Hi and welcome back! During our Journey Into Hell series, we’ve sure seen the Christian concept of Hell change a lot from its humble origins. And now, it’s changing again. John Milton, who wrote Paradise Lost, brought a unique point of view to Christians’ existing package of Hell-beliefs. That point of view would become an indelible mark that has lasted to the modern age. Today, let’s meet John Milton and see what he did to the concept of Hell.
(Previous Journeys Into Hell: Dante in Hell; Medieval Christians Changed Hell Again; How Augustine Changed the Hell Game; Hell in the 4th Century; 2nd-4th Century Thoughts on Hell; Hell in Early Christian Writings; The Night My Fear of Hell Died; But WHICH Hell Shall We Fear; Why Hell Fails as a Christian Threat; We’re Made Out of Meat; Why Hell Succeeds as a Threat; Dealing With Hell Disbelievers; A Brief Prehistory of Hell.)
Everyone, Meet John Milton.
Last time we talked about Hell, we covered Dante Alighieri, who died in 1325. He wrote the Divine Comedy, which took us through various circles of Purgatory and Hell on the way to Heaven.
Well, now let’s fast-forward a few centuries.
The poet John Milton lived from 1608 to 1674. He was an extremely well-educated and well-traveled civil servant in England during their tumultuous Commonwealth period. His various marriages sounded unhappy for the most part, and his relationships with his family — especially his daughters — sounded like they were difficult. Apparently, he was just very hard to live with.
In 1667, he published Paradise Lost, which is now regarded as one of the most important things ever written.
However, Milton wrote this masterpiece while he was very poor, blind, and rapidly declining in both years and health. Evidence suggests that he was deeply disappointed with how his life — and England itself — had turned out. It’s likely that his work was influenced by this headspace.
John Milton Contained Multitudes.
Interestingly, Milton’s own religious beliefs were a bit idiosyncratic. It’s important to remember that he wasn’t what my ex Biff would have called “a professional Christian.” He worked as a civil servant, for the most part, and wrote pamphlets and essays besides. Nor did he receive a particularly theological or seminary-type education. He wanted to be an Anglican priest in his youth, but it never panned out.
He himself gets classified as a “Christian Humanist poet,” though most scholars think he was a Reformed/Calvinist Christian as well. Though he held a lot of Puritan-type beliefs, he was also a ferocious campaigner for republicanism, freedom of speech, and censor-free publishing.
He wrote a treatise, it seems, containing his full belief system. It wasn’t found until 1823, though, and there’s been controversy over its authorship and contents. Among other things, the treatise reveals that he went in for (gasp!) heretical Arianism and Socinianism. (These heresies reject the Trinity and aspects of Jesus’ divinity, among other stuff. The latter heresy was much newer, but no less outrageous to Catholics and Protestants alike.)
His treatise also talks about a version of the Christian god who was largely hidden from the world — and thank goodness for that, because when he did show up he was “the embodiment of dread.”
I liked the quote about this treatise being a “theological labyrinth.” It sure sounds like it.
This swirling soup pot and its upheaval-marked homeland birthed Paradise Lost.
Now, Let’s Meet Paradise Lost.
Paradise Lost comprises ten volumes, which contain ten thousand lines of blank verse. Basically, it’s just about the Creation story: Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The pair commit their innocent mistake after being goaded by Satan (drawn as the serpent), prompting Yahweh to cast them out of Eden. Thus, humans lose their paradise.
The poem follows two stories together: that of Satan and that of Adam and Eve.
First, Satan organizes his fellow banished and fallen angels. He travels through Hell and the Chaos outside of it to get to Eden. Along the way, John Milton describes the general organization of Hell, the War of the Angels, and the casting-out of the fallen angels who’d so foolishly fought against Yahweh.
Then, Yahweh creates the world, the animals, and Adam and Eve. He orders his pet humans not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, then leaves them to their own devices. Adam and Eve do their thing, but then of course Satan tempts Eve to eat the fruit of the forbidden tree. Adam, kinda aware of what this move will cost him, follows Eve into sin so they won’t be separated. Then, they have sex and fight.
Satan heads back to Hell and his fellow fallen angels, telling them about how well their plan has worked. Unfortunately, all of the fallen angels turn into snakes and lose their power to speak.
