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Introduction to Paradise Lost
- by Ian Johnston -

Justification of God's Ways: Part I

The centre of Milton's narrative is the creation myth of the Israelites as seen through the eyes of a Protestant Christian. In this story, the original paradisal perfection of human existence is shattered by the disobedience of the first couple, Adam and Eve, to God's express prohibition. As a result of the punishment God metes out for this disobedience, the human beings and their descendants are punished with suffering and death. Hence, the evil in the world exists as a result of human disobedience. Evil is divine punishment for human sin.

How can one provide a rational justification for God's actions in this ancient story? The short answer to that question is that one cannot. It is impossible to provide any sort of reasonable justification which does not end up making God look contradictory and bad. The reason for this is simple: God of Genesis is the only God, He is omnipotent, and omniscient and the creator of everything. Thus, he is the source of everything and, in the very process of creating man and woman, knows exactly what they are going to do in the future. Any evil we may wish to locate in Adam and Eve and the serpent (or any of the rebellious angels) thus has its origin in God. Hence, God or part of God is the origin of evil. This is an eternal logical puzzle endemic to monotheistic religions: we all know that evil exists in the world; if we believe there is only one God, the creator of everything, then He must have created that evil. How can we reconcile this with a belief that God is good. The short answer is that we cannot. We have to conclude either that God is partly evil or that the entire business is a mystery which cannot be accounted for rationally.

This analysis of the Genesis story is hardly new. One of the major problems with this story is that it makes the explanation of evil very difficult to establish reasonably. Hence, popular Christianity had to invent the devil and raise him almost to the level of God himself. In a dualistic universe, evil can be explained with reference to the bad god or to the conflict between the good and the bad god. Teaching people unable to appreciate the appeal of the mystery what Christianity has to say about the presence of evil in the world has always converted the monotheistic basis of Christianity into a dualistic vision (official Christian doctrine is firmly monotheistic; popular Christianity has always had a strong Manichean element of duality). That has always made Christianity much easier to explain to the masses (hence the Devil is especially prominent in grass roots religion like Roman Catholicism and radical Protestantism). However, the rational difficulties (which do not arise in popular sermonizing) remain.

How does one deal with the impossibility of a rational justification of God's conduct? Well, one way, the one adopted by the ancient Israelites, is to insist that God is an impenetrable mystery and that it is beyond the power of human beings to grasp that mystery. In fact, they are simply duplicating Adam's and Eve's sin when they try. The appropriate response to God is to worship Him without question as a formless mystery. This may be the reason behind the Israelite prohibition on conceiving God in any realizable form: thou shalt not take unto thee any graven image. Some people have suggested that this the line we must take with Milton's poem. For reasons which will be apparent later, I do not think that response is possible.

A second response, the one created by Christian doctrine, is to attach to this story of the fall the story of Jesus from the New Testament and to claim that God's plan does have a benevolent rationality because it includes redemption and a later reunion with God in Heaven. In other words, the existence of evil is only temporary; through the benevolence of God human beings will find paradise again. Thus, the fall becomes, in effect, the fortunate fall.

I am not going to attempt any exploration of these two responses in general. Milton draws on both traditions, and defenders of Milton have appealed to them to make the claim that the poem lives up to its declared intention. In doing this, many critics turn debates about this poem into debates about Christian doctrine. What matters here, however, is not centuries of Christian disputes over these questions but rather Milton's presentation of these ideas within the context of the poem. In other words, when we are dealing, as we are here, with a poem which is discussing ideas, we need to focus on, not the ideas themselves, but on the poetic presentation of them.

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"Lecture on Milton's Paradise Lost"

Author: Ian Johnston

Site: johnstonia


Paradise Lost As an Epic Poem

Milton as a Protestant

The Critical Debate over Paradise Lost: Some General Comments

Some Initial Interpretative Considerations: Will and Imagination

Some Narrative Considerations

Justification of God's Ways: Part I

A Digression: The Problem of "Philosophical" Poetry

Justification of God's Ways: Part 2

The Opening Drama



Adam and Eve

Some Final Observations

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