Bite-Size Bunyan (3): A Few Sighs from Hell

The purpose of this series (#1, #2), “Bite-Size Bunyan,” is to share John Bunyan’s writings in summary form. Most Christians know such works as The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678, 1684), The Holy War (1682), and Grace Abounding (1666), but what about the foundational Doctrine of the Law and Grace Unfolded (1659) or the antithesis to The Pilgrim’s Progress called The Life and Death of Mr. Badman (1680)? My hope (in different installations and not all at once!) is to make these publications more accessible.

Our third “bite” concerns Bunyan’s work, A Few Sighs from Hell: Or, The Groans of the Damned Soul (1658), on the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31) and possibly based on an earlier series of sermons. Bunyan here not only warns us of the dangers of hell but also points us to glories of heaven through the free grace of God in Christ Jesus. He, to save sinners, was reckoned as “the greatest sinner and rebel in the world” on behalf of sinners. The Bible is “full of consolation” to any “poor soul” who will “close in with Jesus Christ” and “be conducted safe to glory” according to the sure promises of God.

Bunyan relates his views on parables, which while not “realities,” point to “wonderful realities.” Likewise, in this fictional account of a rich man and a beggar, there exists a mix of symbolic and realistic elements regarding this life and the one to come. So, realities such as death, burial, heaven, and hell are directly communicated in the midst of the story. So, Bunyan finds biblical truth related in both a symbolic and didactic manner. Such thinking paved the way for his allegories to come.

Likewise, we learn of Bunyan’s doctrine of hell as that intermediate state entered by the soul at death by those who reject Christ. Sinners truly suffers this state prior to the Second Coming and last resurrection (when soul and body are reunited) leading to final condemnation. Hell, according to Bunyan, is real, tangible, eternal, and irreversible.

We also find Bunyan expressing his views on the Scriptures, which he once saw as a “dead letter, a little ink and paper” but now regarded as the inspired “truths of God” according to 2 Timothy 3:16. This is especially highlighted by Bunyan in relation to Jesus’ emphasis in the parable on the necessity for “Moses and the prophets” over against miraculous signs when it comes to salvation.

While discussing the rich man and miserable beggar, we encounter a class-conscious Bunyan defending the poor without advocating social activism. The rich, claims Bunyan, “are most ready to be puffed up with pride, stoutness, cares of this world, in which things they spend most of their time in lusts, drunkenness, wantonness, idleness, together with the other works of the flesh.” Such exposure of economic inequity around the time of Oliver Crowell’s death and just before the Restoration may have contributed to Bunyan’s arrest in 1660 by the very well-to-do criticized here. While the parable, in the end, is not about money but about heart attachments, Christians today must beware of the dangers of wealth and how easily we can succumb to the comforts and pleasures this world offers.

In the end, all men, rich or poor, must seek their good things in the life to come, lest they miss heaven for the “little pleasure and profit” of this “dunghill-world.” Thus, to be rich is not necessarily to be ungodly or to be poor is to be godly/redeemed. So, the rich man symbolizes all the ungodly and the beggar Lazarus shows us the “poor contemptible” saints of God who “beg earnestly for heavenly food” with their sores possibly denoting “the many troubles, temptations, persecutions, and afflictions” they experience. While Bunyan may have strayed into spiritualizing here, he rightly emphasizes the fact that Christians must seek their good things in the life to come. 

In a manner like Jonathan Edwards’s later sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (1741), Bunyan in this book warns people of hell in a vivid and urgent fashion as he depicts it as an ever-present reality hanging over the heads of sinners. Both writers appeal to Psalm 73 where we read that the wicked are “in a moment . . .utterly consumed with terrors.” So, Bunyan asks, is it “not better to leave sin, and to close in with Christ Jesus, . . . , than to live a little while in this world in pleasures and feeding thy lusts, in neglecting the welfare of thy soul, and refusing to be justified by Jesus; and in a moment to drop down to hell and to cry?”

This plea reminds me of Bunyan’s Grace Abounding (1666) testimony of a heavenly voice related to his “soul”: “Wilt thou leave thy sins and go to heaven, or have thy sins and go to hell?” This sobering question aptly serves as a summary for the entire book and a fitting one to leave with you: “Well?”

Bob McKelvey