Did the poet John Milton confuse generations on genesis?


Michael Roberts


ABSTRACT Milton presented death coming in with the Fall in Paradise Lost in what is known as The Curse. For centuries this has informed the way many read Genesis. The implication of a young earth created problems with the rise of geology. The issues raised by animal death being a result of the Fall was challenged by many in the 19th century, notably Christian geologists – Buckland, Hitchcock –and various Bishops. Here the roots and influence of Paradise Lost are considered from Calvin through to Buckland’s 1839 sermon on death, and Colenso’s treatment of Genesis in 1863. A brief account is given of later developments and the contemporary creationist insistence on a Curse.

I am induced to publish the following Discourse by the same motive that led me to compose it; namely, the hope of showing the unfounded nature of an opinion entertained by many persons, that death was inflicted on the entire animal creation, as a penal consequence upon the sin of the parents of the human race

William Buckland The Sentence of Death 1839.


The relation of suffering and death to sin is one of the intractable problems in Christian belief. If one accepts, as one must, that death and disease have been entwined with life since life began 4 billion years ago, then there is no nexus. Yet the nexus is often made, either unwittingly, or wittingly by Creationists, who insist there could be no animal death before the Fall. The roots of this nexus of death and sin may stem as much from Milton’s Paradise Lost as the Biblical account of the Fall. Thus a study of Milton and later critics may throw light on the relation of sin and death. My chosen Victorian critics are the clerical geologists William Buckland and Edward Hitchcock and the missionary Bishop Colenso. Buckland is the most significant of these as he tackled the relationship of sin and suffering head on, but his interpretation of Romans 8 has little support today.


Buckland lecturing at Oxford; to notables like Newman and Wilberforce

Each day when I entered the old Shell building of the Oxford geology department as I went for my geology lectures and practicals I took little notice of William Buckland’s portrait looking down on me. Buckland was appointed as the first head of the geology department in 1813, but as an undergraduate I was not interested in him. It was several years before I began to study his work. I am pleased to offer my third homage to the first head of my old department, as his sermon given in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford on January 27, 1839 is a fine example of sound geologically-informed theology! My previous two were a comparison of the Design theory of Buckland and Behe[1] and a field study of the discovery of the Ice Ages in Shropshire and Snowdonia by Buckland in 1841 and Darwin the following year[2]. These show him as both a leading geologist of his day and theologian.

My title is taken from a quote from a Cambridge mathematician turned colonial bishop. The full quote is;

The truth is that we literally groan, even in the present day, under the burden of Milton’s mythology.[3]

This is from Bishop Colenso’s notorious five volume study on the Pentateuch in 1860s, where he took a strongly critical view of the Pentateuch in contrast to the more conservative elements of the church of his day. In his volume on early Genesis he bewailed the influence of Milton’s Paradise Lost on the interpretation of Genesis, resulting in some rejecting geological findings. My argument in this paper is that we are still “groan under the burden of Milton’s mythology.” This is most apparent in the emphasis of Young Earth Creationists that the Curse of Genesis 3 meant that there was no animal death or suffering before the Fall and thus the earth cannot be ancient.

John William Colenso (1814-83) was Bishop of Natal from 1853 until his death. In his youth he was an evangelical but moved to a more liberal position due to the influence of F. D. Maurice. Few suspected him of radical views on Scripture when he went to South Africa. In the early 60s he published his study on the Pentateuch, taking a strongly critical line. The gory details of the controversy do not concern us here, which resulted in there being two Anglican churches in South Africa. Frequently it is implied by historians that Colenso’s ideas were novel for the British churches. It is true that few had gone as far as he did on biblical criticism with an almost skeptical approach to the Old Testament, but he was not unique. His treatment of Genesis in relation to science was anything but novel, but is often used to support the myth that British Christians took Genesis literally until Darwin. Most educated Christians had made their peace with geology half a century earlier, if, of course, they actually needed to make their peace!

Most of Colenso’s apparently radical ideas on Genesis and science were taken from earlier Evangelical writers like Archdeacon Pratt, Hitchcock, Pye Smith and others. I will leave readers to follow up Colenso on the Flood and focus on the Fall. Colenso wrote, “Death, therefore, has been in the world from the very first, as the universal law for the animal, as well as for the vegetable creation. And there is nothing to compel us to believe, that mans mortal frame would have endured for ever …”[4]

This quotation and the more memorable one first cited lay out the main theological issue of a Historical Fall with a Curse. I wonder what Colenso would say today about Creationist arguments that the atonement removes the result of the Fall and thus the curse. Therefore, the Gospel is invalid if there was death before the Fall. The logic is clear and this is used as a gospel reason why evolution and “millions of years” must be wrong. Here Ken Ham is the most well-known advocate of such a doctrine.

