Is John Milton’s God a Good God?

Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889), The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Paradise, oil on canvas, private collection. 

During John Milton’s life, England experienced a great deal of religious turmoil as the Puritan movement sought to reform the Church of England. With this movement, predestination gained recognition with the teachings of John Calvin, whose main doctrinal points were: total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints (better remembered as TULIP). Opposed to the Calvinistic teachings, Jacobus Arminius, who founded Arminianism, denied the existence of predestination by countering each one of Calvin’s five points and adding three of his own: equal and impartial love, libertarian free will, and universal call for salvation. Residing between two opposing theological ideologies, John Milton, considered a compatibilist because of his work in De Doctrina Christiana, believed free will and predestination were compatible and could not exist apart. As religious conflict was a dominant component of English society during his lifetime, Milton’s work, Paradise Lost, reveals the conflict inherent in 16th century society, and his attempt to reconcile what appeared to be irreconcilable religious beliefs has remained to this day a subject for academic debate. While his work conjures up a plethora of questions that induces much controversy, one question in particular that has retained its importance within critical discussions on Paradise Lost is whether or not Milton’s character of God is a good God or a bad God. Since Milton first avowed to “justify the ways of God to men” in the opening book of Paradise Lost, Milton’s depiction of God has resulted in many interesting debates in which critics have used several different approaches, such as theology, aesthetics, and theory, including both psychoanalysis and structuralism, focusing primarily on the narrative form, to determine whether or not Milton succeeded in his goal (Paradise 1:26).

Theological arguments about God’s character abounded in the mid-20th century between C. S. Lewis and William Empson, who was considered an Anti-Miltonist by reader response critic Stanley Fish. To begin, Lewis, in his famous monograph, A Preface to “Paradise Lost,”  worked to reverse the effects Romanticism had over Miltonic criticism and return to the time in which Milton was remembered as a Christian poet, not of the “Devil’s party” ever since the infamous line by William Blake, a critic during the Romantic period, who said that Milton “was of the Devil’s party without knowing it” as well as the other famous Romantic critic, P. B. Shelley, who argued that Milton attributed “no superiority of moral virtue to his God over his Devil” (Blake 211, Shelley 1107, Rudnytsky 255). Lewis, unlike the Romantic critics, who attributed no “superiority” to Milton’s God, celebrated how the “degrees of value are objectively present in the universe” and “the goodness, happiness, and dignity of every being consists in obeying its natural superior and ruling its natural inferiors” (Lewis 73). Furthermore, Lewis adds that “the great moral which reigns in Milton is…that Obedience to the will of God makes men happy and that Disobedience makes them miserable… If you can’t be interested in that, you can’t be interested in Paradise Lost” (Lewis 71). Ultimately, Lewis argues that those who criticize Milton’s God simply “dislike God” in general (Lewis 130).

While Lewis opposed the Romantic critics, Empson in his work Milton’s God actually adopts the same vein of argument as Blake and Shelley, “who said that the reason why the poem is so good is that it makes God so bad” (Empson 13). Poetically, Empson appreciates Milton’s work and even his representation of God saying that “the poem is not good in spite of but especially because of its moral confusions,” but as a work of theology, Empson finds fault with Milton’s God (Empson 13). Though he agrees with Lewis that Milton’s God is “merely the traditional Christian God, to Empson, “the Christian God the Father…is the wickedest thing yet invented by the black heart of man” because of his sadistic treatment of his Son (Empson 25). Empson believed that for the Son to bargain with God in regards to his death on the cross, God first has to have a “craving to torture his Son” (Empson 246). Furthermore, the scene in Paradise Lost in which Satan is deluded by God into believing he has escaped, by his own power, from the Stygian lake, which ultimately leads to the Fall of Man, strengths Empson’s claim that God “was determined to make man fall” and also that he “intended to lead [Satan] into greater evil” (Empson 112, 42). In the end, Empson argues that the only way the poem can be read without a “growing horror” is to “reject its God” (Empson 25). To Fish, however, Empson is not a “fit reader” because he does not do justice to Paradise Lost, which is “in favor of the epic voice rather than an eagerness to put that voice on trial,” and if one were to consider Lewis’ comment, Empson’s argument becomes diluted because the only reason he attacks and rejects Milton’s God is because he already doesn’t like the Christian God, making him a biased reader as Fish would argue.

