Till we reach the golden strand

Now I saw in my dream, that these two men went in at the gate; and lo, as they entered, they were transfigured; and they had raiment put on that shone like gold. There were also [those] that met them with harps and crowns, and gave them to them; the harps to praise withal, and the crowns in token of honor. Then I heard in my dream, that all the bells in the city rang again for joy, and that it was said unto them, “Enter ye into the joy of your Lord.” —John Bunyan 

John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), perhaps the most popular book next to the Bible for generations of evangelical Protestants, told of the Christian life as a pilgrimage “from this world to that which is to come.” Such an idea of pilgrimage had dominated the medieval worldview, where the distinction between this world and the life to come was expressed by the terms in via (on the way) and in patria (in the homeland). The metaphor was powerful both because medieval Christians spent a lot of time traveling on foot and because one important form of travel was a literal pilgrimage to a holy place. Jerusalem was the ultimate goal of pilgrimage and an earthly image of heaven. In fact even the Crusades were seen originally as an “armed pilgrimage” to Jerusalem. 

Bunyan’s allegory, though, became the definitive form such imagery took in the evangelical mind—accessible in no small part due to his creative simplicity of language. The pilgrims in his tale are named with their most identifiable traits: Christian, Ignorance, Hopeful, Giant Despair, Mr. Worldly Wiseman. Pilgrim’s Progress is not significant for detailed descriptions of heaven (they don’t occur), but for the way the entire story is suffused with the hope of heaven. The “Celestial City” is spoken of over and over on the difficult journey, but not seen until the end, when “shining ones” escort the pilgrims over the river and into paradise. After the joy in heaven that welcomes the pilgrims’ arrival, part 1 of the book ends with hapless traveler Ignorance coming to the gate of the city lacking a “certificate” and being hauled off to a door in the hill leading to hell. Part 2, describing the pilgrimage of Christian’s family, says even less about what happened after they “crossed the river.” Rather, the focus lies on their reactions to the crossing.

But this description of death as a voyage across a river and the moving portrayal of the pilgrims’ experiences in crossing shaped the ways evangelicals sang, prayed, and talked for centuries. While the idea of crossing the Jordan went back much further, Bunyan’s vivid word pictures crept into common speech and into hymns such as “On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand” and Fanny Crosby’s “In the Cross,” with the refrain “Till I reach the golden strand / just beyond the river.” 

Abundance of all they sought

But a more peculiar influence of Bunyan’s work is the “land of Beulah” which the pilgrims encounter just before crossing the river (the word beulah means “married” and refers to Isaiah 62:4, God’s blessing of a formerly barren place). In Bunyan’s writing this land represents a state of spiritual maturity at the end of the difficult Christian pilgrimage: 

Yea, here they heard continually the singing of birds, and saw every day the flowers appear in the earth, and heard the voice of the turtle in the land. In this country the sun shineth night and day: wherefore this was beyond the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and also out of the reach of Giant Despair; neither could they from this place so much as see Doubting Castle. 

Here they were within sight of the city they were going to… [and] in this land the shining ones commonly walked, because it was upon the borders of heaven… . Here they had no want of corn and wine; for in this place they met with abundance of what they had sought for in all their pilgrimage.

This picture became particularly popular in the Wesleyan-Holiness movement. Though Bunyan would not have agreed with the theology of entire sanctification—a state of spiritual peace, love for God and neighbor, and victory over sin and fear—that holiness people thought possible for all believers, he had unknowingly provided them with a perfect metaphor for it. The popular revival hymn “Beulah Land,” written by Edgar Stites in 1876, derives its imagery from Isaiah by way of Bunyan:


 I’ve reached the land of corn and wine,
 And all its riches freely mine;
 Here shines undimmed one blissful day,
 For all my night has passed away.
 My Savior comes and walks with me,
 And sweet communion here have we;
 He gently leads me by His hand,
 For this is Heaven’s border land.
 A sweet perfume upon the breeze,
 Is borne from ever vernal trees,
 And flow’rs, that never fading grow
 Where streams of life forever flow.
O Beulah Land, sweet Beulah Land,
As on thy highest mount I stand,
I look away across the sea,
Where mansions are prepared for me,
And view the shining glory shore,
My Heav’n, my home forever more! 

Bunyan’s picture of heavenly realities is so powerful because his sense of the anguish and doubt of earthly life was so strong. Even after the peace of Beulah Land, the pilgrims have one last test as they cross the river to the Celestial City. There Christian fears he will drown in the river: “And with that a great darkness and horror fell upon Christian, so that he could not see before him. Also here he in a great measure lost his senses, so that he could neither remember nor orderly talk of any of those sweet refreshments that he had met with in the way of his pilgrimage. But all the words that he spoke still tended to discover that he had horror of mind, and heart-fears that he should die in that river, and never obtain entrance in at the gate.” His companion, Hopeful, holds up Christian’s head and comforts him with the assurance: “Be of good cheer, my brother: I feel the bottom, and it is good.”

Bunyan’s portrait of earthly struggle and heavenly hope has similarly cheered thousands of Christians in their own moments of doubt and despair. We have no direct knowledge of heaven in this life, but we have those, like Bunyan, who hold up our heads in the river and tell us that their feet touch bottom. 

By Edwin Woodruff Tait

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #112 in 2014]

Edwin Woodruff Tait is a contributing editor at Christian History.
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Issue 112

Christian History Magazine #112 - Heaven

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