Milton’s just, merciful and redemptive God

William Empson’s book Milton’s God is an account of Paradise Lost that associates God with a Stalinist tyrant (146). The primary association for this understanding is located in Empson’s critique of Milton’s God as a “neurotic parent” (116) who exposes his children to certain temptation, and ultimately orchestrates their Fall. For this author, it appears that in releasing Satan (Empson 112), God assures the Fall of humankind in order to “save” it, and in this way is a harsh tyrant who enslaves His human creations to serve His own narcissism. (Empson 39)

In Milton’s Good God, however, Dennis Richard Danielson tries to legitimize the actions of God as both just and good. To do so, Danielson employs a range of theological theory to demonstrate one crucial point: the presence of sin in the world is attributable to human agency and free will. Danielson argues that free will is crucial, because without it humanity would have only been serving necessity, and not participating in a free love act with the divine (87). This allows God the Son to function as a sotoriological model in which salvation is offered and mediated through the crucifixion. Humankind, then, is the receiver of God’s grace, redemption, and dispensation. Danielson hopes to demonstrate that Milton’s God is by definition good, ultimately enacting justice for Man’s disobedience with a consideration for compassion and human redemption.

Though both authors present articulate and convincing arguments, one key consideration is lacking: the notion of God’s omniscience. Theological accounts of God attribute to Him an infinite and all-encompassing knowledge that is neither limited by time nor by space: omniscience. Though both Empson and Danielson accept God’s foreknowledge of the Fall, they seem to neglect God’s foreknowledge of Man’s salvation. Without this more complete framework, both the claims of God as a tyrant and God as good are equally tenable. Understood within a framework of omniscience however, God’s ends justify His means: Milton’s work is one that fully appreciates God’s salvific character and attempts to justify his goodness vis-à-vis his foreknowledge of Man’s participation in His grace.

Furthermore, the two books never reach a consensus as to who God is. Although both associate Him with God the Father in Milton’s text, Empson and Danielson disagree as to whether God the Son (Christ) is fully included within this personification. While God the Father appears a harsh and exacting universal master, the Son encompasses more gentle characteristics and human qualities. In establishing the goodness of Milton’s God, however, one must consider God as a unity of both the Father and the Son, figured through two separate characters within the epic.

In order to evaluate God in Paradise Lost according to an applicable notion of “goodness”, it is fundamental that one consider the divine omniscience that Milton so greatly affords to Him. Moreover, the “goodness” of Milton’s God is intimately intertwined with a concept of His justice – both as the ruler of a divine state, and as a father vis-à-vis humankind – and the enactment of Mercy and Redemption towards His creations.

Empson’s key critique of Milton’s epic, and by extension of the Christian Creation story, is that God functions as a tyrant, much like “Uncle Joe Stalin” (146). Even with His foreknowledge of the Fall of the angels and of Man, God does not intervene to prevent the suffering of His creations, and, as Empson sees it, even orchestrates these events in order to necessitate His being. Empson thus views God’s actions, or lack thereof, as a kind of enslavement; He devised a situation in which Man was doomed to fail, only to be later liberated by Him (through the Son). (Empson 116) While convincing, Empson’s analysis is suspect: he neglects Milton’s understanding of omniscience, and is thereby unable to pursue this assumption to its logical end. God’s omniscience affords Him foreknowledge not only of Man’s disobedience and the Fall, but by definition also encompasses a foreknowledge of Man’s ultimate salvation, during which the God the Son liberates Man of his sinful and fallen state.

