Summary: An eloquent, powerful epic that almost perfectly sums up the reasons why I do not believe in Christianity.
Paradise Lost is the famous epic by 17th-century English poet John Milton. Published in 1667, the poem tells the story of Satan’s rebellion against God, his expulsion from Heaven along with the rest of the rebel angels, and how he tempted Adam and Eve to eat of the forbidden fruit and fall from grace (hence the title). Its sequel, Paradise Regained, tells the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness by Satan and how he resisted the Devil’s blandishments, thereby passing on humanity’s behalf the test which Adam and Eve failed.
Paradise Lost is an epic in every sense of the word: vast and ambitious in scope, powerful and moving in its language, vivid in its depictions, its plot proceeding inevitably from the first couple’s initial bliss to their ultimate tragic fall. Milton’s Satan is one of the most three-dimensional characters in anything I have ever read. As a work of fiction, it is superb.
However, as a depiction of actual events, I find it not just false, but unacceptable. Though inadvertently, Milton’s work has almost perfectly enumerated the reasons why I am not a Christian, to wit: its infinitely unjust conception of infinite punishment for finite sins; its inexplicably incompetent deity who allows his omnipotent will to be so easily thwarted; its flagrant and revolting sexism in repeatedly styling women the inferior of men in every respect; its anti-humanistic outlook that values blind faith and obedience and denigrates knowledge and understanding; and the many logical contradictions inherent in the Christian system. I can appreciate its artistic merit, but I wholeheartedly reject its theology.
The poem begins with its author John Milton calling for the aid of the Holy Spirit (the “Heavenly Muse”) to assist his writing in order that he may “assert Eternal Providence / And justify the ways of God to men”. His subject matter explained, he then proceeds to begin his story.
In the classical style, Paradise Lost begins in medias res – that is, in the middle of the action. More specifically, the first book opens with Satan and the rest of the rebel angels sprawled unconscious on the burning lake of Hell immediately after having been cast out of Heaven, still thunderstruck by the almighty power that defeated them. Finally, Satan awakes and rouses his companions, and they lament their defeat and the sad state they are in. However, they refuse to surrender, and vow to make the best of their exile to the infernal realm. “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” Milton enumerates the names of some of the rebels: Moloch, Astarte, Thammuz, Baal, Osiris, Isis, and so on. These names are, of course, not coincidence; Milton’s view is that all the other gods which humans have ever worshipped were devils in disguise. Satan rallies his vast legions with a speech, and in a matter of moments they construct an enormous palace, called Pandemonium, and there assemble a council of war to decide their next move.
This first section also presents Milton’s justification for why God allowed Satan’s rebellion to continue, claiming that he would never have been able to raise his head from the burning lake,
“…but that the will
And high permission of all-ruling Heaven
Left him at large to his own dark designs,
That with reiterated crimes he might
Heap on himself damnation, while he sought
Evil to others, and enraged might see
How all his malice served but to bring forth
Infinite goodness, grace, and mercy, shewn
On Man by him seduced, but on himself
Treble confusion, wrath, and vengeance poured.”
Needless to say, as an explanation for the existence of evil, this is insufficient. In the first place, Satan was already in Hell; there is nowhere lower to go in the Christian system. Allowing him to commit further crimes, therefore, would not make his punishment any worse than it already was. Secondly, if this was God’s plan, then we can safely say it failed, because according to Christianity Satan’s malice did not merely serve to bring forth goodness and mercy. Instead, it caused enormous, incalculable amounts of innocent suffering and death, and will result in the large majority of all humankind ending up condemned to Hell forever along with him. Satan was already damned; what purpose does it accomplish for God to allow him to bring others down with him?
In the council of Pandemonium, the rebel angels debate their next move. They conclude that repentance is out of the question, and thus their war must go on. Several plans are debated and rejected, but ultimately a decision is reached: prophecy in Heaven predicted the creation of Earth and of a new race of beings called humans to inhabit it. Satan proposes that they may be able to strike a blow against God either by destroying this world or seducing it to their cause. This is agreed, but the potential danger of the journey dismays the others, and finally he himself volunteers to go, as their leader, and departs to much praise and applause.
Satan flies over the coast of Hell and reaches its gates, which are massively fortified and soundly locked. Two guards await him: Sin, a grotesque half-woman, half-snake who regularly gives birth to a litter of hellhounds that tear her body from the inside, and Death, a dark, terrible shadow wearing a “kingly crown” and carrying a deadly spear. Death demands he return to his punishment, but an unafraid Satan scorns him and demands he move aside. However, just before they come to blows, Sin rushes in between them. She identifies herself as Satan’s daughter, born of his rebellion in Heaven, and Death as her son. They were both cast out along with the rebel angels, but God entrusted the keys of Hell to her care, and though he forbade her to unlock the gates, she feels she owes him nothing, and rather would obey Satan, her father. Satan promises them both that if they unlock the gates and show him the way to God’s newly-created Earth, he will bring them there along with him so that they can feast. Sin agrees to this and unlocks the gates of Hell. Beyond is the void of primordial Chaos, and Satan flies out into it. Struggling through the winds of Chaos, he beholds in the distance Heaven’s glorious walls, and beneath them the Earth, hanging from the foundations of Heaven by a golden chain. Motivated by mischief and revenge, he flies toward it.
