grace, “not… with my bodily eyes, but with the eyes of mine understanding”, and knowing that he was forgiven for his sin.
Considering the treatment Bunyan shows to most other non-believers, the atheist gets off surprisingly light. Perhaps readers are meant to imagine the horrible fate awaiting him in the afterlife, but as previous sections have shown, Bunyan usually depicts that more explicitly. Also, Christian and Hopeful do not condemn him nearly as harshly as they do most of the miscreants they meet (see section 5 for example). Instead, they merely counsel each other that he is controlled by Satan and that they must therefore ignore his every argument. I usually do not hold with speculation on the motives of others, but I cannot help wondering if Bunyan knew, consciously or subconsciously, that he could not refute atheists’ arguments and for that reason chose to counsel his readers to ignore them rather than try to engage them.
Hopeful’s account of his conversion provides further evidence of the way Bunyan intended his readers to view the world. In this theology, no failure to obtain what has been promised, no matter how many times one tries, counts against the belief system; it is always the fault of the individual, and must be fixed through redoubled effort. It is, in effect, a form of self-brainwashing, teaching oneself what to see until one sees it, thanks to the conditioning of expectation. How, I wonder, would Christian and Hopeful react to a Muslim, say, who was going through a similar problem. Would they encourage him to keep trying and give it time, or does that standard only apply to one side?
At last, we arrive at the tenth and final section of the book. (Bunyan wrote a sequel, the tedium of which I will spare my readers.) Now nearing the gates of the Celestial City, Christian and Hopeful meet another pilgrim, named Ignorance, who appeared briefly in a previous chapter. Ignorance considers himself a Christian, believes in the redemptive efficacy of Jesus’ sacrifice, and desires God and salvation; the main defect in his theology seems to be that he does not believe that all people are intrinsically evil and wicked. He claims he knows this in his heart, to which Christian replies, “Except the Word of God beareth witness in this matter, other testimony is of no value.” One should keep this in mind when responding to Christian apologists who claim that humanity’s widespread belief in a god (though not necessarily the Christian god) testifies to the existence of a higher reality.
Ignorance asks what, then, would constitute a good thought. Christian says that our thoughts are good only when they agree with what the Bible says, namely:
To explain myself, the Word of God saith of persons in a natural condition, There is none righteous, there is none that doth good. It saith also, That every imagination of he heart of man is only evil, and that continually. And again, The imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Now then, when we think thus of ourselves, having sense thereof, then are our thoughts good ones, because according to the Word of God.
When Ignorance says, “I will never believe that my heart is thus bad”, Christian’s reply is, “Therefore thou never hadst one good thought concerning thyself in thy life.”
When Ignorance dismisses this, claiming that revelation is “the fruit of distracted brains”, Hopeful responds that Christ “is so hid in God from the natural apprehensions of all flesh, that he cannot by any man be savingly known, unless God the Father reveals him to them.” Apparently without noticing, Bunyan himself gives support to the argument from divine hiddenness. The classic apologetic arguments indeed seem to be tumbling down in this chapter one after another.
They leave Ignorance behind, and Christian proclaims that his damnation seems to be predestined. “Indeed the Word saith, He hath blinded their eyes, lest they should see, &c.” Supporting what this site has elsewhere said about the fundamentally immoral basis for most theistic morality, Hopeful adds that “fear tends much to men’s good”.
At last, the pilgrims arrive at the Celestial City. There is a deep and rapid river between them and the gate, which they fear to cross, but are told by an angel that there is no other way. “…there hath not any, save two, to wit, Enoch and Elijah, been permitted to tread that path, since the foundation of the World, nor shall, until the last Trumpet shall sound.” (Evidently Bunyan was no believer in the Rapture.) Despite some tribulation, the two pilgrims ford the river, dying in the process (“leaving their mortal garments behind”). Christian and Hopeful arrive at the gates of the city and are led in with much praise and exultation. Ignorance arrives right behind them, but is turned away at the gates, and two angels “carried him through the air to the door that I saw in the side of the Hill, and put him in 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.” (This is the part of the story about which Kenneth Nahigian writes, “I read how a poor hopeful soul, after a long struggle, manages to reach the very gate of heaven. But at the last instant, with sweet salvation in sight, angels grab him and thrust him into a burning Hell forever – because of a slight unorthodoxy of faith. The message was clear as a slap.”)
The Pilgrim’s Progress is not an apologetics book, and perhaps its true value lies in that. Rather than attempting to present a view of the faith palatable to outsiders, Bunyan unflinchingly depicts what lies at its heart: a morality based on fear, a vengeful god who values meaningless symbolism more than conscience and rational thought, and at the end, a fiery hell of eternal torture for all nonbelievers. All the while he condemns disbelievers for their dogmatism and refusal to heed the truth, apparently without recognizing that the attitude he seeks to instill in his readers is the very mirror image of that. Though the superficial components of such dogmatism may differ, the hostile and violent refusal to abide or even permit dissent is the same. Every chapter reinforces this view, whether through more subtle measures such as associating doubt with whispering demons or sadistic giants, or through the explicit presentation of Hell as an ad baculum argument, warning of grievous and painful doom for all those who do not believe exactly as the author does, down to every fine detail.
Although many Christians have justly recognized and rejected these immoral and intellectually deadening tactics, the fact remains, unfortunately, that they come straight from the Bible. That book does indeed threaten dissenters with torture, does indeed call for dogmatism and the out-of-hand rejection of other views,and does indeed elevate outward symbolism over the contents of the heart. As far as moral lessons go, we can do far better than this. Perhaps a better allegory would be an atheist’s journey out of the intellectual darkness of superstition into the paradisal country of the truth?