Ignorance is Not Bliss

Dead men tell great tales. They really do. When a literary work stays in circulation for hundreds—or thousands—of years, you know it has captured something timeless about the human experience. One such timeless masterpiece is John Milton’s Paradise Lost. In recent past, we’ve spent some time exploring the poem, and while we won’t be systematically going through the rest of the book, I will, from time to time, post another entry into the blog series. (Eventually, we’ll get through the whole thing.) This week, let’s look at Books 5 and 6.

Book 5:
God sends the archangel Raphael down to earth to warn Adam and Eve about Satan. Raphael explains to them who Satan is, as well as how he used his authority to lead a third of the angels in revolt against God. Of all the legions under Satan’s command, only the seraph Abdiel remained unmoved by the seduction of his lies and refused to partake in the rebellion.

Book 6:
Raphael describes the war in Heaven to Adam and Eve: God sends His angels to do battle with Satan and his minions. Abdiel meets Satan head-on, striking him so hard that Satan falls back ten paces, shocking all who see. Then the battle rages, and on the third day, the fight still unending, God sends His Son into the fray, who chases down His enemies. Finally and fully overpowered, the rebellious horde is driven back to the wall of Heaven, which opens up. In terror, the demons dive into the hole, falling down into the place of punishment prepared for them.

It has been said that ignorance is bliss. But for many, it can be a form of denial. If we hide ourselves from disturbing truths, we may be able to enjoy their absence, but such a ruse will only work for so long. Whether in this life or the next, the truth will eventually come to light.

Delusional happiness, just like misery, loves company. In order to enjoy the promised “bliss” of ignorance, Satan in Paradise Lost must lie to himself—and attempt to convince others of these lies. Satan’s debate with Abdiel in Book 5 reveals a desire to twist the truth so that he can enjoy the confines of his own fake reality.

In response to Abdiel’s claim that God created everything (line 835ff), Satan asks, in essence, “Really? Can you remember when you were created? We have always been here—we are self-created, self-wrought” (line 853ff).

C. S. Lewis comments on this argument:

[I]f a creature is silly enough to try to prove that it was not created, what is more natural than for it to say, “Well, I wasn’t there to see it being done”? Yet what is more futile, since in thus admitting ignorance of its own beginnings it proves that those beginnings lay outside itself? Satan falls instantly into this trap (850 et seq.)—as indeed he cannot help doing—and produces as proof of his self-existence what is really its disproof. But even this is not Nonsense enough. Uneasily shifting on the bed of Nonsense which he has made for himself, he then throws out the happy idea that “fatal course” really produced himself, and finally, with a triumphant air, the theory that he sprouted from the soil like a vegetable. Thus, in twenty lines, the being too proud to admit derivation from God, has come to rejoice in believing that he “just grew” like Topsy or a turnip. (A Preface to Paradise Lost, 97-98)

This ignorance displayed by Satan is nothing like innocent unawareness. Rather, it is a willful denial of what every sentient being knows deep inside: that there is a God to whom we are accountable. No matter how hard one tries to suppress the truth, there is no getting around that God is “clearly seen” and “understood” through His creation, so that we are all “without excuse” before our Maker (see Rom. 1:20).

Some deny God with their lips. Others (even some professing Christians) deny Him by their actions. All of us will eventually face the Judge of the universe in the courtroom of eternity. At that time, denial will no longer be an option, and the willful ignorance of humanity—and Satan—will tragically lead to the very opposite of bliss.