This chapter continues the completely inadequate explanation for evil given in the last. As I discuss in “An Almighty Screwup“, if God wanted the rebel angels to be punished in Hell, why didn’t he specify that they had to stay there? It makes no sense for a jailer to give the keys to one of the prisoners! In fact, not only does Milton’s God allow the rebels to leave their punishment at will, he actually makes it easier for them. After Satan leaves Hell, Sin and Death follow, and we are told that they “[p]aved after him a broad and beaten way / Over the dark Abyss, whose boiling gulf / Tamely endured a bridge of wondrous length, / From Hell continued, reaching the utmost Orb / Of this frail World; by which the Spirits perverse / With easy intercourse pass to and fro / To tempt or punish mortals, except whom / God and good Angels guard by special grace.” How can one possibly call such a deity good? This theology makes God inescapably and deliberately responsible for all the evil that occurs. He could effortlessly have prevented it, but chose to do the opposite. And Christians believe we should praise his “special grace” because he sometimes protects some people from the harm he unleashed in the first place? Would you praise the goodness of a police officer who deliberately let a gang of murderers out of prison? Since Christianity tells us no one can earn grace by their own efforts, if he protects anyone, why not protect everyone?
Even John Milton seems to recognize the illogic of his beliefs by this point. This chapter opens in Heaven, where God sees Satan flying to Earth and attempts to rationalize why the fall of man (which he omnisciently sees coming, and does nothing to prevent) is not his fault. He begins by, astoundingly, disclaiming responsibility for Satan’s escape from Hell: “whom no bounds / Prescribed, no bars of Hell, nor all the chains / Heaped on him there, nor yet the main Abyss / Wide interrupt, can hold” – notwithstanding the fact that he only escaped because God allowed him to. God then foresees humanity’s giving in to temptation and disclaims responsibility for that as well, on the grounds that Adam and Eve could have resisted but chose to transgress: “Whose fault? / Whose but his own? Ingrate, he had of me / All he could have; I made him just and right, / Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.”
This argument will not suffice. For an omniscient being, there is no such thing as “could have”. Such a statement implies that the possibility existed of things going differently; but with God that is impossible, since he knew exactly how things would turn out from the beginning and made them so that they would turn out that way. It is a contradiction in terms to say, “They had strength and knowledge such that they could have resisted temptation, but they did not.” If they had traits sufficient to resist, they would have resisted. If a steel bridge collapses in a high wind, it makes no sense to say, “The bridge had the strength to resist this wind, but it failed to do so.” If it collapsed because of the wind, it was because it was not built with sufficient strength to resist that wind.
God then goes on to claim that free will is responsible for humanity’s fall, as well as the angels’, and he made them all that way because programmed, predestined servitude is intolerable to him: “Not free, what proof could they have given sincere / Of true allegiance, constant faith, or love, / Where only what they needs must do appeared, / Not what they would? What praise could they receive, / What pleasure I, from such obedience paid.”
This, too, will not stand. There is no contradiction in supposing that an omnipotent God could have made humanity such that they had the freedom to rebel, but freely chose not to. After all, is this not the state that will attain in Heaven? Did not Jesus, despite being a free-willed human during his time on Earth, choose not to sin? What did he have that we lack that made it possible for him to do this? (Milton also ignores the numerous Bible verses that do indeed say salvation is by predestination, not free choice.)
God the Son, the second part of the Trinity, replies to this speech by the Father. He protests that allowing humanity to fall to Satan and be lost would be unjust: “That far be from thee, Father, who art judge / Of all things made, and judgest only right!” God replies that he will provide a way to salvation to those who seek it, expressing his desire that people be totally dependent on him: “…that he may know how frail / His fallen condition is, and to me owe / All his deliverance, and to none but me.” He also states, apparently contradicting his own earlier statement about free will, that “Some I have chosen of peculiar grace, / Elect above the rest; so is my will.” However, he explains that man’s crime does deserve death as a punishment, and someone must pay it (why someone has to be punished, even if that one is not the guilty party, is not explained; this is not justice but the opposite of justice). The Son volunteers for this and is praised at length by the heavenly choirs of angels. God also states that because Satan and the rest chose to fall of their own free will, not as the result of temptation, they will never find mercy as man will.
Meanwhile Satan, approaching Earth, flies through a realm called the Limbo of Vanity, a sphere near the Moon where doers of vain deeds end up (not in Hell, apparently). (Milton supposes that the Moon itself is a home for “Translated Saints, or middle Spirits… / Betwixt the angelical and human kind”). Milton uses his description of this realm to slip in a peroration against the Catholic priesthood.
Satan alights on the Sun, which Milton supposed to be a world like ours, though one where everything glows brilliantly, as might be expected. There he encounters the Archangel Uriel, warden of the Sun. Disguising himself as a lesser angel, Satan pretends to be interested in exploring God’s new creation and inquires where he might see for himself the beings called humans. Uriel directs him, and he flies down to Earth and lands on the peak of Mt. Niphates (which in Paradise Regained becomes the mountain where he carried Jesus to show him all the kingdoms of the world).
