The adventure of Pilgrim’s Progress only just begins when its main character, Christian, believes in Jesus Christ—after that, he still has a long, arduous journey to the Celestial City (Heaven). It’s filled with unintended wanderings, fearsome creatures, spiritual doubts, and dangers. While Bunyan employs these obstacles in order to create much of the book’s dramatic interest, he also uses them to establish what he sees as the basic pattern of an ordinary Christian’s life. Though Christians won’t experience the identical series of obstacles that the character Christian does, all will face at least some of them, and so they can learn from how Christian faces his challenges. The main way Christian defeats his obstacles is by looking away from his own weakness and instead remembering God’s mercy. This is, in fact, the pattern for the whole Christian life—one of death and rebirth, patterned in turn on Christ’s own death and resurrection. Through Christian’s pattern of facing down obstacles through Christ, Bunyan argues that all Christians must employ the same pattern of forgetting the self and instead remembering Christ’s mercy; if they persist in this, one day they’ll overcome the ultimate foe of death and be freed from obstacles once and for all.
Christians face various obstacles throughout their pilgrimage—things like reminders of past sin, doubt and despair, and spiritual complacency. When facing any such obstacles, Christ is a Christian’s greatest resource.
Although Christians are spared from hell, they are never sin-free until they make it to Heaven; therefore they must fight reminders of their sin. In the Valley of Humiliation, a fiend named Apollyon attacks Christian with reminders of his weaknesses: “Thou didst sinfully sleep […] Thou wast also almost persuaded to go back at the sight of the lions. And when thou talkest of thy journey […] thou art inwardly desirous of vain-glory in all that thou sayest or doest.” When Christian defends himself by mentioning Christ’s mercy and pardon of his sins, Apollyon attacks Christian in a rage. After a long combat, Christian gains the upper hand only after he accepts his likely death. Grasping his sword, he tells Apollyon, “Rejoice not against me, O mine enemy: when I fall, I shall arise,” upon which he gives the fiend a mortal blow. While this episode suggests that demonic opposition is real, its primarily point is that Christians still wrestle with doubts about their weakness and lingering sins, and only trust in Christ can overcome such assaults. Moreover, victory is only possible when a Christian refuses to be shamed by reminders of past failure, and instead resists bravely out of faith in Christ, believing they have nothing to lose.
Christians face doubt and despair. When Christian and his companion Hopeful wander astray and wind up imprisoned in Doubting Castle, the Castle’s owner, the Giant Despair, starves the pilgrims and tries to talk them into committing suicide. Though Christian is crushed by this experience, he eventually redirects his focus from doubt to prayer. After a night of fervent prayer, he exclaims, “What a fool […] thus to lie in a stinking dungeon, when I may as well walk at liberty! I have a key in my bosom, called Promise, that will […] open any lock in Doubting Castle.” Sure enough, he is able to unlock the dungeon and free himself and Hopeful. The sudden appearance of the key suggests that freedom from the dungeon has always been within reach, and that turning from doubt to trusting God is the key.
Christians also face complacency. In particular, weariness can lead to a dangerous lack of vigilance in the Christian life. A group of kind shepherds warns Christian and Hopeful not to fall asleep in a place called the Enchanted Ground. As soon as they arrive there, Hopeful grows drowsy and argues that they deserve a rest, whereupon Christian reminds him of the shepherds’ warning and suggests that they “fall into good discourse” to keep them both alert and engaged until they’ve passed through the dangerous area. He further helps by asking Hopeful specific questions about Hopeful’s conversion, leading to a lengthy discussion that lasts them until they reach Beulah, a safe land of refreshment. This suggests that Christians must remain vigilant, not letting their guard down until they’ve reached a God-given respite; a good way of staying vigilant is to recall God’s goodness, especially sharing that testimony with others.
Death is the Christian’s final—and greatest—obstacle. Indeed, death is the last barrier that Christian the pilgrim must face before entering the Celestial City. Christian and Hopeful have different experiences of crossing over the deep river of death. While it’s relatively easy for Hopeful, Christian struggles against doubt and despair, unable to see before him and fearful that the waters will engulf him. Hopeful encourages his friend, saying, “These troubles […] are no sign that God hath forsaken you; but are sent to try you, whether you will call to mind that which heretofore you have received of His goodness, and live upon Him in your distresses.” In other words, Christian shouldn’t interpret his struggle as a sign of God’s rejection, but a last obstacle testing whether he truly trusts in God or in himself.
This final obstacle suggests a few things about the Christian pilgrimage as a whole. It suggests that, though Christians’ journeys may not be identical, they follow a general pattern of wrestling with oneself, followed by being reminded of God’s trustworthiness. The resulting shift to self-forgetfulness and focus on God is the only thing that allows a pilgrim to overcome the obstacle. Finally, it’s hinted that even if death is the most fearful and difficult obstacle of all, the lifelong pattern of wrestling, reminder, and forgetfulness of self is meant to prepare a Christian for this hardest obstacle, after which they’ll enjoy the Celestial City—freed from obstacles once and for all. In that sense, every obstacle is a kind of small death, or a rehearsal for the pilgrimage’s climactic moment.
Obstacles on the Journey ThemeTracker
Obstacles on the Journey Quotes in The Pilgrim’s Progress
But why wilt thou seek for ease this way, seeing so many dangers attend it? Especially, since (hadst thou but patience to hear me) I could direct thee to the obtaining of what thou desirest, without the dangers that thou in this way wilt run thyself into […] Why in yonder Village (the village is named Morality) there dwells a Gentleman whose name is Legality, a very judicious man, and a man of very good name, that has skill to help men off with such burdens as thine are from their shoulders […] he hath skill to cure those that are somewhat crazed in their wits with their burdens.
