BOOK REVIEW: The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan
Title: The Pilgrim’s Progress
Author: John Bunyan
Originally Published: 1678
Original Language: English
Genre: Allegorical Christian Novel
Few books get me emotional and teary. This Christian Classic 17th Century novel by John Bunyan falls into this category. And it is no wonder, for my research tells me that The Pilgrim’s Progress has been published in more than 200 languages and is still in print. This book touches the raw nerves of the Christian faith. From the justification of the sinner to the eschatological end of the world, The Pilgrim’s Progress brings to the reader the heart of Christ’s mission on earth and its application to us. The book is the narration of a series of dreams by an all-knowing author.
The book is divided into two parts. Part one is the protagonist’s journey from the City of Destruction (this world) to the Celestial City (the heavenly world to come). The name of the protagonist is Christian. Part two of the book is about the protagonist’s wife’s similar journey. Her name is Christiana. The book is written in allegorical form. The advantage of this format is that it is both didactic and entertaining. John Bunyan manages to break down some hard to understand Biblical concepts through the conversations and experiences of the various characters on the journey.
PART ONE: Christian’s Journey
The story begins with Christian being deeply distressed. He lives in the City of Destruction with his wife and four sons. He has received knowledge that the city is doomed for destruction because of the many evils and sins therein. He has a book (The Bible) that demonstrates the way to salvation. In that book, he understands that he too is full of sin like his neighbours in the City of Destruction and that he needs deliverance. The sinfulness of Christian is characterised by a heavy irremovable burden stuck on his back. Christian meets a man called Evangelist who points him in the right direction to lose his burden and be saved. Christian must take a journey through the Wicket Gate. He must then proceed past the gate and embark on a journey of many perils until he gets to the Celestial City (Heaven) that rests on Mount Zion.
Christian desperately warns his wife and four sons of the danger that is to come to that wicked city but they pay him no attention. They chide, deride and make fun of him and show no remorse for their own sin. Christian, unwilling to leave his family behind yet unable to ignore the pilgrim journey up ahead makes a hard choice; he leaves his family and goes out of the city. His neighbours Pliable and Obstinate follow him to discourage him from going on. Yet Christian is persistent. Pliable is convinced to join Christian. Obstinate returns to the city after supplying Christian with a mouthful of insults. Prior to the Wicket Gate, Pliable and Christian go through the Slough of Despond- a marshy area that stalls them. Pliable gets offended at the difficulty of the journey thus far and abandons Christian. Christian persists and is pulled out by Mr. Help after crying out for assistance (Psalm 34:17). The Slough of Despond represents the discouragement from this world to approach the gate of salvation (The Wicket Gate). Christ is this Wicket Gate, through whom only can one be saved.
But before Christian gets to the Wicket Gate he is distracted by Mr. Worldly Wiseman. This villain tricks Christian to believe that he can rid his burden without going through the Wicket Gate. He directs Christians to seek the help of Mr. Legality and his son Civility who dwell in the village of Morality. Christian is fooled by this worldly wisdom and veers off the path to the Wicket Gate. He soon gets stuck and realises that even all the effort and help in this world cannot remove the burden on his back. His friend Evangelist recalibrate him back to the Wicket Gate after rebuking him for trying to acquire salvation in another way and listening to the false guide, Mr. Worldly Wiseman. A wiser Christian returns on the narrow solid path to the Wicket Gate and soon finds entrance when he knocks. Goodwill (persona of Jesus) opens the gate and sets Christian on the King’s Highway path. It is here that Christian’s real struggles begin.
Christian is taken to the Interpreter’s house where he is taught and equipped for the journey up ahead. He then reaches the Place of Deliverance, where he finds the bloody cross of our Saviour and his open Sepulchre. At this place, Christian’s burden snaps loose and tumbles down the hill into the grave. Christian is also met by celestial beings at the foot of the cross. These angels take away his rags and clothe him with new garments. He is also given a scroll to present at the Celestial City as proof of his membership in that glorious land.
Christian meets many foes and friends on his journey. He meets Simple, Sloth and Presumption who are shackled on the wayside and refuse to take his advice to get on the journey. He meets two false believers, Hypocrisy and Formality. These two have entered onto the path by going over the wall like thieves (John 10:1). They have neither the proof of being citizens of that upcoming Celestial City yet they believe themselves made for it. They ignore Christian’s counsel because they seek shortcuts. They face their demise when they encounter the Hill of Difficulty. Christian endures the hill by climbing it while Formality and Hypocrisy try to avoid it and it leads to their untimely demise. Christian encounters Timorous and Mistrust who started the journey but gave up because of the fear of danger of lions up ahead. Christian ignores them and continues. He gets to the lions but discovers that they are chained, thanks to a friend called Watchful. He has a safe passage and continues uphill. At the top of the Hill of Difficulty is the Palace Beautiful. It is a resting point for pilgrims on the long journey. Here Christian is refreshed by friendly lady servants of God. He has good rest and is given a tour of previous mighty pilgrims. He is also given a sword, a shield and armour to fight the dangers up ahead (Ephesians 6:11-18).
