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Innocence, Satan and Sin: A Baha’i Response to Milton

John Hatcher | Oct 2, 2017

PART 14 IN SERIES The Purpose of Physical Reality

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

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John Hatcher | Oct 2, 2017

PART 14 IN SERIES The Purpose of Physical Reality

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

Do you, like the great author and poet John Milton, believe in free will?

Milton’s examination of justice in the physical world is in many ways much more complete and complex than the perspective found in Boethius’ work, and the Baha'i writings confirm many, if not most, of Milton’s fundamental conclusions.

As we have already observed, Milton’s work upholds the doctrine of free will, both on the part of God and on the part of humankind. In this sense Milton’s theology does not seem obsessed with the doctrine of man’s fall from grace. Instead, Milton portrays bliss in Eden as inferior to the possibilities of the freely chosen ascent after the fall.

He does not mean by this that disobedience is a good thing, but he does imply that struggling for spiritual perfection produces a state of development and a kind of knowledge that is superior to childlike innocence and blind acceptance. In the same way, the Baha'i teachings assert that a child is innocent from weakness while a spiritual adult is innocent from strength:

The hearts of all children are of the utmost purity. They are mirrors upon which no dust has fallen. But this purity is on account of weakness and innocence, not on account of any strength and testing, for as this is the early period of their childhood, their hearts and minds are unsullied by the world. They cannot display any great intelligence. They have neither hypocrisy nor deceit. This is on account of the child’s weakness, whereas the man becomes pure through his strength. Through the power of intelligence he becomes simple; through the great power of reason and understanding and not through the power of weakness he becomes sincere. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 54.

Baha'u'llah emphasized the same principle when he stated:

All that which ye potentially possess can, however, be manifested only as a result of your own volition. Your own acts testify to this truth. – Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 149.

A second important similarity between Milton’s conclusions and the teachings of the Baha'i Faith regards the concept of sin. As a Puritan, Milton might have been expected to espouse a belief in “primal” sin, the belief that man is “born in sin” because of Adam’s fall from grace. Indeed, the theological doctrine of Puritanism as devised by Calvin derived largely from Pauline Christianity, and Paul observes that sin entered the world because of Adam and that the sole source of human salvation is accepting Christ’s sacrifice. – Romans 5:12-19.

Milton, however, consistently portrays sin as a process that occurs when there is a witting rebellion against just law or authority, a failure to abide by “right reason.” In the same way Baha'u'llah wrote that “every good thing is of God, and every evil thing is from yourselves.”Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 149.

Abdu'l-Baha likewise stated, “… he is free in the choice of good and evil actions, and it is of his accord that he performs them.” Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, p. 287.

John Milton

John Milton

Milton thus portrays Satan as a tempter, as a miserable spirit who wishes to make others as miserable as he. But in Milton’s universe, Satan cannot be said to be the source of sin in any significant sense. Satan’s own sin is born from his mind when he contemplates his rebellion against God and later when he tempts Adam and Eve to sin, but their fall results from their own choice. Therefore, like Satan’s sin, theirs is born from their minds and their own character flaws, which are already there, ready to be exploited by Satan.

Eve wants to attain a higher condition, possibly to become godlike, or at the very least equal with Adam. Adam is so concerned about losing his wife and companion that he gives in to her request, fully aware that he is being disobedient. Satan is so full of pride that he cannot abide submitting to any authority, even a just one, despite knowing that he would be happier were he to comply.

So sin, according to Milton, is a process whereby weakness makes an individual vulnerable to iniquity. Clearly, human beings are, by definition, flawed beings replete with weaknesses. In this sense Baha'u'llah, like the ancient Greeks, admonishes every human being to gain a knowledge of “self”: “True loss is for him whose days have been spent in utter ignorance of his self.”Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 126. When we lack sufficient knowledge of the “self”—who we are, what our purpose is, and how best to attain that objective—we yield to desires that undermine our physical, spiritual, and mental health and well-being.

A third important similarity between Milton’s theodicy and the Baha'i justification of God’s creation is found in the similar doctrines of grace or forgiveness. Milton implies that the only way God’s creatures can become bereft of redemption is through a willful rejection of grace. Alone and aware of what he has lost, Milton’s Satan asks himself, “Is there no place / Left for repentance, none for pardon left?” Satan answers his own query when he observes, “None left but by submission. . . .” Because he refuses to submit, forgiveness is unavailable to him. Stated another way, he refuses to avail himself of grace, and God will not impose it on him.

The Baha'i teachings similarly affirm that we are never beyond redemption, whether in this life or in the afterlife, unless we persist in rejecting it:

The portals of grace are wide open before the face of all men … No man that seeketh Us will We ever disappoint, neither shall he that hath set his face towards Us be denied access unto Our court … - Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, pp. 271-272.

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  • Steve Eaton
    Oct 3, 2017
    Accuracy and reason are important
    even in spiritual things, so I must
    correct a logical error in my comment. Though I believe evil always comes from our egos, the
    exercise of our free will and falsely presumed independence just because we can is only one possible result. The less subtle other outcome of ego-exertion comes from
    the understandable fear of death or
    suffering, and uses all the defense
    mechanisms like scapegoating and
    aggression that hurt other folks directly!
  • Steve Eaton
    Oct 2, 2017
    Milton's explanation of all this is
    really well integrated, and was a huge leap forward. I wonder how many common people who rejected
    "original sin" and some other prevailing doctrines secretly formed
    their own similar theories at an intuitive level! I think the human ego,
    using the channel of free will, has always been the only possible source
    of real "evil"; natural disasters, the
    instincts of wild animals, and even
    the actions of people who can't tell
    the difference between right and wrong, do not count as evil. Maybe ...
    the essence of evil is exercising your
    free will as an end in itself despite
    injury to others or to self, as Milton's Satan did!
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