Mesmerizing. Milton's Paradise Lost is a foundational, seminal item within the body of Western literature, and perhaps the most evocative exploration of the Judeo-Christian romance it has ever produced. It is revisionist religion, but Milton's lyrical touch rings of canon. Foremost an account of falling from God's grace, it is nevertheless Milton's discussion of free will and evil, and their place in a Cosmos engineered by an omnipotent Creator that haunts most readers. To reconcile these thorns to the rose of Heaven, and thus "justify the ways of God to men," is Milton's stated objective.
Many have found Paradise Lost a more perturbing than satisfying justification. Satan has been called the protagonist, even the hero of the poem. Indeed, Milton casts quite a magnificent figure in Satan: a redoubtable individualist, noble in defying the Almighty and resolute in suffering his vengeance. As for Satan's trespass that warrants eternal penalty, "ambition" is the charge, but the revolt seems more principled than an internecine power struggle. His machinations against man are vindictive, but not nefarious. R.J. Zwi Werblowsky has even argued that Satan resembles Prometheus, hence the name Lucifer ("bringer of light") - for as Prometheus conveyed fire to man, so Satan illuminates the bondage that man suffers under God and facilitates Man's liberation to the exercise of his own free will. Milton's God, on the other hand, resembles a despot suppressing all those who buck the reigns: an omnipotent entity who foretells (and so authors) man's fall to suffering yet throws his blameless hands in the air. As for the divine gift of "free choice", the espoused justification for punishment, it is a notion that seems illusory to Satan in that its catch is unconditional servitude. Concerning Satan and his fallen angels, God remarks that "Freely they stood who stood, and fell who fell." But in the Devil's eyes, there was no choice at all under heavenly service - to be "free to fall" is to be free to do only that, famously stating in Book I that "Here at least We shall be free....To reign is worth ambition though in Hell, Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven." So while the "Problem of Evil" is not adequately remedied by this "free to fall" rationalization, human suffering compounds by the generation. And as God countenances a world of pain, suffering, and death with the ability to cease it, one cannot help but deduce as Archibald Macleish did in his famous Job rewrite: "If God is God, he is not good. If God is good, he is not God." God is either omnipotent or righteous, but not both. If He is omnipotent, He must be evil because He has permitted evil. If He is righteous, He must be powerless because evil exists. Neither Macleish or Milton's Satan are persuaded by the 'free choice' justification for "the problem of evil".
So here man stands: mundane sport for a spiteful demon and sadistic creator, and absent the pre-assigned "Good" and "Evil" labels dogma has imputed to God and Devil, it isn't clear who plays who. Or maybe not. The literati including inter alia, Stanley Fish, have suggested that this interpretation (empathizing with 'evil' and blaming the 'good') is precisely Milton's design. Fish argues that Milton employed "rhetorical indirection" to have readers seduced by Satan's eloquence and inured to God's logic, thus revealing how contemporary man is as susceptible as ever to fall to the wiles of a serpent tongue. But if the way we read Paradise Lost, spurning God and defending those who did the same, is meant to reflect our fallen state, it is because Milton's words prove just as beguiling as that of the serpent. However, while Fish's theory does not mistake the charm of Satan (his words cast quite a spell), it does not rescue the "free to fall but not to know" logic of Milton's God that both prelapsarian and modern man have refused all the same. To tease knowledge by suggesting its ignorance, and to literally hold it over our heads within immediate reach, should hardly be permitted the designation of "temptation." It is a God ordained booby-trap. Satan's rhetoric is not so specious, God is not so logical, and ignorance preserves us no Eden. Then again, perhaps enchanted "with words cloth'd in reason's garb," count me among the fallen. But who couldn't nibble off of Milton's own Tree of Knowledge?
Atonement for himself or offering meet,
Indebted and undone, hath none to bring:
Behold mee then, mee for him, life for life
I offer, on mee let thine anger fall;
Account mee man.
(Christ, Book III)
Playing moral referee between God and Satan perhaps misses the point, because before one can blow the whistle and adjudge who threw the first punch, the true hero of Paradise Lost emerges. Christ. He is the only figure in Milton's epic who plays both lion and lamb - is the puissance who expels Satan, but also the Father's halcyon alter ego who ends the wrathful exchanges between Heaven and Hell: answering immortal hate with eternal love. Through Christ, God volunteers to suffer the evils he has hitherto inflicted upon man, and in taking some of his own medicine, a deity of limitless splendor debases himself to humanity and suffers pain and death with him. Thus Christ knows us because he was us, and He forgives our evil because he has personally understood it. It might not make Christianity true, but it sure makes it beautiful. While all the other Abrahimic religions scoff at the blasphemy, Christ saves man from his own doom and God from his own anger. By interceding to spare man the fate of Satan, man is afforded one more bite at the apple. Justice without love will only bring the creator wrath and the created suffering, thereby spoiling any hope for a paradise regained. Perhaps that is the enduring message of Milton's epic.