Standing on the peak of Mt. Niphates, Satan experiences doubt over his mission, despair at his fall, and sadness as he realizes fully what he has lost and how he must always be miserable from now on. Milton points out that Hell is not just a place, but something he now brings “round about him”, suffering which he cannot escape any more than he can escape from himself. While this may explain why God allowed him to escape Hell for his own sake, however, it cannot explain why God allowed him to do so with the intent to bring others down with him. Finally, though, he reaffirms his mission and resigns himself to his fate: “…all good to me is lost; / Evil, be thou my good”.
Satan comes to the Garden of Eden, a hill forested with cedar, pine, fir and palm trees, surrounded by a high wall with only one gate. However, Satan easily leaps over the wall (which raises the question of what it was there for in the first place) and lands within. Perching atop the Tree of Life, he surveys the beauty of the Garden and sees its first two human inhabitants. They are noble and godlike – but, as the text makes clear from the first, not equal. From the very first time we meet Adam and Eve, it is stated explicitly that she is inferior and was made to be submissive: “He for God only, she for God in him” as Milton puts it. This blatant sexism will recur throughout the text.
Satan listens to Adam and Eve’s conversation and soon learns that, despite their bliss, there was one law given to them which they may not break, one tree in Paradise from which they may not eat. His reaction to this is worth quoting in full:
“From their own mouths; all is not theirs it seems:
One fatal Tree there stands of Knowledge call’d,
Forbidden them to taste: Knowledge forbidd’n?
Suspicious, reasonless. Why should their Lord
Envy them that? can it be sin to know,
Can it be death? and do they only stand
By Ignorance, is that their happy state,
The proof of their obedience and their faith?
O fair foundation laid whereon to build
Their ruin! Hence I will excite their minds
With more desire to know, and to reject
Envious commands, invented with design
To keep them low whom knowledge might exalt…”
This passage exemplifies the anti-intellectual bias inherent in Milton’s Christianity. The symbolism here is obvious: doubt, honest questioning, and the desire for knowledge are personified by a being represented as the incarnation of evil. What God prefers is ignorance and unquestioning obedience. As a humanist, I reject and despise this view. Gaining knowledge about the world can never be an evil. A true faith will stand up to critical examination; only proponents of a false belief system have something to fear from questioning. Only advocates of lies and deception have a reason to exalt passive obedience and threaten with hellfire those who will not blindly accept what they are told. It is anti-intellectual attitudes like this that have been the cause of so much suffering and evil in human history. It is Satan’s argument, in fact, that makes more sense, and of course Milton tries to keep us from realizing this by poisoning the well – attempting to prejudice us against the person who makes the argument without considering the argument’s merits – by casting Satan as a figure of evil whose words must always be rejected, no matter how much sense they seem to make.
Meanwhile, Uriel realizes he has been tricked and sends word to Gabriel, another archangel, to keep watch for evil spirits. The sun is setting in Paradise, and as night comes, Adam and Eve retire from their daily gardening (in another appallingly sexist passage, Eve says to Adam: “My Author and Disposer, what thou bidst / Unargu’d I obey; so God ordains, / God is thy Law, thou mine: to know no more / Is woman’s happiest knowledge and her praise”). Saying their evening prayers, the first couple retire to their bower to sleep. Soon afterwards, a squad of angels patrolling Paradise finds Satan, in the form of a toad, sitting and whispering into Eve’s ear. They capture him and take him to Gabriel, where Satan remains defiant (“let him surer bar / His Iron Gates, if he intends our stay / In that dark durance,” he says, quite reasonably). The confrontation almost comes to battle, but God will not allow such to take place in Paradise, and Satan flees.
Morning comes, but Eve is unsettled – for the first time ever – by strange and disturbing dreams she had during the night, dreams about eating from the forbidden tree of knowledge. Adam comforts her, and they sing their morning hymn of praise to God (though one wonders if he deserves it, since their plea to “give us only good” turned out not to be answered).
In Heaven, God is again concerned that he might seem responsible if Satan successfully tempts the humans, and sends the angel Raphael down to Eden to tell them of their enemy and their danger and admonish them again to obey. Raphael obeys with alacrity and soars down to Earth. In an amusing passage that incidentally serves as a reminder of just how long ago this poem was written, Milton compares the angel’s supernaturally sharp eyesight to “the glass / Of Galileo, less assured, [which] observes / Imagined lands and regions in the Moon”.
Raphael meets Adam and Eve in the Garden, is welcomed graciously by them and sits down to speak with them. The angel begins to tell the humans a story, the story of what led to Satan’s fall. Evidently, Satan, once one of Heaven’s mightiest angels, was jealous of God declaring the Son his regent and ordering all the angels to bow to him. Satan withdrew from Heaven along with one-third of the angelic host, and by an eloquent speech he convinced them to “cast off this yoke” and join his rebellion – all except one, a seraph named Abdiel who scorned their treachery and returned to God, and there the chapter ends.