According to Peter Rudnytsky in his article “Freud as Milton’s God: Mapping the Patriarchal Cosmos in Psychoanalysis and Paradise Lost,” Lewis has “gained the upper hand over the Romantic scion” that is Empson, whose baseless attacks focus more on “the metaphysical truth claims of Christianity” than on Milton’s God, within this critical debate over Milton’s God (Rudnytsky 259). However, Rudnytsky suggests a way in which the debate could turn in Empson’s favor. Rather than focus on the obviously subjective, atheistic claims made by Empson against God, Rudnytsky says that Empson’s arguments about the character of God when looked at through a psychoanalytic framework hold ground against theologians like Lewis as well as critics like Fish. For instance, Empson’s comparison of God to a parent when he says, “A parent who ‘foresaw’ that the children would fall and then insisted upon exposing them to the temptation in view would be considered neurotic, if nothing worse; and this what we must ascribe to Milton’s God,” only holds water when looked at comparatively to John Rumrich’s work Matter of Glory: A New Preface to “Paradise Lost” as well as Bernard J. Paris’ Heaven and Its Discontents: Milton’s Characters in “Paradise Lost,” which focus more heavily on psychoanalysis (Empson 116).

In his work, Rumrich writes about the theme of glory in Milton’s work and says that “from psychoanalytic perspective, the usual emphasis of Milton scholars on oedipal issues of law, obedience, and punishment has resulted in the corresponding neglect of the epic’s primary, pervasive concern with negotiations between narcissistic longing for perfect recognition and the recalcitrance of an unresponsive reality” (Rumrich 4). Expanding on Rumrich’s idea of “narcissistic longing for perfect recognition,” Paris boldly proclaims that God is the narcissist, who “is extremely dependent on others,” and through his dependence, Heaven is unmasked as a “glory system” (Paris 43, 11). To explain the glory system, Paris uses the quote by Raphael – “freely we serve / because we freely love” – to argue that although Heaven appears to be based on freedom it is actually based on “coercion and the threat of punishment for disobedience; all that remains “is a choice between service freely rendered and service exacted against his will,” and to Paris, such a choice is “ominous when it is seen to be a manifestation of God’s narcissism” (Paradise 5: 539, Fish 18, Rudnytsky 269).

For further explanation, Paris draws a parallel from Shakespeare’s King Lear and the love test Lear gives to his daughters to God and his treatment of Lucifer and His Son because both father figures reward the child that gives them what they want. Not only a narcissistic parent that picks favorites among his children, Paris also argues that Milton’s God is an abusive parent while his children, i.e. Adam and Eve, exhibit self-blame, which is typically found in trauma victims. Under the guise of free will, Paris, in attending to Adam’s response after the fall in which he “absolve[s]” God and blames himself, argues that God invariably convinces humans that the fall is their fault when in actuality it is God who caused the events that led to their fall from innocence. A quote by Donna Orange clearly expounds on Paris’ argument: “‘[trauma] always included two moments if it were to become pathogenic” the original shocking repetitive abuse or neglect’ – God’s series of actions that lead to the Fall – ‘followed by the disavowal, hypocrisy, and rejection both by the perpetrators and by others to who the devastated child might have turned’ – the brainwashing of Adam and Eve by God and his deputies into believing that they are the guilty ones’” (Orange 79, Rudnytsky 272). In using Paris’ psychoanalysis of God’s character, who he considers an abusive father figure, Empson’s original rejection of Milton’s God as being good turns the table on Lewis’ argument, at least in Rudnytsky’s opinion.

