“Paradise Lost” and the Innocence of Adam and Eve


By Charles Mathewes, Ph.D., University of Virginia

In comparison to Satan, Adam and Eve in the Paradise Lost, are far more simple. They are pretty clueless of sin; they don’t really understand what it is. They are perfected humans—they are strong, lucid, extremely intelligent, emotionally astute, and serene; they are simultaneously supermodels, celebrities, and Nobel Prize winners. But one thing that they are that we are not. They are innocent.

A painting showing Archangel Michael expelling Adam and Eve, who have a serpent near their feet.
When Adam and Eve do sin it is more of a matter of careless folly than of deliberate satanic evil. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Adam and Eve’s innocence

In the Paradise Lost, Adam and Eve’s innocence complicates their relationship to the events that unfold within and around them. In fact, Adam is warned, just as in Genesis, in this poem not to eat of the tree by Raphael, one of the angels. Raphael says to Adam (this is Book 7):

…but of the Tree

Which tasted works knowledge of Good and Evil,

Thou maist not [that is, you shouldn’t eat]; in the day thou eat’st, thou die’st;

Death is the penaltie imposed, beware,

And govern well thy appetite, least sin

Surprise thee, and her black attendant Death.

surprised by sin

As the title of a very famous book about this poem puts it, Eve and Adam are “surprised by sin”; that is, they are warned about sin, but they cannot quite understand what it is that is the “it” that they are being warned about. Once again, we come back to the question of the relationship, the very puzzling and mysterious relationship, between innocence and experience here.

The Sin of Adam and Eve

If Adam and Eve had been warned in a way that acquainted them with sin, in a way they would have had to fall into sin to be able to understand what it was; but in the absence of that immediate acquaintance, any kind of warning is going to be finally not all that useful for them. And inevitably, when Adam and Eve do sin, the sin of Eve—the first one to sin, off on her own gardening—is more of a matter of careless folly, vanity, and pride than of deliberate, monstrous, satanic evil.

This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Adam’s Love for Eve

Of course, part of the lesson here is that careless folly, vanity, and pride are shown to be disastrous; Milton is not sanding off the sharp edges here. Interestingly, Adam’s decision to eat the apple along with Eve, after she’s done it, is itself both a sign of his love for her and also a sign of, and in a way the very event of, the mis-ordering of his own loves.

If Adam had been properly loving God, he would have eschewed Eve, he would have rejected her at that moment, turned her into God. She would have died, and God would have given him another wife to start a still-perfect human race with. Eve’s frivolous sin is one thing; but Adam—some people think Eve is blamed for the whole thing here; it’s not true, Eve’s frivolous sin is one thing—takes full responsibility because he cannot bear to lose Eve.

Learn more about the nature of Satan’s punishment.

Satanic and Human Sin

This is the difference between satanic and human sin. Satanic sin is often just about itself; human sin often complicatedly ropes in other people, or we are roped into sin by other people. Adam falls because he “falls in love”; Adam falls in love in, for, and because of love for Eve.

Think about God: Does the Fall defeat God’s plan? Not at all. As Satan suspected, God foreknows this fall, and foreknows its certainty of happening; but God does not preordain it, nor does God create Adam and Eve merely as setups, as “Fall guys.” As Milton has God say early on in the poem, God made Adam “Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.”

Foreknowledge and God’s Plans

God knows with certainly that it will happen, and he makes his plans accordingly in the poem. In fact, God says this in the poem, talking about the reason they cannot blame him. God says they cannot blame:

Their maker, or their making, or their fate,

As if predestination overruled

Their will, disposed by absolute decree

Or high foreknowledge; they themselves decreed

Their own revolt, not I: if I foreknew,

Foreknowlege had no influence on their fault [I’m not to blame],

Which had no less proved certain unforeknown.

That is, had I, God, not foreknown this, it still would have happened.

There’s an important thing that Milton is doing here that’s very important to see. One has to understand the difference between God, in the philosophical tradition that Milton is coming out of, the difference between God for knowing that something will happen and God commanding that the thing happen.

From any perspective of time, God’s knowledge of future events in time will look like foreknowledge; but that’s only because we are thinking about it from within time itself.

God knows everything even before history. That’s why God can foreknow things without compelling them to happen for Milton. God’s eternity allows that knowledge to happen for him.

Learn more about the phenomenon of evil.

The Significance of the Fall

A painting depicting Christ appearing before the Nephites people.
God uses Adam and Eve’s Fall to create the story of Jesus Christ and redemption. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

The second thing that God does, or God can say, is not just that God foreknows this, but God will use this Fall to create a greater story still: the story of Jesus Christ and redemption. Gabriel points this out when Adam and Eve and their descendants eventually come to inhabit all the virtues once again, especially love; then they will, he says, “possess / A paradise within thee, happier far.” So Satan’s plan is, as ever, vexed and turned against him.

Thus, though Milton’s Paradise Lost does capture the corruption as well as the residual nobility of Adam and Eve in his epic’s dramatic action, he ends it finally proclaiming God as the provident orderer of this poem and of the cosmos.

In the end, it merges with Dante’s story here which is the overall story of Christianity. However great evil is, however real it is, it is always going to be enframed by a larger and happier narrative; a narrative whose ultimate ending is guaranteed to be happy.

Common Questions about “Paradise Lost” and the Innocence of Adam and Eve

Q: Between Adam and Eve, who was the first one to sin?

Between Adam and Eve, Eve was the first one to sin. Her sin was more of a careless folly as she went off on her own, gardening.

Q: What is the difference between satanic and human sin?

The difference between satanic and human sin is that satanic sin is often just about itself. Human sin often complicatedly ropes in other people, or we are roped into sin by other people.

Q: Does the Fall defeat God’s plan?

The Fall does not defeat God’s plan. He knows with certainty that it will happen, and he makes his plans accordingly in the poem.

Keep Reading
Adam and Eve: Evil as Rebellion Against God
The Nature of Evil in Genesis: Rejecting God’s Goodness
Does Evil Have a Purpose in Life?