So in the morning they all got up, and after some more discourse, they told him that he should not depart till they had shewed him the Rarities of that place […] Then they read to him some of the worthy Acts that some of his servants had done: as, how they had subdued Kingdoms, wrought Righteousness, obtained Promises, stopped the mouths of Lions, quenched the violence of Fire, escaped the edge of the Sword; [and] out of weakness were made strong[.]
Christian nimbly stretched out his hand for his Sword, and caught it, saying, Rejoice not against me, O mine Enemy! When I fall I shall arise; and with that gave him a deadly thrust, which made him give back, as one that had received his mortal wound: Christian, perceiving that, made at him again, saying, Nay, in all these things we are more than Conquerors through him that loved us. And with that Apollyon spread forth his Dragon's wings, and sped him away, that Christian for a season saw him no more.
So soon as the man overtook me, he was but a word and a blow, for down he knocked me, and laid me for dead. But when I was a little come to myself again, I asked him wherefore he served me so? He said, Because of my secret inclining to Adam the First: and with that he struck me another deadly blow on the breast, and beat me down backward, so I lay at his foot as dead as before. So when I came to myself again I cried him mercy; but he said, I know not how to shew mercy; and with that knocked me down again. He had doubtless made an end of me, but that one came by, and bid him forbear.
[H]e said it was a pitiful low sneaking business for a man to mind Religion; he said that a tender conscience was an unmanly thing; and that for a man to watch over his words and ways, so as to tie up himself from that hectoring liberty that the brave spirits of the times accustom themselves unto, would make him the ridicule of the times. He objected also, that but few of the Mighty, Rich, or Wise, were ever of my opinion […] But at last I began to consider […] this Shame tells me what men are; but it tells me nothing what God or the Word of God is.
My Lord, this man, notwithstanding his plausible name, is one of the vilest men in our Country. He neither regardeth Prince nor People, Law nor Custom; but doth all that he can to possess all men with certain of his disloyal notions, which he in the general calls Principles of Faith and Holiness. And in particular, I heard him once myself affirm that Christianity and the Customs of our Town of Vanity are diametrically opposite, and could not be reconciled. By which saying, my Lord, he doth at once not only condemn all our laudable doings, but us in the doing of them.
My Brother, said he, rememberest thou not how valiant thou hast been heretofore? Apollyon could not crush thee, nor could all that thou didst hear, or see, or feel in the Valley of the Shadow of Death. What hardship, terror, and amazement hast thou already gone through, and art thou now nothing but fear? Thou seest that I am in the Dungeon with thee, a far weaker man by nature than thou art; also this Giant has wounded me as well as thee, and hath also cut off the Bread and Water from my mouth; and with thee I mourn without the light. But let's exercise a little more patience[.]
Well on Saturday about midnight they began to pray, and continued in Prayer till almost break of day.
Now a little before it was day, good Christian, as one half amazed, brake out in passionate speech: What a fool, quoth he, am I, thus to lie in a stinking Dungeon, when I may as well walk at liberty. I have a Key in my bosom called Promise, that will, I am persuaded, open any Lock in Doubting Castle. […]
Then Christian pulled it out of his bosom, and began to try at the Dungeon door, whose bolt (as he turned the Key) gave back, and the door flew open with ease, and Christian and Hopeful both came out.
HOPE. […] Sleep is sweet to the labouring man; we may be refreshed if we take a nap.
CHR. Do you not remember that one of the Shepherds bid us beware of the Inchanted Ground? He meant by that, that we should beware of sleeping; wherefore let us not sleep as do others, but let us watch and be sober.
HOPE. […] I see it is true that the Wise man saith, Two are better than one[.]
[…] Now then, said Christian, to prevent drowsiness in this place, let us fall into good discourse.
They then addressed themselves to the Water; and entring, 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[.]
Then said the other, Be of good cheer my Brother, I feel the bottom, and it is good. […] These troubles and distresses that you go through in these Waters are no sign that God hath forsaken you, but are sent to try you, whether you will call to mind that which heretofore you have received of his goodness, and live upon him in your distresses.
The men then asked, What must we do in the holy place? To whom it was answered, 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 for 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.
And here also I took notice of what was very remarkable, the Water of that River was lower at this time than ever I saw it in all my life. So he went over at last, not much above wet-shod. […] I never had doubt about him; he was a man of a choice spirit, only he was always kept very low, and that made his life so burdensome to himself, and so troublesome to others. He was above many tender of sin. He was so afraid of doing injuries to others, that he often would deny himself of that which was lawful, because he would not offend.
FEEBLE. Alas, I want a suitable Companion […] but I, as you see, am weak […] and shall be offended and made weak at that which others can bear. I shall like no Laughing, I shall like no gay Attire, I shall like no unprofitable Questions. Nay I am so weak a man, as to be offended with that which others have a liberty to do. I do not yet know all the Truth. I am a very ignorant Christian man. […]
GREAT-HEART. But Brother […] I have it in Commission to comfort the feeble-minded, and to support the weak. You must needs go along with us; we will wait for you, we will lend you our help, we will deny ourselves of some things both opinionative and practical for your sake, we will not enter into doubtful disputations before you, we will be made all things to you rather than you shall be left behind.
This River has been a Terror to many, yea, the thoughts of it also have often frighted me. But now methinks I stand easy […] The Waters indeed are to the Palate bitter and to the Stomach cold, yet the thoughts of what I am going to and of the Conduct that waits for me on the other side, doth lie as a glowing Coal at my Heart.
I see myself now at the end of my Journey, my toilsome days are ended. I am going now to see that Head that was crowned with Thorns, and that Face that was spit upon for me.