Justifying the Ways of God to Men: Context and Ideology in Paradise Lost and The Pilgrim’s Progress

June 11, 2021 by Essay Writer

‘I may assert eternal providence,

And justify the ways of God to men.’

(Book I, II. 25-26, p. 4)

It would be strange for any reader not to see that John Milton’s most famous work, Paradise Lost, is a deeply religious text, simply by glancing at its title; when one reads the epic it suggests that Milton felt convinced of his faith as a Protestant Christian considering the effort, time, and the several references to the Bible found within it. However, whatever Milton’s conviction was with regards to religion, his famous words found above also show that there was a certain sense of ‘the failure of religion’ at the beginning of the long eighteenth century. Why does he need to ‘justify the ways of God to men’ (emphasis added)? If God’s ways need to be justified, surely such a justification is in reaction to doubts and criticism cast on God and religion in the first place. John Bunyan also begins his most famous work, The Pilgrim’s Progress, by acknowledging a sense of unease with regards to religion was not uncommon. In an attempt to relate to the audience, Bunyan asks ‘Wouldst thou read Riddles, and their Explanation, / Or else be drownded in thy Contemplation?’ (p. 7). Though both works are in support of Christianity, both works seem to be in response to difficulties found within Christianity, and I will argue this case with particular regard to the divisions within Christianity as well as to the growing popularity of atheism with the rise of science.

Both authors experienced the entirety of the Civil War, from 1642 – 1651, which was caused in part due to conflicting views on religion. As Pauline Gregg argues in King Charles I, there was ‘dissension within the reformed, Protestant religion itself’, and Charles’ marriage to Henrietta Maria, a Roman Catholic, in 1625 added to tensions found within the Protestant government. As Nigel Yates also argues, ‘It was the policy of religious integration which had been a major factor in bringing about the Civil Wars of the 1640s and the temporary abolition of the monarchy in Britain’. Both authors had grown up in a country in which ‘The established churches of the British Isles had, at no point since the Reformation, enjoyed a complete monopoly of religious belief and practice…From the early years of the seventeenthc-century groups of Protestant dissenters had seceded from the established churches that they considered insufficiently pure in their Protestantism’. Clearly, ‘the failure of religion’ could be seen to be due to the lack of stability and unity within Christianity that had led to a nine-year Civil War.

Milton seems to have responded to this failure of religion by attempting to emphasise the similarities found within all denominations of Christianity. After all, Milton dwells most of all on the Fall of Mankind, hence the title, which is a belief shared by all Christian denominations, and paraphrases Genesis, a book familiar to all Christian denominations, in Book VII, II. 243 – 534, beginning with God’s famous command ‘Let there be light’ (pp. 175-183). Milton’s reflections on the ‘Intestine war’ seem to reflect on the Civil War in Britain, with the ‘grim war’ being pointless when considering the peace that would ensue if all worshipped God unanimously, just as, in Britain, if all worshipped as one then a civil war could have been avoided (VI, 259, p. 149). Milton’s emphasis on God’s righteousness, with his ‘eternal providence’, seems to respond to Christianity’s divisions by suggesting there is simply one God, who saved mankind from his ‘first disobedience’ with Christ’s grace (I, I. 25, p. 4, I, I. 1, p. 3). Bunyan, on the other hand, responded to this particular failing of Christianity in a different way, with a more aggressive manner. Perhaps Bunyan took a more aggressive stance due to his being ‘arrested and condemned on an ecclesiastical charge for refusal to hear divine service and receive the Sacrament’. When looking at Bunyan’s attack on Paganism and Catholicism, Bunyan notes that ‘two Giants, Pope and Pagan, dwelt in old time, by whose Power and Tyranny the Men whose bones, blood, ashes &c. lay there, were cruelly put to death’ (p. 65). Bunyan makes it clear that the denominations of Christianity are, in his opinion, very divided, and, unlike Milton, his response to this particular failing of Christianity is to condemn the differing denominations, in order to emphasise the righteousness of his own Protestant beliefs, and the ‘traditional view that the Pope was Antichrist’.

