John Milton's Paradise Lost tells the story of Heaven and Hell both before and after Adam and Eve fell from grace. At the center of Milton epic poem is the story of the character of Satan, a being who has been sent to the underworld to live in agony forever after trying and failing to take over the control of Heaven from God. Satan will spend the rest of eternity amid the demons and monsters that live in what is now his realm. As he was punished for disobeying and daring to challenge God, so he wishes to damn all of God's creations in kind. Mankind is God's newest experiment and thus the subject of Satan's diabolical machinations. Before, God had made angels and other celestial beings that were extremely powerful and thus could pose a challenge to Him. With man, God took a different position with his creation. Instead of a being with power, He gave man relatively less strength and far less ability. This would prevent his newer creation from following Satan's example. However, man is also given free will which proves to be his (and her) undoing. Instead of brute strength or magical abilities, man is given the ability to choose to obey God or to ignore Him. This free will, Satan plays upon which leads to Adam and Eve's fall. Thus, through both the cases of Satan and, after him, Adam and Eve, Paradise Lost proves to be a cautionary tale about the dangers of being disobedient to the word of God.
The first instance of disobedience to God is with the character of Satan. It is revealed early in the poem that Satan has tried to take over the realm of Heaven from God. Obviously, he was not successful. In this early portion, Milton creates a Satan who is at once somewhat remorseful for his action and also vengeful and angry (Johnson 1). His remorse does not descend from a belief that he has done anything wrong, but in that his goal to take over Heaven was unsuccessful. His remorse is that he is forever in Hell and will never be allowed back into the kingdom of Heaven.
The second instance of the detrimental effects of disobedience to God is the tragedy of Adam and Eve. Everyone is familiar with the story of how Adam and Eve were thrust out of the Garden of Eden. In Milton's Paradise Lost, Eve is tempted to eat from the forbidden apple tree by a serpent who is really Satan in disguise. Even though she is aware that God has ordered that neither she nor Adam eat from that particular tree, Satan appeals to her vanity and her frailties as a human being. In the end, not only does Eve take a bite of the apple, but the then convinces Adam to also eat the forbidden fruit.
Adam and Eve are completely innocent creatures when they are first introduced in the piece. Milton writes, "Flours of all hue, and without thorn the rose" (4.256). They are beings of perfect beauty without even the slightest imperfections. In the world of the present moment, nothing is perfect. Even the most beautiful rose will have a thorn; even the most beautiful person will have a flaw. By disobeying God this most perfect version of the world has been forever taken away from all of humanity.
After Eve consumes the bite of apple from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge, she questions her actions and whether or not God can forgive her. Although still of the mind of a child, Eve is able to ascertain that her action was wrong because it was in defiance of God. However, this does not prevent Eve from convincing Adam to join her in what will eventually be the downfall of both herself and her mate, and all their future offspring. According to Zak Grimm, this portion of the poem shows that Milton believed that even though Eve was aware that she had disobeyed God, and that she was aware of the potential consequences of this action, she is unable to prohibit herself from sharing her destiny with her mate (Grimm 2).
Their punishment for disobedience is the cruelest that God can impose. The Garden of Eden was a place where man and woman's every desire was fulfilled. After they disobey God, all the wonders that they had known in the enchanted garden are stripped from them. Not only are they forced to work and toil for eons, but they were deprived the direct contact with God that they had known before. Angry at God for the beauty that has been created in the Garden of Eden, Satan says:
Do they only stand
By ignorance, is that their happy state,
The proof of their obedience and their faith? (Milton 4:518 -- 520).
Satan believes, and he is proved right, that Adam and Eve only obey God's decrees because they do not yet realize that they have a different option. Once the idea that they can make decisions which are opposite to God's wishes, Eve and then Adam are only too ready and willing to eat from the forbidden tree.
God, in the Old Testament, is an angry and vengeful deity. When his orders are not heeded, the punishment is swift and definite. In the third book of Paradise Lost, God speaks to his son and fellow angels and discusses why he treated Satan and the humans differently even though both defied his orders. He says:
The first sort [Satan] by their own suggestions fell,
Self-tempted, self-depraved: man falls deceived
By the other first: man therefore shall find grace,
The other none (Milton 3:129 -- 132).
Mankind defied God not by their own will and determination, but because they were led astray by Satan. Therefore, although they must be punished for defiance, there is a chance that they will be redeemed. Man will still be allowed into the kingdom of Heaven, but Satan and his allies will never have that opportunity. Here, God differentiates between the two types of defiance. Satan maliciously defied the orders of God because he felt that he was better suited to rule Heaven. He was not coerced by a seductive being. However, Eve only bit into the forbidden fruit after she was lied to and deceived by the serpent.
According to Diana Benet, another component to this discussion that should be kept in mind is that Adam and Satan have very different psychological responses to their actions. Whereas Satan is not at all remorseful and tries to create more mayhem and evil, Adam regrets disobeying God, which tells the reader that it is sorrow over our deeds that can lead to redemption (Benet 2). Milton makes it clear that is the intention behind the act rather than the action itself which will be the determinant factor in how the beings will spend eternity. It is his attitudes that lead to the Fall of Adam and Eve. Thus his crime is not only disobedience, but also he is covetous, committing a multitude of sins in the process.
The last indication that Paradise Lost is about the dangers of disobedience to God is made manifest when Satan tries and fails to coerce Jesus Christ into ignoring the word of God. In the twelfth book of Paradise Lost, Milton is speaking for St. Michael. He tells Adam about the potential for man's retribution. Mankind will not reach salvation and forgiveness through selfishness or piety. The only way to please God is "By fulfilling that which thou didst want, / Obedience to the law of God" (Milton 12:394 -- 396). As the Fall was the direct result of disobedience to God's rules, the only way that man can be saved is if God's son follows through with his obligation to obey God. Gary Alexander says that Satan is directly juxtaposed against Jesus Christ in the Milton text (Alexander 2). Here is a human being with heavenly powers who will be forced to accept the sins of all of mankind by obeying God's rule and dying on the cross. Satan, on the other hand was born into a high and immortal position, only to be cast down when he ignores God. Thus it is not the type of being that has merit in this world, but the character of that being.
In Milton's version of the creation of man, God predicts that his human children will disobey him and need salvation even before he finishes them. Yet, he still makes man and then woman, knowing that they will disobey and fail him. More importantly, even being aware of what will happen, God still chooses to create man and his female companion with free will. Literary critic and analyst Francis Blessington wrote:
Freedom allows men and angels to prove their obedience by each accepting the terms of obedience. Man then is tested by being forbidden to eat of the tree, as angels are tested before the fall of…