Moreover, as Danielson logically asserts, foreknowledge is not commensurate with culpability. Although God knew that Adam and Eve would eat the forbidden fruit of knowledge, He neither commanded them to do so, nor influenced their decision. As God the Father explains:

… they themselves decreed
Thir own revolt, not I: if I foreknew,
Foreknowledge had no influence on their fault,
Which had no less prov’d certain unforeknown.
So without least impulse or shadown of Fate,
Or aught by me immutable foreseen,
They trespass, Authors to themselves in all
Both what they judge and what they choose; for so
I formd them free, and free they must remain,
Till they enthral themselves (3.115-125)

Here Milton rejects the possibility that God is complicit in Man’s error, and reiterates that it is Man’s free will (“Authors to themselves”) that leads to the Fall. Thus His foreknowledge is that of human nature, and of Adam and Eve’s ability to disobey His command. God knows the ultimate outcome, but until that outcome is solidified in action, the possibility exists for Man to act differently.Empson further attempts to discredit God by arguing that in having complete knowledge of the immanent danger posed to Adam and Eve He somehow subverts justice by allowing Satan to live after the fall of the rebel angels. This argument is not legitimate, however, in light of God’s passive response to the Fall: in no way does He enlist, encourage or aid Satan in his temptation of Eve. Here, God’s role is not active in the sense of furthering the plot within Milton’s story. Rather, it is a counterpoint by which the plot is revealed, and functions as the mechanism through which the Son is able to mediate between the ultimately transcendent and invisible God and nascent humanity.God is unchallengeable (“Thee Father first they sung Omnipotent, / Immutable, Immortal, Infinite / Eternal King”, 3.371-4), and it is impossible that He act outside of His nature. Milton’s God, being the definition par excellence of justice, cannot act in a way that is unjust, even if it is to further His own aims. Thus God’s foreknowledge in Paradise Lost functions only insomuch as it allows God to know the future; He is, however, still reliant on the instigation of others before He commences His plan for human redemption. In contrast, the punishment that is reserved for Satan, though he is allowed to live, is one of state justice in which an errant subject is exiled and barred from the divine community. This approach to understanding God’s just actions, however, is too narrow: it does not encompass all facets of justice s applied by Milton in his treatment of God. As will be seen later in a comparison of God’s response to the disobedience of Man with that of the rebel angels, God is a complex figure who is able to enact different kinds of justice and goodness towards His creations.Milton further develops the notion of God’s justice in the dialogue between the Father and the Son in Book 3. In this conversation, the Father engages the Son in the question of what to do about the impending disobedience of the two founding humans. Father and Son (God) agree that Adam and Eve have transgressed, but the real question is what kind of consequences should be imposed. The Son reminds the Father of the necessity for justice:

For should Man finally be lost, should Man
Thy creature late so lov’d, thy youngest Son
Fall circumvented thus by fraud, though joynd
With his own folly? that be from thee farr,
That farr be from thee, Father, who art Judg
Of all things made, and jugest onely right. (3.149-155)

This does not much seem like the voice of a Stalinist tyrant who seeks simply the subordination of His creations. This passage suggests that although God, as the judge “of all things made”, can only judge rightly (“…thee…[who] jugest onely right”), it is the kind of judgment that needs to be negotiated. How should God punish his “so lov’d” creation who has disobeyed “by fraud”? Raphael explains to Adam how Man inherently differs from the angels:

To spiritual natures; only this I know,
That one celestial Father gives to all.
To whom the Angel. Therefore what he gives
(Whose praise be ever sung) to Man in part
Spiritual, may of purest Spirits be found
No ingrateful food: And food alike those pure
Intelligential substances require,
As doth your rational; and both contain
Within them every lower faculty
Of sense, whereby they hear, see, smell, touch, taste,
Tasting concoct, digest, assimilate,
And corporeal to incorporeal turn. (5.402-13)

Man, created by that “one celestial Father”, thereby shares a nature with God the Son that is not shared with Satan. This proclamation of a shared relationship between God and Man recognizes that a different kind of justice is necessary: one that takes into account this “spiritual” relationship, not simply diversion from the law of a state. In this way, Milton depicts God, anticipating Man’s immanent disobedience, as a father who seeks to save a wayward child. God’s justice and salvation with the Son, who freely offers himself to stand in the stead of mankind:

