Still talking of the perils they have just passed through safely, thanks to God, Christian and Hopeful come to the Delectable Mountains, which Christian had seen in the distance from the roof of Palace Beautiful. The mountains are indeed delectable, with gardens and orchards, vineyards and fountains of water. They drink and wash in the waters, "freely eat of the vineyards," and feel much refreshed. Climbing upward, they come upon four shepherds — Knowledge, Experience, Watchful, and Sincere — who welcome them and invite them to their tents for supper and to spend the night. "These mountains are Immanuel's Land," the shepherds explain, "and they are within sight of his city; and the sheep also are his, and he laid down his life for them."
Next morning, the shepherds escort their guests around the mountains to show them some of the wonders of the place, taking them first to the top of a hill called Error. On the far side of the hill is a high cliff. Peering over, Christian and Hopeful see at the bottom of it some men dashed all to pieces. These men, so they are told, were some of those who, like the Quakers, err in having no faith in the resurrection of the body. The bodies of those at the foot of the cliff would remain forever unburied as an "example to others to take heed how they clamber too high, or how they come too near the brink of this mountain."
Having been taken to the top of another mountain, named Caution the Pilgrims are led into a hollow where there is a door in the side of a hill. When the door is opened, they are invited to look in, which they do and are terrified. Inside, it is very dark and smoky, smelling of brimstone. They can hear the noise of fire and a cry of some tormented. "This is a by-way to Hell," Christian is told when he inquires, "a way that hypocrites go in at; namely, such as sell their birthright, with Esan; such as sell their Master, with Judas . . ."
The Pilgrims are next taken to the top of a very high hill, named Clear, where the shepherds hand them a perspective glass (telescope) and tell them that if they have skill in using it, they will be able to see the gates of the Celestial City. Christian and Hopeful have a look but as their hands are shaking, they cannot see clearly, though they think they see "something like the gate, and also some of the glory of the place." As the Pilgrims prepare to depart, the shepherds give them written instructions on how to go on the way ahead, and what to avoid. Let them beware of the Flatterer, and be sure not to sleep on the Enchanted Ground.
Beyond the mountains, the Holy Way is joined by a little crooked lane which comes down from the country of Conceit Just as the Pilgrims reach this point, there comes swinging down the lane "a very brisk lad" to whom Bunyan gives the name Ignorance. He, too, is bound for the Celestial City. Why had he not come in at the Wicket Gate? Christian wants to know. And what reason had he to believe that if he ever got to the Celestial Gate, it would be opened for him? Because he has always led a good life and knows God's will, Ignorance replies: "I pray, fast, pay tithes, and give alms." When Christian and Hopeful argue that this is not enough, Ignorance tells them to mind their own business: "be content to follow the religion of your country, and I will follow the religion of mine. I hope all will be well."
Finding him a man "wise in his own conceit" and not worth talking to, Christian and Hopeful push ahead and soon enter a very dark lane, where they see a man who has been bound with seven strong cords by seven devils; they are carrying him back to throw him through the door to Hell in the Delectable Mountains. Christian recognizes the man as one Turn-away, "a wanton professor and damnable apostate," and is reminded of a story he once heard about one Little-faith, from the town of Sincere.
While Christian is relating to Hopeful the story he had heard about Little-faith and his tribulations, they come to a fork in the path. One fork seems to lead as straight as the other in the direction they want to go. As they stand wondering which path to take, they are approached by a man "black of flesh, but covered with a very light robe." He is bound for the Celestial City himself, the man says, and as he knows the right way, they should follow him, which they do. He leads them in a circular course and finally into a great net in which they become helplessly entangled; "and with that, the white robe fell off the black man's back," and the Pilgrims recognize that they have been seduced by Flatterer, "a false apostle that hath transformed himself into an angel of light." After a time, a Shining One appears, tears the net open, frees the prisoners, and then begins to question them:
Had not the shepherds on the Delectable Mountains given them "a note of direction for the way?"
"Did you, when you were at a stand, pluck out and read your note?"
"Did not the shepherds bid you beware of the Flatterer?"
"Yes. But we did not imagine that this fine-spoken man had been he."
The Shining One orders Christian and Hopeful to lie down and with the small-cord whip he is carrying, lays it on them and chastens "them sore, to teach them the good way wherein they should walk." Thanking him "for all his kindness," promising to reform, the Pilgrims are up again and on their way till they see someone coming toward them, "with his back toward Zion." They stop to talk with this man, who turns out to be Atheist. When he learns of their hopes and plans, he starts laughing, saying that they will have only their pains for their travel.
"Do you think we shall not be received?" asks Christian.
"Received! There is no such place as you dream of in all this world."
"But there is in the world to come."
Atheist replies that he had once heard this and believed it, and had set out to discover if it were true. He had spent twenty years searching for the Celestial City and had not found it anywhere. It was a mirage. Laughing again at their dreams, Atheist continues on his way toward home, leaving the Pilgrims deeply shocked. "What! no Mount Zion!" exclaims Hopeful. But had they not seen the gate of the city from the Delectable Mountains? Were they not now to walk by Faith (2 Cor. 5:7)? And they had better be getting along, Hopeful adds, "lest the man with the whip overtakes us again."
Going on, they come to a place where Hopeful, becoming very drowsy, wants to lie down and take a nap. By no means, says Christian. This is the Enchanted Ground the shepherds had warned them about. Those who fall asleep here never wake up. "Let us watch and be sober" (1 Thes. 5:6) and "to prevent drowsiness, let us fall into good discourse." (Their "good discourse" goes on and on, being a sermon in the form of a duet, with Christian sounding one note and Hopeful chiming in to sound another. As none of this advances the story of the pilgrimage one bit, the long passage is omitted in most modern editions of the book.)