The other critical debate that interests Rudnytsky focuses on Fish versus A. J. A. Waldock, who like Empson was labeled an Anti-Miltonist. While Lewis and Empson argued on the basis of whether or not Milton succeeded in “justifying the ways of God to man,” Fish and Waldock focus their attention on the issue of whether or not Paradise Lost is a consistent or self-contradictory piece of poetry. To Waldock, Adam’s decision to fall with Eve induces “two incompatible responses” – to believe that Adam did both right and wrong – but for Fish, these conflicting responses are consistent with Milton’s intention by positing that Milton expects his readers to view the conflict “in a context that would resolve a troublesome contradiction and allow him to reunite with an authority who is a natural ally against the difficulties of the poem” (Waldock 56, Fish 47). Fish argues that the poem can only be read as inconsistent, as Waldock argues when he points out the clash between Adam’s love for Eve and his obedience to God, if it is read “from a point of view that excludes God,” and Fish, as a reader response critic, claims that such a reading is a fault of “the distorted perception of the reader rather than in the flawless design of the poem” because no clash can exist when readers align themselves with God’s point of view (Fish 264, Rudnytsky 257). While Waldock’s emphasis on the structural contradictions that he deemed to be defects appear convincing, Rudnytsky argues that a stalemate exists between the two debaters because Waldock’s claim cannot assail Fish’s declaration that all those who oppose him are simply fallen readers.

Much in the same way that he used psychoanalytic theory to support Empson’s argument, Rudnytsky suggests that Waldock’s argument may trump his opposition so long as it is viewed through a theoretical framework. Using Kenneth Burke, Waldock’s argument moves away from the theological approach to God and towards the logological approach, or in other words the rhetorical and narrative approach that focuses on the way in which God is presented in Paradise Lost rather than on the metaphysical claims of truth connected to Christianity. In essence, Burke’s logology acts to highlight the “inescapable contradiction[s]” Waldock argued about but was unable to clearly explain, such as the conflict between the God’s foreknowledge and the notion that Adam and Eve possess free will (Rudnytsky 256). To elucidate, Burke shows how free will cannot exist from a logological perspective:

Theologically, Adam could have chosen not to sin, he could have said yes to God’s thou-shalt-not. But logologically, Adam necessarily sinned. For if he had chosen not to sin, the whole design of the Bible would have been ruined…Logologically, to say that Adam didn’t have to sin would be like saying that Oedipus didn’t have to kill his father and marry his mother, except that in the case of Ada, it looks like more of a choice. (Burke 252).

In other words, Burke is arguing that if considered a narrative then the story of the fall and the idea that Adam had a choice is nothing but an illusion because the reader knows the outcome in advance as it must match the “whole design of the Bible.” The logology and theology are at odds with one another because the narrative structure of the poem requires that the reader turn a blind eye to the hegemonic theology and entertain the notion of free will. Like Empson who found difficulty accepting the passage of Satan escaping from the Stygian lake by his own will, Waldock cannot accept the paradoxical line, “the will / And high permission of all-ruling Heaven,” or the line, “with reiterated crimes he might / Heap on himself damnation, while he sought / Evil to others” (Paradise 1:210-215). To Waldock, this scene is not an example of free will but rather it shows that only by God’s permission can action take place, and in accordance with Burke’s theory, the narrative has to match the Biblical narrative so ultimately the notion that Satan has a choice in what he does is foolish. Yet despite this logological attack on free will, Lewis and Fish both ascribe to the Augustinian idea that “though God has made all creatures good He foreknows that some will voluntarily make themselves bad and also foreknows the good use which He will then make of the badness” (Lewis 67). This debate then reaches an impasse resembling the rabbit-duck paradigm as Rudnytsky argues that Paradise Lost can be approached either theologically or logologically but not both simultaneously (Rudnytsky 263).

