Now while I was gazing upon all these things, I turned my head to look back, and saw Ignorance come up to the river side; but he soon got over, and that without half that difficulty which the other two men met with. For it happened that there was then in that place, one Vain-hope, a ferryman, that with his boat helped him over; so he, as the other I saw, did ascend the hill, to come up to the gate, only he came alone; neither did any man meet him with the least encouragement. When he was come up to the gate, he looked up to the writing that was above, and then began to knock, supposing that entrance should have been quickly administered to him; but he was asked by the men that looked over the top of the gate, Whence came you, and what would you have? He answered, I have eat and drank in the presence of the King, and he has taught in our streets. Then they asked him for his certificate, that they might go in and show it to the King; so he fumbled in his bosom for one, and found none. Then said they, Have you none? But the man answered never a word. So they told the King, but he would not come down to see him, but commanded the two Shining Ones that conducted Christian and Hopeful to the City, to go out and take Ignorance, and bind him hand and foot, and have him away. Then they took him up, and carried him through the air to the door that I saw in the side of the hill, and put him in there. Then I saw that there was a way to hell, even from the gates of heaven, as well as from the City of Destruction.
As Bunyan nears the end of his story, he turns from one of the most glorious scenes in the book (the final entrance of Christian and Hopeful into the Celestial City) to one of the most fearful. He turns to look back and he sees Ignorance preparing to cross the River.
Christian and Hopeful first met Ignorance when they were coming down from the Delectable Mountains. Ignorance professed himself to be a pilgrim and informed them that he was “going to the Celestial City.” He was from the nearby country of Conceit, a country that prided itself on its nearness to the Lord’s mountains. But Ignorance did not enter the Way via the Wicket Gate (this gate represents Christ as the only way of salvation). The Wicket Gate was too far away. Rather, he followed the tradition of his countrymen and entered by a little crooked lane that came into the Way (this lane represents religion that offers salvation by works). Nor did Ignorance have a certificate (evidence of faith in Christ sealed by the work of the Spirit) to present upon arrival at the Celestial City. He was trusting in his own understanding of God’s will and presuming upon religion and good works to save him. Christian rightly surmised that Ignorance would “find some difficulty” getting in at the Gate to the Celestial City. He was, as his name implied, ignorant of the true gospel of grace. But when Christian attempted to warn him, Ignorance took offense. Ignorance sincerely believed himself to be a good person, so of course he was going to heaven.
Later in the story, Christian and Hopeful encountered him again and had a longer conversation to draw out his thinking. Ignorance further confirmed that his hope was resting not in Christ alone, but in his own “good motions.” Though he professed to be a pilgrim in the Way, he was not walking in the way of truth according to God’s Word. He was walking in the comfort of his own truth according to his heart.
Now as Ignorance comes to the River (approaches death), he is still self-assured. Unlike Christian, who struggled with doubts and fears and nearly sank, Ignorance is confident. He has no doubt in his mind that he will be let in at the gate. His passage across the river is easy. He rides over the waters with ease in a boat steered by Vain-hope.
For I was envious of the boastful,
When I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
For there are no pangs in their death,
But their strength is firm.
When Ignorance arrives at the Gate, there is no one there to greet him. He knocks, still assuming that he will quickly gain entrance. When he is challenged at the Gate, Ignorance responds by saying: “I have eat and drank in the presence of the King, and he has taught in our streets.” His words echo the response of those seeking to enter through the Narrow Gate:
And He [Jesus] said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I say to you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the Master of the house has risen up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, Lord, open for us,’ and He will answer and say to you, ‘I do not know you, where you are from,’ then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in Your presence, and You taught in our streets’” (Luke 13:24–26).
When he is asked for his certificate, he is speechless, like the man in Jesus’ parable of the Wedding Feast who arrived without a wedding garment:
But when the king came in to see the guests, he saw a man there who did not have on a wedding garment. So he said to him, “Friend, how did you come in here without a wedding garment?” And he was speechless (Matthew 22:11–12).
Ignorance assumed that his devotion to religion was the same as nearness to God. He had lived well. He had been faithful to the church. He had been catechized and confirmed. He had taken holy communion, eaten the bread and drank of the cup in the presence of the Lord. Yet his eating and drinking proved to be in an unworthy manner (1 Corinthians 11:27). Worthy recipients are “only those who repent of their sins, believe in Christ for salvation and love their fellow men” (A Catechism for Boys and Girls). Ignorance had ventured from Conceit only to trust in himself.
When the King was informed that Ignorance was at the Gate, the King “would not come down to see him.” The King did not know him and so turned him away.
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’” (Matthew 7:21–23).
The same Shining Ones who welcomed Christian and Hopeful to the City are commanded to bind Ignorance and cast him out. This is the fearful end of those in Luke 13 who fail to enter through the narrow gate:
But He will say, ‘I tell you I do not know you, where you are from. Depart from Me, all you workers of iniquity.’ There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and yourselves thrust out (Luke 13:27–28).
The man who arrived without a wedding garment in the parable of the Wedding Feast faced a similar outcome:
Then the king said to the servants, “Bind him hand and foot, take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 22:13).
Ignorance is carried away to the By-Way to Hell and Bunyan concludes: “Then I saw that there was a way to hell, even from the gates of heaven, as well as from the City of Destruction.”
It is an eternal tragedy for someone to believe he or she is at the doorstep of heaven, and yet be at the brink of hell. Bunyan wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress with the heart of a pastor. He longs to see everyone in his flock, and everyone who reads his book, arrive safely and be welcomed at the journey’s end. He doesn’t want us to assume all is well and miss Christ! And so, he ends with a sober warning.
Take heed to the end of Ignorance. Do not presume that your good works or devotion to Christ will save you. Do not presume that the sacraments of the church or your sincere intentions to do what is right will save you. Do not presume that your familiarity with religion or faithful service will save you. Christ and Christ alone can save! Turn to Him, trust Him, abide in Him.
“I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned” (John 15:6).
Only in Christ will you be welcomed and not cast out. We have His promise!
All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out (John 6:37).
So come! Wait no longer! Come to Christ and live!
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life (John 3:16).
Lord, we pray for ev’ry Pilgrim,
Final entrance we’ll not miss;
For beside the Gates to Heaven
Lies a way to the Abyss.
Father, fit us for Your kingdom,
From the greatest to the least,
Clothe us in Your righteous garments
For the coming wedding feast.
(from “A Prayer for Pilgrims” by Ken Puls)
A Guide to John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress
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The text for The Pilgrim’s Progress and images used are public domain
Notes and Commentary ©2019 Ken Puls
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the New King James Version (NKJV) ©1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.