John Calvin and the Curse


Before the Reformation period, what may be termed Animal Death before the Fall was simply not an issue. With the rise of a new more literal way of reading the bible during the Reformation the Bible was more liable to be interpreted literally than “allegorically”, as previous ancient hermeneutics were rejected. Thus Calvin in his commentary of Genesis commented on Chap 2 vs 17[5]; “After he has briefly spoken of Adams sin, he announces that the earth would be cursed for his sake.”, and in verse 18; “…the earth would degenerate from its fertility, and bring forth briars and noxious plants.” It is significant he did not mention animal suffering, which is correct on a literal reading as animals are not mentioned.  On verse 19 he wrote, “The inclemency of the air, frost, thunders, unseasonable rains, drought, hail, and whatever is disorderly in the world, are the fruits of sin.” And more directly, “Nor is there any other primary cause of disease.” Surely here Calvin is being an eisegete and not an exegete! Moses did not mention any of these!

One cannot conclude that Calvin did not hold that as a result of Adam’s sin the earth underwent a Curse as well as death for Adam and his descendants.  However the Calvin corpus, like the Bible, must be studied in its historical and cultural context and not ahistorically. We cannot say “this is what Calvin said in 1557 and is thus valid today.”

And so the development of theological understandings must also be considered in their historical and cultural context. The context Calvin wrote in was the intellectual, political, geographical and theological turmoil of what is termed Renaissance and Reformation. He wrote at a time when there was little historical understanding beyond the short span of Biblical, Greek and Roman history. There was little grasp of the antiquity of Egyptian and other Near Eastern civilizations, and that the building of the pyramids predated the accepted date of Noah’s Flood. Not only that, no one considered that Planet Earth could be older than the widely-accepted 6000 years. When it came to science, Copernicanism was then a radical and unproven theory. (I shall simply ignore what Calvin may or may not have thought about it.)

But before one judges Calvin to be a proto-creationist, his principle of “accommodation” allowed him to accept astronomical implications for Genesis. Literalism was tempered by ‘accommodation’ and can be seen in Calvin’s understanding of the accommodation of Scripture. In 1554, eleven years after Copernicus published De revolutionibus, Calvin published his commentary on Genesis. Calvin made no reference to the Copernican theory, but stressed that Genesis was not written to teach astronomy. As he dealt with the Mosaic description of the firmament of Genesis 1 he wrote, ‘He, who would learn astronomy and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere[6].  Calvin said that Moses accommodated himself to the limitations of human thought and as Calvin commented on Genesis 1:15, ‘For as it became a theologian, he had respect to us rather than the stars’.  He also did not question a 6000 year-old earth or a universal flood. Calvin’s accommodating interpretation eased the path for many Calvinists to accept Copernicanism, with the result that some Roman Catholics referred to the ‘Calvino–Copernican’ theory. In the following centuries Calvin’s doctrine of accommodation allowed devout Protestants to accept the findings of science, whether astronomy or geology, without the rejection of the authority or the teaching of scripture[7] .

Thus we see in Calvin a tension, or even contradiction, between “literalism”, resulting in a belief in a Curse, and “accommodation” which was subversive of literalism. This internal conflict was to be played out in the future and is still being played out today. “Accommodation” opened the way for theological acceptance of “death before the Fall” but Reformation literalism tended to close the door.

From Ussher to Theories of the Earth and early geology


In 1656 John Ussher published his Annales Veteris Testamenti in Latin from which we derive the date of creation in October 4004BC. Ussher was a careful historian but had no evidence that the earth was anything but young. Too often Ussher is mocked but Rudwick[8] makes a clear case that he opened the way for both historical scholarship and a study of the history of the earth. In order to quickly outline the development of geology (best read in Rudwick’s book), various savants in Europe began studying the rocks after 1660 most notably Steno.

Within Britain notable rocky savants were Robert Hooke, John Ray and Edward Lhwyd. Along with these more scientific writers were the plethora of authors of the Theories of the Earth, which gave theologico-scientific accounts of the early earth. These included Thomas Burnet and John Woodward. Many of these were widely read and were profusely illustrated. I am tempted to that say the larger they were, the less they were read. They make for long and difficult reading and are like wading through treacle. The “science” was a variable quality but most argued that the earth was slightly older than Ussher suggested, opening up the way for Deep Time, which came to fruition in less than a century. Yet the origin of suffering and death received barely a mention.

