An Application of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress: Living in Both Fear and Hope

June 12, 2019 | by James M. Harrison

As Christian was nearing the end of his tour of Interpreter’s House, he was led by Interpreter into one last room, where he observed a man rising out of bed. As he dressed himself, he trembled, but the trembling was not from cold.
When Christian asked him the reason for his shaking, the man related a dream which was still fresh in his memory, for he had just awoken from sleep. He had dreamt a most disturbing and frightening dream. The skies had turned black, and resounded with thunder and lightning, as well as the blast of a trumpet. And there, sitting upon a cloud was a man, surrounded by the hosts of heaven, clothed, as it were, in flaming fire. A voice, then, called the world to come and face the judgment. Rocks were split, graves opened, and the dead came forth to stand before the man on the cloud in order to receive His verdict.
There were two groups arrayed before the judge, and the first group was brought to the bar. The decision of the Judge came forth, and a bottomless pit opened emitting smoke, fire, and “hideous noises”. The other group was caught up into the clouds, but the man himself was left behind, and unable to escape the gaze of the Judge who sat upon the cloud. Standing in the gaze of the One who sees all things, his mind recalled all his sin, and, he says, “my conscience did accuse me on every side”. At this, he awoke.
When asked to explain what there was about this scene that caused him to be so fearful, he replied that he was forced to consider the truth that judgment would one day come, and that he was not ready. Furthermore, there was no possibility of escape, for the Judge “had always his eye upon me, showing indignation in his countenance.”

When Interpreter inquired of Christian in regard to his response to the man’s experience of his dream, Christian replied, “…they put me in Hope and Fear.”

Hope and fear. One would not normally think of these as close companions. When placed, however, as Bunyan does, in the context of the final judgment, one might readily see how they intertwine. There is a sense, of course, in which fear is the good and proper experience of God’s people. We are told again and again to fear God. This type of fear does not end with our reconciliation to Him. We do not cease to fear Him when He becomes our Father through adoption. Indeed, this kind of fear only begins when we first enter into relationship with God through the redemption of Christ. But that is not the fear of which Bunyan speaks.

Bunyan speaks of a different kind of fear altogether. Bunyan speaks of the fear of a criminal awaiting the verdict and sentence of his judge. This is the fear of one who neither deserves, nor expects, to receive mercy. This is the fear of one who has committed capital crimes and knows that the sentence which will be handed down is both terrible and eternal. This is the fear which would fill the heart and mind of every lost man and woman, if only they did not suppress the truth in unrighteousness…if only they were not spiritually blind to the reality of their standing before the God who is, and who will be, their judge.

Indeed, for the unregenerate one, fear is the only rational response to what is to come. Most do not live in this fear, for begin unregenerate, they do not and cannot understand spiritual things (1 Cor. 2:14). But the day will come, when, as in this man’s dream, they will be able to deceive themselves no longer. When such a one finds himself standing in that place of judgment, how can the heart not fail? If one were to think upon the most frightening experience of one’s life, and multiply that fear one hundred, or one thousand times, one would still not reach the level of fear appropriate to what awaits the unregenerate man.

Paul writes that “at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil. 2:10-11). This has often been explained in terms of force, “Every knee will bow, because they will have no choice. They will be forced to bow.” But could there not be another explanation for the bended knee of the unbeliever? Could it be that they will be so filled with fear that their knees are too weak to stand? Indeed, for one who has turned from God’s gracious offer of redemption again, and again, and again, and who, as a result, finds himself face to face with the Judge whose verdict will cast him into eternal perdition, is there a more appropriate response than abject, paralyzing fear?

But…

Christian says that he is put in mind not only of fear, but of hope and fear. Hope and fear originating from the same source. Let us not forget that there are two groups which come before the Judge. This dream which Bunyan relates, (a dream within a dream, to be precise, since all of Pilgrim’s Progress is a dream), is based upon Christ’s own description of the judgment provided for us in Matthew’s gospel, chapter 25, in which these same two groups are spoken of as the Sheep and the Goats. The Goats, of course, are those we’ve already discussed. The other group, the Sheep, those who, in Bunyan’s description are “catch’d up and carried away into the clouds”, are those who have nothing to fear. These live in hope.

It is not a hope in the way we use the word today. That is, it is not wishful thinking. It is not the hope of uncertainty. It is not the kind of hope in which one desires something to come to pass, but is not at all sure that it will. No. This is a Christian hope. This is the biblical hope of certainty, and desire, and anticipation. This is the hope that causes the people of God to cry out in prayer, “Come quickly, Lord Jesus!”.

This is a hope which understands that judgment is not inherently negative. When one stands before a judge and receives a verdict of acquittal, he may then walk out of that courtroom a free man, but he has nevertheless been judged. Likewise, the Sheep are judged, even as they hear those words which they long for. “Come you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

Hope and fear. Two responses which anticipate a single event. And the glory of it all is in the fact that by the grace of God, one may exchange fear for hope. Indeed, the Judge Himself so loved the world that He has provided a way for fear to be cast out. The One who will be sit on the seat of judgment, first hung on the cross of execution, bearing the shame and the punishment of all those who would turn from sin and place their hope, their trust, their faith, in Him.

Such hope is well placed. We can be sure of this because the One who died there on that cross, yet lives, having been raised from the dead. Indeed, how can one’s hope rest more securely? The One who has taken upon Himself the punishment of those who will trust in Him, is also the Judge who will render His verdict! Trust in Christ, and lose your fear. Trust in Christ, and live in hope!

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