Michael perceives that Adam’s mortal eyes are weary of all these visions, so he decides to verbally relate the rest of his story. After the flood, humanity starts over as a “second stock” from Noah’s family. While they still remember their punishment people are more obedient to God than before the flood, and they offer him many sacrifices of livestock and crops.
Mankind basically starts over with a new Adam (Noah), but human nature is still fundamentally corrupted by the Fall. God doesn’t change anything about the sinful nature of the Earth except for destroying most of it.
A few generations later, however, a leader arises with arrogant, blasphemous ambition. This man (Nimrod, though Michael doesn’t name him) rules as a tyrant and forces his subjects to build a huge tower, hoping to reach Heaven and gain fame. God sees this and disrupts the tower’s construction by making all the workers suddenly speak different languages, so they cannot understand each other. This tower will be called the Tower of Babel, and all the angels of Heaven will laugh at the failed ambitions of humans.
Milton defines different chapters of history by sin, and in Nimrod’s generation humans fall victim to a monstrous pride. Nimrod’s sin is similar to that of Satan, as he actively flaunts his power and threatens God’s hierarchy. This vision of Nimrod allows Milton to expound further on his ideas about political and religious freedom.
Adam responds to this tale by condemning the sin of trying to rule over other humans, who should remain free. Only God has rightful dominion, and he gave men to rule only over animals and plants, not each other. Michael agrees, but says that since the Fall humans will only have true freedom when they act with “right reason.” They will instead often allow themselves to be enslaved by desire and sinful passions, and so God allows them to be ruled over by cruel tyrants – though tyranny is still a great sin.
Milton opposed the monarchy in England (even at risk to his own life, as when writing Paradise Lost), and he saw most monarchs as tyrants. God is a monarch, but his rule is part of the proper order and hierarchy, whereas Milton did not think it proper for men to rule over other men. Milton also warns that even “free” humans can be ruled by their sinful natures, so the only way to be truly free is to use one’s “right reason” and remain obedient to God, the proper ruler who gives true freedom.
Michael continues, saying that humans will grow ever more sinful until God turns away from all of them except for one righteous man, Abraham, who obeys God though his family worships idols. God promises to make a great nation out Abraham’s offspring, and among them will be the “great Deliverer, who shall bruise / The Serpent’s head.” Abraham follows God’s commandment and leave his home, moving to the Promised Land of Canaan.
Abraham becomes the next “one righteous man” who will father the nation of Israel. It is out of this nation that the Messiah will one day be born. The “Promised Land” of Canaan becomes a metaphor and foreshadowing of the Promised Land of Heaven, to which Jesus will lead the “nation” of all humanity.
Abraham’s descendants, the nation of Israel, will later move to Egypt and eventually become enslaved by the Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. God will then choose a righteous pair of brothers (Moses and Aaron) to deliver the Israelites. God will cause plagues to afflict the Egyptian people until the Pharaoh lets the Israelites go, but then the Pharaoh changes his mind and pursues the Israelites with his army. God parts the Red Sea for the Israelites to pass through, and then causes the waters to close around the Pharaoh’s army.
Milton remains faithful to the Biblical account of the Exodus, which is another example of people rebelling against an unjust, ungodly tyrant. According to Christian tradition, Moses is the author of the first books of the Old Testament, including Genesis. So, in a strange twist, in seeing Moses, Adam sees the future man who will write the story of Adam himself, and the account Milton will then use for Paradise Lost.
The Israelites will be led by Moses and a senate of twelve tribes, but they must wander through the desert for a long time before returning to Canaan. In the desert Moses ascends to Mount Sinai, where God appears to him and deliver the Ten Commandments. These (and other laws) will exist to inform humans of their sin and foretell of the Messiah to come. The Israelites will keep the tablets of the Ten Commandments in a holy ark.
At the beginning of the poem Milton invoked the Muse that inspired Moses when he was on Sinai. The Ten Commandments were given directly by God, but they were then followed by a long list of complex laws that the Israelites continuously failed to uphold.
There will then be many battles and miracles as the Israelites retake Canaan. Adam interrupts, relieved that God will bless a race of humans after they have been cursed for so long, but he asks Michael how the Israelites will obey the laws God gives them. Michael responds that the Israelites will continue to sin, as “Law can discover sin, but not remove,” and God’s justice will not be fulfilled until he has a proper sacrifice. The Israelites will sacrifice livestock for their sins, but these are only shadows foretelling the Messiah.
Milton explains this Old Testament story from the traditional Christian perspective – the old laws existed only to point out how sinful humans were, and how incapable they were of goodness without God. The failure to uphold the law required a sacrifice for God’s justice to be fulfilled, but there was no proper sacrifice until the Son himself died for all humanity.
Michael explains that Moses will not lead his people into Canaan, but his successor Joshua (also called Jesus) will, and Joshua will prefigure the Jesus to come, who will lead all people into the Promised Land of Heaven. The Israelites will prosper in Canaan until they grow sinful again, and God will strengthen their enemies to attack them. God will send judges to rule the Israelites, and then kings, and among these kings will be one called David. The Messiah will come from David’s offspring.