Most of these 17th century luminaries are long forgotten, but far more significant for both theological and scientific understanding is the epic poem of John Milton, who did deal with suffering and death. Paradise Lost has been widely read for nearly four centuries and has often controlled our interpretation of early Genesis.

John Milton and Paradise Lost


Milton (1608-74) was one of the greatest poets of the 17th century. He was blind from a young age and a non-conformist of Semi-Arian views. His most famous writing is the long poem in heroic verse without rhyme based on Creation and Fall – Paradise Lost – which he completed in 1665.


In my edition (Oxford Univ Press) it runs to 250 pages and is a complex elaboration of Genesis chapters one to eleven with elaborations from classical writers and from Christian tradition or mythology. As my purpose is narrowly theological and focusing on his understanding of the Fall and Curse, I shall not deal with it as literature, but for its influence. And so I return to Bishop Colenso. The offending part of Milton to Colenso is to be found in the opening words;

“Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit

Of that forbidden fruit, whose mortal taste

Brought death into the world, and all our woe“.


Beast now with beast gan war, and fowl with fowl,

And fish with fish; to graze the herb all leaving,

Devoured each other. P.Lost X 710-12


Milton is clear. Had Adam and Eve not eaten the fruit there would be no animal death and suffering. Despite Colenso, Hitchcock, Buckland and many others, this perception has had great influence for over three and a half centuries, although it only came to the fore after 1500. Its history during that time is patchy. Initially it was almost the default position albeit held loosely, probably because there was so little evidence for geology and its implications for animal death.

Isaac Watts was ambivalent, as Hugh Miller wittily pointed out in The Testimony of the Rocks[9]. Miller was being scathing of the “anti-geologists” and jestingly suggested that “the lines taught in our infancy” from one of Watts’ hymns;

Let dogs delight to bark and bite.

For God had made them so.

Should read

Let dogs delight to bark and bite.

Satan had made them so.!!!

Miller was being humorous but he brought out the issue at stake. Were dogs originally created to “bite” or was that a result of the Curse i.e. Satan?  In his Catechism Watts restricted the effects of the Fall to humans and made no mention of animal death, nor of weeds and thistles;

24Q Then God did not put Adam and Eve to death as soon as they had sinned?

  1. No; but they were condemned to die, and became liable to sickness and death;.[10]

This understanding here is closer to Milton than his comment on dogs. The two seem to be contradictory but many over the next 300 years have followed Watts in his inconsistency.

The Beginnings of geology

By 1800 animal death before the Fall was not an issue for most Christian savants[11] as the implications of Deep Time were understood, though it still appeared in more popular works. It gets little attention in theologically-informed works on geology from 1780 to 1830 e.g. Andre de Luc and Joseph Townsend. Joseph Townsend (1739-1816) began his ministry as a strong Evangelical and was chaplain to the Countess of Huntingdon for a time. By the 1790s he was a Rector in Bath and supported the geologist William Smith in his work. Smith was a Canal Engineer working near Bath and in 1795 spotted that the same sequence of fossils occurred in two parallel valleys in the same strata. Smith is known as the Father of English Geology and published his wonderful geological map of England and Wales in 1815, which bankrupted him.[12] Three local Anglican clergy, Richard Warner, Benjamin Richardson, and Joseph Townsend encouraged him to publicize his methods. After Cambridge and medical studies at Edinburgh he took orders in 1765 and settled at Pewsey Rectory. He was an early Evangelical becoming one of the Countess of Huntingdon’s preachers along with his brother-in-law Thomas Haweis, from 1765 until 1779. After helping to propagate Smith’s ideas, he wrote The Character of Moses as an Historian, Recording Events from the Creation to the Deluge[13] , recording events from the Creation to the Deluge in 1813. His work was an amalgam of an account of contemporary geology and theologizing. He rejected the vast ages of Hutton and preferred the shorter time scale of de Luc. (To put it numerically he would reckon the age of the earth to be hundreds of thousands rather than millions, but nowhere states its age.) The importance of de Luc for enabling orthodox Christians to accept geological time is little known, but as Rudwick[14] has recently shown de Luc was a great influence throughout Europe. Whether Townsend had ever held to an Ussher type chronology is not known, but Torrens has shown that in 1797, well after Smith had worked out his table of strata, he wrote that “of the mineral bodies there is not a doubt that they were all formed at the same time.” By 1806 he could write “Fossils . . . have handed down to us the clearest and most unequivocal history of the most ancient inhabitants of the Earth” and that “the time required for the . . . formation into strata . . .would stagger the faith of many”.[15]  Sometime before 1806 Smith rejected a short time scale. As for Townsend, by 1810, if not long before, he reconciled long geological time with Genesis through the Chaos-Restitution interpretation of Genesis (Townsend, 1813), as had Thomas Chalmers[16]. Despite there being much theological discussion of Genesis and geological time Townsend did not deal with the problems of Genesis 3, the Fall, suffering and death. He was not alone in this. Most did not groan with Milton!