Not only was there contention amongst the religious denominations, but there was a growing sense of scepticism towards religion, and a growing sense of the right to question God’s justness. Meric Casaubon’s work, The Originall Cause of Temporall Evils (1645), attempted to oppose the two ideas regarding evil’s origins that either God was of an envious nature, prompting him to let mankind fall, or that God is not omnipotent and could not prevent the fall. Either scenario paints God in a very questionable light. Milton seems to defend religion’s potential failings in Paradise Lost; Book V’s Argument notes that ‘God to render man inexcusable sends Raphael to admonish him of his obedience, of his free state, of his enemy near at hand’ (V. p. 115). Adam and Eve are made fully aware of the order not to eat the forbidden fruit, yet they both commit the deed regardless. Milton also makes clear that God is omnipotent and omniscient; he knows mankind will fall before it does, as he ‘foretells the success of Satan in perverting mankind; clears his own justice and wisdom from all imputation, having created man free and able enough to have withstood his tempter’, six books before it happens in Paradise Lost (p. 61). God notes that ‘I made him just and right, / Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall’, for ‘Not free, what proof could they have given sincere / Of true allegiance, constant faith or love’ (III, II. 98-99, 103-104, p. 64). However, Milton also emphasises that, while mankind did fall because God allowed mankind free will, God also sacrifices his own son, Jesus Christ, to offer salvation. Christ’s offering of himself is emphasised to be the greatest sacrifice God could make, as Christ is his ‘sole complacence!’ and for mankind does he ‘spare / Thee from my bosom and right hand, to save, / By losing thee awhile, the whole race lost’ (III, II. 276-280, p. 69). Milton’s emphasis on the justness of providing man with free will, and the dear sacrifice God makes, both shows God’s undoubted benevolence as well as his omnipotence in being able to offer redemption in spite of man’s ‘first disobedience’ (I, I. 1, p. 3). While Milton emphasises God’s benevolence, Bunyan seems to take a stance in which God’s intolerance of evil is expressed. All of the characters, of which there are several, whose names represent a sin, fall on the pilgrimage, such as Mr. Mony-love, Mr. By-ends, Mr. Hold-the-world, and Mr. Save-all, who all ‘fell into the Pit’, tempted by Demas, the son of Judas (p. 108). God is just, in The Pilgrim’s Progress, by allowing only the righteous, such as Faithful, into Heaven, and one way in which Bunyan emphasises God’s omnipotence and righteousness is by using the one-dimensional names of the characters to show that God is undoubtedly right in rejecting Sloth, for example, or for not letting Atheist ever find Heaven, but rather lets him wander for twenty years searching for it (p. 135). It is clear that such characters are unworthy of God’s glory, and it is also clear that they will suffer dearly for their turn away from God.

Atheism was indeed another matter of contention with regards to the supposed failure of religion. Michel de Certeau points out that ‘in France in the early seventeenth century, atheism became the focus of not only a whole body of literature, but also of political measures, judicial sentences, and social precautions against atheists….”Atheism”, which was never spoken of a hundred years earlier, becomes a recognized fact’. Gavin Hyman continues to add that ‘at the outset of modernity, minds in England and France are beginning to be afflicted and plagued with doubts, [and] the term “atheism” is being used here [in the seventeenth century] more in the manner of an accusation, a term of abuse’. Milton and Bunyan both take a similar stance in response to the idea of atheism. Halfway through Book I, Milton mentions the story of Eli, a priest whose profligate sons lay with the women that assembled at the door of the tabernacle; ‘when the priest / Turns atheist, as did Eli’s sons, who filled / With lust and violence the house of God’ (I, II. 494-496, p. 20). Undoubtedly, this reflection on atheism is disapproving, and Milton echoes the doomed fate of Eli’s house for the acts against God (1 Samuel 2-4). Unlike the idea of uniting denominations, Milton seems to take a clear stance on atheists’ irreparable fates, just as Bunyan does so. As mentioned beforehand, Bunyan includes an atheist as one of his characters, who ‘fell into a very great Laughter’ at the idea of Christian and Hopeful’s pilgrimage (p. 135). The atheist’s claim that he has ‘been seeking this City this twenty years’ echoes Ecclesiastes, Chapter 10, Verse 15, that ‘the toil of a fool wearies him, for he does not know the way to the city’. Bunyan portrays the atheist as ignorant, both because shortly afterwards Hopeful and Christian do make it to Mount Sion, and by referencing the Bible. As Christopher Hill asserted, ‘The Bible is Bunyan’s sheet-anchor, his defense against despair and atheism’. The seventeenth century enjoyed ‘a particularly rich time for reading and rereading the Bible….Private Bible reading was, after all, one of the linchpins of the Reformation’. Bunyan’s response to atheism therefore was to reinforce what the Bible says regarding a lack of belief, and, considering the vast majority of his readers would be familiar with the Bible, this was likely to be an effective way to emphasise the importance of religion to the country, and to respond to the potential disinterest concerning Christianity by providing such messages through a story of battles, heroes, and villains.