The only brief note I wish to make on this section is Raphael’s repeating the claim that God requires “Our voluntary service… / Not our necessitated. Such with him / Finds no acceptance, nor can find; for how / Can hearts not free be tried whether they serve / Willing or no, who will but what they must / By destiny, and can no other choose?” But if this is the case, then why does God demand obedience and threaten all who disobey with the infinite agony of damnation to Hell? Doesn’t this make men and angels “not free” as well? How can servitude coerced under such a threat be considered “voluntary”? And if God is omnipotent, then did he not make men and angels knowing and intending that they would turn out as they did anyway? “Divine Blackmail” discusses these points further.
Raphael continues to relate the story of Satan’s fall. God sends his legions forth to meet the army of rebel angels, and the two sides join battle. Angels, it transpires, can suffer and be wounded like humans, but cannot die like humans; damage done to their ethereal bodies heals almost instantly. Of course, the good angels are supported by God’s will, and on the first day of combat prevail overwhelmingly and vanquish their opponents.
Night falls, and the rebels withdraw and regroup. Satan rallies his troops and proposes a new strategy, and throughout the night they mine the heavenly soil for minerals and ore. With the coming of daybreak, the rebels show off their new weapons: batteries of cannons, which catch the loyal angels completely off guard and mow them down with volleys of fire. However, they are discomfited for only a brief time, then recover and counterattack by uprooting entire hills and hurling them on top of the rebels, burying and crushing them and their cannons alike. The second day again ends with a victory for God’s forces.
On the third day, God decides that this combat could go on indefinitely, and allowing it to continue serves no purpose. (One wonders why it took him this long to decide this.) He sends his Son out onto the battlefield alone, who with a display of overwhelming power blasts the rebels from the field and sends them hurtling down from Heaven into the pit. Raphael concludes his tale by telling Adam that this same Satan is now abroad in Paradise, and warns him not to trust anything he says.
Adam, curious, asks Raphael to tell him about the creation of the world, in order that he may glorify God by the knowledge. Raphael assents, though cautiously, warning Adam that too much knowledge is a bad thing. “But Knowledge is as food, and needs no less / Her temperance over appetite, to know / In measure what the mind may well contain; / Oppresses else with surfeit, and soon turns / Wisdom to folly, as nourishment to wind.” The angel’s narrative returns to Heaven after the fall of Satan, where God decides to create a new world and a new race to make up for the numbers lost. Inexplicably, rather than create them in Heaven to begin with, God decides to create them outside Heaven and make them work their way up (why?). “…till by degrees of merit rais’d / They open to themselves at length the way / Up hither, under long obedience tri’d, / And Earth be chang’d to Heaven and Heaven to Earth / One Kingdom, Joy and Union without end.” Of course, God presumably knew from the beginning that the vast majority of this new race would end up lost and damned as well, but the text does not mention that at this point.
God sends the Son, his agent of creation, out into Chaos, and Milton provides a retelling of the six-day Genesis creation story. More specifically, he tries to provide a harmonization of the two divergent creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2, but Milton’s version leans more heavily on Genesis 1 in having plants created on the third day, fowl on the fifth day, and man on the sixth, as opposed to Genesis 2 in which man’s creation precedes that of all other living things.
Still curious for knowledge, and desiring to detain his angelic guest in order to longer enjoy his company, Adam asks Raphael why all the innumerable stars of the vast cosmos were created for no reason other than to revolve around the Earth, which is a tiny, seemingly insignificant point in comparison. Raphael swiftly responds that it is unwise to ask such questions; that God made the enormous universe for his own purposes which we cannot hope to know, and that instead of trying to understand God’s creation, we should simply admire the one who made it. The angel says that even the knowledge of whether the Earth moves or is stationary is something mortals should not try to figure out: “This to attain, whether Heaven move or Earth / Imports not, if thou reckon right; the rest / From Man or Angel the great Architect / Did wisely to conceal, and not divulge / His secrets, to be scanned by them who ought / Rather admire.” He suggests that perhaps God made the cosmos so vast for no other reason than to laugh at the “quaint opinions” of those who try to model it, or perhaps by its magnitude to show God’s greatness and man’s relative insignificance (although the creation of humanity seems to play a central role in Milton’s theology). In any event, Raphael concludes, we should not presume to try to figure these things out; we should just believe, and be content to be ignorant. “Be lowly wise; / Think only what concerns thee and thy being; / Dream not to other worlds, what creatures there / Live, in what state, condition, or degree / Contented that thus far hath been revealed”.Adam accedes to this and changes the subject, expressing a desire to tell his visitor of the day he was created. Raphael agrees to this, and Adam begins to tell a story of how he first awoke in Eden, fully cognizant and aware of himself, but not knowing how he had come to be there. He explores the Garden, but does not have long to wait before God manifests himself, identifies himself as the creator of all this, brings the animals before Adam so that he can name them, and tells the first man he has given him Paradise on the one condition that he not eat from the tree of knowledge. Adam expresses his fear of loneliness, being solitary among all the animals with no one to talk to, and so God puts him to sleep, removes a rib from his side and creates Eve from it. Adam loves her on sight (so much so that he says the following: “For well I understand in the prime end / Of Nature her the inferior, in the mind / And inward faculties, which most excel; / In outward also her resembling less / His image who made both, and less expressing / The character of that dominion given / O’er other creatures”). Raphael agrees that Eve is very beautiful, but warns Adam that he must be in charge at all times and not allow her beauty to sway his decisions. Admonishing Adam one final time to obey God, he rises and departs.
