Crossing the river in Pilgrim’s Progress

Among the songs our church sang on Easter Sunday was “Because He Lives.” The third verse reads:

And then one day, I’ll cross that river
I’ll fight life’s final war with pain
And then as death gives way to victory
I’ll see the lights of glory and I’ll know He reigns

The line about crossing the river reminds me of a late scene in Pilgrim’s Progress where Christian & Hopeful must cross the river of death to reach the Celestial City. Bunyan’s depiction of the weakness of our flesh and our wavering faith in the face of death is arresting and somehow comforting. Until the day that it is destroyed, death remains an enemy that threatens us with fear and tempts us to despair (1Cor 15:26). We need not fear death when it comes (Heb 2:14-15), but who can say how we will fare in the heat of our last battle? On the heels of Easter Sunday I’m thankful that God’s promise of eternal life is certain even when I am not.

Now between them and the gate was a river, but there was no bridge to go over, and the river was very deep. At the sight of this river the pilgrims were stunned. Then the men who went with them said, “You must go through the river or you cannot enter the City at the gate.”

The pilgrims then began to inquire if there was no other way to the gate, to which they answered, “Yes, but there have been only two, Enoch and Elijah, permitted to tread that path since the foundation of the world. And no one else will be permitted to go that way until the last trumpet shall sound. “

Then the pilgrims, especially Christian, began to despair in their minds. They looked this way and that, but no way could be found to escape the river.

Then they asked the men if the waters were deep everywhere all the time. They told them that sometimes the water was shallow, but that they could not guide them in that matter since the waters were deep or shallow depending upon their faith in the King of the place.

Then they waded into the water, and upon entering, Christian began to sink. He cried out to his good friend Hopeful, saying, “I am sinking in deep waters; the billows are going over my head, all his waves go over me! Selah.

Then Hopeful said, “Be of good cheer, my brother. I feel the bottom, and it is good.”

Then Christian cried out, “Ah, my friend! The sorrows of death have compassed me about. I shall not see the land that flows with milk and honey.”

With that a great darkness and horror fell upon Christian, so that he could not see ahead.

It was then that Christian lost his senses, and his memory failed him, and he could not talk in an orderly fashion of any of those sweet refreshments that he had met with in the way of his pilgrimage.

All the words that he spoke were filled with horror, and he feared that he should die in that river and never obtain entrance at the gate. He was greatly troubled by thoughts of his past sins, committed before and during his pilgrimage. It was also observed that he was troubled with apparitions of hobgoblins and evil spirits, which he continually spoke about.

It was everything that Hopeful could do to keep his brother’s head above water. Sometimes Christian, despite all Hopeful’s help, would slip down into the waters and rise up again half-dead.

Hopeful continually tried to comfort him, saying, “Brother, I see the gate, and men standing by to receive us.”

But Christian would answer, “It is you, it is you they wait for. You have been Hopeful ever since I knew you.”

And so have you,” Hopeful said to Christian.

Christian answered, “If things were right with me, He would now come to help me, but because of my sin he has brought me to this snare, and He will leave me here.

Then said Hopeful, “My brother, you have forgotten the text where it is said of the wicked, ‘There are no bands in their death, but their strength is firm. They are not in trouble as other men, neither are they plagued like other men’ (Psa. 73:4, 5). These troubles and distresses you are going through in these waters are not a sign that God has forsaken you; but are sent to try you, to see if you will call to mind all the goodness that you have received from Him. You are being tested to see if you will rely on Him in your distress.”

Then I saw in my dream, that Christian was in a bewildered stupor for a while. Hopeful spoke to Christian, encouraging him to “Be of good cheer,” reminding him that Jesus Christ would make him whole.

With that Christian shouted out with a loud voice, “Oh, I see him again; and he tells me, ‘When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they will not overflow you’ (Isa. 43:2).”

Then they both took courage and crossed the river, and the enemy was as still as a stone. Christian soon found solid ground to stand on, and the rest of the river was shallow. So Christian and Hopeful crossed over the river and arrived on the other side. As soon as they came out of the river, they saw the two shining men again waiting for them. The men saluted the two pilgrims saying, “We are ministering spirits, sent here to minister to those shall be the heirs of salvation.” Then they all went along together toward the gate.

Now though the city stood upon a mighty hill with its foundations higher than the clouds, the pilgrims went up with ease, agility, and speed because the ministering spirits supported their arms as they led them. Also they had left their mortal garments behind them in the river, for though they had gone in with them, they had come out without them.

-John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress: From This World to That Which Is to Come (ed. C. J. Lovik)

Religion, philosophy, & the problem of death

I suggest that we accept a different approach to the question ‘What is philosophy?’ and start from a very simple proposition, one that contains the central question of all philosophy: that the human being, as distinct from God, is mortal or, to speak like the philosophers, is a ‘finite being’, limited in space and time. As distinct from animals, moreover, a human being is the only creature who is aware of his limits. He knows that he will die, and that his near ones, those he loves, will also die. Consequently he cannot prevent himself from thinking about this state of affairs, which is disturbing and absurd, almost unimaginable. And, naturally enough, he is inclined to turn first of all to those religions which promise ‘salvation’ . . . .

But for those who are not convinced, and who doubt the truth of [religion’s] promises of immortality, the problem of death remains unresolved. Which is where philosophy comes in . . . .

Unable to bring himself to believe in a God who offers salvation, the philosopher is above all one who believes that by understanding the world, by understanding ourselves and others as far as our intelligence permits, we shall succeed in overcoming fear, through clear-sightedness rather than blind faith.

In other words, if religions can be defined as ‘doctrines of salvation’, the great philosophies can also be defined as doctrines of salvation (but without the help of a God).

-Luc Ferry, A Brief History of Thought