Milton’s Paradise Lost and His Justification of the Ways of God to Man
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When John Milton decided to write, he knew from the start he wanted his creation to be that of an epic. Paradise Lost is just that. It is Milton’s own take on the biblical story of Satan’s fall from grace as well as man’s fall. Milton was not only armed with an extensive knowledge on the Bible, but in everything a man of his time could learn. With his wisdom he emersed himself into his work, making Paradise Lost not only a tale of epic perportions, but one that would “Justify the ways of God to Man.” (I 26)
Even before reading Paradise Lost, I had always wondered why God allowed evil, and why he allowed death. After a while I had simply accepted that God was God, and what happens, happens. Basically an act of pure faith. Then I read Paradise Lost and as a Christian I do feel that Milton’s artistic vision has successfully helped him accomplish what he had set out to do. Staying true to the teachings of Christianity, his perception of man’s fall has made sense of why there is evil in the world. Not because of God, but because of the free will God has granted his creations.
Free will is both a blessing and a curse. Through free will God has made us independant in our own decision making. We have the power to choose right from wrong. Free will gives us power, and it is that power that can corrupt. The first character in Paradise Lost we are introduced to is Satan. He is the first being to be corrupted by his obsession with power, which stems from his free will. He chose his path, and that path lead him and those who followed him into eternal damnation by God.
God then creates the Earth, and on it Adam and Eve. Both are still granted with the power of free will, even after Satan had abused this power. God has still granted it to them and provides the paradise known as Eden for their home. It is there that they are told by God not to eat from the tree of knowledge, but because they have free will they have the freedom and power to choose whether or not to obey God.
Satan who is seeking revenge on God for throwing him into Hell makes his way to Eden. He then successfully persuades Eve to eat from the tree of knowledge. Eve then persuades Adam into eatting from the tree as well. This not only is direct disobedience to God, but a consequence of evil through sin. Adam and Eve both realize they are naked, signifying that they know what is right from wrong, thus they have fallen from grace.
Later in the book the arch-angel Michael tells Adam of God’s plan. The plan that Adam is foretold of is humanity’s salvation through the coming of God’s Son. Adam in his reflection of his sin, refers to it as “Felix Culpa”, which mean’s happy fall. This knowledge of salvation is why Adam refers to their fall as a happy one. Eventhough they had fallen from grace, God will eventually send his Son to grant them the grace they had lost when they ate from the tree of knowledge. Through the fall they will have to experience evil, but out of that evil Adam knows there will come good.
The evil humanity must experience is the result of Adam and Eve’s disobedience. This evil will consist of disease, sickness, suffering, and death, which all stems from their sin. Eventhough humanity shall have evil, it is through this evil that they shall experience good. The goodness of God’s mercy, love, compassion, forgiveness, and salvation. The knowledge of good and evil makes humanity more sincere in prayer and praise to God. The Son notices this in Book XI and discusses it with God.
This occurance of good from evil reminds me of the Greater Good Defense Philosophy. The Greater Good Defense is an argument for God’s allowence of evil to exist to benefit a greater good. Through the Greater Good Defense it is believed that the good achieved far exceeds the evil experienced. This defense was proposed by the philosopher John Hick who lived during the 1900s. The defense is strictly one that is derived through the Bible as well as a belief in God. I have no doubt that Milton had this same philosophical belief in mind even before there ever was a John Hick.
The proof is behind God’s final plan of man’s salvation through the death of his Son. In this plan for man’s salvation the end shall justify God’s means. Therefore justifing the problem of evil and reasons for allowing both sin and death to exist. This ultimate plan of God’s Milton presents in Paradise Lost is also a Greater Good Defense. Still, some might not understand why God finds it necessary to put his creations through this process. Milton shows us how this process benefits mankind who has fallen from grace, and also benefits God.
This process benefits man, because man will experience truth through free will. This truth is through only through God. Discovering something on one’s own is much more rewarding than simply recieving it from the beginning and because man fell he must work to gain God’s salvation through being true. Being true as in true obedience, love, honor, and faith. These works of truth are standards humanity must struggle with because of the initial fall from grace and now the problem of sin and evil. There is also the “truth” himself, God’s Son, who comes to humanity as it’s salvation, permitting them to once again achieve the grace of God.
All of this considered, how does this benefit God? If we make a chart with God at the top, and follow it down through all His creations capable of free will, then we would come to three different groupings capable of free will. These are the angels of heaven, the fallen angels, and humanity. God is the Father, and these three groups are his creations, or children. Through free will they are presented with the trials of choosing good or evil. The children create their own destiny. Those who use free will as God wants them to shall share in God’s true goodness. Free will causes separation among the children, and the Father is able to see which of his followerd are truly good and sincere.
It is just as Raphael tells Adam in Book VII. God created free will so that man could earn his way into God’s kingdom.
The ones who follow God and present themselves as most worthy earn what was lost to Adam and Eve. Through earthly suffering and the just use of free will humanity is once again able to obtain grace, but only through God can they become full of grace.
Milton also stresses one more important factor about God through out Paradise Lost. The fact that God is truly an all powerful and all knowing being. Milton never ceases to remind the reader of this, constantly applying this rule to the use of free will. Even though we have the power of free will, God is still all powerful because he can foresee our actions before they even happen.
Examples of this are presented in Book III where God tell’s his Son that man is going to fall even before Satan has attempted to tempt Adam and Eve. It is also presented in Book VIII where Adam recalls asking God for a mate and God tell’s Adam that he planned to give him a mate all along. These instances in Milton’s writing shows how God has already made his plan and knows everything that is going to happen within that plan.
Not only does Milton have God show us his own supreme greatness through out Paradise Lost, but he also has the fallen angels discuss it in Book II. As the chief fallen angels discuss how to continue the battle with their enemies in Heaven, Belial reminds those in his company that God is incorruptable. The fact that even the fallen angels, who despise God, know that he is almighty gives us an even greater view of God’s omnipatence in Paradise Lost.
Milton really put everything he had into this epic piece and I believe he succeeded in creating a masterpiece capable of justifying God’s ways to his fellow men and women. The way he chose to depict man’s fall and the subject of free will enabled him to utilize his religious philosophy and creatively captivate readers in his time as well as today.