With the story now having come full circle, Milton proceeds to man’s inevitable downfall. It is night in Paradise, and Satan enters through the Tigris River, which heads underground for a distance before rising up as a fountain at the foot of the Tree of Life. Like a mist, Satan rises from the water, and searches Paradise for an animal in which to conceal himself. He, of course, chooses the serpent and enters into its slumbering body. (It should be noted that the Book of Genesis itself never blames Satan for possessing the snake – and indeed has no conception of such a being – but puts the blame for humankind’s temptation on the serpent itself, which was no demon but merely the subtlest of all God’s beasts. What follows is Milton’s invention.)
Morning comes to Eden, and this morning Eve expresses an unusual desire: she wants to work separately from Adam at their daily gardening, concerned that if they work together as usual they will distract each other and not finish their task. Adam is uneasy at this, reminding her of Raphael’s warning that Satan is still abroad and seeking their ruin, and that if he shows up, they could more effectively resist him together than apart. Eve replies that Satan has no physical power to harm them, only to mislead them, and is hurt that Adam does not trust her sufficiently to believe her able to resist his wiles. Justifiably, she points out that Eden could hardly be said to be a happy place if they had to stay together every waking moment in case of attack: “How are we happy, still in fear of harm?” She concludes, placing a tragically undeserved and unreciprocated faith in Milton’s God: “Let us not then suspect our happy state / Left so imperfect by the Maker wise / As not secure to single or combined. / Frail is our happiness, if this be so; / And Eden were no Eden, thus exposed.” Adam, still wary, responds again that Satan may be wily enough to deceive them individually, and reminds Eve that she is supposed to obey him; but finally relents and allows her to go off by herself.
Meanwhile, Satan, slithering through Paradise, wishes that he might find Eve by herself, fearing Adam but supposing her to be easier prey – and find her he does. He approaches her, still clad in the form of the Serpent, and bows down to her and speaks, praising her beauty. Eve expresses amazement that one of the formerly silent animals can speak and asks how this is possible, and Satan replies that he ate one of the apples of a certain tree, and that this fruit gave him reason and speech. “Our credulous mother” asks to see this tree, and Satan leads her to the tree of knowledge. Eve is shocked to see it, realizing that it is the one tree they were forbidden to eat from on pain of death. At this, Satan launches into an eloquent speech, claiming that he ate from the tree and is not just alive and healthy, but better than before, and scorning the idea that God will punish her for doing likewise with a very reasonable argument: “…wherein lies / The offence, that Man should thus attain to know? / What can your knowledge hurt him, or this Tree / Impart against his will, if all be his? / Or is it envy? and can envy dwell / In Heavenly breasts?” In fact, he suggests, God has forbidden them to eat because he wants to keep them “low and ignorant”, and if they eat they will end up becoming gods themselves.
Eve is immediately won over by this speech, and decides that God’s prohibition is void. “In plain, then, what forbids he but to know? / Forbids us good, forbids us to be wise! / Such prohibitions bind not.” Believing that the serpent ate from the tree and yet lived, and therefore the threatened punishment must be a sham, she picks a fruit and eats.
Drunk with sudden knowledge, Eve praises the tree for having opened her eyes. For the first time, she seems aware of her former subjugation; “for, inferior, who is free?” She wonders how Adam will react and whether she should tell him of the change that has come over her. Finally, she returns to him and tells him of what has happened, praising the tree and inviting him to taste. Adam is horror-struck, but loves her too much to let her live like this alone: “I feel / The link of nature draw me: flesh of flesh, / Bone of my bone thou art, and from thy state / Mine never shall be parted, bliss or woe.” Hoping that the serpent was right and that God will not destroy the crown of his creation for one minor transgression, Adam eats as well. Intoxicated and inflamed with sudden passion for each other, they have sex and then fall asleep.
When they wake, however, the giddiness has left them and they realize, ashamed and afraid, what they have done. Suddenly modest, they make coverings of leaves for their bodies, and as they confront each other in their new state, violent passions and anger arise. Adam blames Eve for having disobeyed him and left his side; Eve defends herself by saying she had no reason to distrust the serpent, and Adam would also have been tricked if he had been there anyway. She blames him for not absolutely forbidding her to go off by herself, and Adam heatedly replies that he warned her more than once, that she is the cause of all this, and his only mistake was to trust her.
With humanity’s sin complete, the angelic guards of Paradise sorrowfully return to Heaven. God excuses their failure, telling them that they could not have prevented what happened. (So why were they there in the first place? Did God erect a defense that he knew would fail?) God sends the Son down to Earth to judge the humans for what they have done.
When the Son arrives in Eden, Adam and Eve try to hide, but are compelled to come forth at his decree and explain themselves. Though not denying his own culpability, Adam says of Eve, “from her hand I could suspect no ill… She gave me of the Tree, and I did eat.” God the Son rebukes him for obeying her, saying she was made to obey him and not the other way around: his “perfection far excelled / Hers in all real dignity”. He then asks Eve why she did it, and she confesses that the serpent tricked her – at which point, bizarrely, God punishes the serpent!
