The River Death & the Celestial City


Having only been blown off course of our initial projected reading schedule by two weeks, we come now to the conclusion of the first part of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Here Christian and Hopeful conclude their pilgrimage and finally arrive at their eternal home in the Celestial City. Of course, while this is the conclusion of Christian’s journey, Bunyan wrote a sequel about Christian’s wife, Christiana, and after a hiatus for the remainder of July and August, we will begin our study of her pilgrimage in September.

Of the Ignorant & the Temporary

With Ignorance unable to keep pace with Christian and Hopeful, the final stage picks up with the two pilgrims discussing what keeps such men from being true pilgrims. Christian’s conclusion is that they lack a fear of God and are, therefore, trapped in their state of foolishness. Particularly, those in Ignorance’s state have a fear of conviction more than a fear of God. They are willfully ignorant to the reality that God draws us to repentance through conviction of sin, so instead repenting, they justify themselves as Ignorance did.

Indeed, Bunyan’s threefold description of the fear of God is not to be overlooked. It (first) “is caused by saving convictions,” (second) drives “the soul to lay fast hold of Christ for salvation,” and (third) births and continues “in the soul a great reverence for God, his Word, and ways” (174). Of this fear, Bunyan elsewhere wrote:

Take heed of hardening thy heart at any time, against convictions or judgments. I bid you before to beware of a hard heart; now I bid you beware of hardening your soft heart. The fear of the Lord is the pulse of the soul. Pulses that beat best are the best signs of life; but the worst show that life is present. Intermitting pulses are dangerous.[1]

Christian and Hopeful then turn the subject of their discourse to a man named Temporary, who (as his name indicates) only temporarily held to the faith. The golden nugget of this discourse is Christian’s presentation of the bottom-line that those who only temporarily hold to the faith do so because their mind and will were fundamentally unchanged. They proved themselves to be unconverted and unregenerate. As 1 John 2:19 says, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.”

Of Christian’s step road to apostacy on pages 178-179, one commentator writes:

See how gradually, step by step, apostates go back. It begins in the unbelief of the heart, and ends in open sins in the life. Why is the love of this world so forbidden? Why is covetousness called idolatry? Because, whatever draws away the heart from God, and prevents enjoying close fellowship with him, naturally tends to apostasy from him. Look well to your hearts and affections. ‘Keep thy heart with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life.’ Pr. iv.23. If you neglect to watch, you will be sure to smart under the sense of sin on earth, or its curse from hell. ‘See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil’ Ep. v.15,16.[2]

Beulah Land

After exiting the Enchanted Ground, the pilgrims come to a new country called Beulah. The description that Bunyan verbally paints is of a kind of heaven on earth or, we might better say, a preview of heaven on earth. In Beulah, the Valley of the Shadow of Death and Giant Despair and his castle of doubt were both far away. Here the Shining Ones walked, and here the Celestial City could be seen and heard.

Interestingly, the pilgrims both come down with a sickness, a sickness of desire for the City that was now so near. Being inspired by C. S. Lewis’ concepts of sweet desire and northernness, The Gray Havens rightly sing that “there’s a certain sickness that’s better than health.”[3] Those who know the ache of love can attest to this sickness. Indeed, it is fitting that Bunyan quotes Song of Songs 5:8, “If ye find my Beloved, tell him that I am sick of love,” for Beulah is only found once in the Bible in Isaiah 62:4. In prophesying of Jerusalem’s future glory (which we are still looking forward to), we read: “you shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate, but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be married.” The word for married is Beulah: your land Beulah.

Of course, the greatest picture of heavenly peace and comfort is marriage; that is where all of creation is going after all. Remember that while Christ affirmed that we will not be married to one another on the New Earth, there will still be marriage. There will be no marriages only because the shadow will give way to the substance, and the sign will be passed once the destination is reached. The remade cosmos will be the dwelling place of Christ and His Bride, the church, which is the great and eternal marriage toward which each individual marriage here ought to point. Whenever we experience a foretaste of that heavenly communion with our Savior, we too are walking through Beulah Land.

Crossing the River Death

After spending a little time in Beulah, the pilgrims are met by two shining men, who inquire of their pilgrimage and warn them of only two more difficulties that must be crossed before coming to the City. While the two men would travel with Christian and Hopeful, they must traverse the difficulties by their own faith.

The first difficulty is found to be a River without a bridge that must be crossed in order to come to the City. We quickly see that this River is Death when the pilgrims are told that only Enoch and Elijah did not pass through its waters. The second difficulty is then revealed as the pilgrims enter the River and the waters pass over Christian’s head. Before entering the waters, the guides told them “You shall find it deeper or shallower, as you believe in the King of the Place” (182). Thus, the deep waters that met Christian were a result of doubt or unbelief.

