Perhaps no poet except Shakespeare has been more revered than John Milton, and no one should love him more than the Latter-day Saints. We find ourselves saying, “Yes, yes,” as we read him, because he speaks truths from the heart—truths based on scriptural study and earnestly sought inspiration. Nowhere is his poetic gift more evident nor his religious truths more stimulating than in his great epic poem, Paradise Lost. Milton saw himself as a kind of “poet-priest,” and it was his desire to write a great Christian poem. This aging, totally blind poet time and again called upon the divine spirit to assist him in writing Paradise Lost. In his opening argument to Book I, he cries, “Sing Heav’nly Muse, … Thou O Spirit … Instruct …” He opens Book III with “Hail holy Light,” and continues with this plea:
We cannot expect to agree, of course, with every single doctrinal point in this 17th century work, and yet the poem corroborates some of the truths of the restored gospel. Milton includes in this great work an account of pre-earth activities in heaven and Adam and Eve’s existence in the Garden of Eden as well as a treatment of the great doctrinal issues of the creation, the war in heaven, the fall, the atonement, and the nature of the Godhead. Paradise Lost actually seems to anticipate religious doctrines that had been lost and were not to be preached and believed again by great numbers of people until the restoration of the gospel by Joseph Smith more than a century and a half later.
We know that Satan rebelled against the Father because his plan to deprive the children of the earth of their free agency was not accepted in the heavenly councils. Recall that in Moses, chapter 4 [Moses 4], Satan is reported to have volunteered to be the redeemer of the earth, guaranteeing that “one soul shall not be lost,” on this condition: “wherefore give me thine honour.” Satan wanted position and power equal to the Father’s.
Milton seems to have felt, like us, that ambition, Satan’s desire for high position and personal glory, was his chief failing. Paradise Lost stirringly captures this trait in Satan:
Even though cast out of heaven, Satan is still not repentant. He cries,
(I. 262, 263)
The War in Heaven
The rebellion of Satan and his angels, of course, led to the war in heaven and their expulsion from the Father’s presence. Milton even specifies (IV. 156) that “A third part of the Gods” were ejected with Lucifer. In Paradise Lost Michael and Gabriel are sent to lead the righteous forces against the evil warriors during the first two days of this unusual battle. Then on the third day the Father calls upon the Son:
The Son goes forth girt in the Father’s might and drives the terror-stricken rebels toward a great pit. They plunge over, and the Son returns triumphant.
The angel Raphael, who has been describing the war to Adam, then warns him about the designs of Satan—that to get revenge against God Satan will try to tempt Adam to his own destruction. He cautions Adam against the sin of disobedience, the very sin that destroyed the rebel angels.
With a third of the population of heaven gone, the Father determines to “repair/That detriment … lest his [Satan’s] heart exalt him in the harm/Already done” by creating “Another World, out of one man a Race/Of men innumerable.” (VII. 152–156.) Milton even seems to have foreseen the eventual celestialization of the earth, for the Father goes on to say,
(VII. 160, 161)
Milton’s account of the Creation in Paradise Lost is a magnificent piece of poetry, following essentially traditional lines, but full of rich detail and splendid conception. It is interesting, though, that Milton seems to have rejected the widely-held 17th century doctrine that God created the earth from nothing. He sees instead the creation as a process of organizing already existent matter:
(VII. 232, 233)
It is interesting too, that Milton does not have the work of the creation performed by the Father. Rather, in harmony with the restored gospel, he has the Father appoint the Son to the task:
The Fall of Man
In both Genesis and Paradise Lost the creation of man in God’s image is followed immediately by a warning to man that he should not partake of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The penalty for disobedience is death. The fall of man, as suggested by the title, is central to Paradise Lost. The chief effect of the Fall, says Milton, is that it “brought into this World a world of woe,/Sin and her shadow Death, and Misery/Death’s Harbinger.” (IX. 11–13.) Milton recognizes the gravity of the transgression committed by Adam and Eve, but nowhere do we see him purposely degrading man or suggesting that because of the Fall man is destined always to do only evil. Pronouncements like this one by William Whately in The New Birth (1618) do not occur in Milton’s writing:
“A man in the state of corrupt nature, is nothing else but a filthy dunghill of all abominable vices: Hee is a stinking rotton carrion, become altogether unprofitable and good for nothing: his heart is the divils store-house, an heap of odious lusts; his tongue is a fountaine of cursing and bitternesse, and rotton communication; his hand is a mischievous instrument of filthinesse, deceit, and violence; his eyes great thorowfares of lust, pride, and vanity; … his life a long chaine of sinfull actions, every later link being more wicked then the former. …” (Pp. 7–8.)
Milton recognizes that because of the Fall man is prone to sin, and he presents a rather dramatic change in Adam and Eve after they partake of the fruit. They experience passions they had not known before—fleshly appetites, contentiousness, defiance—and they become aware of their nakedness. But a central theme of the later books of Paradise Lost is the education of Adam to an understanding of his own weakness and his subsequent need for repentance and obedience. Fallen Adam, and hence mankind, Milton seems to assert, is at a disadvantage, being removed from the presence of God. He is likely to sin, yet he still has agency to choose the right way. He need not sin if he chooses not to. And, in fact, the Father will even send a redeemer to guarantee man’s return to his presence if man proves obedient.
Don M. Wolfe, in Milton in the Puritan Tradition (1941), supports this interpretation of Milton’s view of the worth of man: “Milton … asserted man’s innate nobility and made the infliction of God’s wrath contingent upon man’s freedom of choice.” (Pp. 63–64.) Wolfe also says that Milton “leans toward the view that men, like Christ, though in lesser degree, are sons of God, capable of approaching Him in spiritual worth.” (P. 62.)
