John Milton's "Paradise Lost" is a timeless classic. It's imagery, based itself upon 1500 years of previous Christian-cultural imagery, has shaped how the Western world views Christianity, sin, the fall, life, death, heaven, and hell.
The open-minded non-Christian reader would do well to read "Paradise Lost" to become a literate student of Christian imagery. The Christian, willing to work through the descriptive poetry, will gain new insight into Creation, Fall, and Redemption. In many ways, Milton bridges eras (the Middle Ages and the Reformation), cultures (Southern Europe and Northern), and religious groups (Catholic and Protestant).
It's interesting how much "folk theology" owes itself to Milton's "Paradise Lost." Modern views of the Devil, in particular, are often unknowingly based upon the poetic images from Milton. Fortunately, Milton is at his best in describing Satan, first as the unfallen Lucifer with all his glorious, God-created brilliance, and then as the fallen False Seducer in all his distorted and tormenting deceit.
For example, Milton speaks of how revenge, dark requital, propelled Satan's monstrous motives:
To waste his whole Creation, or possess all as our own, and drive as we were driven, the puny habitants, or if not drive, seduce them to our Party, that their God may prove their foe, and with repenting hand abolish his own works. This would surpass common revenge, and interrupt his joy in our confusion and our joy upraise in his disturbance; when his darling Sons hurled headlong to partake with us, shall curse their frail Original, and faded bliss, faded so soon (Milton, Paradise Lost, p. 40).
Surpassing common revenge, Satan lives to spite the Author of life.
By Satan, and in part proposed: for whence, but from the Author of all ill could spring so deep a malice, to confound the race of mankind in one root, and Earth with Hell to mingle and involve, done all to spite the great Creator? (Milton, Paradise Lost, p. 41).
Milton's depiction of the temptation in the Garden displays psychological brilliance and biblical insight into the nature of the human personality as designed by God and depraved by sin. Perhaps only C. S. Lewis' "Screwtape Letters" matches Milton's understanding of Satanic seduction.
For instance, so whose fault their fall? Milton, imagining God's words to Christ, declares:
For man will hearken to his glozing lies, and easily transgress the sole Command, sole pledge of his obedience. So will fall he and his faithless Progeny. Whose fault? Whose but his own? Ingrate, he had of me all he could have; I made him just and right, sufficient to have stood, though free to fall (Milton, Paradise Lost, p. 63).
Well put. Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall. Made just and right and able to choose. Adam and Eve had all they could have from the generous hand of God, yet they transgressed the sole command, the sole pledge of loving, trustful obedience. Loving allegiance they chose to grant to non-god rather than to Father God.
Whatever could possess them to trade their birthright for one bite of the one forbidden fruit? When we last spied earth's Villain, he was tumbling toward hell. Having lost the battle for heaven, his hostility and hate triggers a new plan. Why a second siege on heaven's gates, when earth's shores suggest easier prey? As Milton envisioned it:
Nor will occasion want, nor shall we need with dangerous expedition to invade Heaven, whose high walls fear no assault or siege, or ambush from the Deep. What if we find some easier enterprise? There is a place (if ancient and prophetic fame in Heaven err not), another World, the happy seat of some new Race called Man, about this time to be created like to us, though less in power and excellence, but favored more of him who rules above. So was his will pronounced among the Gods, and by an oath, that shook Heaven's whole circumference, confirmed (Milton, Paradise Lost, pp. 39-40).
Readers also could benefit from his less known work, "Paradise Regained." Many have mentioned how difficult it is to write a riveting book about Heaven since the drama of evil is defeated and thus the tension is deflated. Yet Milton captures one possible vision of a future Paradise/Heaven as well as most. (Randy Alcorn's book "Heaven" is, in my opinion, the best modern book on the topic).
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