Like Rudnytsky’s conclusion that Milton’s God can be either good or bad depending on which perspective the reader chooses – theology or logology in regards to free will – Samuel Fallon in his essay “Milton’s Strange God: Theology and Narrative Form in Paradise Lost” argues that “positive theology demands negative poetry,” which is based on Joseph Fletcher’s theological poem, which incidentally left out any mention of God in it, because to Fletcher, in accordance to William Ames Calvinistic belief, one’s “understanding of divine action is a convenient illusion” (Fallon 34). So instead of focusing on the issue of free will versus predestination that was the central conflict of the debate between Lewis/Fish and Empson/Waldock, Fallon focuses on the incompatibility of God’s immutability and his ability to act – can God act if he is unchanging? Is there any point in trying to justify the ways of God to man as Milton did? For Fletcher and Ames, the answer is no, evident by Fletcher’s avoidance of bringing God into narrative form, which would require bringing an eternal and infinite God into temporal punctuality, but Fallon, focusing on Milton’s narrative, particularly the relationship between God the Father and his Son, attempts to understand how an eternal being can enter into a temporal world. Even Milton, within his more methodical systematic theology of De Doctrina Christiana, addresses this conflict when he says, “Admittedly, God is always described or outlined not as he really is but in such a way as will make him conceivable to us. Nevertheless, we ought to form just such a mental image of him as he, in bringing himself within the limits of out understanding, wishes us to form” (Doctrina 6:133). In other words, narrative, according to Milton himself, will never accurately depict God as he truly is, but regardless, Milton attempts to explain the metaphysical issue of God acting in time in his epic poem through his depiction the relationship between Father and Son. For instance, in Book 10, when the Son descends to earth to dispense punishment to Adam and Eve, his distinction as the Son is replaced with “the more ambiguous and expansive God,” whereas in heaven the distinction is clearly made between the Father and the Son distinguishing them as two different entities, but on earth they merge to become one (Fallon 41). By losing the distinction, Milton can keep the Father “safely beyond this world” (Fallon 42). The issue appears not only in Book 10 but throughout the poem as it highlights the Father’s ineffability by instead describing the Son as seen in Book 3, “Beyond compare the Son of God was seen / Most glorious, in him all his Father shone / Substantially expressed, and in his face / Divine compassion visibility appeared” (Paradise 3:138-41). In this scene, the Son is turned into the sign of the Father, referencing William Shullenburger’s argument of structural linguistics in regards to this filial relationship. As Fallon argues, the Son acts first as the signifier, or the representative, of the Father and then slowly guides him into self-expression removing him from “inaccessible limbo” (Fallon 43).

To explain himself, Fallon references the Father’s speech, the Son’s plea, and the angel’s hymn in Book 3. Starting with the initial speech by the Father, Fallon reminds his readers that the Father, who despite his thundering presence, is not understood by his angels as they only grasp an “ambrosial fragrance” and a “[s]ense of new joy ineffable diffused” (PL 3:135, 137). However, once the Son engages the Father and acts as mediator by redirecting the speech away from the Father’s “dry logic” not understood by the angels towards a plea to save humanity, the Father responds more fluidly with a prophetic story to assure man’s salvation seen in lines 3:175-82 with the dialogue eventually ending more smoothly than his first speech as the angels sing; through the Son, the Father is “coax[ed]…into personality, into sociability, into narrative” (Fallon 43-44). Without the Son to mediate though, the Father’s words are lost in translation evident when he honors the Son, which ends in disaster as it is the moment that leads to Satan’s rebellion; ultimately, the Father needs the Son. Furthermore, Fallon addresses the angels themselves by calling them unreliable narrators because like humans they are “locked in time and place” and are “attempting to understand the events they have just witness, to make sense of this God and his Son…they are liable to misread God” (Fallon 49). The angels too in the way they refer to the Son reinstates the hierarchy of the Father as superior to the Son, in their hymn on lines 3:372-415, as they continually follow their praise of the Son with prepositions referencing the Father. Despite the Son who is the one hurling the thunderbolts, for instance, the Father is actually credited with praise – “He heaven of heavens and all the powers therein / By thee created, and by thee three down” (Paradise 3:390-91). These prepositional phrases – “He by thee” and “Son of they Father” – are the “only way to keep the Father in the story. The action belongs to the Son” (Fallon 51).

