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"Justifying the Ways of God to Man" in Milton's "Paradise Lost"


What Does Milton Mean by "Justify the Ways of God to Man?"

In accordance with the poem’s stated purpose to, “assert Eternal Providence, / And justifie the wayes of God to men” (25-6), the God of Milton’s Paradise Lost spends a lot of time explaining in detail the workings of his own “Mercy and Justice” (132). However, these explanations frequently seem to mystify rather than “justifie” the workings of the divine. A prime example of this can be found in God’s statement that “The first sort by thir own suggestion fell / Self-tempted, self-deprav’d: Man falls deceiv’d / By the other first: Man therefore shall find grace, / The other none” (129-32). Here, God softens his judgment on Adam and Eve in light of their seduction by Satan but seems to completely disregard the fact that the rebel angels were similarly seduced by their leader, the only angel to truly fall “Self-tempted, self-depraved.”

Although Milton scholarship abounds with discussion of freewill, sin, and grace, there is a curious silence surrounding the apparent contradiction between God’s condemnation of the fallen angels and the grace extended toward humankind. While Dennis Berthold, Desmond Hamlet, Merit Hughes, and Wayne Rebhorn each explore how “merit” is defined differently by heavenly and Satanic forces, none of them address the connection between hierarchical merit and responsibility for sin. Even in Milton’s Good God, Dennis Danielson’s sweeping book-length defense of Milton’s theodicy, the disparity between God’s treatment of angels and humans is left untouched. Only Stella Revard in her 1973 PMLA article “Eve and the Doctrine of Responsibility in Paradise Lost,” comes close to grappling with the problem, as she takes on critics who would hold a weak and negligent Adam responsible for the inferior Eve’s sin of eating the fruit in his absence. According to Revard, God makes it abundantly clear that, while a hierarchy of strength and reason does exist between men and women, each was created “sufficient to stand” and is therefore wholly responsible for his or her own sin. Eve therefore could and should have resisted the stronger and cleverer Satan, just as his other inferior Abdiel already has (75). This conclusion, however, merely further confuses the issue of God’s differing treatment of humans and angels. While her adamant assertion that the responsibility of God’s creatures for their sins is the same regardless of their hierarchical position and reasoning ability seems to hold true in the case of the fallen angels, it becomes ironically suspect when applied to her own example of Adam and Eve, who are shown mercy because they have been misled by Satan—a mercy that is absent in the case of the lesser angels also seduced by him, whose temptation God does not even acknowledge.

Perhaps the best starting place for examining the puzzling discrepancy between God’s treatment of angels and humans is in Joad Raymond’s Milton’s Angels. The first section of Raymond’s book-length study of angels in the Protestant imagination provides a general guide to understanding how angels were viewed in Early Modern England, based on evidence from classical writings, scripture, the Early Church Fathers, and later Protestant reformers. Among many question that Raymond addresses is “Do Angels Have Freewill?” (71), a question inextricably tied to the rebel angels’ decision to turn from God and their subsequent ability or inability to repent. According to Raymond, “Medieval commentators agreed that angels had freewill; the problem for them was then explaining why once angels had fallen they were unable to redeem themselves, and why all angels who did not initially fall managed to remain unfallen” (71). It appears that with a few exceptions, such as Origen, who believed that even angels who had avoided falling with Satan could “backslide” into sin (71), Christians widely assumed that the angelic or demonic status of celestial beings was established permanently with Satan’s fall, a view perfectly in line with God’s eternal damning of the rebel angels in Milton’s poem.

According to Augustine, unfallen angels retained freewill, but remained unfallen through the assistance of God’s grace. In spite of asserting the freewill of angels, this model calls said freewill into question, particularly for those who fell and were subsequently unable to redeem themselves, as fugitives from grace (71). According to Raymond, this problem is addressed by Peter Lombard’s somewhat more detailed explanation. According to Lombard, all angels were innocent before the fall; subsequently some rebelled, but others, assisted by grace, did not. Those who remained faithful to God continued to receive the benefit of his grace, growing in virtue and glory, whereas those who fell were cast away from his grace, and therefore unable to repent (71). However, even in this carefully explained model, it seems that the fate and actions of the angels was predetermined by the decision of God either to extend his grace or withhold it. Only the angels assisted by grace from the beginning remained in heaven. The fallen angels, meanwhile, seem to have been punished in the end by the retraction of a grace they had never been granted in the first place. The fallen in this model are prefallen.

