Allow me to expand on the idea of God in Paradise Lost
At first glance God is tyrannical. God takes sides. And above all, it seems as if he holds prejudice against humanity as a whole. I mean what is the first thing God says about humanity?
“I made him just and right, Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall." (3.89-99)
“The first thing God in Paradise Lost does is basically an: “immediate and comprehensive condemnation of our species!”Victoria Silver, 43
And you know what’s worse than God condemning humanity in one sentence? The fact that the angels are okay with it! (3.135-37)
There is a difference between the idea of God in Paradise Lost or the idea of what we think God is. And Paradise Lost masterfully explores it. But not in the way you are thinking about! Because if you really think about it, when you first read Paradise Lost and encounter God as an omnipotent figure just chilling in his throne in Heaven; there’s something off.
And one of the first responses students have and one that I certainly had when I encountered these lines was something along the lines of: “Free to fall or destined to fall?” Because if god already knows what’s gonna happen and he created Eve and Adam, then isn’t it all just a big… joke or a play in which we all have a role to perform?
Which is why it is so easy to simply side with Satan and his “devilish propaganda” who sees God as an: “incumbent power “upheld by old repute,/ consent or custom”” (1.639-40) (Silver, 43)
I’m not saying that Dr. Manhattan is a God. But, he is useful in trying to understand the truth of God in Paradise Lost.
I’ve talked about angels before and how their ultimate purpose is to organize knowledge within the world of Paradise Lost. So let’s talk about Raphael. The angel Raphael warns Adam that he can only retell the War in the Heavens (and all that happens in the kingdom of heaven) if he likens it to something Adam’s mind can understand. Unlike Raphael, the Narrator in Paradise Lost never prepares the reader for the wicked and the divine.
In other words, the narrator never explicitly says that the way he describes God is not in a literal sense. Which causes readers to interpret God in the most literal way possible! As an old man with a beard sitting on a throne. When in fact, God is not to be taken on a literal sense. God and the Son, are meant to be obscure and hidden from the reader on purpose! But more on that later.
“I tried to picture clusters of information as they moved through the computer…”
The problem of God is trying to imagine him.
By trying to relate the “heavenly” bliss to humans, we accidentally lose some of it in translation. As Raphael points out when he relates the “War in the Heavens” to Adam in Book 7.
"High matter thou enjoins me, O prime of men, Sad task and hard, for how shall I relate To human sense th' invisible exploits Of warring spirits, how without remorse The ruin of so many glorious once And perfect while they stood; how last unfold The secrets of another world, perhaps Not lawful to reveal? yet for thy good This is dispensed, and what surmounts the reach Of human sense, shall I delineate so, By lik'ning spiritual to corporeal forms, As may express them best, though what if earth Be but the shadow of heaven, and things therein Each to other like, more than on earth is thought?" (7.563-76)
The narrator assumes that we are familiar with the “iconological fact” that God sits on a throne, with the son by his side and the holy spirit implied but unseen. You know, the holy Trinity and all that! But part of the problem is not with God himself, the problem stems from us wanting to represent God as a king. And what is a monarchy if not a tyrannical and oppressive form of government that must be overthrown?
God is real?
Yes, God speaks of his grace and mercy towards a fallen humanity but that only comes after he makes an “austere judgement on the frailty of his intelligent creatures” (Silver, 43)
In Book 3, Satan “replies to the unspoken thought raised in the minds of both speaker and reader” that God could have prevented the Fall and that he caused the revolt of humans and angels alike. Because God is the cause of all evil. Let that sink in.
But then Milton’s God speaks back:
"I formed them free, and free they must remain, Till they enthrall themselves: I else must change Their nature, and revoke the high decree Unchangeable, eternal, which ordained Their freedom, eternal they themselves ordained their fall." (3.120-28)
So, is this God washing his hands preventively? Or is there something else at play? Is there something we are not seeing? Or… Is there something we as human and mortal readers cannot perceive? Surely God cannot be this two-dimensional!
My university teacher asked me how do we reconcile free-will with the fact that god already knows what’s going to happen? I answered that perhaps God was like a clock maker or craftsman. And that the universe in Paradise Lost is like a clock that cannot be stopped. And that God perceives time in the same way that Dr. Manhattan perceives time in the graphic-novel “Watchmen” written by Alan Moore and Illustrated by Dave Gibbons.
