Truth and Lies About Immortality: Milton and Dostoevsky

Lately I’ve been reading John Milton’s Paradise Lost and Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Both contain two intriguing views on the nature of evil to say the least. What has intrigued me particularly in reading the two together is the different ways that distorted concepts of immortality contribute to rebellion against God and to evil actions.

Gustave Doré, Depiction of Satan, the central character of John Milton’s Paradise Lost c. 1866

Paradise Lost is an epic poem, first published in 1667, in which Milton describes the fall of the archangel Lucifer, who became known as Satan and the devil, and his temptation of Adam and Eve in Eden. Satan’s fall is in part contributed to his own denial of being a creature created by God. Satan claimed an absolute immortality and self-sufficiency apart from any dependence on God (Book IV). He rails against God as a tyrant and uses sophistry and clever rhetoric to lead other angels and Adam and Eve (Gen 3:5) to claim the same independence for themselves to disastrous results. The blurring of the line between creator and creature is used as self-justification for self-will.

In The Brothers Karamazov, written in 1879, it is not the claim to absolute immortality that fuels evil; rather it is the denial of immortality altogether. “There is no virtue if there is no immortality” (Book 2, Chapters 6 & 7). In this case the denial of immortality is the denial of continuing existence for humans beyond death and the ultimate judgment of God that paves the way for evil in this world. Dostoevsky, the Christian Russian novelist, proved to be prophetic.

Dostoevsky set out to warn of the dangers of atheistic socialism, although he identified Christian socialists to be the most dangerous of all (Book 2, Chapter 5). My guess is the Christian socialists of which he warned thought in much the same way as the Sadducees we read about in the Gospels. That is, as practical atheists with little to no concern for thoughts about the afterlife, the supernatural, and the judgment to come. The infamous cult leader, Jim Jones, was a Christian socialist who started out as an openly atheist minister who saw the Soviet Union in Russia as the promised land. Jones who initially denied the existence of God eventually, like Lucifer, came to see himself as god, also with horrifying and disastrous results.

Both the claim to absolute immortality apart from dependence on God and the absolute denial of even an immortality that is dependent on God are dangerous temptations that can lead to self-will and rebellion against God with disastrous results for those who succumb to such temptations and for the world. We must remember we are creatures completely dependent on and accountable to the Creator. This is something that the rebels in Paradise Lost and The Brothers Karamazov were intent on forgetting.

When rational creatures live as if self-sufficient and accountable to no one they begin to use reason in clever but sophistic ways to justify their desires. The way Thomas Aquinas described it sin disrupts the inclination to virtue and misdirects the use of reason to the penultimate rather than the ultimate, namely friendship with God (ST, II, part 1 q. 85:3.) Reason and the will, thus, become slaves to inordinate passions rather than being subordinate to God. It is a “matter of our will surrendering to those appetites or desires and reason then providing post hoc rationalizations justifying the action” (Angus Brook, “Thomas Aquinas on the Effects of Original Sin: A Philosophical Analysis,” The Heythrop Journal, 59,no. 4, July 2018, 722.). The will of the creature is exalted above the will of the Creator and becomes the measure of all things. People begin to see themselves as capable of creating their own truth rather than needing to discern and submit to the Truth.

This is how the image of God gets distorted in people, and that distortion disrupts the flow of God’s blessing and brings a curse. In other words, people live on lies not realizing that without repentance they will be destroyed by them. Hence, Jesus calls Satan the father of lies and the father of all liars (John 8:39-47). Our fallen world runs on lies, but it is headed for a head on collision with the Truth in the judgment to come.

Lies lead to disaster eventually. Dostoevsky foresaw that on the other side of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia; Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn saw it in its aftermath. Both exhorted people to renounce lies and earnestly seek to be people committed to the truth. Inspired by both of them, Jordan Peterson in recent times has urgently encouraged the same. Being people of the Truth in a world of lies is not easy and it can be dangerous as history has proven time and time again. It certainly proved deadly for Jesus, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6). But in the resurrection Jesus proved that lies will not ultimately prevail over Truth and that the life that is firmly grounded in the Truth will not forever be overcome by death.

Both the claim to absolute immortality apart from God and the denial of any immortality at all (i.e. no eternal judgment to come) are foundational lies that lead people to believe they can live life according to their own rules, “rules for radicals,” if you will. But every lie will eventually be exposed by the Truth. A commitment to Truth in a fallen world of lies can be costly, but the reward in the world to come will infinitely surpass any cost we may incur. And Truth is not just a concept, Truth is a person with a name. He’s the one who said let your yea be yea and your nay, nay (Matthew 5:37). His name is Jesus.

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. ~ Colossians 3:1-10 ESV






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