Milton begins book three of Paradise Lost with the words: “Hail holy light, offspring of heaven first-born.” He goes on to say that God dwelt in light from eternity. It existed before the sun and before the heavens. At the voice of God, it invested the newly created world as it rose out of the waters, covering it like a mantle.
In the first two books, Milton treated events that took place in hell and in the dark realm of Chaos. In the dismal confines of hell, Satan and his hosts plotted against the Almighty. In the realm of Chaos, Satan struggled to reach the new world that God had created. He wanted to destroy it or else win it for himself and his followers.
After treating hell and the dark realm of Chaos, it is with great relief that Milton greets the light, where the events of book three take place.
Though he greets the light with joy, Milton himself cannot enjoy it. He sadly says: “But thou revisit’st not these eyes, that rowle in vain to find thy piercing rays, and find no dawn.” Milton was blind when he wrote Paradise Lost.
Milton poignantly reveals the effects of his blindness. He cannot see the vernal bloom or summer’s rose. Instead, he is surrounded by cloud and inexorable darkness.
Since he cannot enjoy the light with which God has blessed the world, he says: “So much the rather thou Celestial light shine inward, and the mind through all her powers irradiate, there plant eyes, all mist from thence purge and disperse, that I may see and tell of things invisible to mortal sight.”
The activities of Satan did not escape the notice of the Almighty. He saw Satan approach His newly created world, determined to destroy the happiness of the race of men whom He had created.
Conversing with His only begotten Son, the Almighty Father pointed out that man would believe the lies of Satan and transgress His sole command. He and his progeny would fall, and it would be His own fault because God had created him just and right, with the power to withstand temptation. He knew about their transgression in advance, but His foreknowledge had no influence on their fault. They were the authors of their own trespass, without the least impulse or shadow of fate.
In this connection, the Father explained the importance of the free will with which He had endowed both angels and man. Because of their free will, they were free to stand or free to fall. They retained this free will until they lost it by disobedience.
Free will was a necessary element in their creation. If they had not been created free, it would have been impossible for them to give proof of true allegiance, constant faith, and love. Without freedom, they would have served necessity instead of serving God.
The Almighty Father drew a distinction between mankind and the fallen angels. “The first sort [the demons] by their own suggestion fell, self-tempted, self-depraved. Man falls deceived by the other first. Man therefore shall find grace, the other none.” Mercy and justice would prevail, and mercy would shine more brightly.
The Son was glad that man would find mercy. Because of this, He told His Father: “Heaven and earth shall high extol Thy praises.” He pointed out how unfortunate it would be if His Father would abolish His new creation or if He allowed Satan to drag man to hell. The goodness and greatness of the Father would be questioned.
The Father agreed with the sentiments that the Son expressed and explained His future dealings with the human race in some detail. He would graciously choose some and attempt to soften the stony hearts of the rest and bring them to repentance.
However, the demands of Justice had to be fulfilled. Either man must perish, or else someone else had to be able and willing to make satisfaction for man’s offense. A just being had to become mortal and pay the penalty for man’s mortal crime. The Father asked whether such great love dwelt in heaven.
The hosts of heaven were mute. None of the angels dared to undertake this deadly task, It looked as if mankind was doomed to perish, but then the Son volunteered, saying: “Behold Me then, Me for him, life for life I offer, on Me let Thine anger fall; account Me man; I for his sake will leave Thy bosom, and this glory next to Thee freely put off, and for him lastly die well pleased, on Me let Death wreck all his rage.”
The Son knew that His death would not be permanent. He confidently said to His Father: “Thou wilt not leave Me in the loathsome grave his [Death’s] prey, nor suffer My unspotted Soul for ever with corruption there to dwell; but I shall rise victorious, and subdue My vanquisher, spoiled of his vaunted spoil; death his death’s wound shall then receive, & stoop inglorious, of his mortal sting disarmed. I through the ample air in triumph high shall lead hell captive maugre hell, and show [i.e., display] the powers of darkness bound.”
The Son would return to heaven after making a perfect atonement for man’s crime. As a result, when the Sun returned to heaven, no cloud of anger would remain on His Father’s face.
In response, the Father told His Son that all His works were dear to Him, especially man, though created last. For this reason, He consented to what His Son had said. His Son would leave His bosom and His right hand and unite human nature with His own. He would be made flesh of virgin seed. He would become the Head of all mankind in the place of Adam, even though He would be Adam’s Son. The Son would be a new root from which mankind would be restored. Adam’s crime brought guilt on all his descendents. In contrast, the Father said: “Thy merit imputed shall absolve them who renounce their own both righteous and unrighteous deeds, and live in Thee transplanted, and from Thee receive new life. So Man, as is most just, shall satisfy for man, be judged and die, and dying rise, and rising with Him raise his Brethren, ransomed with His own dear life.” In this way, heavenly love would outdo hellish hate.
