Decisions, decisions. The choices that Christian is faced seem clear: follow what Evangelist and the gospel tell him to do or.... don't.
But as anyone who's ever tried to follow religious teachings in real life knows, right and wrong rarely seem black and white. The choice between good and bad often, in the moment, hardly seems like a choice at all—the line can be super-fine. But The Pilgrim's Progress states that we're constantly making choices about our commitment to Christ's principles. As Evangelist says, you're never "out of the gun-shot of the devil" (P462). And the devil has a gun with a long range.
In The Pilgrim's Progress, Bunyan often uses literal excerpts from scripture when Christian has a big choice to make; this is an attempt to show that the Bible can help one make the right decisions in life.
In The Pilgrim's Progress, Bunyan uses opposing choices to dramatize moral lessons. Forks in the road and the depiction of what results from making a choice allow him to use contrasting outcomes to give the moment of decision greater weight.
Facing demons, slaying monsters, escaping giants… The Pilgrim's Progress doesn't skimp on the daring deeds. But perhaps the hardest thing Christian has to do in this story (and the thing he comes closest to failing at) is simply to keep going.
Bunyan allegorizes the importance of perseverance both in the physical fatigue that Christian faces and in his emotional discouragement. The Slough of Despair, The Valley of the Shadow of Death, and Doubting Castle are all places where his simple ability to keep going is seriously questioned. In all of these instances, Bunyan shows how the help of companions and the words of the Bible can help you keep on keepin' on.
The imagery of despair as a prison in The Pilgrim's Progress suggests that perseverance is the key not only to staying out of despair, but to finding one's way out of doubt as well.
The allegory of physical obstacles in The Pilgrim's Progress is used to convey the frequent difficulties of living a Christian life.
Vanity, Vanity. Of all the distractions that prey on characters in The Pilgrim's Progress, respect and reputation are the most consuming. Mr. Worldly-Wiseman, Pliable, Formalist and Hypocrisy, Pickthank, By-ends, and Atheist are only a few of the characters who are fatally devoted to appearances rather than truth.
Vanity Fair is the epicenter of this problem in the story. It's the place where Bunyan shows most clearly his idea that good Christians just aren't worried about their reputations all the time. All of these citizens of Vanity Fair believe not only that cash rules everything around them (C.R.E.A.T?), but so does keeping up with the Joneses.
In Vanity Fair, reputation is not only for sale among the vendors, but targeted by Bunyan as one of the most dangerous commodities.
In The Pilgrim's Progress, Bunyan creates a hard distinction between what men see and care about and what matters to God.
Eating humble pie is pretty much the prerequisite of every good choice, deed, or thought in The Pilgrim's Progress. At the top of the story, Christian is totally unable to help himself by himself. This seems to represent the idea that it's necessary to be humble if you want to be converted.
In Bunyan's mind, you've got to admit that you're lost without Christ before you can be saved. As is frequently repeated, characters can either choose to be first or be last—to be self-interested, self-willed, and powerful now, or be humble and glorified later. The choice, good pilgrims, is yours.
Not all authorities are created equal… and no man can serve two masters in The Pilgrim's Progress. Throughout the story, Bunyan's creation of two opposing powers (Christ and Satan) emphasizes the inevitability and exclusivity of allegiance.
Throughout Bunyan's allegory, images of nature, both horrible and majestic, are used to impress on Christian the extent of God's power.
Suffering comes in many flavors in The Pilgrim's Progress. There are way more than fifty shades of suffering going on here.
Not a fan of acute anxiety and dread of inescapable damnation? Consider hauling a heavy, nondescript "burden" on your back instead. Being beaten by giants not your cup of tea? Why not give The Shining One's conscience-easing whippings a try instead? It seems like to Bunyan, however, there's such a thing as good suffering and bad suffering. Bad suffering is the kind of thing Christian experiences in the City of Destruction, where he suffers because he's living the wrong way. Good suffering, on the other hand, is the kind of discomfort you have to put up with for the sake of a future good.
The pilgrim's journey symbolizes the journey of all of our lives, and it symbolically asks us to measure our suffering against the suffering of Christ.
Rather than something to be shunned or simply kept out of view (as Worldly-Wiseman advises), suffering, for Bunyan, is an experience not only to endure but to embrace.
Compassion and forgiveness may be one of the trickiest (and, ironically, least satisfying) issues in The Pilgrim's Progress. Compassion is central to the bonds Christian forms with fellow pilgrims and helpers along the way. It's the reason he can talk with and get help from the ladies of the Palace Beautiful and the shepherds of the Delectable Mountains.
What's difficult in this story are the places where compassion and forgiveness seem to be withheld. The man in the iron cage, for example, is said to be beyond Christ's forgiveness. You have to pick your compassion battles, at least according to Bunyan.
Sometimes compassion is spontaneous. At other times, though, it takes a little effort. Throughout The Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan—through his characters' frequent struggles to forgive—shows that compassion is often a specific choice.
Of all the characters in the story, Apollyon (aka Beelzebub or Satan) is by all accounts the least forgiving.
Justice (real or false) is all over the place in The Pilgrim's Progress. The looming specter of Judgment Day, the trial and execution at Vanity Fair, even the situation of our narrator, dreaming his dream in a jail—judgment is everywhere.
On a deeper level, though, you might think of what this says about the importance of consequences to Bunyan's conception of action. No one does anything in this story without a corresponding punishment or reward (or the promise of one or the other). To Bunyan, somewhere up there God is looking down and judging every single action we take.
In his allegory, where characters frequently appear and leave on one page, John Bunyan uses key external traits (and clever names) to elicit certain judgments from his readers.
Using the format of a story, a narrative (as opposed to a sermon to express his teachings), Bunyan allows readers to make their own judgments.
How is this even a "theme," you might ask. Isn't the whole book about religion—a moral lesson disguised as an adventure story? Well, yes and no.
The notion of organized religion, with hierarchies, traditions, forms of worship, etc., are ideas that Bunyan examines very closely in The Pilgrim's Progress. The Puritans stood for a return to the word of the Bible itself and rejected the "worldly" nature of institutions like the Church of England or Roman Catholicism. One thing he's trying to do in this story is to highlight how the big Christian institutions during his time have become, in his mind, not that Christian at all.
Bunyan's examples of different religions draws a clear line between "bad" religions (Judaism, Catholicism) and his own form of faith (Puritanism).
The extent of Bunyan's allegory and its incorporation of key symbols (the cross, the lamb, the shepherd, etc.), place it in an ancient Christian literary tradition.