Aquinas’ model of the fall was similar to Lombard’s, but placed greater emphasis on hierarchy. According to Aquinas, the freewill and reason of the higher angels was “nobler” than that of the lower orders. He also held that the angels’ acts of conversio (turning towards God) and aversio (turning away) were the very first acts that they performed, with charitable first acts constituting conversio and sinful acts constituting aversio (71). Once an angel had performed a charitable act, it was held in a feeling of resultant bliss eternally and therefore incapable of wishing to sin. Thus it was the stronger freewill of celestial beings, incapable of straying from a course once it had been decided upon, and not a lack of freewill that solidified Aquinas’ angels in either a heavenly or infernal state (72).

Finally, Protestants held a variety of views regarding the freewill of angels. Some did not believe in angelic freewill at all (72-3), asserting rather that they are “instruments” manipulated by a higher power for purposes of fulfilling a divine plan (73), that fallen angels lack the freedom that righteous angels retain (73), or even that good angels are so ravished by the sight of God that they are rendered incapable of sinning (72). In perhaps the most complex explanation, Wollebius believed in the “sublapsarian predestination” of humans and the “prelapsarian predestination” of angels. According to Wollebius, humans, having fallen into sin, are selectively granted the grace to repent, with the elect ascending to heaven. Angels, before the fall, were selectively granted the grace to remain good, with the elect remaining in heaven. Therefore, all are predestined, humans after the fall and angels from the very beginning (72-3).

While Wollebius’ model of prelapsarian predestination for angels and sublapsarian predestination for humans would certainly explain the fall and eternal damnation of Milton’s rebel angels, along with the salvation of elect descendants of Adam and Eve, predestination in any form is a decidedly un-Miltonian idea. According to Milton, “It seems… more agreeable to reason, to suppose that the good angels are upheld by their own strength no less than man himself was before his fall; that they are called ‘elect,’ in the sense of beloved, or excellent” (qtd. in Raymond 73). Accordingly, Milton’s God affirms freewill in Book III of the Paradise Lost, asserting that “all th’ Ethereal Powers / and Spirits” were created “Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall,” because the obedience and virtue of mere automatons would be meaningless, “serv[ing] necessitie, / Not mee” (98-111).

Also reflecting Milton’s concern with freewill and personal responsibility is Milton’s handling of the question of why the unfallen angels remain unfallen in spite of freewill. Unlike Augustine, Lombard, Aquinas, or Wollebius, all of whom seem to cite grace more than freewill as the prime influence on an angel’s actions, Milton emphasizes examples put forward by God as lessons to his creatures. For example, as Raymond points out, God summons the angels to observe the judgment of Adam and Eve in Book XI (258). Earlier, in Book VIII, Raphael informs Adam that God also commanded the angels to guard the gates of Hell the day that he created Adam. In instances like these, Milton’s God seems intent on exposing his angels to knowledge of the consequences of sin. The angels remain good perhaps in part because of God’s grace, but also because they are aware of the consequences of doing evil, having witnessed Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden and personally guarded the gates of Hell.

This observation, while affirming the freewill and personal responsibility of angels, who are not merely inspired to good by God’s irresistible grace, but discouraged from evil through the examples put forth by God, also seems to imply that the angels’ obedience is not merely the result of love, but also fear. These lessons also beg the question: Might such cautionary examples have prevented the rebel angels from going astray? Furthermore, how different is the provision of these lessons from the extension of irresistible grace? If the unfallen angels remain loyal without exception because of these lessons, it seems they are compelled to obedience, and perhaps more through fear of consequences than a desire to obey. It also seems that they have been favored with a full presentation of the truth denied to the fallen angels, which enables them to exercise freewill more wisely.