Father, thy word is past, man shall find grace; (3.227)
Life for life
I offer, on mee let thine anger fall;
Account mee man; I for his sake will leave
Thy bosom, and this glorie next to thee
Freely put off, and for him last dye
Well pleas’d, on me let Death wreck all his rage (3.235-40)

Here, “Account mee man” indicates that the Son identifies himself not only as divine, but also as fully human. Milton’s verse echoes Jesus’ words as described by Matthew in the New Testament:He went away again the second time, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done. (King James Version, Matt 26:42)The Son’s words “thy word is past” are important when compared to their parallel in the New Testament gospel of Matthew, in which Jesus submits to God’s plan (“thy will be done”). The “cup” that Jesus wants to be removed from him is the same “Death” (3.240) that Milton sees as the atonement for humanity’s errors.God chooses not only to sacrifice Himself through the figure of the Son, but also exacts a justice that more convincingly reflects familial, rather than judicial, obligation. In comparing the above passage to the gospel of Matthew, the figure of Christ strengthens Milton’s imagery of the filial relationship shared not only between God the Father and the Son, but also the relationship that all humanity engages in vis-à-vis these two characters. Man is not only God’s creation, but also His child in much the same way that Christ is son to the Father (“Father, thy word is past”). Christ submits to the will of his father, not to of some overlord of a state. He chooses to participate in the redemption of Man in an attempt to correct the deficiency in the divine relationship with humankind achieved in the fall.
Both excerpts indicate that the Son (Christ) is given the choice to sacrifice himself in the place of humanity, and in this way, Milton’s text speaks to the Son’s subordination to the will of the Father, and the acceptance of His obligations towards brothers in creation.Redemptive action, another positive aspect of God’s goodness, is challenged by Empson by his accusation that God has created both the angels and Man as a tribute to Himself. Empson posits that God’s ends are narcissistic, that he wants to become the avenger of his creations’ cause. (103)Milton’s description of Eve’s dream in Book 5, in which a disguised Satan tempts her to disobey God’s command, suggests that the true crime in the eating of the tree of knowledge is the attempt at being God-like (“Taste this, and be henceforth among the Gods/ Thyself a Goddess, not to earth confined” 5.77-8), a crime similar to the dominative schemes of the angels. To correct this presumption humanity must make amends, and Milton’s God explains exactly how this is to be accomplished:

But to destruction sacred and devote,
He with his whole posteritie must dye,
Dye hee or Just must; unless for him
Som other able, and as willing, pay
The rigid satisfaction, death for death.
Say Heav’nly powers, where shall we find such love,
Which of ye will be mortal to redeem
Mans mortal crime, and just th’unjust to save,
Dwels in all Heaven charitie so deare? (3.208-16)

Some perfect human, devoid of the initial stain of the fall must be sacrificed in lieu of humanity (“Dye hee or Just must; unless for him / Som other able, and as willing, pay / The rigid satisfaction, death for death”). For this sacrifice to be valid it must also be the free-choice or will of the divine being that stands in for humanity. In this way Milton is demonstrating that the free-act of a divine character that somehow participates in the divine nature is the only thing that can correct the evil wrought by Adam and Eve. Milton, later, further emphasizes that this divine character must also be fully human, and as such is able to erase the sins made by his brethren:

The Head of all mankind, though Adams Son.
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As in him perish all men, so in thee
As from a second root shall be restor’d (3.285-8)

Milton demonstrates that far from being a tyrannical lord, God and the Son function as a collaborative team that desire nothing but the return of man to his pre-fallen state. Furthermore, God is not even able to dominate in this aspect because human agency and free-will are not abandoned. Not only will the Son sacrifice himself pre-emptively in Book 3 for the not-yet-occurred Fall of Man, but Man himself will have a role in his own salvation. To successfully navigate atonement, humanity will have to admit and repent of their former disobedience:

Before him reverent, and there confess
Humbly our faults, and pardon beg, with tears
Watering the ground, and with our sighs the Air
Frequenting, sent from hearts contrite, in sign
Of sorrow unfeign’d, and humiliation meek.
Undoubtedly he will relent and turn
From his displeasure’ in whose look serene,
When angry most he seem’d and most severe,
What else but favor, grace, and mercie shon? (10.1087-96)