Christian leaves the Palace Beautiful and faces the demon dragon Apollyon who rules the City of Destruction. Apollyon is trying to recover a “lost” citizen of his city. Christian is unwilling to give in to Apollyon’s request to return to the City of Destruction. The dragon and the fully armed Christian fight it out. Both are wounded after a long bitter fight but Christian prevails over him with his sharp sword (Hebrews 4:12) and sends Apollyon flying away for dear life. Christian then faces the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Here he meets a friend named Faithful and is encouraged to overcome the valley. He and faithful become good comrades. Faithful tells Christian of his own battles with villains such as the lady Wanton (lust) who offered her body, her bed and her purse to pleasure Faithful if he stayed with her. He tells of Adam the First and the brutally merciless Law of Moses that almost killed him until the Grace of Christ saved him. The two pilgrims are stronger together. They encounter Talkative who has a form of godliness but lacks the power. They do away with his company for their own good. They then enter the town of Vanity Fair that is filled with all sorts of worldliness (from tricksters to adulterers and haters of good). The townspeople stop the two pilgrims and question their whereabouts. When they realise that these pilgrims are enemies of their town Lord (Satan), they revile them, incarcerate them and torture them (John 16:33). They conduct an unfair trial with false witness and find them guilty. Faithful is put to the task of explaining the accusations brought before him. He stands for Jesus unashamed and they martyr him by burning him alive after several beatings. A divine chariot picks the soul of the martyred Faithful and takes him immediately to the Celestial City. Christian manages to escape and is accompanied by a new convert of that town named Hopeful.
Hopeful and Christian encourage one another and continue the journey on the King’s Highway. They meet villains such as Demas (2 Timothy 4:10) who is a lover of the world. They overcome Demas. Demas, however, manages to destroy other worldly lovers on the journey such as Mr. By-ends. The two pilgrims, Hopeful and Christian, get lost for a while on the path due to Christian’s bad advice and are captured by Giant Despair and his wife Diffidence who live in Doubting Castle. They are tortured for days on end and Christian blames himself. The giant tries to compel them to commit suicide if they wish to end their pain. Christian and Hopeful however encourage one another that suicide is against God’s will. They escape this dilemma when they discover the use of a master key they have called Promise (2 Peter 1:4). The master key called Promise represents the powerful truths of scriptures to overcome despair and depression. They warn oncoming travellers of that Doubting Castle and the two giants by leaving a sign on the road.
They arrive at the Delectable Mountains where shepherd servants of God show them the Celestial City through a special glass. This inspires them to keep going. They meet Flatterer who distracts them off the path and they get disciplined by God’s angel for not paying attention to this villain. They meet Atheist who tells them it is a waste of time because the celestial City does not exist. They meet Ignorance who joins them on their quest to the Celestial City. They are concerned for Ignorance that he has no certification to enter the Celestial City. They warn him to prepare but Ignorance believes his heart is pure and proceeds nonetheless. Ignorance cannot stand their truthful company because he feels judged as it forces them to split. Christian and Hopeful go past the dangerous Enchanted Ground and into the Beautiful Land of Beulah and finally they face the River of Death. The River intimidates Christian for a while when he remembers his past sins, but Hopeful encourages him and reminds him that he is forgiven. They cross the river and are welcomed with great joy and anticipation into the Celestial City of Heaven. Ignorance comes up and crosses the river as well. He presumes to be granted entry into the Kingdom and is shattered to learn that he has no place there. Two angels cast him off into the fires of Hell.
PART TWO: Christiana’s Journey
Christian’s journey and success have become famous the world over. His own townspeople have heard of the adventures, including his wife and four sons. And because of that, some of the townspeople have ventured on the pilgrimage. Christiana, his wife, receives an invitation to the Celestial City where her husband now dwells. She hears that he is clothed in gold and has received rewards above what the City of Destruction could offer. Christiana is remorseful over her wicked treating of her husband. Her four sons Matthew, Joseph, Samuel and James are remorseful as well. Christiana takes up the invitation seriously and with her four sons decides to take the same pilgrim journey that her famous husband once took. The wicked townspeople equally try to discourage her but Christiana’s mind is made up. One Mercy is curious about this journey and accompanies Christiana. And so they face the same journey with its perils and pleasures. The company meets many people who know of Christiana’s husband. From them, they learn from Christian’s mistakes and from his good decisions on the pilgrimage.
The journey in part two is laced with profound biblical truths manifested in allegory. For example, Mercy’s fear to be accepted at the Wicket gate is appeased when she learns that all are invited at the gate. And she gains her entry by knocking forcefully and violently on the gate (Matthew 11:12). They encounter friends such as the hospitable Gaius and the kind Mnason. They also encounter villains they overcome such as Giant Grim who terrorises pilgrims. They also meet Christian’s old foes Giant Despair and Giantess Diffidence whom they slay. They help other pilgrims trapped on the journey by villains such as Madam Bubble (a witch of lust bent to make pilgrims sleep and never wake up in her plagued Enchanted Ground).
Most notable on this second pilgrimage is the grand company of friends they snowball into by the time they get to the banks of the River of Death. At this point you have Christiana, her four sons (Matthew, Joseph, Samuel, James), Mercy (who ends up marrying Matthew), Phoebe (Gaius’ daughter who married James), Grace (Mnason’s daughter who marries Samuel), Martha (Mnason’s daughter who marries Joseph), Great Heart their fearless servant warrior guide, Mr. Honest, Mr. Stand Fast For Truth, Mr. Feeble Mind, Mr. Ready To Halt, Mr. Despondency and his daughter named Much Afraid. All these pilgrim believers make it to the River of Death having overcome the perils of the journey. One by one, starting with Christiana, they enter the River of Death and enter victoriously into eternity as they say their final goodbyes or regrets and joys of the pilgrimage. This portion of the book is what got me teary as it demonstrated the blessed hope we have as believers and the faithfulness of Jesus in bringing us through to the very end (2 Corinthians 1:21-22, Phil 1:6). It showed the relief of physical death and the glorious receiving of eternal life after striving with this present world. It showed the deceitfulness of the devil and his powerful cronies and why we must fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith. My hope for eternity was renewed a whole new way by The Pilgrim’s Progress. Get a copy; it will reset you on the narrow path.