“Me miserable! which way shall I fly
Infinite wrath, and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell

… as far
From granting he, as I from begging, peace;
All hope excluded thus, behold, in stead
Mankind created, and for him this world.
So farewell, hope; and with hope farewell, fear;
Farewell, remorse! all good to me is lost;
Evil, be thou my good…”

John Milton’s Satan has been haunting me for a year now. That is, ever since I first encountered him in the long-renowned epic Paradise Lost (1667). More than just a fascinating and brilliant read, Milton’s epic offers arresting Gospel truth. As the title implies, Paradise Lost concerns Adam and Eve’s temptation by the fallen angel Satan and subsequent disobedience and Fall, or loss of Paradise.

In the opening lines of Book I, Milton states that his purpose is to “justify the ways of God to men,” but it seems just as likely that his purpose is to justify the ways of Satan to men (and, nowadays, fortunately, to women too). I am certainly not the first to think this. For 353 years, Milton’s notorious Satan has haunted, moved, provoked empathy from, and (darkly?) inspired readers. English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley boldly argued in his essay “A Defense of Poetry”: “Nothing can exceed the energy and magnificence of the character of Satan as expressed in Paradise Lost. It is a mistake to suppose that he could ever have been intended for the popular personification of evil… Milton’s Devil as a moral being is far superior to his God.”

While I would not go so far as Shelley as to claim that Milton’s Devil is more moral than his God, I think I understand his reasoning, and I definitely agree that his evil is not one that fits a “popular personification.” If you’re unfamiliar with Paradise Lost, you may not expect Satan to be depicted quite the way he is. As you may have sensed from the excerpted portion of Satan’s infamous soliloquy from Book IV, above, Milton’s Satan is richly complex and deeply convoluted—at times sympathetic, at others hateful, sometimes remorseful, at other times intrepid and unabashed in his relentless quest for revenge. He is cunning, crafty, and cruel. Sometimes he seems to fit the mold of the epic hero, at other times he is the clear antagonist, or the desperately tragic figure. While I don’t consider myself, as William Blake famously considered Milton, “of the Devil’s party,” I, like Shelley, Blake, and many others, am far more compelled by Milton’s Satan than I am by Milton’s God.

And I have recently come to understand why: Milton’s Satan has offered me remarkable insight on grace. Unexpected, but true. Let me explain.

Throughout Paradise Lost, Milton as the narrator and Satan alike return to the concept that Hell is as much a mindset as it is a physical location. Early on in the epic, after losing the War in Heaven and falling into the depths of Hell, Satan memorably remarks, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven” (I. 254-255). And then comes his defiant soliloquy excerpted above. Overlooking the Garden of Eden and devising a plan to pervert God’s creation, Satan re-declares his former sentiment with fervor: “Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell” (IV. 75). Satan cannot escape Hell because Hell resides in him. Staring unflinchingly into his soul, Satan actually goes so far as to equate himself with Hell. So if Hell is not just a place but a state of being one can embody, then what defines it?

The chief characteristic of Hell—and therefore Satan as the manifestation of Hell—is despair. The sin of despair carries much theological weight. Basically, despair is a kind of inverse pride in which the sinner contends their transgressions are so bad that they are beyond God’s mercy—and thus in some sense usurps God’s place. In talking himself out of the very possibility of repentance, Satan reveals the undercurrent of pride in the nature of despair: he insists that God’s grace is not enough for sinners like himself, and, consequently, bids “farewell” to hope.

I know Milton’s epic is a creative interpretation and not the Word of God, but I believe his fictive Satan communicates an incredible spiritual truth. That is, the notion that the worst sin is the belief that we are simply too sinful for God. Let that sink in for a minute and see if it doesn’t just bring you to the foot of the Cross, too.

The worst thing I can do is believe that God’s grace is not enough for me, that my badness renders me unredeemable. Such a belief really does hurt like Hell. There are a lot of things I would not be able to uphold were they the crux of my salvation—like being a kind, moral, generous, selfless, overall “good person” all the time—but, weak as I am, one thing I can do is accept God’s forgiveness and grace.

And just as Hell is both a place and a state of mind, so too is Paradise. Enviously watching Adam and Eve embrace and kiss in the Garden of Eden, in Paradise, Satan laments: “Sight hateful! Sight tormenting! Thus these two / Imparadised in one another’s arms / The happier Eden, shall enjoy their fill of bliss on bliss” (505-508). The sight of their endless “bliss” is “tormenting” to Satan because it contradicts the nature of Hell that is his experience. He can no more escape Hell than he can escape himself—even when he is literally in Paradise. But Adam and Eve, “imparadised” in each other’s arms, enjoy the mindset of Paradise—joy, peace, love, companionship, closeness to God—as much as they enjoy the beautiful place that it is. And, yes, then comes the Fall and the loss of Paradise. But, thank God, God does not leave humankind there. Jesus restores Paradise. We are not living in the physical manifestation of Paradise on this earth, but through his death on the Cross and the presence of the Holy Spirit, Jesus does offer us the gift of its mindset.

And what defines this mindset of Paradise? Grace. Jesus releases me from the Hell I fall victim to—despair—and into grace time and time again. Paradise, indeed.