The "good discourse" is interrupted when Hopeful happens to look back and sees Ignorance coming up behind them. They stop to wait for him:
"How stands it between God and your soul now?" Christian greets him.
"I hope well, for I am always full of good motions that come into my mind to comfort me as I walk."
"What good motions?"
Well, says Ignorance, he keeps thinking of God and Heaven. When Christian remarks, "So do the devils and damned souls," Ignorance objects that his case is quite different, for he not only thinks of God and Heaven constantly, but desires them and has left all for them. Saying he Idoubts this, Christian asks what reason he has to suppose that he has given up everything in his desire to go to Heaven. Because his heart tells him so, answers Ignorance, to which Christian tartly replies: "He that trusts his own heart is a fool. . . Except the Word of God beareth witness in this matter, other testimony is of no value."
As Christian and Hopeful go on catechizing Ignorance as if he were a small boy, the latter understandably becomes somewhat annoyed and declares that their notions about the correct meaning of the Word are "but the fruit of distracted brains," as shown by their belief in revelations. This provokes Hopeful to exclaim: "Why man! Christ is so hid in God from the natural apprehensions of all flesh that he cannot by any man be savingly known unless God the Father reveals him to them."
"That is your Faith, but not mine," says Ignorance. "Yet mine, I doubt not, is as good as yours, though I have not in my head so many whimsies as you." Giving up on Ignorance, who drops behind again, Christian and Hopeful resume their "good discourse."
After the rigors endured by the Pilgrims on their ill-advised excursion into By-path Meadow and the tortures they suffered in the Doubting Castle dungeon, the Delectable Mountains present a quiet pastoral scene, with the shepherds — Knowledge, Experience, Watchful, and Sincere — lovingly watching over the sheep and lambs of the Lord. In telling his story, Bunyan generally follows the pattern of presenting scenes of peace, harmony, and spiritual comfort after incidents involving danger, conflict, and physical violence: after the Slough of Despond, Interpreter's House; after Difficulty Hill, Palace Beautiful; after the horrors of Vanity Fair, the Delectable Mountains.
But even on the Delectable Mountains there are admonitory signs of danger of which Christian and Hopeful are made aware by being shown them: Error Hill with its high cliff over which many Pilgrims have tumbled to their deaths after being led there by erroneous doctrines; Caution Hill, from which the two Pilgrims see blind men stumbling over tombs; the door to Hell in a hillside, a sight that terrifies the Pilgrims and leaves them with their hands shaking so violently that they cannot properly handle the "perspective glass" through which they were to get a glimpse of the Celestial Gate, though "they thought they saw something like a Gate." Hell is never long out of Bunyan's thoughts; as will be seen, he even places a door to Hell right next to the Celestial City.
The character of Ignorance, the "very brisk lad" from the coilutry of Conceit, is an interesting one. Though Bunyan disapproves of him and finally assigns him to Hell, Ignorance is presented rather sympathetically. He is obviously a lad of good intentions; he wants to go to Heaven and is determined to get there. His only fault is that he is deficient in theology, that he does not share what he calls the whimsical notions of Christian and Hopeful about revelations and other recondite matters. To judge from their long conversations with him, Christian and Hopeful think that Ignorance is not beyond redemption. But as he refuses to see the "Light," he is given up as damned. Ignorance bothers Bunyan quite a lot, for he devotes the last paragraph of his book to him.
Christian and Hopeful then meet Flatterer. Why he is so named is a mystery. He uses no flattery at all when he says simply, "follow me," and leads them in a circle and into a net from which they have to be rescued, providentially, by a Shining One. The latter beats them roundly with a whip for forgetting to read the instructions given them by the shepherds to warn them against Flatterer and others eager to lead them astray. Depicted as a black man in a white robe, Flatterer is Satan in one of his disguises.
Christian and Hopeful next meet Atheist coming down the path on his way home after a long pilgrimage. Bunyan's picture of Atheist is rather surprising. One would expect him to be presented as a dour and belligerent man, opinionated and argumentative, altogether an unpleasant character. Nothing of the kind; he turns out to be a rather jolly fellow, and very matter of fact When he learns of the Pilgrims' hoped for
destination, he breaks out in a loud laugh."I laugh to see what ignorant persons you are, to take upon you so tedious a journey" — and all for nothing. There is no such place as the Celestial City on Mount Zion. He had once believed there was, he says, and had set out to find it. For twenty years he had been journeying here, there, and everywhere, and could not find it, nor any trace of it, nor any clue as to where it might be. It was all a dream. So now, Atheist adds, "I am going back again and will refresh myself with the things that I then cast away for hopes of that which I see is not." The Pilgrims are greatly shaken up by this, not only by what Atheist has said, but by its cool matter-of-factness.
"What! no Mount Zion!" exclaims Hopeful, turning toward Christian. But there must be, he argues. It says so in the Book. They should continue as they have been doing, "walking by Faith." As they hurry off, Atheist goes his way, "laughing at them."
It may or may not be symbolic, but Atheist is the only one in the story who laughs and seems to be content. The other characters are so serious and solemn, and so constantly apprehensive. To hazard a speculation here, it would seem from the characterization of Atheist and the whole tone of the passage that Bunyan had more respect and even affection for the downright non-believer than for those who use professions of Faith to cloak their pursuit of very earthly aims and ambitions.