In 1667, Paradise Lost was published, and people were absolutely astounded, and perhaps even shocked, by John Milton’s portrayal of the Devil (Lucifer to his friends). This was largely because the Bible is fairly enigmatic about Satan in the first place. It doesn't describe him in the slightest, and if the Bible doesn’t describe Satan, how do we know what he looks like? What’s the image of Satan based off of? In fact, who Satan is exactly, is a point of conflict between some theologians. The only things the Bible is crystal clear on is his coveting of God’s power, rebellion with God’s own angels, and his subsequent banishment to Hell as punishment.
Lucifer, in Paradise Lost, is a brooding fallen angel who rebels against God’s tyranny and declares his freedom despite his eternal imprisonment by an omnipotent child. Because the epic poem begins with such a relatable plight, many who read it instantly sympathize with him. And even though it’s a work of fiction, it answers so many longstanding questions that many of them have bled into biblical canon. Questions such as “Where did Satan come from?,” and, “What’s the story of Lucifer?” were finally answered for many of the devout.
But, perhaps what is just as astounding is the fact that John Milton was himself a devout Puritan, which is sort of like an extremist Protestant. Specifically, he was devoted to completely removing Catholic restraints on the Church of England. He simply wanted to pray in freedom. On top of that, most of Milton’s work is deeply political and he often criticized the monarchy for its ineffectiveness. Like Lucifer, he wanted the powers ousted. And like Lucifer, he was jailed for it.
John Milton sided with the Devil in regards to tyranny, and out of that partnership, he penned an epic 10,000 line poem that influences society’s perception of Satan to this day.
Paradise Lost starts with Satan as its first character, and it’s set just after his failed rebellion. He, along with Beelzebub and the rest of his fallen comrades, are chained tight at the Lake of Fire, where they suffer the punishment of their disobedience. There they realize just how much more powerful God is compared to them, but their will for independence doesn't break. Rather, they pledge to continue their fight, no matter how slim the chances.
All is not lost; the unconquerable Will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield:
And what is else not to be overcome?
And to contrast Satan’s plight and resolve, Milton reveals God’s attitude towards free will - that it’s only good if it’s his will that’s followed. Those who do follow him, blindly, are rewarded with an eternity of happiness, while those who reject him are thrust into an eternity of agony. Because Satan is placed in this interesting, sympathetic light, many Romantic poets lauded him for it. Poet William Blake famously said of Milton’s work:
“The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil's party without knowing it.”
Fellow poet Percy Bysshe Shelley dismissed the notion that his devil’s characterization was accidental, saying “Milton's Devil as a moral being is [...] far superior to his God... And this bold neglect of a direct moral purpose is the most decisive proof of Milton's genius.”
Satan is highly conflicted. He believes that God is a tyrant, and that free will is a lie perpetuated by him - only an unjust ruler would convey free will but then only reward one set of behaviors. Armed with this belief, he fires up his fellow fallen angels in a plot to get revenge for their imprisonment in Hell and to eventually overthrow God.
However, Satan also knows that this is completely futile. God is powerful. Far more powerful than Satan will ever be. Specifically, he ultimately knows that God has power over everyone’s fate, including his own. So, even though he incites rebellion among his allies, he knows that it’s fruitless; God will win no matter what they do. But he has no choice but to perpetuate the lie. Satan understands that Hell isn’t the Lake of Fire, or the deepest pit, it’s his own thoughts.
Then to submit, boasting I could subdue
Th' Omnipotent. Ay me, they little know
How dearly I abide that boast so vaine,
Under what torments inwardly I groane:
While they adore me on the Throne of Hell,
With Diadem and Sceptre high advanc'd
The lower still I fall, onely Supream
In miserie; such joy Ambition findes.
Before Paradise Lost, the locations of Heaven and Hell were ambiguous. The Bible itself never specifies a location, and only discusses it in the abstract: that it is deep, or exists as a pit, or has levels. Mostly, the Bible states that it is a place of suffering for those who do not believe in Christ as their savior, but never really gets into where this suffering happens.
Milton’s Paradise Lost altered that perception quite dramatically. Milton envisioned that Heaven and Hell are physical locations that exist parallel to the Earth, sandwiching it. Their locations further his theme of hierarchy, which is explored in great detail throughout the poem. Milton specifically states that Heaven sits above the earth, which dangles from it by a golden chain. Those who prove their faith can climb the chain and join God and his angels for eternity. On the opposite end of things, Hell sits below the earth, linked only by a wide bridge into it. Getting to Heaven is tough - climbing that chain is an exhausting and demanding trial for entry. Meanwhile, entering Hell is easy - simply stroll across a bridge. Basically, Satan’s temptation made real. However, this image is so powerful and compelling that it has taken over what many believe about Heaven and Hell in Christianity.
Milton was devout throughout his entire lifetime - he actually joined the Protestant church when he was young, which caused him to be disowned by his Catholic family. Later in life, he radicalized even further as a Puritan, and wanted to remove all traces of Catholicism from the Church of England. He was also incredibly political and even held public office for a time.
In the mid 17th century, England was going through serious political upheaval. There was a huge civil war which upset the ruling order, and many vied for control of the country. Milton was vehemently opposed to a monarchy and was incredibly outspoken against the British crown. Luckily for him, his side won, and the crown was ousted, at least for a time. In 1660, the crown was restored to the throne, to the chagrin of all those who supported the commonwealth before it. Many supporters including Milton were placed in jail for their criticism of the monarchy.
Milton was not pleased, to say in the least. His frustration and anger at the monarchy bled into Paradise Lost, which is easily seen as an allegory for his political beliefs. God represents the tyranny of the monarchy, while Satan represents a rebellious break from that despotic rule.