The Father pointed out that in carrying out this mission, the Son would not degrade His divine nature. On the contrary, because He was willing to humble Himself in love, He would receive great glory: “Here shalt Thou sit incarnate, here shalt reign both God and Man, Son both of God and Man, anointed universal King; all power I give Thee, reign for ever.”
The Father also described the glory that the Son would enjoy as the history of His newly created world drew to a close. Every knee would bow before Him, not only the angels in heaven and men on earth, but also the devils in hell.
In response to the Father’s gracious words, the hosts of heaven enthusiastically shouted for joy. They bowed before the two thrones on which Father and Son were seated. They cast down their crowns of amaranth and gold. This celestial amaranth originally grew in heaven and later adorned the Garden of Eden, where it grew close to the tree of life. It was brought back to heaven after sin entered the world.
After offering due obeisance to Father and Son, the angels donned their crowns once more and began to offer songs of praise. They first praised the Father, the omnipotent, eternal King. Then they praised the Son, whose power had defeated the evil angels and whose love made Him willing to redeem mankind.
In the meantime, Satan arrived at the outer boundary of the universe, “the firm opacous globe of this round World, whose first convex divides the luminous inferior orbs,
enclosed from Chaos and the inroad of darkness old.” It was a dark, wild place. It was subject to the ever-threatening storms of Chaos that blustered round about, though the side facing the wall of heaven possessed a slightly more congenial climate. At this time it was uninhabited, but it later became the Paradise of Fools, a limbo that became the home of all who set their hearts on the vain things of the world or pinned their hopes on empty superstitions. For example, the builders of the tower of Babel later dwelt in the Paradise of Fools.
Satan trudged over this dreary region until he saw some stairs that rose upward to the gates of heaven. These stairs were not permanent fixtures, but they happened to be let down at the time when Satan arrived.
Satan hastened thither and stood on the bottom of the stairs that ascended to the celestial realm. Directly under the place where the stairs stood, a passage opened up to the universe below. The Garden of Eden was beneath this opening. This was a wide passage – wider than the passage that later opened over Mount Zion so that angels could travel regularly to the Promised Land.
Satan looked downward and beheld the wonders of the universe. He was filled with amazement and envy. He viewed the various stars and finally fixed his gaze upon the sun. There he saw the archangel Uriel. Hoping to receive directions to the abode of man, he disguised himself as a youthful cherub and greeted the archangel.
Satan asked Uriel which shining orb was the home of man. With consummate hypocrisy, he told Uriel that he wanted to admire the works of the great Creator.
Milton makes the comment: “So spake the false dissembler unperceived; for neither man nor angel can discern hypocrisy, the only evil that walks invisible, except to God alone, by his permissive will, through heaven and earth.” Though it was believed that Uriel had the sharpest eyes in heaven, he was deceived. He commended the godly desires of the fake cherub and directed his attention to the abode of man.
Satan then bowed low before Uriel. This was the customary way in which angels showed respect to their superiors. He then took his leave and headed for the abode of man.
In the foregoing summary, I tried not to alter Milton’s theology in any way. However, I used italics to call attention to some words that I feel need clarification. They concern the doctrine of justification. The Holy Scriptures teach that God imputes the merits of Christ to all people. In Christ, God has unconditionally justified everyone. This is objective justification. (Romans 5: 18)
Of course, those who do not believe in Christ and reject His saving work will not benefit from this justifying act of God. If someone sends you a gift in the mail, you will not benefit from it if you toss it into a garbage can. In the same way, those who cast aside God’s gift of justification in unbelief will perish even though Christ washed away their sins.
Nevertheless, while God’s justifying verdict is appropriated by faith and may be rejected by unbelief, this does not change the unconditional nature of God’s decree that all mankind is innocent because of Christ’s vicarious atonement. Suppose that a jury pronounces a defendant innocent. The verdict stands, even if the defendant insists on staying in prison. In the same way, God’s declaration that mankind is innocent is universally valid, even if some would rather go to hell than accept their pardon.
Since I was not sure of Milton’s intentions in the pertinent passage, I quoted it exactly without any attempt at interpretation. However, in all quotations from Milton, I modernized the spelling somewhat and capitalized all pronouns that referred to God, unless I missed some by accident.
In a posthumous unfinished work entitled De Doctrina Christiana, Milton expressed views that ill agree with the doctrine of the Trinity. This may be a significant factor in the interpretation of certain passages in Paradise Lost. I shall not comment at present, since it is better to treat the matter in connection with book 5.
Literature.Org: Paradise Lost