A By-Way to Hell

Then I saw in my dream, that the Shepherds had them to another place, in a bottom, where was a door in the side of a hill, and they opened the door, and bid them look in. They looked in, therefore, and saw that within it was very dark and smoky; they also thought that they heard there a rumbling noise as of fire, and a cry of some tormented, and that they smelt the scent of brimstone. Then said Christian, What does this mean? The Shepherds told them, This is a by-way to hell, a way that hypocrites go in at; namely, such as sell their birthright, with Esau; such as sell their master, with Judas; such as blaspheme the gospel, with Alexander; and that lie and dissemble, with Ananias and Sapphira his wife. Then said Hopeful to the Shepherds, I perceive that these had on them, even every one, a show of pilgrimage, as we have now; had they not?

Shepherds: Yes, and held it a long time too.

Hopeful: How far might they go on in pilgrimage in their day, since they notwithstanding were thus miserably cast away?

Shepherds: Some further, and some not so far, as these mountains.

Then said the Pilgrims one to another, We have need to cry to the Strong for strength.

Shepherds: Ay, and you will have need to use it, when you have it, too.

By-Way to Hell

As the Shepherds continue guiding the pilgrims through the mountains, they take them down to the bottom where they see a door in the side of a hill. As they open the door, they are confronted with a frightening experience. They see only darkness. They smell smoke and the scent of brimstone. They hear the rumblings of fire and the cries of the tormented. As with the hill called Error and Mount Caution, the door in the side of a hill represents a sermon. Scripture not only shows us the danger of straying into error and sin, it warns us of God’s wrath and judgment for those who defy God and persist in sin. It speaks of the reality of hell and certainty of the coming judgment. The Scripture text for this message is found in the book of Proverbs.

The way of life winds upward for the wise,
That he may turn away from hell below.
(Proverbs 15:24)

Bunyan’s description of the terrors inside the door echo the Bible’s own fearful warnings of coming judgment.

Upon the wicked He will rain coals;
Fire and brimstone and a burning wind
Shall be the portion of their cup.
(Psalm 11:6)

“The devil, who deceived them, was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet are. And they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away. And there was found no place for them. And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books. The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works. Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:10–15).

“But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death” (Revelation 21:8).

In Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, Bunyan recalls hearing and trembling at such dreadful words, even as a child.

“Also I should, at these years, be greatly afflicted and troubled with the thoughts of the day of judgment, and that both night and day, and should tremble at the thoughts of the fearful torments of hell fire; still fearing that it would be my lot to be found at last amongst those devils and hellish fiends, who are there bound down with the chains and bonds of eternal darkness, “unto the judgment of the great day.” [Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, par. 6]

This isn’t the first time in The Pilgrim’s Progress that Bunyan has presented such warnings:

When Christian was first setting out, he warned his neighbors, Obstinate and Pliable, that if they stay in the City of Destruction, they “will sink lower than the grave, into the place that burns with fire and brimstone.”

On Hill Difficulty, he told Timorous and Mistrust, “If I go back to mine own country, that is prepared for fire and brimstone, and I shall certainly perish there.”

And in the Valley of the Shadow of Death Christian was confounded as he journeyed past “the mouth of hell” that “stood also hard by the wayside.” Out of the mouth came “flame and smoke,” “sparks and hideous noises.”

The door in the side of the hill is a warning not to trifle with sin. This “is a by-way to hell, a way that hypocrites go in at.” A hypocrite is someone who pretends to be something he never intends to be. It is possible to live outwardly as a believer in Christ and yet inwardly refuse to forsake and fight against sin. Jesus (quoting Isaiah 29:13) said: “Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: ‘These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me” (Matthew 15:7–8). The lips profess God’s praise, while the heart embraces sin’s pleasures.

Earlier, in the House of the Interpreter, Christian had seen a fearful warning of the dangers of walking in hypocrisy and falling into apostacy. The Man in the Iron Cage was “once a fair and flourishing professor” on his way to the Celestial City. But he would not heed the warnings of Scripture and would not earnestly pursue holiness. His unwillingness to let go of sin left him with no refuge for his soul.

“For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries (Hebrews 10:26–17).

“It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31).

His relentless hold upon sin darkened his hope in the promises of the gospel and in time imprisoned him in a cage of despair.

In order to emphasize the seriousness of their lesson, the Shepherds point to several biblical examples: Esau, who sold his birthright (Genesis 25:29–34), Judas, who betrayed Jesus (Matthew 26:14–16), Alexander, who rejected the faith and blasphemed God (1 Timothy 1:19–20), and Ananias and Sapphira, who lied to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:1–11). All of these once appeared to be among the faithful. No one would have suspected that such as these could fall away. Yet their lives were but a “show of pilgrimage” and in the end they were “miserably cast away.”

We cannot harbor sin and hide sin while outwardly professing faith in Christ. We must take God’s Word seriously—its commands and warnings as well as its hope and promises. We must turn away from sin and hypocrisy and pursue peace and holiness.

 “Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord: looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled; lest there be any fornicator or profane person like Esau, who for one morsel of food sold his birthright. For you know that afterward, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought it diligently with tears” (Hebrews 12:14–17).

But we cannot walk in holiness in our own strength. We need help that can only come from God. We need the power of His Spirit. Christian and Hopeful rightly conclude: “We have need to cry to the Strong for strength.”

“For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man” (Ephesians 3:14–16).

May God grant us strength that we might forsake every sin, walk in the light of His Word, and reach our journey’s end where we will see our Savoir face to face.

“Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure” (1 John 3:2–3).

Seek the Lord and His strength;
Seek His face evermore!
(Psalm 105:4)

A Guide to John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress
See TOC for more posts from this commentary

The text for The Pilgrim’s Progress and images used are public domain
Notes and Commentary ©2018 Ken Puls
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the New King James Version (NKJV) ©1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.

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