Crossing the River
Today we come to the final chapter of John Bunyan’s classic work The Pilgrim’s Progress. Last week Christian and Hopeful endured an encounter with Athiest and a journey across the Enchanted Ground. This week they finally arrive at their destination, but not without some drama.
The tenth and final stage of Christian’s journey combines dramatic narrative with some rather dense didactic components. We have seen throughout the book, and especially in the later stages, that when Bunyan wants to teach truth but finds no easy means of fitting it into the narrative, he simply squeezes it in by having Christian and Hopeful engage in dialog. It’s quite ordered dialog too, where the men are able to form well-ordered lists of information. For example, Christian lists three marks of true or right fear of the Lord. Then he comes up with a list of four ways that the ignorant stifle godly conviction (or fear). These are worth pausing to read once more:
1. They think that those fears are wrought by the devil, (though indeed they are wrought of God,) and thinking so, they resist them, as things that directly tend to their overthrow. 2. They also think that these fears tend to the spoiling of their faith; when, alas for them, poor men that they are, they have none at all; and therefore they harden their hearts against them. 3. They presume they ought not to fear, and therefore, in despite of them, wax presumptuously confident. 4. They see that those fears tend to take away from them their pitiful old self-holiness, and therefore they resist them with all their might.
It may not be the smoothest dialog we’ve ever encountered in a work of fiction, but it’s at least clear and orderly! Hopeful goes on to present a list of four reasons that men may backslide to which Christian responds with nine of the ways in which men do this. It’s all very neat and clean and helpful, even if it doesn’t do a whole lot to advance the narrative.
When this discussion finally comes to a close, the chapter is half gone and the men come to Beulah, a land of peace and tranquility where they are beyond the danger of the Enchanted Grounds and Giant Despair. Here he presents his vision of godly maturity, where the initial doubts and concerns have been put to rest.
But one great challenge remains. As the men come to the end of their pilgrimage, they find that they must still cross the River of Death. This is probably the most powerful and dramatic element of the final stage. There is no way to the Celestial City except through this, the last enemy. As Christian faces the inevitability of death he begins to be overwhelmed by fear.
Then they asked the men if the waters were all of a depth. They said, No; yet they could not help them in that case; for, said they, you shall find it deeper or shallower as you believe in the King of the place.Then they addressed themselves to the water, and entering, Christian began to sink, and crying out to his good friend Hopeful, he said, I sink in deep waters; the billows go over my head; all his waves go over me. Selah.
Once more Hopeful ministers to his friend, reminding him of all that is true, and eventually Christian is able to get his head above water and to make his way to the far bank.
Then I saw in my dream, that Christian was in a muse a while. To whom also 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. Then they both took courage, and the enemy was after that as still as a stone, until they were gone over. Christian, therefore, presently found ground to stand upon, and so it followed that the rest of the river was but shallow. Thus they got over.
I appreciated Bunyan’s honesty here. There are some Christians who go to death bravely and confidently, and there are some who go with fear and trembling, who in the final moments are overwhelmed with doubt and fear. Bunyan portrays that well and with great drama, saying that a man’s confidence in facing death will be in direct proportion to his faith.
With death behind them, the men are now ushered into the Celestial City and Bunyan receives just a glimpse of the place. I will leave it to someone else to describe a bit of the glory of that place…
There is no next week! You may like to continue reading the journey of Christian’s wife and children, but since that is a sequel of sorts, I will not be doing it as part of Reading Classics Together.
The purpose of this program is to read these books together. If you have something to say, whether a comment or criticism or question, feel free to use the comment section for that purpose.