With consideration of how important religion appeared to be, both authors responded to the idea of the failure of religion by stressing the consequences of leading an irreligious life, in which God is abandoned, with the fearsome descriptions of Hell in contrast to the beauties of Heaven. Book I of Paradise Lost quickly moves onto a description of Hell, with the rebellious angels ‘Hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky / With hideous ruin and combustion down / To bottomless perdition, there to dwell / In adamantine chains and penal fire, / Who durst defy the omnipotent to arms’. In this fantastic description, Milton contrasts the ‘ethereal’ Heaven with the ‘hideous ruin and combustion’ of Hell, emphasising that this is the consequence for those ‘Who durst defy the omnipotent to arms’. The continued description of the horrors of Hell (pp. 5 – 6) is powerfully contrasted with the single line ‘O how unlike the place from whence they fell!’ (I, I. 75, p. 6), which pitifully stresses how indescribably far the angels have fallen. The terrors of Hell are a powerful way of discouraging an irreligious lifestyle, and the revelations that Michael the archangel reveals to Adam in Book XI, such as the immoral lifestyle of ‘luxury and riot, feast and dance, / Marrying or prostituting, as befell, / Rape or adultery’ leads to the ‘Flood [that] overwhelmed, and them with all their pomp / Deep under water rolled’ (XI, II. 715 – 717, II. 748-749, pp. 293-294). Milton’s descriptions of Hell, and the consequences of immoral lifestyles, perhaps responds to the idea of the failure of religion both for denominations which rebel against one another as well as atheists who reject God altogether. Similarly, Bunyan presents a terrible portrayal of Hell, in which all the sinful characters inevitably face their fate. While Heaven is presented as ‘the City [which] shone like the Sun, the Streets also were paved with Gold, and in them walked many men, with Crowns on their heads’, Vanity Fair is an immoral city in which ‘Lusts, Pleasures, and Delights of all sorts, as Whores, Bauds, Wives, Husbands’ reign; one does not need to be told that such lifestyles will lead to eternity in Hell (P. 162, p. 88). As a response to ‘the failure of religion’, both authors took a view which, while encouraging a religious life, was designed to terrify those who had denied religion in the past. Just as God is to be loved, both Johns show He is to be feared too.

Paradise Lost and The Pilgrim’s Progress are both heavily involved in religion, and, while they both staunchly seem to support religion in justifying God and encouraging a religious life, such work would not be needed in a world in which religion had no failings whatsoever. Milton would not have felt a need to explain God’s ways, and justify his actions towards mankind, if Britain had never questioned God beforehand. Bunyan would not have needed to publish his work for the very same reasons, nor would he have added such views with regards to Catholicism if he himself had not failed somewhat concerning religion and Christian solidarity. Both texts make particularly notable points with regards to the issues of Christian denominations and a lack of belief, and such issues seem to have been the major ones with regards to the questioned ‘failure of religion’. However, with regards to ‘the failure of religion’, it is unlikely that both works would have been so very popular if religion had failed entirely, and so, while the texts suggest religious issues were significant after the Restoration, the favourable responses to the texts themselves suggest religious matters were still of undisputed importance in the world.

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