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). After all, there is a huge contrast between
the enormous power and intelligence of the supposed Devil- and his very
dumb behaviour, in [supposedly] committing the sins of envy and pride,
thus leading to his downfall. Surely such a highly intelligent creature
wouldn't have fallen into such a simple sin?
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
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). G.B. Caird concludes likewise: "The Bible knows nothing of the
fall of Satan familiar to readers of Paradise Lost" (7).
Whether these authorities agree or not isn't of course the point; but
I reference them to show that the thesis developed throughout this book
is not original, and that many respected scholars and thinkers have come
to similar conclusions.
Milton, Goethe And Mary Shelley
I see a similarity between Milton's approach and that of J.W. von Goethe
in his Faust. Goethe's Devil, Mephistopheles, has become a highly
influential image in the minds of many who believe in a personal Satan.
But Goethe "always vehemently denied the literal existence of the
Christian Devil" (8). He brings out the tension between the ideas
of God's will always being done, and the supposed existence of Satan-
"he is an invitation to the reader to face the multiplicity of reality"
(9). But as with Milton, I submit, Goethe's presentation of a personal
Devil is too convincing for the surface reader and those who never read
the book but are influenced by the associated images associated with it.
The same goes for Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Her husband Percy
Shelley had openly mocked the idea of a supernatural Devil, as we commented
upon in section 3-2 and section
1-4. And Mary Shelley clearly has an ironic intention in her novel-
the source of evil is presented as being in the humans who created the
Frankenstein monster, rather than in the monster himself. Significantly,
she pictures her Frankenstein as teaching himself to read from Paradise
Lost- as if she recognized the extent to which Milton's epic had
influenced the perception of the Devil as a grotesque monster; Paradise
Lost , according to Mary Shelley, had even influenced Satan's own
Milton, T.S. Elliot And The Christadelphians
The Christadelphians, along with their adjunct Carelinks Ministries,
are the only significant sized denomination to formally reject the existence
of a superhuman Satan as an article of faith. Their beliefs are summarized
in their booklet, The Declaration. The following personal anecdote
from Ted Russell, former lecturer in English at the University of Western
Sydney, Australia, is interesting confirmation of what we have suggested
above: "There is something interesting about John Milton which concerns
Christadelphians. When we were in Birmingham in 1956 we asked John Carter
[late editor of The Christadelphian magazine] a question. We
had been to visit John Milton’s cottage in Buckinghamshire: “Why does
the mantle shelf over the fireplace in John Milton’s cottage have a brass
plate on it, on which are the words “John Milton... A kind of Christadelphian”,
attributed to T. S. Elliot? There were no Christadelphians around at the
time he was writing”. “Ah, we know about that,” John Carter said, “We
are aware that John Milton had the same ideas as we have about Satan and
many other things. Milton was a kind of Christadelphian, for he believed
as we believe, and in fact there is mention of him and that fact on the
inside back cover of The Declaration”. The point is not so much
that we recognize Milton, or not, but that T.S. Elliot recognized the
connection between Milton and the Christadelphians... This is why T.S.
Eliot in studying and understanding Milton‘s poetry as being figure, and
not literal, became aware of Milton’s real religious beliefs on the subject
in “Paradise Lost” and realized that he was “a kind of Christadelphian”
although Milton lived 200 years before Christadelphians were formed"
(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
(Cambridge: 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.
(5) Stanley Fish, Surprised By Sin (London: Macmillan, 1997)
(6) Neil Forsyth, The Satanic Epic (Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 2003) p. 66.
(7) G.B. Caird, The Revelation (London: A. & C. Black, 1984)
(8) J.B Russell, The Devil (Ithaca: Cornell University Press
1977) p. 158.
(9) See J.K. Brown, Goethe's Faust: The German Tragedy (Ithaca:
Cornell University Press, 1986).
(10) Email received from Ted Russell, 1/1/2007.