Adam and Eve plead for mercy from Yahweh. Adam foresees humanity’s terrible future and gets upset, but the Archangel Michael tells him not to worry because a Messiah will come to give humans hope again.
Yahweh casts Adam and Eve out anyway. They leave not only the garden behind but also their close, personal relationship with their maker and god. From now on, he’ll be invisible to them.
Major SADFACE. Exeunt ALL.
The Vision of Hell John Milton Offers.
John Milton’s view of Hell was a major bummer. He wrote:
At once, as far as angels’ ken, he [Satan] views
The dismal situation waste and wild ;
A dungeon horrible on all sides round
As one great furnace flamed, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Served only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all ; but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery deluge, fed
With ever-burning sulphur unconsumed [. . .]
There the companions of his fall, o’erwhelmed
With floods and whirlwinds of tempestuous fire, . . .
So Milton offers paradoxical views of Hell. His descriptions might sound internally contradictory, even confusing. And yet, they combine to create this sense of growing, creeping horror at the sheer depth and depravity of Hell.
What If Demons Had Feelings?
All in all, we’re back to the early Christians’ concept of everlasting fire and sadness.
However, this time demons have entered the chat.
Before, demons were just tricksters seeking to wreck humans’ shot at Heaven with various temptations. Now, however, Milton all but elevates them to tattered nobility. They embody faded legacies of onetime grandeur. Together, they can plot and scheme — and can even aspire to wreck Paradise itself. They have personalities and even a measure of independence and admirable humanity to them. Satan has this to say, early on:
Hail horrors, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new possessor ; one who brings
A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less than he
Whom thunder hath made greater ? Here at least
We shall be free ; the Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence :
Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell :
Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven. [p. 30 in PDF]
When Satan struggles with his own self-doubts at the start of Book IV, this scene must have represented a whole new and startling look at this iconic character for most Christians. Here, Satan realizes that no matter what he does, he’s up the creek:
Which way I fly is Hell ; myself am Hell ;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep
Still threatening to devour me opens wide.
To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heaven. [p. 87 in PDF]
Ultimately, John Milton offered Christians a whole new vision of Hell — and of demons.
And of Satan perhaps most of all.
From Tragic Hero to Dumb-Yet-Powerful Villain.
When I think back to what I personally believed regarding Hell, and what I heard preached, and how my fellow Christians positioned Hell to potential marks and recruits, I see a lot of echoes of John Milton’s take on the material. The Hell of modern Hell-believers is a land of strange paradoxes and dichotomies, as much a realm of emotional sorrow and torment as one of physical pain lasting forever somehow.
But even more than that, I see Satan personalized and humanized in those beliefs.
Christians today who hold Hell-beliefs have tamed Satan considerably, of course. They vastly prefer a super-powerful enemy who is nonetheless dumber than a box of wet rocks. But they happily spend inordinate amounts of time thinking about how demons interact with both Hell itself and with tortured sinners. They think a lot about how Hell is organized and how it’s administered.
Almost nothing Hell-believing Christians assert so confidently about Hell can actually be found in the Bible, natch. Like any other Low Christianity belief, this is a folksy bit of mythology, something homegrown in church pews across the world without pastors even knowing about it until it’s way too late.
Since Hell isn’t real, Christians can pick and borrow from whatever sources they like to craft their visions. As we’ll see in future journeys into this fascinating belief, it’s always in flux. Christians are always shifting and changing in their folk beliefs. Perhaps our modern tumultuous society has inspired a resurgence of Milton-style Hell-beliefs, just as Milton’s own times inspired his original beliefs in the first place. It wouldn’t surprise me.
All I do know for sure is that whatever Hell-believing Christians think about Hell nowadays will certainly change again.
And they’ll be just as certain then as they are now that that future belief is the real deal.
NEXT UP: George Barna is working a new gig — and back to wringing his widdle handsies about his flavor of Christianity being in decline. Let’s see what his damage is this time! After that, we’ve got the 2021 SBC Annual Report to pore over. Also, I found some interesting stuff about their silly Beach Reach program that I think you’ll like. It will be busy around here! See you soon!
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Last Thoughts: We need “Paradise Lost by the Dashboard Light.”