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1-4-1 Satan In Paradise Lost

John Milton's Paradise Lost, with its graphic depictions of a rebellious satan being hurled from Heaven to earth, greatly popularized the image of a personal satan. The visual images conjured up by Milton's poem remain significant in the minds of many to this day, even if they themselves haven't read his epic poem. But its influence has been such over the last few hundred years that many have come to assume that this actually is a reflection of Bible teaching. Let's face it- people adopt their religious ideas more from popular culture, what they see in art, what they hear on the street, how others talk... rather than by reading books by theologians and Bible students. There's no doubt that art played a highly significant role in fixing the idea of a personal satan in peoples' minds- and Paradise Lost played a huge part in this (1). Milton himself admitted that he wrote the poem [among other reasons] in order to "justifie the wayes of God to men" (1.26). And this is a repeated theme we find throughout the whole history of the personal satan idea. It's as if men feel they have to apologize for God, as well as seeking to somehow avoid the difficult fact that the Bible teaches that it is God alone who ultimately allows evil in human life.

But there's another take on Milton. It needs to be remembered that Milton rejected very many standard 'Christian' doctrines- e.g. the trinity, infant baptism, and the immortality of the soul- and despised paid clergy (2). As we note in section 1-5, Isaac Newton came to identical conclusions- and his rejection of those very same mainstream dogmas led him to likewise reject the popular idea of a personal devil, and rediscover the Biblical definition of satan as simply an 'adversary', with especial reference to the adversary of human temptation and sin. We can therefore reasonably speculate that Milton did the same. John Rumrich has developed this possibility at great length, leading to the suggestion that in fact the whole of Paradise Lost is Milton poking fun at the bizarre requirements of the personal devil myth, taking the whole idea to its logical conclusions. Hence Rumrich calls for a radical reinterpretation of what Paradise Lost is really all about (3). Milton's theological treatise De Doctrina Christiana cites Isaiah 45:6,7 ("I am the Lord and there is no other; I make the light, I create darkness...") as evidence against both a trinity of gods, and a personal devil. Milton concluded: "These words preclude the possibility, not only of there being any other God, but also of there being any person, of any kind, equal to him... it is intolerable and incredible that that an evil power should be stronger that good and should prove the supreme power" (4). In that treatise, Milton also commends George Herbert's statement that "devils are our sins in perspective", and throughout his whole attempt at a systematic theology in the book, Milton never actually says that he agrees with the popular view of satan. We have shown elsewhere in this book that the common Christian view of Satan derived from a mistaken Jewish view of Satan, which in turn had been influenced by the surrounding cultures with which they mixed. One wonders whether Milton recognized that by the way in which he names Satan's cabinet after the titles of the gods believed in by the nations which so influenced Israel- Moloch, Chemosh, Baalim, Astaroth, Asorteth, Astarte, Thammuz, Dagon, Rimmon, Osiris, Isis, Horus, Belial etc. As a Bible student, Milton was surely fully aware that the Bible mentions these gods and defines them as 'no-gods', as non existent.

All these points pale into into insignificance before the simple fact that in his De Doctrina Christiana, and as commented in by the scholars in footnote (2) below, Milton rejects the idea of immortal souls and understands hell as the grave, as we do in section 2-5. Yet the first two books of Paradise Lost are all about the popular concept of hell as a place of torment. Milton gives us a guided tour as it were through nine supposed circles of hell. How are we to square this difference between his poetry and his personal theological beliefs? The obvious conclusion would surely be that he is over painting the popular conception of hell in a sarcastic way, as if to say: "If this place really exists, well, is this what it's supposed to be like?". He's thus cocking a snook at the popular idea by taking it to its logical conclusions- and it's likely that he does the same with the related issue of Satan.

It must be understood that departure from the doctrinal position of the popular church in those times was a risky business- it had to be done discreetly, especially by people of any standing in society like Milton and Newton. This fact, to me at least, makes it more likely that Milton was exaggerating and developing the bizarre implications of God as it were getting into a fight with an Angel, in order to reveal to the thoughtful reader how wrong the idea was. Stanley Fish argues that it was a feature of Milton to write in a highly deceptive way, using his skill as an author to show how the meaning he has set up for some phrases is actually the very opposite (5). An example is the way Milton promotes one of the 'hard questions' about the devil myth: If Adam sinned but could repent, why could not satan and the supposed fallen angels also repent? Thus Milton observes: "Man therefore shall find grace / The other [i.e. satan] none" (3.131). This is one of the many contradictions I've listed in section 3-2 as examples of the mass of logical and Biblical problems created by the personal satan idea. At times, Milton appears almost sarcastic about the existence of Satan as the "Leviathan" sea monster of the book of Job- Book 1.192-212 presents this beast as a myth believed in by sailors, who at times bumped into him, assuming he was an island, and cast their anchor "in his scaly rind"- "in bulk as huge as whom the fables name of monstrous size" (1.196,197). But this may be beyond sarcasm- Milton posits here that Satan is "as huge" as the fables paint him to be. Milton could be saying: "Is this, then, the creature your fables lead you to believe in?". In line with this, consider the connections between Milton and Dante which have been traced and analyzed by many scholars. The similarities between Milton's Paradise Lost and Dante's The Divine Comedy are apparent. Perhaps research waits to be done on whether Dante too wasn't using an element of sarcasm in his presentation of Satan- he does, after all, title his work "The Divine Comedy", as if he didn't intend the images he painted to be taken literally.

In more recent times, Soviet writers who wished to criticize the system, or those living in any repressive regime, always wrote in such a way that it appeared on the surface that they were towing the party line- only the reflective would grasp that actually the subtext of their work was a violent denial of it all. It seems likely that Milton was doing the same. And yet, the fact is that most people read literature and indeed receive any art form on a surface level; they so often 'don't get' what the artist is really trying to convey. And so images of satan being hurled over the battlements of Heaven remain in the popular consciousness as a result of Milton's epic and graphic story about 'satan'. As Neil Forsyth concludes: "So compelling is the character of Satan in Paradise Lost that generations of English speakers, knowing their Milton better than their Bible, have assumed that Christianity teaches an elaborate story about the fall of the angels after a war in heaven, and have been surprised to find no mention of Satan in the Book of Genesis" (6).


(1) See Luther Link, The Devil: The Archfiend In Art (London: Reaktion Books, 1995).

(2) As documented in Stephen Dobranski and John Rumrich, Milton And Heresy (Cambridge: C.U.P., 1998). For Milton's non-trinitarian views, see Michael Bauman, Milton's Arianism (Bern: Lang, 1987) and W.B. Hunter, C.A. Patrides and J.H. Adamson, Bright Essence: Studies In Milton's Theology (Salt Lake City: University Of Utah Press, 1971).

(3) John Rumrich, Milton Unbound: Controversy And Reinterpretation (Cambride: C.U.P., 1996).

(4) From The Complete Prose Works of John Milton edited by Maurice Kelley (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1982) Vol. 6 pp. 300, 131.

(5) Stanley Fish, Surprised By Sin (London: Macmillan, 1997) p. 215.

(6) Neil Forsyth, The Satanic Epic (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003) p. 66.