Milton tells us that this is because the serpent, a voiceless animal, could not explain that Satan had been controlling its actions, but shouldn’t an omniscient deity have known this already? Compounding the contradiction, earlier in this same chapter before coming to Earth, God said “Conviction to the Serpent none belongs”, but now he goes back on his word and curses the serpent to crawl on its belly and eat dust. As in Genesis, Eve is then cursed to suffer in childbirth and Adam is cursed to labor and sweat in the dust. Finally, he sentences them both to (eventual) death, clothes them with animal skins and returns to Heaven. At the gates of Hell, Sin and Death perceive that change is in the air, and with new strength fly to Earth.
His mission complete, Satan returns to Hell, to his fortress of Pandemonium, and explains to his fellows what he has done. Instead of the expected applause, however, there is only a loud hissing, as Satan and all the other devils are suddenly transformed into voiceless serpents. An illusion of the tree of knowledge appears before them, and consumed by hunger, they try to eat from it, but the fruit turns to ashes in their mouths. Milton explains that this change henceforth came over them certain days out of each year to punish them for their crime.
Sin and Death arrive on Earth and begin spreading their influence over all living things, although why the entire mortal world should have to suffer for the transgression of one couple is not explained. God watches them destroy his creation and not only does he not stop them, but assists them by sending his angels to alter the climate: creating parching heat and freezing cold, destructive wind and raging storms, corrupt swamps and pestilent diseases, even tilting the Earth out of its axis so as to usher in seasons and end the perpetual spring that had formerly attained. Finally, all the animals in the world are set against each other, to kill and die in perpetual war and predation. On the Earth’s surface, Adam sees these changes begin and laments, “Inexplicable thy justice seems”, and levels the valid question, “Ah, why should all Mankind, / For one man’s fault, thus guiltless be condemned?” God does not answer, nor does Milton; the reason for corrupting the entire world because of the actions of two people is never given.
Throughout the night, Adam mourns his fate, wishing to die then and there and make an end of it. Finally, Eve approaches him; he dismisses her with scorn, blaming her for his current misery, and she falls at his feet and sobs, expressing her wish to take all this punishment on herself if she could. Moved by pity, Adam forgives her. Eve suggests that they not have children so that there are no descendants to suffer (but why should their descendants be held responsible for what they did? Again, the text does not attempt to justify this). Adam replies that doing so would doubtless provoke God to even greater anger, and so they have to have children, regardless of what suffering those children will undergo, in order to turn away worse punishment from their own head. Finally, at Adam’s recommendation they both return to the place where God initially judged them and fall prostrate to beg his forgiveness.
In Heaven, God hears Adam and Eve’s prayers, which we are told please him more than all the fruit of Paradise. (To me, this strongly implies that God prefers it when people sin and then have to apologize to when they do right in the first place.) However, he decrees that they can no longer live in Paradise, and decides to banish them (and their children, who had done nothing inasmuch as they did not yet exist) before they eat from the Tree of Life and undo the sentence of death he has ordained for them. He sends angels down, led by the archangel Michael, to do this.
Down on Earth, Adam sees the results of his transgression – eagles hunting other birds, lions chasing down prey; again, there is no explanation of how their sin caused or necessitated this – and then the angels arrive. Though made more miserable by the revelation that they must leave Paradise, they accept their sentence. (Adam mourns the fact that he will not be able to show his descendants the places in Eden where God appeared to him and spoke with him; again, why must their children suffer for their parents’ crimes?) However, before they leave, Michael puts Eve to sleep and then leads Adam to the top of a nearby hill, the highest in Paradise, to show him what will come of their deeds in the future. Michael first shows him Abel’s death at Cain’s hands, then a sampling of all the many horrible diseases and ailments that make up some of the other ways people will die. Finally, he shows Adam a selection of events from the Old Testament, including Enoch’s ascension and Noah’s flood.
Michael continues to show Adam events from the future: the history of the Old Testament, Jesus’ birth, life, crucifixion and resurrection, and the beginning of the Christian church. Milton again attacks Catholicism as he has Michael forecast the corruption of Christianity at their hands, until finally Jesus returns in a fiery conflagration to burn up the sinful Earth and make it anew as Paradise. (If God had just gone to the trouble to keep Satan out of Eden from the beginning, he would not have had to bother, and none of this ultimately pointless history would have happened! Why not just keep it as Paradise all along?) The vision comes to an end, and Adam admits his fault in thinking for himself – “Henceforth I learn that to obey is best” – awakes Eve, and together they depart Paradise. The angel’s flaming sword bars the gates behind them, and they walk out into the world.
With the story of the Fall now complete, John Milton declares his intention to write of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. The book opens with Jesus’ baptism by John, immediately following which Satan and the other fallen angels (the “Powers of Air”) meet to discuss what to do, fearful of what he may accomplish. Satan proposes to try “temptation and all guile” in order to subvert him to their cause. (In the ages since Paradise Lost concluded, the fallen angels seem to have done well for themselves. God has apparently abandoned all effort to keep them in Hell, instead giving them almost total liberty to range the Earth and air; Satan even tells us that he has been in Heaven at times, such as when he accused Job.)
