Free Will and Christian Faith
Milton’s representation of free will and Christian faith is centered on an omniscient God of selective omnipotence. He predicts the fall of man, without doing anything to cause or prevent this. It’s Satan who instigates the fall, with God knowing that his imperfect creations would be tempted. Like Satan, Adam and Eve have the choice of obeying or disobeying God, and it’s free will that gives this decision significance.
Through writing Paradise Lost, Milton sought to “justify God’s ways to man.” His rewriting of Genesis provides his perspective on unanswered theological questions including the topic of predestination. In “The Fallacy of the Fall in Paradise Lost,” Millicent Bell explains how the “transition between Man and Woman uncorrupt and mankind corrupted is simply to be accepted as having happened.” Bell argues that the fall might be predestined, though it should not be considered a sin. She considers it “the beginning of self-discovery by creatures essentially human, which is to say imperfect in a hundred ways.”
Bell’s interpretation contradicts Milton’s theological beliefs. He makes it clear that the self-discovery she describes is sinful in itself. Eve displays such self-awareness before eating the fruit, when she becomes fixated with her reflection. Milton depicts Eve’s vanity negatively in Paradise Lost, making this argument invalid. Furthermore, this argument ignores God’s soliloquy in Book III, which states that God made [man] just and right, sufficient to have stood, but free to fail.” God himself addresses the subject of predestination in this speech, explaining that Adam and Eve cannot “justly accuse their maker or their fate” as if “predestination over-rul’d their will.”
Another problem with Bell’s analysis is her argument that “man’s first disobedience was not troubling to Milton as it may be for us, for Milton took the account in Genesis as received truth.” Although Milton read Genesis as the word of God, he was content to stray from the scripture when writing Paradise Lost. These changes include the conflation of Satan and the serpent as one character, which explains why Eve could be so easily tempted. It’s unlikely that Milton would be unconcerned with man’s first disobedience, considering he was concerned enough with the fall of man that he wrote a heretical adaption of Genesis.
Still, Bell’s analysis of Paradise Lost offers some valuable insight regarding free will and sin. She references Areopagitica, where Milton explains that “we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather: that which purifies is triall, and triall is by what is contrary.” Bell argues that Adam needed to learn self-discipline through “painful experience” if he was unwilling to accept God’s commands. This suggests that there is hope for mankind to regain their previous status; a sentiment supported by God in Paradise Lost. God states that for offending his majesty, all [man’s] progeny is fated to die “unless some one can be found sufficient to answer for his offence, and undergo his Punishment.” This foreshadows man’s redemption through Christ.
In The Significance of Free Will, Robert Kane mentions that even the angels in Paradise Lost are seen “wondering how they could have freely chosen to serve or reject God, given that God had made them what they were and had foreknowledge of what they would do.” This may seem like a paradox, but since God’s omniscience is absolute, he might be able to forfeit some of his omnipotence. Based on these quotes, it appears that his omniscience nullifies the need to execute his omnipotence. Milton creates a distinction between knowing an outcome and causing an outcome, justifying the nuanced view on God’s power found within the text. Diane Kelsey McColley argues that Milton’s “poetic intuitions were at war with his theological beliefs. She cites Milton’s A Treatise on Christian Doctrine, which states that “God created men and angels reasonable beings, and therefore free agents.” But this doesn’t prove any conflict between Milton’s poetry and religious beliefs. Rather, it supports Milton’s argument that the fall was the result of temptation, not predestination.
Milton uses Adam and Eve as an allegory for humankind’s relationship with God, raising similar theological concerns regarding why the fall happened, whether it could be prevented, and where the blame should be placed. The most obvious parallel between Adam and God is Adam’s authority over Eve. In Genesis, Adam and Eve are considered partners before the fall; Eve does not become subservient to her husband until after she tempts him with the forbidden fruit. In Paradise Lost, Adam and Eve work side by side in Eden. But Milton’s portrayal of Eve implies that she was never Adam’s equal, even before their fall.
While Genesis provides little characterization of Adam and Eve, Paradise Lost depicts Eve as a woman unable to make her own decisions, since every decision she makes in Eden turns out to be wrong. Instead of embracing Adam at birth, she becomes fixated with her reflection and must be led to him by God. It’s Eve, not Adam, who hears Satan’s voice in her head; deciding to act against God’s commands. In “Eve and the Doctrine of Responsibility in Paradise Lost,” Stella Revard explains that “the portraits of the human couple in Book IV tell us that Eve is subject to Adam, yet it is such subjection as is requir’d with gentle sway.” With this in mind, Eve’s rebelliousness can represent humankind’s inclination to disobey God (along with a need for God’s guidance). When Eve suggests that she and Adam work separately, Adam warns her that she’ll be more vulnerable alone. Like God, Adam predicts that Eve will fall victim to danger alone but still allows her to do so.
Fredson Bowers argues that the fall occurs because Adam “relinquishes [his] sovereignty over judgement” to Eve. He allows Eve her free will, knowing she might be making a poor decision. This perspective implies that Man’s fall is caused by a divergence from gender roles. In the Bible, these gender roles are not implemented until after the fall. But the depiction of Adam and Eve is always gendered, even before the fall in Paradise Lost, so this interpretation is valid. Still, it’s worth noting that Adam and Eve fill the same basic role in Eden during their daily labor in Paradise Lost.
Revard also interprets the fall of man in terms of gender roles, while demonstrating the conflicting forces of God’s omnipotence and man’s free will. She argues that if Adam is “the surrogate of God in his role toward Eve,” and God “completely denies” his control over Man, then Adam cannot “demand [Eve] be choiceless.” Revard explains that Adam is “free to submit in love and allegiance to God,” so Eve must be able to make the same choice in her relationship with Adam. Without the power to choose, such submission would be meaningless.
Overall, Milton provides a complex depiction of God’s omniscience and omnipotence, as well as man’s free will in Paradise Lost. Using Adam and Eve to demonstrate what seems paradoxical is a clever allegory which reveals his attitude toward gender roles. It may seem cruel that God created Man whilst knowing he was destined to fall, but Milton’s depiction of God is quite merciful. Despite the Old Testament setting of Paradise Lost, the God depicted is decidedly Christian. He foreshadows how Man will find eternal life without naming Christ. Milton shows that God’s power may be absolute, but his judgement is not. This reconciles the conflicting images of God between the Old and New Testaments.
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