Like Dr. Manhattan, God doesn’t speak so much as he proclaims. While “the Son, the mediator between divine and human, interprets “all that play-acting of the persons of the godhead.”” After all, God in Paradise Lost is a character in the poem. And he is bound to the story as the rest of the characters are. Because of this, God lacks the “mysterium tremendum” of biblical theophany, or in other words, God is not an:
“ambient fire shrouded in dark cloud and heralded by thunder” like the one encountered by Moses.Silver, 44
The only thing that allows any work of fiction to exist is time. The flow of time from beginning to end is what makes it all possible. It is what gives meaning to a story.
And for God, just like Dr. Manhattan and any comic book reader; past, present and future are happening at the same time.
Victoria Silver argues that God’s “speech sounds mechanical, casuistical in the pejorative sense and forced.” Because God in Paradise Lost doesn’t know things, for God, things just are.
I argue that God’s foreknowledge comes from him being uncreated. Because he doesn’t exist within the poem. Which is why “God is no tyrant” and “he repudiates the notion that his foreknowledge works like causal necessity upon his reasonable creatures, subjugating them to his will and a life of servile obedience that denies them the exes rise of the very intelligence that defines them” (Silver 45).
God exists in the poem but not as a character. What we as readers perceive as God, is only a fraction of his true existence, which is unknowable. This is where God in Paradise Lost differs from Dr. Manhattan.
We call him “God” because we don’t know his name. In Paradise Lost, the three letters are an abstract representation of the infinite being while the Son is his physical embodiment. And the fact that he knows what’s going to happen is because God exists outside of the universe in Paradise Lost. And Dr. Manhattan exists within the narrative of Watchmen, because he can be touched and seen and heard, all of the things God in Paradise Lost isn’t.
Calling Dr. Manhattan a God is misunderstanding God; because we are equating God to us, or in other words, we are making God like us. A physical being of immense power but nevertheless, a physical being. And God in Paradise Lost is everything but physical.
Remember when god states that the “high decree” is “unchangeable?” Well that’s because if God where to intervene then the universe, which is based on free will, would cease to exist. It would be like trying to alter the course of a watch that’s already ticking. Yes, god made everything, but he made a “free” universe. God created a universe defined by choice. Which in itself is the first choice made.
God doesn’t exist!
Satan in his oratory professes not to believe in God in Paradise Lost. Which means that he doesn’t believe in the “infinite and inconceivable creator of all things.” Instead, Satan chooses to see God as someone that exists like him. A physical being of immense strength, but physical nevertheless. Satan views God as the ultimate form of angelical being. Which is why he insists on calling angels “deities” and “gods” and it is part of why he revolts against Heaven.
To believe in God is to acknowledge that; one, God in Paradise Lost is uncreated and two, the rest of the universe is created. And to challenge God in Paradise Lost is to disregard “deity’s absolute distinction from the created world – the infinite and uncreated existence of the divine.”Victoria Silver
This all reminds me of something that my teacher in catholic school once said to me, which I never truly understand until I wrote this article. “God is powerful, and such is his power that he doesn’t even have to exist.”
I now understand why: God in Paradise Lost is uncreated. And that is what Paradise Lost is trying to teach us as readers. God in Paradise Lost is the creator. And that means that he is hidden and unknown, because he is uncreated.
That’s why Raphael relates the “War in the Heavens” to Adam and why Satan tempts Eve. Because even though the angels are “divine” they are still created beings. And humans can only understand other created things.
While characters move, God in Paradise Lost sits still. While Satan and his legions of fallen angels wreak havoc in the “War of the Heavens,” the Son simply vanishes them with a finger.
The Son and God in Paradise Lost are more than meets the eye. What we as readers see in the poem as god is “only what God wants us to know and understand about our relationship with him. It is what Milton would teach his reader.”
Whenever we see God in Paradise Lost speaking or thinking or hearing or what have you, we are only seeing separate features that do not coalesce into a body. They are the local contingent elements of God’s self revelation. We see figures of speech, the narrator presents accommodations to human understanding (Silver, 47).
These accommodations lead readers to suppose that the divine is like enough to humanity and that we can infer it’s invisible nature. Which is after all, the point of the poem. To explains the ways of God to Man. But, like any Jesus parable, if taken in a literal sense, God in Paradise Lost can seem as a despot and a tyrant oppressor. So, it is important to understand that God in Paradise Lost is more than what it seems.
To fully understand God in Paradise Lost, as readers you need to engage with the text using every human dimensions of meaning and understanding. And calling God a tyrant only reflects a deficient idea about God in Paradise Lost. Because if you think that God in Paradise Lost is a tyrant, that’s because you want the divine to be like the human.