The belief widely held in Milton’s day, that every man is predestined to either heaven or hell is incompatible with the principle of free agency. Milton repeatedly insists that man was created free to choose. The angel Raphael makes this clear to Adam in the Garden:
The Father foresees that man will fall, but he insists that foreknowledge does not constitute necessity.
In speaking of the rebellious angels, the Father emphasizes that they too were free to choose, for agency is an eternal principle:
Obedience and Repentance
Milton’s Satan, like too many of us today, misunderstands what real freedom is. He thinks freedom lies only in not being subject to any higher law or power. He brags in the poem of having “freed” the fallen angels from “servitude inglorious.” “Here at least,” he says, “We shall be free.” He scorns the Son as another giver of laws, another destroyer of freedom. But Adam learns that to choose to do right is the only way to true freedom. Adam had exercised his free will in partaking of the forbidden fruit—“he scrupl’d not to eat/Against his better knowledge, not deceiv’d.” (IX. 997–998.) Thus, he must be punished. But God is merciful—man’s punishment will not be everlasting. If he will repent he can be redeemed. Adam is showing the proper spirit of repentance when he tells Eve that even though they have grievously sinned, they should remember that God nevertheless has been gracious and pitying in his judgment. They should, then, turn to him,
Near the end of the poem, when Adam’s instruction from Raphael is finished, he rightly says, “Henceforth I learn, that to obey is best.” (XII. 561.) The angel Raphael responds that therein lies the only true freedom, inner peace, “A paradise within thee, happier far.” (XII. 587.)
Atonement Through a Redeemer
The ultimate expression of God’s mercy toward disobedient man is his providing a redeemer to restore man from his fallen state. The selection of a redeemer and his mission of atonement is one of the most appealing themes in the poem. Milton’s concept of the council in heaven is a little different from ours. In Paradise Lost the council is called after the rebellion of Satan as the Father foresees that Satan will seek revenge by tempting and destroying Adam and Eve. The Father forsees that Satan will cause the Fall and that a redeemer must be found. Justice must be satisfied, the sin must be answered for, but Satan must not be allowed the ultimate victory. The serpent’s head must eventually be crushed; the redemption of man must be effected. The Father calls the angelic host together and asks for a volunteer to save man. Even here, the principle of free agency is at work. The Father asks someone to offer himself.
The heavenly host are mute. No intercessor appears. Then the Son, acting freely and willingly, without coercion, steps forward:
He offers himself as a sacrifice for man’s sake, at the same time affirming that he will not remain in the grave, “But I shall rise Victorious, and subdue/My vanquisher.” (250–251.) In response to the Son’s generous offer, the Father exalts the Son. He exalts him because the Son had placed goodness above desire for personal glory, because the Son
In spite of his amazing insight, Milton apparently did not realize that the heavenly hosts were the premortal spirits of mankind. He seems to have considered them a higher and older class of beings than man, the human race having come into being with the creation of Adam.
Mission of the Son and the Subsequent Apostasy
Adam gratefully learns after his fall that a redeemer has been selected. Justice will be fulfilled through love:
Adam and Eve also learn that there will be an ultimate triumph over Satan. They learn, too, that through Abraham’s seed “all Nations shall be blessed,” and that Satan will one day be bound in chains. They learn that during the Son’s stay on earth there will be wondrous miracles performed and gifts exercised. They are told that the Apostles will carry on the work after the death of the Master, but after their deaths a great apostasy will occur:
Thus the world will go on until the second coming of the Son
(XII, 508–518, 539–544)
Milton apparently did not foresee a restoration of the gospel prior to the second coming of Christ, but he certainly speaks in an inspired way of the atonement, the apostasy, and the second coming.
Nature of the Godhead
One of the most exciting things about Paradise Lost is what Milton seems to be saying about the Godhead. It is quite clear that he treats the Father and the Son as separate beings. He also speaks of the same Comforter that Jesus promises in the New Testament. In Milton’s The Christian Doctrine, a work based on the poet’s penetrating scriptural search for truth, he says: “The Father and Son are different persons.” (Chapter V.) Milton cites the passage in John in which Jesus says that he and the Father are one, interpreting this scripture the same way we do. He says that this passage “does not denote the unity of essence, but only intimacy of communion.” He says further that Jesus “declares himself to be one with the Father in the same manner as we are one with him,—that is, not in essence, but in love, in communion, in agreement, in charity, in spirit, in glory.” (V.)
There is one bit of implied doctrine in Paradise Lost in which Milton seems to have understood subconsciously more than he consciously knew. He does not recognize in The Christian Doctrine that the God or Jehovah of the Old Testament is Jesus Christ. Rather, he says that the title Jehovah could probably be applied to anyone to whom God designated it, but that the real Jehovah is the Father. But in the poem—the Son is designated by the Father to perform the creation. He is also designated by the Father to judge Adam and Eve after their disobedience. When the Son goes forth on these missions, acting through the power of the Father, the title of Son is dropped temporarily, and he is spoken of as God. Thus, the poet seems almost unconsciously to be treating the Son as the God of this earth.
The Fortunate Fall
The poem is overridingly positive. In spite of the rebellion of angels, the evil designs of Satan against man, Adam’s disobedience, mankind’s foreseen history of bloodshed and sin, good triumphs over evil. In fact, more good will eventually result from the Fall than could have been possible without it. Realizing this near the end of the poem, Adam cries:
Paradise Lost can scarcely be read casually. The combination of poetry and inspired message lift the spirit and make it sing. Although not all of Milton’s views correspond perfectly with Mormon doctrine, the poem should have a special appeal for Latter-day Saint readers because it anticipates many vital truths of the restored gospel. We are exhorted in the Doctrine and Covenants (90:15) to “study and learn, and become acquainted with all good books.” Certainly Paradise Lost is one of those “good books.”