Frequently many writers were Evangelical like Townsend and Chalmers but it did not influence nor affect their doctrine of atonement, nor their successors like Hodge, Warfield and others. None commented on the implications that fossil creatures lived and died millions of years before humans. From this we see that is the nexus between animal death connected with the Fall and Christ’s death was at vanishing point, if it had not actually disappeared. Original sin was unquestioned and again the penalty of death was implicitly not for animals before the consumption of the apple.

Milton Resurgent in the early 19th century

Surprisingly the earliest direct objection to pre-fall death came from Rev Thomas Gisbourne as late as 1817.  With delicious irony Gisbourne was the last patient to be treated by Dr Erasmus Darwin in 1802[17]. Gisbourne was also a friend and spiritual guide of William Wilberforce.  He published his irenic The Testimony of Natural Theology to Christianity in 1818, which objected to geology and its vast timescale. His reasoning was that the existence of death in the animal world implicit in the existence of prehistoric life and death before Adam contradicts the view of a curse derived from Genesis 3 (and the opening lines of Paradise Lost). It took a few years for opposition to geology and its implication for theodicy to become both manifest and strident. It was into the 1820s that the Scriptural Geologists, or as Miller more rightly called them “Anti-geologists” became active. Many anti-geologists were Evangelical clergy and laity, mostly from the Church of England.

The storm broke in the 1820s in the Evangelical journal The Christian Observer, creating internecine warfare among evangelicals, and was accompanied by the publication of aggressive critiques of geology. It began with reviews of G. S. Faber’s A Treatise of the Three Dispensations in 1823, which was classic theology on the “dispensations” of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus Christ, but the third chapter Respecting the length of the Six Demi-Urgic Days caused the problem. Here Faber summarized geological findings under the guidance of Buckland, and cited Buckland’s findings a year before they were published. Faber was a Canon of Durham Cathedral and a prolific Evangelical writer, mostly on millennialism and general theological subjects. When he touched on geology he accepted an ancient earth. George Bugg, another Evangelical priest, took great objection and wrote to the Christian Observer criticizing the editor S. C. Wilks for taking the “side of modern geologists” and listed the five difficulties of the Bible versus geology, which were, as repeated in his magnum opus;

(1) Geology claims that death was there before Adam sinned,

(2) Geology denies the Six Days of Creation

(3) Scriptural Creation is handed over to Geology.

(4) Prevents missionary work among the Hindoos.

(5) Removes the basis of the Sabbath.[18]

The two volume Scriptural Geology was an answer to Buckland. Bugg claimed that “whatever is contrary to that Bible must be false.” He started from the premise that the Mosaic narrative gives the general order of the strata with one physical revolution on the third day and that “Christian Geologists are bound in honor and conscience to agree.” What follows is a variety of theological argument, a rejection of contemporary geology and a reinstatement of the Deluge as the source of all strata. Bugg’s motivation was theological as he was unable to accept animal death before the Fall. To Bugg, accepting animal death in geological time destroyed the concept of sin and the Gospel.

These were the first of the anti- or Scriptural Geologists who were active from 1820 to 1855, who were not as numerous as one might expect as numbers did not top three figures. Some of them are described by Mortensen with varying degrees of perception, both in his thesis and book The Great Turning Point[19]. Despite his claims, apart from George Young, none had any geological skills apart from George Young. Frequently their geological understanding was risible for that period, as Adam Sedgwick indelicately pointed out. Compared to today’s creationists they made little impact either in Britain or the USA and were challenged largely by Christian geologists like Coneybeare, Sedgwick, Buckland, Chalmers and Miller from the 1820s to the 1850s, and not forgetting Hitchcock in the U.S.A. Most notable were Buckland’s 1838 sermon, Sedgwick’s response to the attacks by the Revd. Henry Cole(1992-1858) in 1832, who must be one of the most vitriolic clergymen of all time, his later response to Dean Cockburn of York in 1844[20] and Miller’s chapter in The Testimony of the Rocks (1858).Only Buckland dealt directly with Paradise Lost.