Even though Fallon reveals how the Father, by means of his Son, interacts with his creation through dialogue, he addresses how the Father still exists outside of the poem’s narrative by pointing out how “an immutable God cannot become human or die,” making him appear vulnerable, even impotent, in comparison to the Son, which reveals the structural problem unavoidable within the narrative – “the limited sphere of action in which the Father can move” (Fallon 45). He cannot do what the Son or Satan can do, which is “match the story’s progression with any growth of his own;” he is not a dynamic character making him uninteresting to readers, who can more easily sympathize with Satan or the Son as they are better equipped for narrative (Fallon 47). After comparing the dynamic and static status of the characters, Fallon draws his conclusion:

[God] resists narrative expression, and even when the Son gradually leads him into it, his entrance remains in many ways hollow. He never quite belongs, and is never completely understood either by his angelic audiences within the poem or by his readers outside of it. Ultimately, it is not hard to see how this metaphysical remoteness could be translated into ethical estrangement, into personal coldness and indifference. (Fallon 47)

Finally, Fallon finishes with the statement that “God is, if not inexpressible, better left unexpressed” because “God fails narrative as much as narrative fails God” (Fallon 52).

Whereas most critics thus far have tended to see Milton’s theological and poetic impulses as mutually antagonistic, believing that the poem’s theology makes God attractive and Satan unattractive, while the poem’s poetry does the opposite, Joel Slotkin, on the other hand, in his article “Poetic Justice: Divine Punishment and Augustinian Chiaroscuro in Paradise Lost,” argues that these elements – the theology and poetry of Milton’s poem – work together to create the dual character of God because as structuralism teaches, something is only understood by its opposite. To support his argument, Slotkin uses aesthetics, primarily sinister aesthetics, as well as the Augustinian chiaroscuro, “the fusion of light and dark,” to analyze God’s character, in effect “presenting divine punishment and the infernal as a source of aesthetic pleasure” so as to “grant God some of the appeal of a Renaissance literary villain” (Slotkin 101). Essentially, Slotkin’s aim aligns with Milton’s ultimate purpose; he wants to justify the ways of God, especially God’s justification of the existence of evil and to first achieve this Slotkin references Milton’s De Doctrina to create a theological baseline of what God’s relationship with evil is. To summarize, Milton believes in the Augustinian concept previously summarized by Lewis, which is that God creates good but foreknows that some will choose to be bad – a badness that he also foreknows how to make good. Additionally, within De Doctrina, Milton also makes the claim that God’s providence governs both evil and good occurrences, and he clearly “distinguishes between the evil that God permits”, which is “malum culpæ,” the evil of crime, and “the evil that God causes,” which is “malum pœnæ,” the evil of punishment (Slotkin 103).

Upon describing Milton’s theological standpoint on the existence of divine evil, Slotkin moves on to explain how Milton’s theology fits within sinister aesthetics by labeling God as a “sinister allegorist” because he “afflicts his creations with punishments (malum pœnæ) that are horrible representation of their own evil for artistic purposes, namely to delight and instruct heavenly and human audiences” (Slotkin 106). So by punishing evil with evil, Milton’s God falls into the Augustinian chiaroscuro as he possesses elements of both light and dark, evident by his creation of both heaven and hell. Even within heaven itself, Raphael says that God elicits from his angels a “grateful vicissitude” as he alternates between day and light – “(For we have also our evening and our morn, / We ours for change delectable, not need)” – which because of its normative aesthetic variety not its practicality gives pleasure (PL 6:8, 5:628-29). As for hell, God designs it using the same chiaroscuro elements but with a sinister twist as he alters between ice and fire; because Satan attempted to pervert God’s heavenly design, God punishes him with an inverted “hellish” heaven – the punishment must befit the crime. As they are his creations, heaven and hell reveal the light and dark qualities belonging to God that fall into both normative aesthetics as well as sinister aesthetics, which is exemplified by the Son, who is Milton’s chiaroscuro vision of God as he is both savior and punisher (Slotkin 112). Though Slotkin incorporates the normative aesthetic virtue of God’s character, he devotes more attention to the sinister because it acts as both a descriptive and proscriptive medium that teaches readers the importance of “internal worship” (D 6:656). In the end, Slotkin concludes that Milton’s God can be best understood by his aesthetically appealing darkness that balances his light, by his chiaroscuro combination of sinister as well as normative, and lastly by his use of divine punishment (Slotkin 120). These three aspects of God’s character that Slotkin highlights show that “Milton’s own use of the sinister is not his poetic self rebelling against his religious self, but rather his poetic self enabling his internal worship” (Slotkin 120).

