Theology & Spirituality

“myself am Hell”

Me miserable! Which way shall I fly

Infinite wrath, and infinite despair?

Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell… (b.4 l.73-75)1

Satan’s lament in Paradise Lost is striking. These lines, and the thoughts behind them, came to mind while perusing A Severe Mercy. A Severe Mercy tells the story of Sheldon Vanauken’s relationship with his wife, Jean. Early on, while explaining some of the ground rules of their relationship, Vanauken records an interesting insight:

We saw self as the ultimate danger to love, which it is; we didn’t see it as the ultimate evil of hell, which it also is.2

Coming back to this statement, I was struck by the contrast. Self is both the ultimate evil of hell and the ultimate danger to love. This idea seemed to be a great starting point for exploring the nature of both evil and love. Given the enormity of these topics, we’ll explore them in separate posts. As a start, let’s consider the suggestion that self is the ultimate evil of Hell. In order to better understand this suggestion, we will head back to Paradise Lost. After explaining Satan’s high ranking in the angelic hierarchy, Milton relates that Satan:

… fraught

With envy against the Son of God, that day

Honored by his great Father, and proclaimed

Messiah King anointed, could not bear

Through pride that sight, and thought himself impaired. (b.5 l.661-665)3

Seeing the honor bestowed on the Son, Satan senses a slight. In so doing, Satan’s view shifts onto himself and he becomes the center of the universe. Lewis captures this moment perfectly: “In the midst of a world of light and love, of song and feast and dance, he could find nothing to think of more interesting than his own prestige.”4

In this moment, we glimpse the results of focusing on self. Satan’s preoccupation with his honor drives him away from the good around him. Having lost the true center of reality, he appears to lose the ability to accurately judge between truth and falsehood. It is not long before he begins his rebellion against God.

In a series of commands that distinguish between honoring God or self, Christ presents some interesting imagery: “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Matthew 6:22-23)5 Milton and Lewis’ description of Satan seem to follow this pattern. Putting self at the center of reality clouds our vision. The beauty and celebration in the world fade, as does our perception of right and wrong. Paul expresses similar ideas when he writes, “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” (Romans 1:21) When we turn from the light, we are left with darkness.

At this point, the lament we started with should make more sense. It is one of a very few times where Satan actually admits the truth in the whole of Paradise Lost. Now that we have a fuller picture, it is worth reading over again:

Me miserable! Which way shall I fly

Infinite wrath, and infinite despair?

Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell… (b.4 l.73-75)6

The despair is palpable, in part, because Satan often represents me. The urge to pretend that I am the focal point of reality is strong. If I’m honest, it’s an urge that I can easily succumb to. It’s at this point of realization that I need to remember Christ’s message that, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”7 Am I called to kill the desire to focus on myself? Yes. Will this allow me to find true joy, the way I was meant to enjoy it? Yes.

The words are hard. Fortunately, the ability to carry them out rests in God, not us. As Paul reminds us in Philippians, “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”8


What are practical ways that you use to turn your focus from yourself to God?

What do you think the role of the Church is in this process?

View Sources
Jeff Reid

Jeff Reid

Stories fascinate me. In particular, I am enthralled with authors' ability to capture concepts and bring those concepts to life. Driving this delight is an interest in theology and philosophy. Ultimately, I am excited by opportunities to help others understand abstract ideas through skilled artistic work.

Previous post

"Unto What Then Were Ye Baptized?"

Next post

The Sublime and the Sacred, Part II