Following his baptism, Jesus feels the Holy Spirit leading him, and after a brief recitation of his life thus far, wanders into the desert. Forty days pass, during which time he neither eats nor feels the need to. Finally, at the end of this period, Jesus encounters an aged man gathering sticks, who asks what bad luck has led him so deep into the wilderness and how he intends to find his way back. Jesus replies that “Who brought me hither / Will bring me hence”. The old man then suggests that, if he is the Son of God, he should miraculously change the stones into bread so that he can eat. At this, Jesus sees through Satan’s disguise, and Satan admits his identity and says “Men generally think me much a foe / To all mankind. Why should I? they to me / Never did wrong or violence.” He does, however, lament that human beings will eventually be saved and he will not be.
With this, Jesus rebukes Satan, claiming he deserves his present state and was allowed into Heaven only to torment him with what he can never again have. He also claims that “[Job’s] patience won”, although given the amount of suffering Satan managed to inflict on innocent people as a result of this, one wonders if he was not the victor after all. Jesus also accuses Satan of misleading the people with lying prophecies and claims that the time of oracles is over; “God hath now sent his living Oracle / Into the world to teach his final will, / And sends his Spirit of Truth henceforth to dwell / In pious hearts, an inward oracle / To all truth requisite for men to know.” This dialogue continues the anti-intellectual themes of Paradise Lost by asserting that men should only know enough to worship God and should otherwise remain ignorant.
Returning to his airy council, Satan warns that Jesus may be much more difficult to deceive than Adam was. Belial, another fallen angel, suggests that they tempt him with women, as Solomon was tempted. Satan rejects this plan, however, saying that only “weak minds” fall victim to this ploy, and this time higher lures are needed, such as the promise of glory and fame among men.
In the desert, Jesus is starting to feel hunger after forty days’ fast, but resolves to be patient and obey the will of God. That night, he awakes from sleep and again encounters Satan, this time in the semblance of a more richly dressed man, who offers Jesus food, knowing he hungers; at his gesture a table laden with all sorts of food appears. Satan encourages him to eat his fill: “Hast thou not right to all created things?… These are not fruits forbidden”. Jesus replies that he could call angels to bring him food if he chose to and rejects Satan’s offer. The table vanishes, and Satan instead offers him wealth and riches so that he can raise and feed an army of followers. Jesus rejects this as well, listing the names of biblical and historical figures who accomplished great things despite (or because of) poverty, and concluding that the man who rules over his own passions is just as much a king as one who sits enthroned.
Satan recovers and offers a new temptation: power. Pointing out that most renowned men in history had achieved their greatest deeds before they were as old as Jesus is, he asks why he wastes his time alone in the wilderness when all the nations should be listening to his counsel and eagerly following his advice. Jesus scorns the idea that he should desire any such thing. “And what the people but a herd confused, / A miscellaneous rabble, who extol / Things vulgar, and, well weighed, scarce worth the praise? / They praise and they admire they know not what, / And know not whom, but as one leads the other; / And what delight to be by such extolled, / To live upon their tongues, and be their talk?” Though I do not share the pessimistic view of human nature put forth in this passage, I do agree that the majority of people, unfortunately, are more apt to follow than to question and investigate. This is a consideration well worth taking into account when it comes to explaining the prevalence of Christianity in the world today.
Jesus also states that, “They err who count it glorious to subdue / By conquest far and wide, to overrun / Large countries, and in field great battles win, / Great cities by assault. What do these worthies / But rob and spoil, burn, slaughter, and enslave / Peaceable nations, neighbouring or remote, / Made captive, yet deserving freedom more / Than those their conquerors, who leave behind / Nothing but ruin wheresoe’er they rove, / And all the flourishing works of peace destroy”. This is an excellent moral lesson, and it is unfortunate that the Bible itself contradicts it by extolling acts of slaughter such as those of the Book of Joshua.
When Jesus concludes that it is wrong to seek glory, Satan gives a compelling rebuttal:
“Think not so slight of glory, therein least
Resembling thy great Father. He seeks glory,
And for his glory all things made, all things
Orders and governs; nor content in Heaven,
By all his Angels glorified, requires
Glory from men, from all men, good or bad,
Wise or unwise, no difference, no exemption.
Above all sacrifice, or hallowed gift,
Glory he requires, and glory he receives,
Promiscuous from all nations, Jew, or Greek,
Or Barbarous, nor exception hath declared;
From us, his foes pronounced, glory he exacts.”
This is a strong argument, and Jesus’ reply to it is weak, basically concluding that although it is wrong for men to seek glory, it is right for God, because he deserves it. (But if Jesus is God, then shouldn’t he demand glory as well, exactly as Satan suggested?) Though Milton depicts Satan as stunned and speechless as a result of this argument, in reality it is poor and does not hold up. What exactly does God deserve glory for, according to this theology? Allowing Satan to escape Hell and drag others down to ruin with him? Allowing humans to fall when he could easily have prevented it? Inflicting the curse of suffering and death on people who were not born yet for the crimes of their parents? Condemning untold millions of souls to eternal agony for finite misdeeds? Does he deserve to be glorified for the fact that, after allowing countless ages of terrible suffering, he will finally restore the world to the paradisical state it was originally in, although he could have prevented this change from the beginning? This would be like praising a doctor who made a person deathly sick and only later cured him. Power alone does not merit worship, and the biblical God has done little else to show himself worthy of it. What good are his attributes of goodness and wisdom if he will not use them to bring about the best outcome?
