Satan has drawn all the fallen angels into a large counsel in his Temple, perched on a volcano top. He addresses them to give them courage. After all, he says, they need not fear ever falling again. He asks for suggestion on how best to continue battling heaven.
Moloch stands up and suggests open warfare on the battlefield. They have nothing to lose, he says, there is no hell worse than this that God can send them if defeated. Even if God kills them, surely this would be better than living in hell forever. Finally, he says, even if they are defeated, “… if not victory is yet revenge.”
Belial stands and disagrees. Even if God could kill them, he said, he never would. And there just might be worse hells than where they are now. It is a useless action anyway, he says, because God sees everything and would know exactly what they are doing. Belial suggests that they stay in hell and hope that God either relents on the punishment, or that they will, over time, grow used to the obnoxious fumes and pain.
Mammon stands up and says that neither idea is really acceptable. Open warfare would be an exercise in futility and, even if they were allowed back in heaven, is that a place where they want to spend eternity serving? It is better to live in hell where God’s light never interferes. Mammon suggest no war at all, just build a kingdom where they are, and maybe someday they will have a kingdom that will be equal to heaven’s .
The crowd cheers at Mammon’s speech.
Beelzebub stands and tells the crowd that this will not do either. There is no place where God does not reign, he reigns even here in hell though his presence is not seen as easily. So it is silly, he says, to talk about war and peace when they will be eternally opposed to God and his kingdom, whether they like it or not. “War hath determined us.”
Beelzebub then tells them of a new race that God has created called “Man.” Man is not as powerful as the angels, but he is God’s chosen favorite among creations. Beelzebub suggests that they seek revenge against God by seducing Man to their side.
All of the fallen angels agree unanimously to this decision. Satan asks for a volunteer to find out more about this creation, but none volunteer. They are all afraid of the chasm, called chaos, that lies between hell and the island of earth. Satan then says that he himself will go.
Hell is described. It has a geography like earth, with rivers and mountains, but “where all life dies, death lives and nature breeds, perverts, all monstrous, and all prodigious things.” Hell is all the worst of nature: natural disasters, violent streams and volcanoes, unfriendly seas, darkness.
Satan flies to the gates of hell where he meets two beings guarding the gate. One is Sin, half woman, half serpent with group of hell hounds howling around her. The other is Death, a large black shape that stands in front of Satan, blocking his path. Satan knocks him down by throwing pestilence and war at him.
Sin scolds Satan, and tells him that she is his daughter, born in heaven when Satan first thought of rebelling. Later, they were lovers in heaven and she and Satan produced Death, their son. (As an aside, Death raped Sin and produced the hell hounds which surround her forever.)
Satan tells them he is trying to get out of hell to find earth. If he finds it, and there is a race called man, then the three of them can rule it together and Death’s hunger will never be satiated.
Sin opens the gates of hell, which now can never be shut, and they gaze at the abyss of Night and Chaos.
Satan flies for a time in the darkness and then comes to the throne of Chaos and his consort, Night. Satan tells him he is only passing through, trying to find earth.
Chaos tells him the way to earth, which is connected to heaven by a golden chain.
With each of the demon’s proposals to fight heaven, we see a reflection a number of different worldly concepts of good and evil, heaven and hell. Milton, with the devils, has his own idea of how good and evil is balanced and, with the devils, refute the others as impossible.
These constructs include: an eternal war between good and evil (seen in folk religions where evil spirits must be warded off by good spirits), evil’s submission to good and hope of redemption (seen in new age concepts that all things are, in their essence, good), and the opposite yet equal kingdoms of good and evil (seen in Eastern religions with the Yin/Yang concepts). All these suggestions do not work for the devils, and, Milton is suggesting, they do not work theologically either.
First, there can be no all out, open warfare between heaven and hell, because it would be an exercise in futility. Despite the logic of Moloch’s proposal, Heaven and goodness will always be more powerful than evil, there is no battle.
Second, evil will never go away. The fallen angels will always exist, they will never be forgiven, they will never be accepted back by God.
Finally, there can be no peace between heaven and earth, as Mammon suggests. Hell will exist, but it will not be an equal empire to heaven. Evil will exist, but it will not be equal to good. There is no yin/yan equality here. Evil, though the furthest from God, is still under God’s reign.
The battlefield, as Beelzebub suggests, will be moved to the souls of mankind. The theory of the human soul as an eternal battlefield between good and evil forces reflects a common element of the theology of Milton’s time. There, on a sort of neutral ground away from heaven and hell, evil angels can battle against good angels in a field which makes them nearly equal.
This particular concept we see reflected even today when cartoons are drawn of the devil and the good angel whispering into the left and right sides of a character’s ear. Revenge of the fallen angels will be taken out against man, though Milton is suggesting that in the end good will win over.
The description of hell as a geographical place has physical properties that we find in our own world, and we will later find in the description of heaven. There are mountains, valleys, rivers, and seas. The difference between hell and earth, and especially hell and heaven, is that hell has the worst of nature. Milton emphasizes the awful, inescapable smells of hell, the raging “perpetual storms,” the rivers with their “waves of torrent fire.” By drawing hell as nature gone wrong, Milton also attempts to answer the age-old question of why, if God created this beautiful earth, does it sometimes seem to go against us. Why is there famine, flood, and fire that kill and destroy? Milton demonstrates that these events are nature perverted, nature not as it was intended to be. These events were caused by the creation of hell and evil after Satan’s fall.
Contrast, however, the geography of hell with the geography of Chaos and Night. The Chaos is ruled over by “Rumour next and Chance, And Tumult and Confusion all embroiled.” In Chaos there is true darkness. Milton compares the situation in Chaos to a nation embroiled in a civil war on a macro scale, to a man paralyzed by indecision and loss of reason on a micro scale. Hell, at least, is contained and is actually ruled by a some sort of law. There is a king and a temple, there are actual visible geographical locales. But in chaos there is no order, one can fall forever (as Satan almost did) in a dark ocean of nothingness. On the other hand, the Chaos is not evil. It is not a perversion of good or of nature. It is land where nothing holds. It is from this Chaos, as is told in the Genesis story, that heaven and earth are created, and where God creates light.
Finally, in this book we are introduced to the first of a number of parrallel trinities that Milton will compare and contrast. The unholy trinity introduced at the end of Book II consist of Satan, his consort/daughter Sin, and his only son, Death. Their relationship is based on lust: Satan raped his daughter Sin and they had Death. Death later raped his mother Sin and she gave birth to the hell hounds that now suround her. Note that Satan tries to kill his only son, Death, when he first approaches the gates of hell. This will contrast with the circumstances that will surround God sacrificing his only son in later books.
The personificaiton of concepts, in this case Death and Sin, was a common literary tool in Milton’s time, seen most prominently in Spencer’s “The Faerie Queene,” which greatly influenced Milton’s own work.