Michael explicitly points out the Old Testament typology that Christian doctrine emphasizes, noting how Joshua even shares Jesus’s name (Jesus was called Yeshua or Joshua in Hebrew). Milton now starts skipping more quickly through history. He implies that though tyranny is a great sin, God allows tyrants to exist for the sake of punishing the sinful populace.
David’s son (Solomon) will build a great temple of God, but his descendants will then lose it to a conquering nation (Rome). The Messiah will then be born, announced by shepherds, foreign sages, and a choir of angels. He will be born of a virgin mother (Mary), and his father will be God himself. This is the one prophesied to bruise the serpent’s head, and to reunite Heaven and Earth.
Michael finally reaches the climax of all this build-up, and the pinnacle of all human history (from a Christian perspective) – the incarnation of the Son. Michael also affirms the metaphorical significance of God’s curse to “bruise the serpent’s head.”
Adam is overjoyed at this news and he asks Michael to describe the Messiah’s glorious battle with Satan, but Michael says that they will not fight with violence – instead the Son becomes incarnate as a man and allows himself to suffer and die, receiving all of God’s punishment for Adam’s sin. The Son will be hated all his life and then killed by being nailed to a cross. After three days, however, the Son will rise from the dead, defeating Satan, Sin, and Death in one great resurrection. He will appear to some of his disciples and then ascend to Heaven.
Instead of another violent, terrible war in Heaven, the Son’s ultimate defeat of Satan will involve his love and humility. By “condescending” to become a man and die for the sins of all humans (or, symbolically, Adam’s sin that infected all other humans), Jesus will fulfill God’s proper justice, defeat the power of Death, and begin to restore humanity to its proper obedience and order.
After the Messiah is gone, his disciples will baptize other nations and teach them of the his sacrifice, and if they accept this grace they will be saved. Then on Judgment Day the Son will return in glory to send the unfaithful to Hell and resurrect the faithful dead, and then Heaven and Earth will be joined into one wondrous Paradise. Adam rejoices at this, “That all this good of evil shall produce, / And evil turn to good,” and he almost feels that he should not regret the Fall, as it will bring about such future glory. Adam then worries that the Messiah’s followers will be persecuted by the other, sinful humans.
On Judgment Day the Son will return everything to its proper order and hierarchy, but it will be an order that is even better than it was before the Fall, as humans will be elevated to Heaven. Adam’s reaction brings up the theory of the “fortunate Fall,” which says that though the Fall is evil, God brings great good out of it by using it to show his mercy, power, and love to humans in ways they could not have seen if they had remained perfect. Different critics have debated whether the results of the Fall are so “fortunate” that it was actually a positive thing, but Milton doesn’t seem to go this far. He does show that because God exists outside of time, he can include the Fall into his overarching plan for the good of all creation.
Michael confirms that the followers (Christians) will be persecuted, but says that God will send down a “Comforter” (the Holy Spirit) to protect them with spiritual armor and allow them to perform miracles. Michael says that after the faithful original disciples die, however, many corrupt leaders will enter the Church as well, like “grievous wolves” concerned only with earthly riches and fame. They will build opulent temples and indulge in complicated rituals. In this way the good Christians will be always persecuted, while the world will always reward those who do evil – until the Messiah returns again.
Milton now moves into a brief commentary on his own time and the long stretch of human history after Jesus’s resurrection, when Christians still wait for Judgment Day. Milton uses Michael’s voice to comment on the “wolves” (similar to Satan leaping into Eden) of the paid and corrupted clergy who will often lead Christians astray. The motif of the “one righteous man” has been fulfilled by Christ, but all good Christians will continue to be persecuted.
Adam is amazed at how Michael has described all of human history, and he is unspeakably comforted that peace and reconciliation eventually await his offspring. He resolves to live the rest of his life in obedience to God, and in this way to bring good out of evil even in small ways. Michael says that Adam has thus learned “the sum / Of wisdom,” and to not long for any greater knowledge in Heaven or Earth. Though Adam has to leave Paradise, he can still possess a paradise within himself.
Adam is punished for his own crime, but he has now been shown its results throughout the scope of all human history. The result of all this lofty knowledge is that Adam finally learns his lesson – to be content with the knowledge God has decreed, and to live his life in simple obedience to God. Just as Satan carries Hell within him, so Adam can carry Paradise.
Michael and Adam descend from the hilltop and Michael sends Adam to awaken Eve, as she has also had informative, comforting dreams about the Messiah. Adam finds Eve already awake, and she tells him how her dreams have comforted her. Then they see Michael and his Cherubim standing before them, holding a flaming sword to forever guard the gate of Eden. Michael leads Adam and Eve through the gate and they exit Paradise. They cry a few tears and then walk hand in hand into a new world.
After expanding his ambitious epic through millennia, Milton ends the poem at the beginning of Fallen history. Though Adam has received a sort of “predestination” concerning his offspring, he and Eve still have free will concerning their own personal futures, and they have now learned the lesson of the Fall. They again take comfort in their love for each other and they will now try to be more obedient to God, nurturing within themselves the physical Paradise they have lost.