And the point of the poem is to explain how different God is from humanity, or “man.”
If you read God in Paradise Lost in the most literal way, you will assume that God is evil. But, what you are actually doing is making God into us. Because as humans we cannot associate suffering to God. We want God to be pretty and digestible. We want God in Paradise Lost to be like us (Silver, 51).
Perhaps the Fall was always meant to happen. Perhaps it was the final step of creation. Maybe not.
In a world governed by a hidden God, truth and falsehood do not appear as such. And sometimes they are confused with one another. It’s important to discern what we see and what we think we see in Paradise Lost (silver, 51).
So what does the narrator show us in Milton’s heaven? And what are we not understanding?
God is not here
"The father first the sung omnipotent, Immutable, immortal, infinite, Eternal king; thee author of all being, Fountain of light, thyself invisible Amidst the glorious brightness where thou sitt’est Throne inaccessible, but when thou shad’st The blaze of thy beams and through a cloud Drawn round about thee like a radiant shrine, Dark with excessive bright thy skirts appear, Yet dazzle heaven, the brightest seraphim Approach not, but with both wings veil their eyes. Thee next they sang of all creation first, Begotten son, divine similitude, In whose conspicuous countenance, without cloud, Made invisible, th’ almighty father shines, Whom else no creature can behold; on thee Impressed the effulgence of his glory abides, Transfused on his ample spirit rests." (3.373-87)
God in Paradise Lost is not there. The only figure visible in heaven is the Son. He is the “personage image of God.” The Son is made where God is unmade, divine but not eternal. He is seen and heard where deity is hidden. Of divine nature bestowed but not original to him. Without the Son, God cannot act inside the created universe (Silver, 53).
In the Son’s exhaltation, Satan’s delusion of likeness to God is exploded. The acts of God in Paradise Lost defy process of speech and the constraints of time and space that speech encodes.
As the outcome of the “War in the Heavens” proves, Satan in his faithlessness reckons without Milton’s God, whose goodness infinite, goodness immense” (12.469) invariably brings out good out of evil. So did God in Paradise Lost caused Satan’s revolt or did Satan choose to do so? Also, Satan’s triumph over Eve and Adam is being undone by the Son’s self sacrifice in the future. Because it is all happening at once! Almost as if it all was predestined. But, if it was predestined, where they ever truly free?
You see how illogical it all is?
Good and evil are interchangeable in Paradise Lost. It’s easy to mistake one for the other. Perhaps for us, as human readers of a poem, God’s actions are evil and unjust. But to a God in Paradise Lost that exists outside of time and space and it’s not even real, it is all happening at the same time. Past, present and future.
In an illogical sense of predestination, God in Paradise Lost created a free universe, constrained by the boundaries of time and space. And once it started ticking, the universe would expand and collapse endlessly. With all things happening at once and all choices influencing every choice. The universe is a series of perfect events that fall into place one after the other, “immediate… more swift/ than time or motion” (7. 176-79)
I think I understand God in Paradise Lost now. All you have to do is accept that God doesn’t exist. Except when he does.
“Faith not only believes against the appearances of our own vanity demands of God, it is a feat of the imagination, a response to an interpretative dilemma that reveals less about deity than it does about ourselves.”Victoria Silver
- Silver, Victoria. “The Problem of God.” The Cambridge companion to Paradise Lost, edited by Louis Schwartz, Cambridge University Press, 2014, pp. 42-54.
- Moore, Alan , and Dave Gibbons. Watchmen No. 4. DC Comics, 1987.
- Tron Legacy. Directed by Joseph Kosinski, performances by Jeff Bridges and Olivia Wilde, Walt Disney Pictures., 2010.
- “See How They Fly.” Watchmen, created by Damon Lindelof, performances by Regina King, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Jeremy Irons, season 1, episode 9, HBO, December 15, 2019.
- “Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship.” Watchmen, created by Damon Lindelof, performances by Sara Vickers , Tom Milson, Jeremy Irons, season 1, episode 2, HBO, October 27, 2019.
- Paradise Lost by John Milton… duh
BEFORE YOU GO!
This was a pretty long article and it took a long time. If you enjoyed it and if it was useful to you then you may consider supporting me.
If you are into Milton then I recommend “Worlds of Omniscience” which is a science fiction tale divided in 10 chapters. But if you want something else, then I also have other type of stories from other genres.
I’m always working on something new and I am currently working on my first comic book! But more on that later.
The next article will deal with Naming in Paradise Lost or I may well just jump into the next theme that I have planned; First Nations Literature!!! I am a little tired.
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