Milton does not reflect here the attitude of extreme grace in which humanity is fully reliant upon God’s interventions for salvation. Rather, humanity can participate in redemption through prayer and confession. This is a positive aspect of God’s justice: it allows humanity to remain independent and active, and not fully subordinated to His divine plan. There is still the potentiality that Man could choose to act otherwise, even in light of God’s redemption, and Man is allowed to remain an active co-covenentor of the pact between God, the Son, and Adam and Eve. The line “undoubtedly he will relent and turn” indicates that Adam and Eve are not performing these supplications merely to expiate their own guilty sentiments, but as an offering with the end of restoring their former relationship with God. Adam and Eve also acknowledge that the judgement of the Son earlier in Book 10 was just, and that due mercy and grace were demonstrated (“What else but favor, grace, and mercie shon?”).Empson in Milton’s God seems to neglect another integral element of God’s goodness in furthering his tyrannical discourse. Empson never mentions either God’s motive in the creation of mankind nor the love that Milton associates with God towards humanity. When one considers these two elements it becomes evident that God demonstrates a mercy towards humanity in Paradise Lost that he never demonstrates towards the fallen angels. This is figured in Book 3 when God discusses the place of Man in His cosmology:

To me are all my works, nor Man the least
Though last created, that for him I spare
Thee from my bosom and right hand, to save,
By loosing thee a while, the whole Race lost.
Though therefore whom thou only canst redeem,
Thir Nature also to thy Nature joyn (3.276-83)

Milton, through the figure of God, makes it clear that the motivating factor in redemption is His merciful love of humanity that supercedes his theodicy. In ignoring this, Empson leaves out the major vindication of God as good and just. God’s love is not passive but active; He seeks a method by which He can spare humankind the fate that has been decreed for the fallen angels led by Satan. Continuing this dialogue, Milton envisages a future for Man that is free from the necessity of covenantal law and atonement:

Then thou regal Scepter shalt lay by,
For regal Scepter then no more shall need,
God shall be All in All. (3.339-41)

The image of the sceptre is particularly stirring; reminiscent of symbol of justice, it is to be put away once the right relationship with Man is established (through the salvation of the Son and the repentance of Man). The sceptre, instead of being the ultimate symbol of God and His kingdom, is set aside in favour of a mercy that shall overcome the failings of Man. Milton extends this idea by describing the differences in the offences committed by the fallen angels and Satan, and those committed by Man:

Justly then accurst,
As vitiated in Nature: more to known
Concern’d not Man (since he not further knew)
Nor alter’d his offence; yet God at last
To Satan first in sin his doom apply’d
Though in mysterious terms, judg’d as then best:
And on the Serpent thus his curse let fall. (10.169-74)

Milton describes that God, instead of arbitrarily passing the same judgement on both Man and Satan, understands their disparate natures. God blames Satan and the angels more heavily than humankind; they had closer access to and knowledge of divinity. He sees that they were aware of what their rebellion meant, and were therefore more knowingly committed fault. Mankind, on the other hand, is a newly-formed creation that existed in a state of innocence and perfection (“God made thee perfect, not immutable” 5.524) until tempted by Satan:

The guilt on him, who made him instrument
Of mischief, and polluted from the end
Of his creation; justly then accursed,
As vitiated in nature: More to know
Concerned not Man, (since he no further knew)
Nor altered his offence (10.166-71)

The blame is cast on the serpentine figure of that fallen angel who “polluted” Man, and Adam and Eve are blamed merely for having been ignorant enough (“since he no further knew”) to trust the tempter. Milton, deviating from the script of Genesis, then sends the Son to judge both Adam and Eve. The Son establishes their complicity and yet recognizes their ignorance in the crime committed, yet clothes them to hide their nakedness and vulnerability:

As Father of his Familie he clad
Thir nakedness with Skins of Beasts, or slain,
Or as the Snake with youthful Coate repaid (10.215-7)

Milton uses this passage to further elaborate upon God’s relationship with Man: the figures of Adam and Eve are associated in paternal relationship (“As Father of his Familie”) with both God the Father and the Son. This nurturing demonstration emphasizes Man’s closeness with God that was inaccessible to the angels. Furthermore, “nakedness” serves here as a symbol of Man’s vulnerability to further attack; in clothing Adam and Eve, God the Son demonstrates an act of nurturing and kindness that pre-empts their ejection from Eden by cloaking them against the harshness of their new reality on Earth. As Milton elaborates:

Of Beasts, but inward nakedness, much more
Opprobrious, with his Robe of righteousness (10.220-1)

This metaphor of nakedness is extended by Milton to include not just physical vulnerability but moral vulnerability (“inward nakedness”) as well, signalling that God not only prepares their bodies for the future, but protects their souls for their immanent separation from Him as well.The final demonstration of God’s mercy that Milton describes is the place of Death that has been released from Hell. Death, usually something antithetical to the immortality of God and the angels (and formerly of Adam and Eve) is subverted in a mirror image in much the same way as the conceptual framework of Hell. Milton creates death as a boon offered by God to alleviate the suffering of separation from Him:

I at first with two fair gifts
Created him endowd, with Happiness
And Immortalitie: that fondly lost,
This other serv’d but to eternise woe’
Till I provided Death; so Death becomes
His final remedie, and after Life
Tri’d in sharp tribulation, and refin’d
By Faith and faithful works, to second Life,
Wak’d in the renovation of the just,
Resignes him up with Heavn’d and Earth renewd. (11.56-66)

Milton, through the figure of God, argues that instead of being a curse, death in this sense functions as a liberation (“His final remedie”). Instead of a perpetual separation from God (“eternise woe”), humanity is offered the hope of death, and a possible future reunion with the Godhead (“Resignes him up with Heavn’d and Earth renewd”). Life, instead of the eternal bounty initially offered, becomes a quest of trial and tribulation (“Tri’d in sharp tribulation, and refin’d”) whereby the cloak of righteousness offered by the Son functions to prepare (“Faith and faithful works”) and hone the soul for a future meeting with God. The renovation of the just is exactly this trial that seeks future renewal of both heaven and earth as places accessible to humanity.God’s ultimate goodness is found in his commitment to Man, whom He never leaves. On the contrary, He sends the Son (as a human) to judge Man by man, and provides protection for a future that is devoid of God. This future is not ultimate, however, and Milton sees hope in the possibility of a future reunion with God. A tyrant would not care so for his citizens, and rather would mete out harsh and swift justice. Instead, Milton’s God is willing to understand the particular natures and frailties of Man, and allow a mechanism by which humankind can escape their doomed state.Perhaps the greatest significance of Paradise Lost is not the loss of the Garden of Eden, but rather the loss of a utopic relationship we, as humans, enjoyed with God as father. Milton associates humanity’s development of the understanding of the transcendent nature with the Fall. Without this event, Man would never have had the opportunity to learn of the nurturing aspects of divine justice, and would have been consigned solely to a covenantal relationship with Him based on law. Any critique of Milton that discounts God’s inherent goodness does not take into account the complexity of judicial and parental justice that is manifested through divine mercy and redemption. Through the Fall, God’s omniscience was able to anticipate a time in which law would no longer be necessary, and humanity would follow God through a love that superceded obligation.


  1. Danielson, Dennis Richard. Milton’s Good God: A Study in Literary Theodicy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982.   Empson, William. Milton’s God. London: Chatto & Windows, 1961.
  2. Holy Bible: King James Version. Toronto: Penguin, 1974. Toronto: Penguin, 1974.
  3. Milton, John. Paradise Lost. The Riverside Milton. Ed. Roy Flannagan. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998. Toronto: Penguin, 1974.

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