In the end, Paradise Lost is, for some, such as Empson, a great work of literature lacking in theological truths, and for others like Waldock, Milton’s work is a poetic fail riddled with contradictions. To these men, Fallon concludes that a positive theology cannot exist within narrative. Then there are the other critics like Lewis and Fish as well as Slotkin who find no fault with the theology in Milton’s epic poem. So whether analyzed on the basis of theology, theory (psychoanalysis and structuralism), or aestheticism, the character of God within John Milton’s Paradise Lost is, to this day, an irresolvable issue.

Works Cited

Blake, William. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. New York: Oxford University Press, 1956. Print. 210–215

Burke, Kenneth. The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology. Berkeley: University of California, 1970. Print.

Empson, William. Milton’s God. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981. Print.

Fallon, Samuel. “Milton’s Strange God: Theology and Narrative Form in Paradise Lost.” ELH 79.1 (2012): 33-57. Project MUSE. Web. 16 Dec. 2015.

Fish, Stanley E. Surprised by Sin: The Reader in “Paradise Lost.” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971. Print.

Lewis, C. S. A Preface to “Paradise Lost.” London: Oxford University Press, 1971. Print

Milton, John. De Doctrina Christiana. See The Complete Prose Works of John Milton. Ed. Don Wolfe, Vol. 8. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1953. Print.

—. Paradise Lost. ed. Alastair Fowler. 2nd ed. Harlow: Longman, 1998. Print.

Orange, Donna M. The Suffering Stranger: Hermeneutics for Everyday Clinical Practice. New York: Routledge, 2011. Print.

Paris, Bernard J. Heaven and Its Discontents: Milton’s Characters In Paradise Lost. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2010. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 24 Dec. 2015.

Rudnytsky, Peter L. “Freud as Milton’s God: Mapping the Patriarchal Cosmos in Psychoanalysis and Paradise Lost.” American Imago 71.3 (2014): 253-287. Project MUSE. Web. 16 Dec. 2015.

Rumrich, John P. Matter of Glory: A New Preface to “Paradise Lost.” Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1987. Print

Shelley, Percy B. A Defence of Poetry. In R.B. Noyes (ed.), English Romantic Poetry and Prose New York: Oxford University Press, 1956. Print. 1097-1112.

Slotkin, Joel. “Poetic Justice: Divine Punishment and Augustinian Chiaroscuro in Paradise Lost.” Milton Quarterly 38.2 (2004): 100-27. Wiley Online Library. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Web. 16 Dec. 2015.

Waldock, A.J.A. “Paradise Lost” and Its Critics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966. Print.


Published by: andreahektner

I am Texan - born and raised - whose passions lie in praising Jesus Christ and making my family proud. These passions have led me to getting an English degree from the University of Texas at Arlington, where I am a recent graduate. Over the course of my undergraduate, I've enjoyed analyzing the human condition whether it's through literature, film/television, and art with a philosophical, theoretical, and theological lens, and it is with this blog that I hope to share some of my past work and future writings.

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