Following this conversation, Satan catches Jesus up and carries him to a high mountaintop, where he shows him the great kingdoms and armies of the world. He offers Jesus control of any of them in order to establish his own kingdom on Earth and free his people the Israelites, including the ten tribes deported by the Assyrians, from their captivity. Jesus rejects this as well, saying the Israelites deserve to be enslaved and suffer for their sins, and says he will establish his kingdom in his own way and at his own time.
From the mountaintop, Satan shows Jesus the capitol city of imperial Rome, and asks if he will not overthrow the wicked current emperor, Tiberius Caesar, and take the throne. Jesus dismisses this with “For him I was not sent” and says that the suffering of people under Roman rule is deserved, and when his kingdom comes it will overthrow all earthly monarchies. Satan makes one more offer – all the kingdoms of the world if Jesus will bow down to him – and Jesus rejects this as well.
A flurry of further offers follows. Satan offers wisdom and philosophy from Greece; Jesus dismisses them as false, “fancies, built on nothing firm”. Satan offers music and art; Jesus says that the Hebrews’ music is already the best. Finally, the frustrated tempter asks, “Since neither wealth, nor honour, arms nor arts, / Kingdom nor Empire pleases thee, nor aught / By me propos’d in life contemplative, / Or active, tended on by glory, or fame, / What dost thou in this world?” He returns Jesus to the desert, and that night troubles his sleep with dreams of terrible storms and ghastly visions, to no effect. In one last effort, he brings Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem, tempting him to prove his divinity by casting himself down and having angels catch him. Jesus refuses, and Satan is the one who falls, fleeing back to the council of devils. Jesus is fed by an angelic banquet, commemorating his victory, and returns to his mother’s house; and there the poem ends.
When viewed as two parts of a whole, Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained give a very consistent message. That message is this: Doubt is evil. Critical thinking is evil. Reason is to be denied and denigrated. Seeking to understand the world is at best unprofitable and pointless and at worst a straight road to eternal torment. Instead, virtue consists of absolute obedience and blind belief: as Satan mused, ignorance is indeed “the proof of [our] obedience and [our] faith”.
As has been noted, the arguments given by Satan in these books make sense, more so than the replies. Why should God have let the devils out of Hell when the only purpose that served was to allow them to drag others down to damnation? Why should God value ignorance and envy those who gain knowledge? Yet we are not to give these arguments any serious consideration; the appropriate response is to dismiss them out of hand. In Milton’s theology, moral goodness consists of rejecting the desire to learn, ignoring all contrary arguments, and when doubt arises, overcoming it by redoubling one’s belief. For those who do seek to question and learn, the story of others who did the same and fell into misery for it – bringing upon us all the misery that anyone has ever experienced in the process – is presented as a cautionary tale. The message is as subtle as a sledgehammer blow.
As human beings, we should all be appalled by this kind of willfully ignorant superstition. Our rational, reasoning mind is the most precious thing we possess, and used in the right ways, it can achieve astounding things. In the centuries that have passed since Milton first set pen to paper, the previously inconceivable advances we have made as a result of our dedicated quest to understand the universe through science more than vindicate the humanist philosophy and discredit anti-intellectualism such as this.
Even Milton’s own epic shows that knowledge is superior to ignorance. Raphael’s long monologue telling Adam who and what Satan is and warning against listening to him does not appear in Genesis. Is this Milton’s tacit admission that in the Eden story as written, God is left culpable by not providing humanity with sufficient warning? Has it occurred to him that Adam and Eve’s enforced ignorance was the very thing that made them so vulnerable to Satan’s guile?
Even in an epic where the author offers himself ample opportunity for apologetics and self-justification, the logical problems with this theology shine through. God’s defenses of his actions are insufficient, and Jesus’ responses to Satan’s arguments are often patently weak and flawed, but Milton always depicts Satan as being stung and left overwhelmed and speechless by them. Of course, in real debates against knowledgeable opponents where the outcomes cannot be so easily scripted and controlled, Christian apologists rarely fare as well.
I am aware that not all Christians believe the same as John Milton. I realize that many reject the doctrines of the inequality of women, condemnation for honest questioning, and the literal interpretation of Genesis altogether. I applaud this courage, but it cannot be denied that many of these ideas are explicitly taught in the Bible. The solution is not merely to discard them and retain belief in the rest of the Bible – the solution is to set the Bible and its anti-humanistic claims aside entirely. There was no past Paradise from which we fell for the crime of wanting to understand the world. There is no future Hell awaiting those who dare to question and think for themselves. There is nothing for an honest investigator to fear. We are not fallen, we are not sinners, we are not wretches. We are human beings, all equal, and when we finally awake from the mythological dreams of our past, we will know and understand the much brighter light of the world as it truly is – and in that understanding lie the true keys to an earthly paradise.