Milton opens by again invoking his Muse, this time calling it “holy Light, offspring of Heav’n first-born.” He asks for this heavenly inspiration to illuminate his heart and mind so that he can describe Heaven and God. Milton comments on his own blindness, which he compares to that of the Greek prophet Tiresias, and says that he would rather have “celestial Light / Shine inward” than be able to see as other mortals do.
Milton further associates his Muse with the Holy Spirit without explicitly naming it. Milton was totally blind by the time he wrote Paradise Lost, and he mostly dictated the poem to his daughter. As with Tiresias, who was blind but gifted with prophetic sight, Milton hopes for a kind of inner vision.
The scene then moves to Heaven, where God the Father sits on his throne with his Son at his right hand. Together they watch Adam and Eve in the “happy garden” of Eden, and they see Satan flying across the gulf between Hell and Earth. God sees not only this but also all the past and future at once. He speaks to the Son and describes how Satan broke free from Hell, and the results of Satan’s arrival on Earth.
Milton was a Puritan Christian, but he rejected the idea of predestination held by many of his contemporaries, particularly the Calvinists. God is eternal, existing outside of time, so for Milton God can see the future and plan for it without affecting it. In this way he knows Adam and Eve will fall, but they still have free will in the moment of their falling.
God says that Adam and Eve will listen to Satan’s “glozing lies” and disobey God, leading to their “fall.” Though God foresees all this, he frees himself of blame by saying that humanity will fall of its own free will, as God has given Adam and Eve the freedom to obey or disobey. Without this free will humans would not be capable of sincere love and worship of God. God affirms his own foreknowledge, but rejects the idea of predestination – he knows what will happen but does not control it, and instead allows humans to act for themselves.
God argues with Milton’s voice against his critics, saying that free will is a necessity of true love and obedience. If God “predestined” all his creatures to obey or rebel, then no worship or love could be truly sincere. Though with this argument Milton frees God from predestining the Fall, God still allows Satan to escape and reach Earth, and orchestrates the situation so that the whole mortal universe can descend into suffering and death through one apple.
God declares that he will be merciful in his punishment of mankind, as Adam and Eve will be led into disobedience by Satan instead of on their own. For Satan and his angels, however, there will be no mercy, as they are “Self-tempted” and so totally guilty. God finishes speaking and divine aromas fill Heaven, and then attention turns to the Son, who shines with all the glory of God the Father. The Son speaks, praising God, but then asks if God will give up humanity as lost and so let Satan have his revenge.
Compared to Satan’s dynamic agency and inner turmoil, the scenes in Heaven seem more boring and passive, but this is beside the point for Milton. Because God is omnipotent and omniscient, he cannot be surprised by anything or experience any doubts, as he is always right. Milton attempts to describe Heaven using the “fallen language” of Earth by emphasizing its brightness, music, and aroma.
God praises his Son and promises to save some humans who choose to trust in God. He says he will put his spirit into humanity as an “umpire conscience,” and constantly warn them of their “sinful state.” If they will repent and be obedient he will listen, but there still must be a worthy sacrifice to satisfy his own divine Justice and allow him to be merciful. God then rhetorically asks who in all of Heaven would volunteer to suffer and die on behalf of fallen humanity.
Though God exists outside of time and knows everything, this “conversation” surely does not need to take place (especially as the Father and Son are of one essence), but Milton can only portray such divine “decisions” through dramatic dialogue like this. God holds himself to his own standard of Justice and Mercy that presupposes all the conditions of the current Earth – he is somehow “bound” to let Sin and Death into Earth as justice against Adam and Eve.
All the angels are silent, but then the Son volunteers himself. He promises to become mortal and give himself up to Death, but then break Death’s power and return victorious to life, bringing with him all of humanity. He will then return to Heaven with his “redeemed” and sit again with God, who can now be both just and merciful. All of Heaven is filled with admiration for the Son’s great bravery and love.
God praises the Son, describing how he will be born of a virgin, and explaining that in one man (Adam) humanity will be condemned, but also in one man (the Son made mortal) humanity will be redeemed. Adam is the sinful “root,” but the Son is the “second root” in whom humans will be “transplanted” and find new life – unless they reject God’s grace, in which case they will still be condemned to Hell.
Milton emphasizes the motif of “one man” throughout the poem, as he basically divides human history into the acts of two individuals – Adam’s sin and Jesus’s death and resurrection. As one man causes the death of all, so one man will cause the life of all.
