One of the most poignant stories in The Pilgrim’s Progress is when Christian and his companion Hopeful are captured and imprisoned by a giant named Despair. There is a dark dungeon deep inside Doubting Castle where the two pilgrims suffer terribly from the giant’s torments. Behind these thick walls and iron gates, Christian’s thoughts descend at times even to contemplating suicide. The man who had already walked so far to the Celestial City and who had bravely fought Apollyon—this Christian is now in the narrow cell of hopelessness listening to such dark whispers.
Much in Bunyan’s masterful allegory is both biblical as well as autobiographical. As he wrote about Christian’s prison experience, Bunyan himself was in prison, where he was held for some twelve years on account of his gospel ministry—and where he doubtless experienced deep pain and despair. He wrote in his autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, “I found myself a man encompassed with infirmities; the parting with my Wife and poor Children hath often been to me in this place as the pulling of the flesh from the bones.”
In the pilgrims’ prison story, Christian and Hopeful are captured on Wednesday and held by Giant Despair until early Sunday morning. Here Bunyan gives the reader a clue to what comes next. Sunday morning, just as day is breaking, Christian realizes he has the key called Promise on a chain around his neck. In his despair and pain, he forgot all about it. The turn of this key opens every door and gate, and the pilgrims quickly make their escape from Doubting Castle and back to the King’s Highway.
What promise held such power that it was the key to Christian’s dramatic deliverance from the clutches of Despair? The Apostle Paul’s experience helps us here. In 2 Corinthians 1:8, Paul wrote: “For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.” We don’t know what terrible trial the intrepid missionary had endured, but it was so severe that the man who had experienced beatings, prison, stoning, and shipwreck said that because of this affliction he “despaired of life itself.” Yet a little further on in his letter, Paul wrote, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair” (4:8). Somewhere between 1:8 and 4:8 (despairing and not despairing), Paul had discovered the key of promise. It is the promise that is rooted in the resurrection. Ultimate deliverance, despair-defeating hope, and death-defying joy are all bound up in the reality of the resurrection—Christ’s and ours in Him. In Christ, our lives are forever bound up in His unending life. Paul, who had made his own escape from Giant Despair, wrote that because of “the God who raises the dead . . . we do not lose heart” (1:9; 4:16).