The Celestial Railroad

John Bunyan pictured the struggle of the Christian life beautifully in his allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress. When Christian set out on his journey, he encountered two people, Obstinate and Pliable, who sought to turn him back. Christian fell into the Slough of Despond. All along the way, there were many who sought to turn him from his way, among whom are Mr. Wordly Wiseman, Formalist and Hypocrisy, Talkative, Mr. By-ends, Mr. Money-love, Mr. Save-all, Demas, Ignorance, and Atheist.

Christian battled Apollyon with sword and shield. Christian traveled through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Christian faced the temptations of the city, Vanity Fair, where his companion, Faithful, was put to death, after a trial filled with many slanderous and false accusations. Christian had to walk by the dangerous hill called Lucre, which had a Silver-Mine, which ensnared Demas. Christian dodged the pit into which Vain-Confidence fell. Christian faced the mean, Giant Despair. In the end, Christian had to pass through the river of death, before finally reaching his journey, the Celestial City.

When John Bunyan put pen and ink together to describe the Christian life, this is how he described it. But somewhere in our American Christianity, we have developed this notion that salvation is an easy thing, which will lead to an easy life, which is filled with nothing but blessing. I have heard many describe the Christian life as a very easy thing.

Last century, Nathaniel Hawthorne followed up Bunyan’s classic with an allegory of his own, entitled, “The Celestial Railroad.”  In this short story, Hawthorne describes how he recently happened to travel to the City of Destruction. No longer to pilgrims need to walk arduously between the City of Destruction and the Celestial City, like in Bunyan’s day. Rather, there is now a railroad, which people can get on and travel to the same place that Bunyan’s pilgrims followed at high speed, with great ease and safety. On this train-ride, Hawthorne meets such fellow travelers as, Mr. Smooth-it-away, Mr. Live-for-the-world, Mr. Hide-sin-in-the-heart, Mr. Scaly-conscience, Mr. Take-it-easy, and Mr. Flimsy-faith. He meets the ministers, Rev. Mr. Shallow-deep, Rev. Mr. Stumble-at-Truth, Rev. Mr. Clog-the-spirit, and Rev. Dr. Wind-of-doctrine. He found out that the Rev. Mr. This-to-day was expected to resign his pulpit and the Rev. Mr. That-to-morrow was going to take it over.

On this train-ride, he saw many of the same places that Christian had visited hundreds of years earlier, The Slough of Despond, The Valley of the Shadow of Death, and Vanity Fair, as the railcar whizzed past them all. He saw these sights from a distance without ever going through them. The idea of the story is to show that we in our day and age, don’t need to go through such difficult things as the Christians of olden days. Things are easier now, and there are other ways to the Celestial City, other than walking the path as Christian did.

Mr. Great-heart, from Bunyan’s story, who was offered a prestigious job as a conductor on the train, turned it down, insisting that pilgrims travel the road on foot, considering it “a sin to travel in any other fashion.” Hawthorne tells of how those on the railroad ridiculed those few pilgrims that chose to take the hard journey on the narrow road to the Celestial City. “The passengers being all comfortably seated, … accomplishing a greater distance in ten minutes than Christian probably trudged over in a day. It was laughable while we glanced along, … to observe two dusty foot-travelers, in the old pilgrim-guise, with cockle-shell and staff, their mystic rolls of parchment in their hands, and their intolerable burdens on their backs.” Instead of a few pilgrims on the way (Christian and Faithful and Hopeful and Goodwill), there were now scores of people willing to take the easy road to the Celestial City in the luxury of a railroad car. As Hawthorne says, “Instead of a lonely and ragged man, with a huge burden on his back, plodding along sorrowfully on foot, while the whole city hooted after him, here were parties of the first gentry and most respectable people in the neighborhood, setting forth towards the Celestial City, as cheerfully as if the pilgrimage were merely a summer tour … [with their] enormous burdens … snugly deposited in the baggage-car” — out of sight, out of mind.

What a difference between the two perspectives! They describe the differences very well. The character of Christianity in America has changed in our day, away from the Biblical perspective. Today, Christianity is often seen today to be a nice, pleasant ride on a railroad car as the countryside passes by, rather than a strenuous, dusty walk along a narrow trail. Gone today is the talk of tribulation and distress and hardships. Here today is the talk of blessings and benefits and ease. Yet, Jesus said, “The gate is small, and the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it” (Matthew 7:14).

Let us walk the path and not take the train.

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