Now, after a while, they perceived, afar off, one coming softly and alone, all along the highway to meet them. Then said Christian to his fellow, Yonder is a man with his back towards Zion, and he is coming to meet us.
Hopeful: I see him; let us take heed to ourselves now, lest he should prove a flatterer also. So he drew nearer and nearer, and at last came up unto them. His name was Atheist, and he asked them whither they were going.
Christian: We are going to Mount Zion.
Then Atheist fell into a very great laughter.
Christian: What is the meaning of your laughter?
Atheist: I laugh to see what ignorant persons you are, to take upon you so tedious a journey, and you are like to have nothing but your travel for your pains.
Christian: Why, man, do you think we shall not be received?
Atheist: Received! There is no such place as you dream of in all this world.
Christian: But there is in the world to come.
Atheist: When I was at home in mine own country, I heard as you now affirm, and from that hearing went out to see, and have been seeking this city this twenty years; but find no more of it than I did the first day I set out.
Christian: We have both heard and believe that there is such a place to be found.
Atheist: Had not I, when at home, believed, I had not come thus far to seek; but finding none, (and yet I should, had there been such a place to be found, for I have gone to seek it further than you), I am going back again, and will seek to refresh myself with the things that I then cast away, for hopes of that which, I now see, is not.
Christian: Then said Christian to Hopeful his fellow, Is it true what this man has said?
Hopeful: Take heed, he is one of the flatterers; remember what it hath cost us once already for our hearkening to such kind of fellows. What! No Mount Zion? Did we not see, from the Delectable Mountains the gate of the city? Also, are we not now to walk by faith? Let us go on, said Hopeful, lest the man with the whip overtake us again. You should have taught me that lesson, which I will round you in the ears withal: “Cease, my son, to hear the instruction that causeth to err from the words of knowledge.” I say, my brother, cease to hear him, and let us “believe to the saving of the soul.”
Christian: My brother, I did not put the question to you for that I doubted of the truth of our belief myself, but to prove you, and to fetch from you a fruit of the honesty of your heart. As for this man, I know that he is blinded by the god of this world. Let you and I go on, knowing that we have belief of the truth, “and no lie is of the truth.”
Hopeful: Now do I rejoice in hope of the glory of God. So they turned away from the man; and he, laughing at them, went his way.
Once again Christian and Hopeful are traveling toward the Celestial City. They have been freed from the net of the Flatterer and brought back to the Way. Now they see afar off one coming toward them—one “with his back toward Zion.” Though the traveler does not appear threatening—he is walking “softly and alone”—Hopeful is suspicious.
The traveler’s name is Atheist. He is one who refuses to believe in God and rejects the truth of the Bible. He is walking in the opposite direction, away from Zion and the Celestial City and toward Vanity and Destruction. He no longer seeks eternal life. He no longer fears eternal judgment. In fact, he no longer believes in the reality of heaven and hell. When Christian tells him that they are going to Mount Zion, he responds with “very great laughter.” He considers Christian and Hopeful to be ignorant, beneath his superior knowledge of the world. Christian, still feeling the shame of his error in following the Flatterer, at first interprets Atheist’s laughter to mean: How could someone as sinful as you be received at Mount Zion! But Atheist taunts: “There is no such place as you dream of in all this world.”
This claim is not the confession of an agnostic who doubts that God is knowable, nor the testimony of a skeptic who doubts that the claims of the Bible can be true. These are the words of an Atheist who adamantly denies the existence of God and has contrived ways of understanding the world without thinking of God.
The claims of Atheist are foolish and unfounded.
The fool has said in his heart,
“There is no God.”
He has come to the false conclusion that since he cannot understand the existence of God in light of what he sees in the world around him, God must not exist. It is the height of arrogance for a frail and finite creature such as man to conclude after only 20 years of seeking, “there is no such place as you dream of in all this world.” Eternal reward will always remain hidden to those who persist in such short-sighted folly.
The labor of fools wearies them,
For they do not even know how to go to the city!
but he shall die in the place where they have led him captive, and shall see this land no more (Jeremiah 22:12).
Atheist claims that he was once an earnest pilgrim. His life, however, demonstrates that he is not a true disciple. He left his country out of curiosity and intrigue, not to find relief from a burden of sin or to escape the wrath to come. He sought for evidence of God’s existence and for the hope of eternal life, but finding none, he is now resolved to give up and go back to his country. A true disciple perseveres and does not dare go back. Christian declared when he was urged to turn back near the top of Hill Difficulty:
If I go back to mine own country, that is prepared for fire and brimstone, and I shall certainly perish there. If I can get to the Celestial City, I am sure to be in safety there. I must venture. To go back is nothing but death; to go forward is fear of death, and life-everlasting beyond it. I will yet go forward.