In Milton’s God, William Empson criticizes just such selective presentation of knowledge by the poem’s deity. According to Empson, when Lucifer questioned God’s “credentials,” it would have been appropriate simply to provide them. “God need not have shown his credentials in the manner calculated to produce the greatest suffering and moral corruption for both the malcontent angels and ourselves” (95). Through much of the rebellion, Empson points out, God remains passive, allowing Satan and his forces to believe that he is a usurper—or even that they had a chance at victory—only to crush them in the end, casting them out into eternal torment. Where Milton’s God later presents the unfallen angels with evidence of his power and knowledge of the fruits of sin, here he deliberately withholds it from the rebels (97). While it may easily be suggested that the faithful are more deserving of guidance than the rebel forces, it also seems malignant and vengeful beyond reason for a wholly good God to deliberately encourage and exacerbate the misperceptions of the erring, ultimately justifying his wrath with the error to which he has purposefully contributed.

Beyond the mere withholding of information, Empson accuses God of actively manipulating the actions of the angels to lead to the fall of man. Although in Book III, God insists that “foreknowledge had no influence on their fault” (118), this claim is suspect in itself, considering that, as Aquinas said, “Knowledge, as knowledge, does not imply, indeed, causality; but in so far as it is a knowledge belonging to the artist who forms, it stands in relation of causality to that which is produced by his art” (qtd. in Empson 115-6). Beyond this simple fact, Empson also argues that God, even after creating beings that he knows will fall, actively works to set in place the circumstances necessary to that fall.

First, Empson writes, God retracts the angelic guard—whose guardianship is useless anyhow, since the rebels cannot escape if God does not allow it—from the gates of Hell, replacing them with Sin and Death, the children of Satan, who are quickly found sympathetic to his cause, eager to prey upon the human race (117-8). Next, he aborts the attempt of the angelic guard to capture Satan, sending a heavenly sign that the fallen angel is outmatched by the forces of God and leading to his flight, unbound, from Paradise, with full intention to return and bring about the fall of man (112-3). Even if God’s foreknowledge of Satan’s actions as he created him does not imply his ultimate responsibility for the existence of evil, these actions, which seem to assist Satan in his evil cause, do.

Here, an example from Raymond might help to drive the point home. In his chapter concerning the question “Can Angels Feign?” Raymond examines Abdiel’s confrontation with Satan at the end of Book V and attempt to warn heaven of the impending rebellion in Book VI. While Abdiel reproaches Satan before his flight, declaring that the rebel angel is doomed because as they speak, “other decrees / Against thee are gone forth without recall” (qtd. in 209), upon his approach to heaven, he is surprised to find an army already assembled, well aware of the threat of which he thought to warn them. According to Raymond, this episode demonstrates the ability of good angels to feign. Overcome with zeal and outmatched in power, support, and reasoning ability by the powerful Satan, Abdiel declares that God has doomed the traitorous angel, even though he is uncertain of God’s knowledge of his treason (212).

The situation also helps to illustrate the total omniscience of God and the inability of his creations to have any kind of meaningful agency in the face of his supreme knowledge and power. Abdiel’s loyalty is completely unnecessary to heaven’s cause, just as the “good” angels’ participation in the war in heaven does nothing to influence its outcome. As Gabriel states in his confrontation with Satan in Book IV,

Satan, I know they strength, and thou know’st mine,
Neither our own but giv’n; what follie then
To boast what Arms can doe, since thine no more
Then Heav’n permits, nor mine (1006-9)

As illustrated by the image God conjures in this scene, the angels’ strength is not their own. Instead, the “scales” in any conflict are tipped by God in whatever direction he sees fit. According to this scheme, the only effect one’s freewill can have is in determining one’s own salvation or damnation—And even there, the agency of angels and humans is uncertain.

Although Milton adamantly opposed the predestinarian models of the rebel angels’ fall posed by Augustine, Aquinas, Wollebius, and others, it is unclear how Paradise Lost differs from these models, except in the presence of a God who protests too much his innocence of responsibility for sin. Even if God does not directly predetermine the inclinations of the angels through the extension or retraction of his grace, he manipulates their actions through the selective presentation of information, seeming to deliberately lead the rebels astray and enabling Satan to escape from Hell and tempt Eve, his clear inferior in strength and reason. While the resistance of Abdiel, also weaker than Satan, indicates that it is possible for God’s creations to withstand extreme temptation, it seems suspect that a wholly good being would be intent on bringing about such temptation. Even an angel possessing full knowledge of the reality of damnation and the futility of struggling against God might be repelled from such a malignant deity, as Empson suggests. According to Empson, even a good angel is hesitant to get too close to God. This is why Raphael blushes when he explains to Adam the total interpenetration that two angels experience in the act of love—because while angels desire such unity with each other, they avoid such unity with God, since desiring it would require a kind of selflessness on their part, a willingness to be subsumed into something far greater than oneself (139). To be close to Milton’s God is to forgo all pride, to recognize one’s utter powerlessness, and to submit entirely to God’s will. As the deity claims in Book VII,

