John Bunyan says that he fell asleep and dreamed about a ragged man with a book in his hand and a great burden on his back. The book was the Bible, and his burden was sin. He lived in a city that was doomed to be destroyed. In fact, the name of the city was Destruction.
As he was groaning under his burden, Evangelist gave him a scroll urging him to flee from the wrath to come. The Evangelist told him to enter a distant wicket gate that was visible from where they were standing. There he would be told what to do.
The man, whose name was Christian, hurried toward the wicket gate. Obstinate and Pliable unsuccessfully tried to persuade him to return to the city. Pliable decided to go with Christian.
Before reaching the wicket gate, the two pilgrims fell into the Slough of Despond, a bog created by the doubts and fears of sinners who come to realize their lost condition. Pliable got discourage and returned to the city of Destruction. Christian struggled to the other side of Slough, but he could not climb out of it because of the heavy burden on his back. Eventually Help came and pulled him out.
Worldly Wiseman persuaded Christian not to go to the wicket gate but to seek the help of Mr. Legality, who would quickly and easily relieve him of his burden. However, Mr. Legality lived on formidable Mt. Sinai. As Christian approached, he became paralyzed with fear. He was afraid that the hill would fall on his head.
Evangelist told him that Mr. Legality was not able to relieve him of the burden, since no one can be justified by the deeds of the law. Christian returned to the path from which he had departed.
When he knocked at the wicket gate, Goodwill invited him in. Goodwill showed Christian a narrow path. This narrow path led to the Celestial City. Goodwill encouraged Christian not to stray from the narrow path.
Christian arrived at the house of the Interpreter. Here he viewed several visual spiritual lessons.
Next Christian came to the place of deliverance. Here there was a cross. Below the cross was a sepulchre. When Christian came to the cross, the burden fell off his back and tumbled into the sepulchre. Three Shining Ones then approached. One of them assured Christian that his sins were forgiven. The second one stripped him of his rags and gave him a new garment. The third gave him a roll with a seal on it. He was to present this roll when he arrived at the celestial gate.
Christian soon came to a place where he had to choose one of three paths. The narrow path ascended a steep hill, while the other two paths skirted the hill to the left and to the right. Mindful of the instructions of Goodwill, Christian chose the narrow path. Two other travelers named Formalist and Hypocrisy choose the easy routes.
Halfway up the hill, Christian came to a pleasant arbor which the Lord had prepared for the refreshment of traveling pilgrims. After refreshing himself, Christian fell asleep. Someone awakened him with the words: “Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.”
Christian climbed to the top of the hill. There he met two pilgrims called Timorous and Mistrust. They were afraid of two lions that they had encountered as they journeyed. They decided to return home.
Christian continued his journey. However, he first had to go back to the pleasant arbor to retrieve his roll, which he had lost while he was sleeping. The sun set as he climbed back up the hill, but fortunately he saw the Palace Beautiful not far away. He hoped to find lodging there.
As he approached Palace Beautiful, he saw the two lions that had scared Timorous and Mistrust. When Christian hesitated to advance, the porter, whose name was Watchful, told him that the lions were chained.
The Lord had built Palace Beautiful for the comfort of pilgrims. Here Christian discoursed with Piety, Prudence, and Charity. He slept in a chamber called Peace.
The next day Christian was brought to the study, where he learned some things about the Lord and studied some of the worthy acts that His servants had done.
The next day Christian was brought to the armory. Among other things, he viewed the rod of Moses, the lamps with which Gideon routed the Midianites, and the jawbone with which Samson had slain many Philistines. Christian received a sword, shield, helmet, and breastplate from the armory.
The next day Christian was taken to the top of the palace. In the distance, he could see the
Delectable Mountains, a pleasant region which the Lord had prepared as a haven for pilgrims.
The next day, as Christian was leaving, the porter told him that another pilgrim named Faithful had passed a while before. Christian knew him because Faithful had lived in Destruction.
The path down the hill led to the Valley of Humiliation. The descent was treacherous, so Piety, Prudence, and Charity accompanied him as he descended. When they reached the bottom, they gave Christian some provisions and returned.
In the Valley of Humiliation, a foul fiend named Apollyon tried to persuade him to return. The two then fought a terrific fight. Christian triumphed over his enemy, and he gave thanks unto the Lord for giving him the victory.
After passing through the Valley of Humiliation, Christian had to traverse the Valley of the Shadow of Death. It was a horrid place beset by hobgoblins, satyrs, and dragons of the pit. He passed through this valley in the dark of night.
Christian then caught up with Faithful. He had encountered different experiences along the way. He had to withstand the temptations of Wanton and Adam the first (the Biblical term for the nature of a person before conversion to Christianity). He encountered Moses, who treated him mercilessly. (Bunyan is thinking of Moses as the giver of the law. Of course, Moses also prophesied the coming of Christ.) Faithful also had to deal with Discontent and with Shame.
Christian and Faithful had to deal with another character called Talkative, who liked to talk about Christianity but did not really practice it.
Christian and Faithful had to pass through the town of Vanity. Here there was a fair in which material advantages were offered for sale. Beelzebub was their prince.
When one of the vendors asked what they wanted to buy, Faithful replied: “We buy the truth.” The people did not like it that the pilgrims despised their wares. Christian and Faithful were arrested.
They were tried before Judge Hateful. Envy, Superstition, and Pickthank bore witness against them. The jury sentenced Faithful to death. When he died, a chariot and a couple of horses took him to heaven.