It is the sorrowful reality of this death-filled world that not all pilgrims of Christ will pass through death peacefully. For some, the Accuser will be permitted to strike one last desperate time against them. George Offer notes that while “Bunyan died in perfect peace… it is probable that he expected darkness in the trying hour.”[4] We do not know how it will be with us until we enter that fateful water, yet we can strengthen ourselves with two thoughts. First, let us take comfort that Christ will not lose any of His elect. Second, let us, as Thomas Watson says, “quicken your pace when you are within sight of the kingdom! He is a happy man of whom it may be said, spiritually, as of Moses literally before his death, that his eyes waxed not dim and his natural force was not abated (Deut. 34:7).”[5]

Hopeful, though, finds the water shallow and comforts his brother and ultimately encourages Christian to look upon Christ at last as he did at first. From this we may take the following godly counsel:

When you visit a sick or death bed, be sure that you take God’s Word with you, in your heart and in your mouth. It is from that only that you may expect a blessing upon, and to the soul of, the sick or the dying; for it is by the Word of God faith came at the first; it is by that, faith is strengthened at the last; and Jesus is the sum and substance of the Scriptures.[6]

Entering Zion

After passing through the River of Death, the pilgrims at last reach their destination, their eternal home and, thus, the conclusion of their pilgrimage. The descriptions that Bunyan gives in these pages are rare indeed. There is never a shortage of artistic endeavors that portrait the bleakness, horror, and suffering of life because even the godless are able to understand something of those realities. Heavenly portraits are much rarer because they require the artist to have glimpsed heavenly realities. This is why our society is very capable of producing art that is disturbing and even impactful but almost never inspiring. C. S. Lewis admitted that after writing The Screwtape Letters a similar book should be written from the angelic perspective, yet here was the problem:

But who could supply the deficiency? Even if a man–and he would have to be a far better man than I–could scale the spiritual heights required, what answerable style could he use? For the style would really be part of the content. Mere advice would be no good; every sentence would have to smell of Heaven.[7]

Bunyan perhaps come nearest to capturing something of that heavenly wonder. Indeed, rather than try to add my comments to such a wonderful reading, allow me to simply highlight a portion that I find difficult to read without tears.

It begins with Christian and Hopeful asking what they must do in the Holy Place into which they are entering, and it is then followed by a description of our heavenly and eternal duties:

You must there receive the Comfort of all your Toil, and have Joy for all your Sorrow; you must reap what you have sown, even the fruit of all your Prayers and Tears; and Sufferings of the King by the Way. In that place you must wear Crowns of Gold, and enjoy the perpetual sight and vision of the Holy One, for there you shall see him as he is. There also you shall serve him continually with Praise, with Shouting, and Thanksgiving, whom you desired to serve in the World, though with much difficulty because of the Infirmity of your Flesh. There your eyes shall be delighted with seeing, and your ears with hearing the pleasant Voice of the Mighty One. There you shall enjoy your Friends again, that are gone thither before you; and there you shall with joy receive even every one that follows into the Holy Place after you. There also you shall be cloathed with Glory and Majesty, and put into an equipage fir to ride out with the King of Glory. When he shall come with Sound of Trumpet in the Clouds, as upon the wings of the Wind, you shall come with him; and when he shall sit upon the Throne of Judgment, you shall sit by him; yea, and when he shall pass Sentence upon all the workers of Iniquity, let them be Angels or men; you also shall have a voice in that Judgment, because they were his and your Enemies. Also when he shall again return to the City, you shall go too with sound of Trumpet, and be ever with him. (185-186)

Ignorance’s End

Since we are not yet within those blessed gates and are each reading this book as pilgrims still upon the narrow way, it is fitting that Bunyan concludes with one final warning. Ignorance eventually did come to the River Death but only by taking Vain-Hope’s ferry rather than passing through the waters. When he ascended the hill and knocked upon the gate, he was asked to present his Certificate, and when he could not show it, he was cast into hell.

This is a most awful conclusion. Consider it deeply. Weigh it attentively, so as to get good satisfaction from the Word to these important questions:–Am I in Christ, the way, the only way, to the kingdom, or not? Do I see that all other ways, whether of sin or self-righteousness, lead to hell? Does Christ dwell in my heart by faith? Am I a new creature in him? Do I renounce my own righteousness, as well as abhor my sins? Do I look alone to Christ for righteousness, and depend only on him for holiness? Is he the only hope of my soul, and the only confidence of my heart? And do I desire to be found in him; knowing by the Word, and feeling by the teaching of his Spirit, that I am totally lost in myself? Thus, is Christ formed in me, the only hope of glory? Do I study to please him, as well as hope to enjoy him? Is fellowship with God the Father, and his Son Jesus Christ, so prized by me, as to seek it, and to esteem it above all things? If so, though I may find all things in nature, in the world, and from Satan, continually opposing this, yet I am in Christ the way, and he is in me the truth and the life.[8]


[1] The Works of John Bunyan Vol I, 487.

[2] The Works of John Bunyan Vol III, 161.

[3]Rhythm of the East” by The Gray Havens

[4] The Works of John Bunyan Vol III, 163.

[5] Thomas Watson, Heaven Taken by Storm, 99.

[6] The Works of John Bunyan Vol III, 164.

[7] C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, 5-6.

[8] The Works of John Bunyan Vol III, 166.


The edition cited is the Banner of Truth hardcover, which can be found here.

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