Atheist has become a scoffer. He has renounced the gospel. He regards the journey as tedious and pointless. Though he at one time professed the gospel, his heart was never softened by the gospel. He was never saved by the gospel and now he is gospel-hardened. Thomas Scott explains:
Some false professors gradually renounce “the truth” as it is in Jesus; but others openly set themselves against all kinds of religion, and turn scoffers and infidels. Indeed none are more likely to become avowed atheists, than such as have for many years hypocritically professed the gospel: for they often acquire an acquaintance with the several parts of religion, their connexion with each other, and the arguments with which they are supported; so that they know not where to begin, if they would oppose any particular doctrine or precept of revelation. Yet they hate the whole system; and, having never experienced those effects from the truth which the scripture ascribes to it, they feel, that if there be any reality in religion, their own case is very dreadful, and wish to shake off this mortifying and alarming conviction.
(Thomas Scott Notes on Pilgrim’s Progress)
When Atheist insists that he is turning back because his search for the Celestial City has proved to be fruitless, Christian asks Hopeful: “Is it true what this man has said?” Hopeful does not hesitate to answer. His reply highlights three lessons that we need to remember if we are to persevere in the journey.
1) Take heed and don’t be deceived. Hopeful is now more alert, having just been freed from the Flatterer’s net. He knows the hazard of following false counsel. He wants to avoid the snare of sin and the whip of God’s discipline. God’s discipline in our lives not only rescues us in the moment from turning back to Destruction, it becomes a deterrent that restrains us from straying into sin in the future. It keeps us out of danger and in the path of blessing. We must learn to watch and continually guard our hearts.
Keep your heart with all diligence,
For out of it spring the issues of life.
Put away from you a deceitful mouth,
And put perverse lips far from you.
Let your eyes look straight ahead,
And your eyelids look right before you.
Ponder the path of your feet,
And let all your ways be established.
Do not turn to the right or the left;
Remove your foot from evil.
2) Walk by faith and not by sight. We are not to listen to what we know is not right. We must remember the truth that we have learned—lessons and glimpses of glory from the Delectable Mountains. We must not leave off faith and begin walking by sight.
For we walk by faith, not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7).
We do not seek our reward here in this life. In this life we are but pilgrims passing through. Jesus said: “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). “For here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come” (Hebrews 13:14). We must not believe the lie that this world is all there is.
3) Believe God’s Word and hope in His promises. We never get beyond needing the Word of God. Christian and Hopeful strayed from the Way, following after the Flatterer, because they neglected God’s Word. Though they carried with them instructions from the Shepherds, they failed to read and follow them. Now, faced with another temptation to abandon their journey, Hopeful says to Christian: “You should have taught me that lesson, which I will round you in the ears” [tell you sincerely]. He points Christian to God’s Word and quotes a warning from the book of Proverbs:
Cease, my son, to hear the instruction
that causeth to err from the words of knowledge.
(Proverbs 19:27, KJV)
Cease listening to instruction, my son,
And you will stray from the words of knowledge.
(Proverbs 19:27, NKJV)
And he quotes an affirmation:
But we are not of those who draw back to perdition, but of those who believe to the saving of the soul (Hebrews 10:39).
We must persevere in the light of God’s Word. We must believe “to the saving of the soul.” Christian assures Hopeful that he asked the question, not because he believed Atheist or doubted the truth, but because he desired to draw out a sincere testimony from Hopeful. Atheist is blind to the truth of the Gospel.
But even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them (2 Corinthians 4:3–4).
But Christian and Hopeful are resolved to press on, believing what they know to be true and rejecting what they know to be a lie. God has given His Word that we might know truth from error.
I have not written to you because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and that no lie is of the truth. (1 John 2:21).
They are of the world. Therefore they speak as of the world, and the world hears them. We are of God. He who knows God hears us; he who is not of God does not hear us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error (1 John 4:5–6).
Atheist faces a grave ending. He is turning back to refresh himself with things of this world that he had previously cast away. He scorns those who would forsake all the world has to offer in order to find eternal life, but he will end up empty, “having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12).
Christian and Hopeful are still intent on reaching the Celestial City. They are not dissuaded by Atheist’s laughter and scorn. Because they take heed, walk by faith, and believe God’s Word, they continue on in their journey, seeking life eternal and “rejoicing in hope of the glory of God.”
Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God (Romans 5:1–2).
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.