Christian was taken back to prison. By the grace of God, he later escaped.
The testimony of the pilgrims had won some converts. One of them named Hopeful joined Christian as he left the city.
The two pilgrims had to deal with a worldly man named By-Ends, who loved Religion when he walked in his silver slippers but did not like him when he wore rags. He had three friends named Hold-the-World, Save-All, and Money-Love.
The two pilgrims encountered a monument shaped like a woman. It was a pillar of salt and had an inscription that read: “Remember Lot’s wife.”
The River of God ran alongside their narrow path for a while. The pilgrims enjoyed a refreshing drink.
The path became rough when it no longer lay alongside the river. Alongside the path was a meadow that was far less rugged. Instead of staying on the narrow path, Christian and Hopeful crossed a stile into the meadow.
When night fell, the pilgrims learned that the meadow was a dangerous place. They saw a traveler named Vain-Confidence fall into a pit. Moreover, they found themselves engulfed in a violent thunderstorm. They tried to return to the stile and cross over to their narrow path. However, the waters rose, and they often were in danger of drowning. They found some shelter and decided to wait there till morning, but they fell asleep.
The meadow belonged to Giant Despair. In the morning, he found the two pilgrims sleeping. He dragged them to his residence, which was called Doubting Castle, and consigned them to the dungeon. He beat them, gave them no food, and urged them to kill themselves.
After several days had passed, Giant Despair was disgusted because his prisoners had not yet killed themselves. Mrs. Diffidence, his wife, suggested that they might have a picklock in their possession. If they did, they would not commit suicide, since they had reason to hope that they might escape. Giant Despair decided to search them in the morning.
Shortly before the break of day, Christian happened to remember that he had in his bosom a key called Promise. With this key, he opened the door of the dungeon and all the other castle doors that they encountered as they left. They reached the stile and crossed over it to the narrow path from which they had departed. Before proceeding, they erected a pillar by the stile. On the pillar, they wrote an inscription warning passing pilgrims about the dangers that they would encounter if they crossed over into the meadow.
The pilgrims next came to the Delectable Mountains. Here they were entertained by four shepherds named Knowledge, Experience, Watchful, and Sincere. The shepherds showed them several places, including a by-way to hell, through which hypocrites and others reached their destined place of punishment.
Before they left, the shepherds led them to the top of a high hill called Clear. Christian and Hopeful were able to see the gate of the Celestial City through a glass that the shepherds provided for the purpose. The sight of the by-way to hell had made them nervous, so they found it difficult to focus properly as they looked through the glass.
After leaving Delectable Mountains, Christian and Hopeful met Ignorance. They tried unsuccessfully to instruct him.
The pilgrims came to a dark lane. Christian told hopeful what happened to Little-Faith when he came to this dangerous spot. Little Faith decided to sleep for a while. Three bandits called Faint-Heart, Mistrust, and Guilt assailed him. They robbed him, and Guilt struck him on the head with a club. Little-Faith suffered greatly as he continued his pilgrimage. He had to beg and often went hungry. However, though he had little faith, he still had some faith. So he did not perish.
Christian and Hopeful came to a place where there were two diverging paths. The false path resembled the correct one. Flatterer said that he was going to the Celestial City and told the pilgrims to follow him. Flatterer took the wrong robe and led them into a net from which they could not extricate themselves.
A shining one freed the two pilgrims and led them to the right road. He pointed out that the shepherds had warned Christian and Hopeful about Flatterer when they were at the Delectable Mountains. Moreover, Christian and Hopeful had directions that showed them the way. If they had consulted these directions, they would have known which path was the correct one.
After a brief discussion with Atheist, who did not believe that there was a Celestial City, they came to the Enchanted Ground. Since the shepherds at the Delectable Mountains had warned them against sleeping in this area, they decided to keep themselves awake by engaging in discourse. They also made another unsuccessful attempt to instruct Ignorance.
After traversing the Enchanted Ground, they came to Beulah, a pleasant place where the sun shined day and night. Here the birds sang continuously and flowers bloomed every day. The pilgrims could now see the Celestial City.
As they approached the city, they encountered two men with raiment that shone like gold and their faces shone as the light. They were ministering spirits sent to minister unto the heirs of salvation.
The pilgrims had to cross a river before they reached the city. As the two pilgrims crossed, Christian had trouble keeping his head above water, but Hopeful encouraged him. Christian finally was able to complete the crossing when he saw Jesus Christ and heard him say: “When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee.”
Since only Enoch and Elijah entered the Celestial City without crossing the river, it is evident that the river is an allegorical representation of death.
When the pilgrims reached the other side, the ministering spirits described the joys of heaven. Christian and Hopeful were greeted by a heavenly host as they approached the gate of the Celestial City.
When they reached the gate, Christian and Hopeful presented the certificates that they had received and were admitted to the joys of heaven.
Ignorance approached the Celestial City a little later. He had no trouble crossing the river because a ferryman named Vain-Hope transported him to the other side. However, since he had no certificate, the King commanded that he be bound and transported to the by-way to hell, which the shepherds of the Delectable Mountains had shown to Christian and Hopeful.
At this point, John Bunyan awoke and realized that he was dreaming.
In this article, I have given only the highlights of Bunyan’s allegory. A comprehensive treatment of this work would require a presentation and evaluation of the theological issues that occur in this work.
“The Pilgrim’s Progress” by John Bunyan