Pilgrim's Progress: the River of Death

Mr. Standfast ... said, "This river has been a terror to many; yea, the thoughts of it also have often frightened me ... The waters indeed are to the palate bitter, and to the stomach cold; yet ... I see myself now at the end of my journey; my toilsome days are ended. ..." Now ... his countenance changed; ... and after he had said, "Take me, for I come unto thee", he ceased to be seen of them.

But glorious it was to see how the open region was filled with horses and chariots, with trumpeters and pipers, with singers and players upon stringed instruments, to welcome the pilgrims as they went up, and followed one another in at the beautiful gate of the city.
Have you ever walked with someone through death? I have, although only a very small part of the way. I will always be grateful for the honesty of this godly man, because he didn't white-wash his experience with platitudes or empty confidence. He spoke openly of his grief at leaving this world, his fear of the unknown, and his loneliness at facing the loneliest journey of all. He also shared his confidence of going to heaven. His grandchildren will never forget the day he told them that only trust in Jesus can comfort us when we're dying. He died well as he had lived well.

That experience did away with two (incompatible!) assumptions about death for me. The first is that death is too terrifying to be spoken of or imagined: it's easy to live in a state of denial when we're so well protected from death in our society. The second is that death is easy for Christians: even when you're confident of going to heaven, death can still be scary, ugly, and lonely. But how much less lonely when we know that the One we have loved and known all our lives is waiting to welcome us!

Death was closer in the 17th century. John Bunyan lost his first wife, his beloved pastor, his unborn baby, and his darling 13 year old daughter Mary, within 4 years. Facing his own death during serious illnesses and possible execution, Satan assaulted him with memories of old sins, doubts of salvation, terrors of dying and the horrors of hell, so he knew well the comfort of God's promises. As a pastor, he sat by death-beds and walked with many to the brink of death.

Dying well was part of living well for the Puritans. They prayed to be aware of their approaching death so they could prepare well. We often die in hospital, heavily sedated or in a medically-induced coma. The Puritans generally died at home, without modern medicine, surrounded by family and friends. Those standing nearby hoarded the dying person's words like jewels: there are many Puritan death-bed narratives. No doubt the final words of the characters in Pilgrim's Progress were ones John Bunyan heard from the dying.

Don't you love the way Pilgrim's Progress I & II ends? If you can't remember or haven't reached the end, grab a copy and read the ending in both volumes, starting at the Enchanted Ground. Like many great epics, the pace of the book slows, giving it a grandeur and solemnity like great bells tolling, until the moment when the pilgrims enter the Celestial City to the triumphant blast of trumpets. As you read, ask yourself what you can learn about old age, death, and heaven.

Old age

There are two kinds of old age in Pilgrim's Progress. Weary after the long journey, a pilgrim may be lulled to sleep in the Enchanted Ground, Satan's last trap for the unwary. But those who win through this perilous place come to the Land of Beulah, rich in vineyards and orchards, where they hear the trumpets and bells of the Celestial City, glimpse its golden walls, and wait for their own journey across the River. A sleepy old age forgetful of God, or a fruitful old age blessed with the close promise of heaven: which will you choose?

The River of Death

The pilgrim's final trial is the River of Death, with bitter water and no bridge, which must be crossed to reach the Celestial City. The waters ebb and flow: "You shall find it deeper or shallower as you believe in the King of the place." For Christian, the experience is terrible: he sinks in the deep waters of "a great darkness and horror", until Hopeful's encouragement and God's promise make the River's floor firm again. Christiana and her fellow-pilgrims are better prepared by Great-Heart. One by one, the signs of death approach, and friends and family accompany them to the River's edge, where they gladly leave their fears behind, and cross with words of joy. Most beautiful of all is the death of Much-Afraid, who "went through the river singing, but none could understand what she said".

Heaven

The point of a pilgrimage is the destination. Not much point in a long, hard, dangerous journey, if you never reach the place you're going to! And how greatly we're helped to persevere when we look through the "perspective glass" of God's word, and catch a glimpse of our glorious destiny. The Puritans loved to meditate on heaven, creating mind-pictures of the wonders described in the Bible: the crystal River, the Tree of Life, the Golden City. When we're struggling with discouragement or sorrow, or when we're tempted to settle for the comforts of this world, it can be helpful to read Revelation 21-22 and remind ourselves where we're going.

Death still scares me, but I would like to prepare well for it. I want to make sure I know and serve my Lord well during this life, so I can die full of longing to see his face. I already know I don't want a lazy and sleepy retirement, but a blessed and fruitful old age. And I pray that I will never lose sight of my destination, but will keep travelling through the dangers and difficulties of my pilgrimage, with my heart fully set on my true home.

If you'd like to know more about Puritan meditation, especially meditation on heaven, read Richard Baxter's The Saint's Everlasting Rest.

Questions for reflection
What is your experience of death? What scares you about death, and what comforts you? Are you well prepared for death? What kind of old age do you plan to have, and how will you make this happen? Do you think about heaven much? What do you look forward to most about heaven? How could you make time to regularly reflect on the wonders of heaven, and how might this help you to persevere in your journey? Grab a Bible, and meditate prayerfully verse by verse on Revelation 21:1 - 22:6.