Jesus in Paradise Lost

Like countless readers, I took no great liking to Milton’s depiction of God the Father in “Paradise Lost.” On that subject I have nothing to add, and I want instead to talk about Milton’s vision of God’s Son. This won’t be a lengthy analysis, just a short list of the passages that are most memorable for me.

The first is the Son’s offer, in time’s fullness, to die for 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

That is perhaps nothing original, but the last few words leave you breathing.

The Son speaks of this again after the Fall of Adam and Eve. The Father must now enact punishment, and the Son will go to Eden as emissary and judge. In a moment of complete intimacy, the Son asks for judgment to be light:

I go to judge
On earth these thy transgressors, but thou know’st,
Whoever judged, the worst on me must light,
When time shall be,

Do unto them as you would do unto me.

Noble and tender.

And its biblical antecedent is obvious: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matt 25:40)

The compassion of the Son continues when we see what he does for Adam and Eve before their expulsion from paradise:

As when he washed his servants feet; so now,
As father of his family, he clad
Their nakedness with skins of beasts, or slain,
Or as the snake with youthful coat repaid;
And thought not much to clothe his enemies;
Nor he their outward only with the skins
Of beasts, but inward nakedness, much more.
Opprobrious, with his robe of righteousness,
Arraying covered from his Father’s sight.

In the Bible, God does clothe Adam and Eve. Milton takes this both literally and in a spiritual sense, to point to a spiritual nakedness. This does not mean, as it so easily could have, merely the inner feeling of shame about the physical nakedness. Spiritual nakedness here means vulnerability and diminishment in spirit. Adam and Eve are ready to go into hiding both physically and spiritually. So the Son visit these prisoners and provides them with bodily and spiritual clothes. He fortifies Adam and Eve with righteousness (10:821, 10:936) and covers the inward sin from the Father’s sight, whatever that means (I think we can take this to mean not that some things can or should be hidden from the Father, but that the Son is removing much of the inward sin from sight as an object of punishment).

All of this nicely recalls the Biblical original:

“I was naked and you clothed me. I was sick, and you took care of meI was in prison, and you came to me.”

Matthew 25:36
Christ Offers to Redeem Man, by William Blake

My favorite “Jesus” passage in Milton’s epic was entirely unexpected and made me celebrate like I was at the movies. It comes near the end of the heavenly war between the forces of the two angels, Michael and Satan. Now, this battle can be a little difficult to swallow, because Milton has all the participants using medieval implements of destruction; and there are many other issues, which I won’t get into right now. I did enjoy seeing the good angels, in the back-and-forth of the battle, counterattacking by uprooting hills and flinging them at the enemy: this did not break the problematic literalism of the scene but it did at least call back Jesus’ famous words,

Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.

Matthew 17:20-21

The angels are fighting as they should, I thought.

But that is not what caused me to jump in my chair. What I really loved was when the Son made his entrance, traversing back through the same scene of battle, and —

At his command the uprooted hills retired
Each to his place, they heard his voice and went
Obsequious; Heav’n his wonted face renewed,
And with fresh flow’rets hill and valley smiled.

He moved the mountains back! This is Christ, this is the Word: reseeding, restoring, recreating.

4 thoughts on “Jesus in Paradise Lost

  1. I really must return to Paradise Lost! Like you I have little liking for the God of Paradise Lost. I don’t like Milton’s Satan either. It probably reflects my own journey away from the theory of atonement that has largely comprised Christian orthodoxy in the western church since Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo. The,massive emphasis upon justice in opposition to mercy. How interesting that Milton seems to see this opposition within the godhead itself. Surely a thorough trinitarian theology would seek another resolution to this apart from the need to punish?
    And how interesting that you were drawn to writing about the relationship between God and creation in the same week that I was reflecting on it in my Tolkien blog.

    1. I’m with you completely on the atonement. The issue is just something that I’ve had to set aside, at least partly, in order to understand and enjoy the poem, first, on its own terms. But I agree: a thoroughly trinitarian theology should come up with another resolution. As it stands, Milton has located the justice/mercy opposition within the godhead, as you say, and the result is essentially a debate between Father and Son. And it’s a debate that they solve, within themselves. But it’s still a material debate, in which it seems that justice and mercy are finite goods, and so any agreement must be a compromise for both sides, resulting at best in partial justice and partial mercy.

      I don’t say I have the solution to such an immense question. But God surely does.

      1. I really like your phrase, “partial justice and partial mercy”. That is not good enough for a Christian theology. It does not speak truly of God.
        But Paradise Lost is a great poem. Not as good as Dante but still good. Will you write about why you feel it deserves to be read today?

      2. I may do that, Stephen, particularly if I feel that my posts about PL, when they’re done, don’t touch on that enough. I’d like to compare Milton’s vision to Dante’s in some way — but first, I must read Dante.

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