Boundless the Deep, because I am who fill
Infinitude, nor vacuous the space.
Though I uncircumscrib’d my self retire,
And put not forth my goodness, which is free
To act or not, Necessitie and Chance
Approach not mee, and what I will is Fate (168-73)

In the same breath, God pays lip service to freewill, stating that “[I] put not forth my goodness,” while simultaneously precluding the conditions necessary to its existence, revealing that he is “Boundless,” “uncircumscrib’d,” present in all things—Although he claims to “put not forth [his] goodness,” this omnipresence seems to imply that all things are permeated with God, and therefore, subject to his will, a suggestion confirmed in the seemingly predestinarian statement that “what I will is Fate.”

It would seem that Milton fails to convincingly defend the assertion that angels and humans are governed by freewill. Even ignoring the suggestion of many theologians that “good” angels were upheld by grace, while “bad” angels fell unassisted—a suggestion that undermines the very idea of freewill—God influences his creatures through other means, either manipulating them through the selective presentation and concealment of knowledge or actively pulling strings to bring about the events he wishes to occur. Beyond even that, he claims total omnipresence, implying what he later overtly states, that his will is identical to fate.

Returning to the question posed at the beginning of this paper, it seems that God’s defense of freewill merely attempts to exonerate him of the responsibility rightly placed upon an all-powerful creator, whose will is fate, for the existence of evil in the world. Therefore, many of God’s explanations for his actions may rightly be seen as mere rationalization for manipulating his creation as he sees fit. Although God claims that Satan and his minions fell “self-deceived,” it would seem more accurate to say that they fell deceived—or at least encouraged in their deception—by God, who does nothing to disabuse them of their misconceptions regarding his power and right until it is too late and all of them are damned. Thereafter, God seems to grant grace to humankind not because of any greater innocence on their part, but in order to spite the fallen angels, who believed they had secured a victory in tempting them to sin. The promise of redemption hidden in the Son’s judgment of Adam and Eve is after all phrased more to the point of antagonizing Satan than to redeeming mankind: Eve’s seed shall bruise Satan’s head (181).

Works Cited

  • Berthold, Dennis. “The Concept of Merit in Paradise Lost.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 15.1 (1975): 153-67. JSTOR. Web. 12 Nov. 2011. <>.
  • Danielson, Dennis Richard. Milton’s Good God: A Study in Literary Theodicy. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1982. Print.
  • Empson, William. “Heaven.” Milton’s God. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1979. 91-146. Print.
  • Hamlet, Desmond M. “Satan and the Justice of God in Paradise Lost.” One Greater Man: Justice and Damnation in Paradise Lost. London: Associated University Presses, 1976. 108-134. Print.
  • Hughes, Merritt Y. “Merit in Paradise Lost.” Huntington Library Quarterly 31.1 (1967): 2-18. JSTOR. Web. 12 Nov. 2011. <>.
  • Milton, John. “Selections from Christian Doctrine.” The Complete Poetry and Essential Prose of John Milton. Ed. Stephen M. Fallon, William Kerrigan, and John Peter Rumrich. New York: Modern Library, 1997. 1144-1251. Print.
  • Raymond, Joad. Milton’s Angels: The Early Modern Imagination. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.
  • Rebhorn, Wayne A. "The Humanist Tradition and Milton's Satan: The Conservative as Revolutionary." Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 13.1 (1973): 80-93. JSTOR. Web. 11 Nov. 2011. <>.
  • Revard, Stella P. “Eve and the Doctrine of Responsibility in Paradise Lost.” PMLA 88.1 (1973): 69-78. JSTOR. Web. 12 Nov. 2011. <>.


collegatariat on May 30, 2012:

Wow, this is some impressive research, and a lot of information I didn't know on the history of the theology of angels. Thanks for all of the work you put in on it. But isn't it a wonderful thing that it's not humanities job to "justifie the ways of God to men?" Us poor humans would be in sad shape if it were.