Better to Reign in Hell…?

I recently finished reading Paradise Lost as part of my Late Renaissance British literature course. It’s one of those works that, having been read, makes one feel a little more culturally literate than one was before. I haven’t read most of the “Great Books”, but this, at least, is one that I can tick off the list.

One of the things that struck me most was Milton’s portrayal of Satan. When Paradise Lost opens, Satan and his followers are just beginning to collect themselves after having been routed by Christ and banished to hell. It’s then that Satan, although mourning the joys of the heaven he has left behind, makes that famous speech of defiance:

“The mind is its own place and in it self

Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.

What matter where, if I be still the same,

And what I should be, all but less than hee

Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least

We shall be free; th’Almighty hath not built

Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:

Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce

To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:

Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n.”

It’s the epitome of the undefeated. It’s as if the punishment that God has inflicted on him is hardly a punishment at all. He’s going to make the best of things and he’s certainly never going to bow the knee to God again.

However, Satan does, I think, come to acknowledge that he cannot actually “make a Heav’n of Hell”, and that’s because, in a sense, the mind is its own place. He comes to the dreadful realisation that hell is wherever he is:

“Me miserable! which way shall I flie

Infinite wrauth, and infinite despaire?

Which way I flie is Hell; my self am Hell”.

I believe that hell is a real place, but I also believe that there is a sense in which unrepentant sinners will be their own hell, so that even if they could somehow get into heaven, they still wouldn’t be happy. Sinners apart from God would be just as miserable in heaven as they would be in hell, because, as some favourite authors of mine have explained to me, happiness can’t be separated from being in a right relationship with God.

“Unless you change, Heaven, the Shekinah, the close presence of that burning Holiness, the presence of the creator God and the face of the exalted Word, the winds and fire of that storm of joy would be a worse hell than Hell itself, a worse burning than any figurative (or literal) flames.

In the end, there will be no escaping Hell, because all else will be Heaven. There will be no need for walls or chains or any kind of cell, because Hell will be that place farthest away from His smell. A place you will hate but have no desire to leave. Earth, every corner of it, will no longer be neutral”. (N. D. Wilson, Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl)

Because

“To be God—to be like God and to share His goodness in creaturely response—to be miserable—these are the only three alternatives. If we will not learn to eat the only food that the universe grows—the only food that any possible universe ever can grow—then we must starve eternally.” (C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain)

And so

“If you want joy, power, peace, eternal life, you must get close to, or even into, the thing that has them. They are not a sort of prize which God could, if He chose, just hand out to anyone. They are a great fountain of energy and beauty spurting up at the very centre of reality. If you are close to it, the spray will wet you: if you are not, you will remain dry. Once a man is united to God, how could he not live for ever? Once a man is separated from God, what can he do but wither and die?” (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity)

It should be pretty sobering if I really thought about it, because every time I refuse to bow the knee, every time, like Satan, I choose to defy God, I am throwing joy to the winds. But I do. Consciously or unconsciously, I tell myself, in effect, “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n”.

But it’s not. As I’ve learned from Milton, even Satan isn’t happy being wicked. I guess I always thought the epitome of wickedness was doing evil and enjoying it, and in a sense that’s true, but it’s also important to remember that–while I am sure there are moments of twisted joy–Satan is not having a lark being wicked. He’s quite literally as miserable as sin. And that’s because neither he nor I nor anyone else can conjure up lasting happiness apart from God.

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