God declares that through the Son’s sacrifice “Heav’nly love shall outdo Hellish hate,” and he will bring good out of the evil of the Fall. The Son has also proved himself as worthy of God by volunteering himself, and God promises that all angels, humans, and devils will one day bow to him. God then describes the Last Judgment, when the Son will return to the Earth in glory to resurrect the saints and shut the gates of Hell forever, “her numbers full.” Then Earth will burn and be resurrected as a new world, where the saints will rule and be at one with God in a new Paradise.
God doesn’t plan for the Fall, but he can still arrange his plans around it and so bring good out of evil. His overarching intentions are to bring greater glory to himself and greater good to his creation, but at times God also seems to act to spite Satan. In a way this allows Satan a small bit of revenge, in that he at least affects the actions of the Almighty. Only after the Son’s sacrifice can everything be restored to the proper order.
As soon as God stops speaking the Heavenly choirs of angels break out in song, throwing down their beautiful crowns and praising the goodness, power, and wisdom of both Father and Son. They acclaim their mercy and justice, and the Son’s selfless sacrifice for humanity’s sake.
Part of the joy and order of Heaven involves a kind of ceaseless worship of God. Milton felt no problem with this supreme monarchy as he saw God as the rightful ruler, whereas upstarts like Satan (or Charles I and II) were tyrants upsetting the proper hierarchy.
The scene then returns to Satan as he approaches Earth. He lands in what is now China and walks about, but there are not any living things there yet, or any of the “vain things” that will distract humans from God in the future. Milton digresses to muse on the possibility of extraterrestrial life, mock the Franciscan and Dominican orders of monks, and describe Limbo as the “Paradise of Fools.” Satan keeps wandering and eventually comes to a magnificent gate of gold and diamond.
After the passive discussion of Heaven, Satan’s actions seem more interesting, even though he is the ostensible antagonist. Milton uses his long comparisons and digressions to flesh out his own religious and political views – he disapproved of religious orders and the corrupt hierarchy he saw in the Catholic and Anglican churches, preferring an individual relationship with God and an independence of mind in matters of dogma.
Behind the gate are stairs leading up to Heaven – Milton says this is “Jacob’s ladder” that the Biblical Jacob will later dream about, with angels descending and ascending. In this pre-Fall world Heaven directly overlooks the Earth. Satan flies over the gate and climbs a little way up the stairs. He look down over the Earth and sees all its lush glory, but he feels as much envy as wonder. He is soon drawn by the sun, which reminds him of Heaven’s light, and he flies towards it.
In his language of “illuminating the splendid,” Milton devotes much of the poem to describing the innocence and lush beauty of the pre-Fallen Earth. This only heightens the tragedy of the Fall, when every aspect of the Earth is transformed by Sin, Death, and God’s angels. Satan is still drawn by light and beauty, though he also hates and envies it.
Satan lands on the surface of the sun and Milton describes its magical substance, like liquid gold. From there Satan looks back to Earth and sees an angel standing on a hill. Satan is pleased, as he hopes the angel is there to guard Paradise. Satan transforms his shape into a young Cherub, or a small, low-ranking angel, and then he flies off towards the angel on the hill. This angel is the Archangel Uriel, one of the seven most powerful angels who stand closest to God’s throne.
Satan undergoes another transformation, again decreasing in size and glory as he becomes a “low-ranking” angel instead of his former glorious self. His transformations throughout the poem become a grotesque echo of the Son’s Incarnation, as Satan begins as a huge, terrible warrior and ends as a toad and a serpent.
Satan approaches Uriel and addresses him respectfully, saying that he has just come down from Heaven and is curious to see God’s new world and its inhabitants, as he wants to better praise God for his glorious works. Satan’s speech and appearance are so perfect that Uriel cannot see through his disguise, though he is the “sharpest sighted Spirit of all in Heav’n.” Uriel is pleased at the Cherub’s zeal, and he describes how God created the Earth out of Chaos, uniting the elements of “earth, flood, air, fire” and the “ethereal quintessence of heav’n” which forms the stars. Uriel then points out the location of Paradise, and Satan bows low and flies gladly towards it.
Satan expands on his ability to deceive others, especially those who are innocent and good. Part of the idea of innocence in Paradise Lost (and in Genesis) involves a kind of ignorance – the Fall is basically longing for knowledge of good and evil beyond what God has allowed. So even Uriel the sharp-eyed Archangel has no real knowledge of evil, and can be easily deceived by Satan. Milton references the order inherent even in matter itself, according to the Christian-based science of his day.