 William Buckland’s challenge to Milton and the Anti-geologists



Buckland ready to study ice  – Wales October 1841

The Revd. William Buckland (1784-1856) was the most colorful of all the Anglican clerical geologists and was reader in mineralogy at Oxford from 1814 and in geology from 1818, though he was often known as “professor”. His contributions to geology were massive, both through his lectures, which attracted many leading lights of Oxford, and his geological research. He made major contributions to paleontology and with Agassiz was the first to identify a former Ice Age in Britain. This they did in1840, visiting the Parallel Roads of Glen Roy in Scotland, which Darwin misidentified as due to varying sea-level in 1838.  In 1841 he identified former glaciation in Snowdonia which was confirmed by Darwin the following year. [21] Some of his eating habits were eccentric as was his fascination with coprolites.


Buckland in Yorkshire hyena den.

Theologically Buckland was on the liberal fringe of Evangelicalism. He was a strong diluvialist but restricted “Flood deposits” to Pleistocene drift, later termed glacial drift[22]. He was a strong exponent of design seen best with his humorous best in his lecture on Megatherium of 1831[23]. From 1810, at the latest he had no concerns that the vast age of the earth was a threat to the Christian faith and was often rather flippant about geological time. Our concern is his understanding of animal death in relation to geological time. In 1833 he was concerned by the content of the Bampton Lectures that year[24], which were given by an evangelical Rev George Nolan. I will let Mary Buckland describe the effect on Buckland;

we have had the Bampton Lecturer holding forth at St Marys against all modern sciencemore particularly enlarging on all the heresies and infidelities of geologists My poor husband. Could he be carried back a century, fire and faggot would have been his fate[25]

At the time Buckland did little about these lectures but came back to them in his Bridgewater Treatise and then in his sermon of 1839. The Bridgewater Treatises represent the height of design and evidential theology in the 1830s. All the authors were Christian, mostly clergy. At least two discussed suffering. Buckland wrote On Geology and Mineralogy[26] in 1836. This treatise presented the geological and paleontological understanding of the mid-1830s through the eyes of one of geology’s foremost Anglican exponents. By 1835 Buckland had rejected his diluvialism and in 1838 became convinced of the Ice Ages proposed by Agassiz, following a visit to the Jura. Theologically Buckland was close to moderate Evangelicalism as was his friend Edward Copleston of Oriel College, whom the leading evangelical Charles Simeon considered to share all his essential beliefs. In the 1820s Buckland was encouraged by the Evangelical theologians J.B.Sumner (Archbishop of Canterbury 1848-62) and G.S.Faber and by the ultra-conservative Bishop Shute Barrington of Durham along his pupil, Samuel Wilberforce, later notorious for his “debate” with Huxley in 1860[27]. To Buckland and many contemporary Evangelicals predation did not contradict the beneficence of God, as is shown by Chap XIII of his Bridgewater Treatise; ‘Aggregate of Animal Enjoyment increased, and that of Pain diminished, by the existence of Carnivorous Races. Neither did they accept that passages such as Genesis 3 or Romans 8 raised problems for the concept of predation. Buckland echoed Paley’s view of suffering in Natural Theology where he said that without predation we would ‘see the world filled with drooping, superannuated, half-starved, helpless and unhelped animals.

Or put satirically by the Oxford professor of chemistry, Charles Daubeny;

It is true Paradise was delicious and nice,

Yet, if those born on earth had neer died,

Twould have been such a cram, like the berries in jam,

 Pic-a-back men and women must ride[28]


Despite Daubeny’s humor, the subject needed a more careful treatment and thus a sermon given in the Cathedral at Christchurch would reach many, and particularly those considered as opinion formers at Oxford.

His sermon An inquiry whether the sentence of death pronounced at the fall of man included the whole animal creation or was restricted to the human race[29] given in Oxford in 1839 is in part a response to the noisy minority of nay-sayers of anti-geologists, who included Frank Nolan, the Bampton Lecturer of 1833. Here we do not see Buckland the geologist wielding his geological hammer or tracing out routes of former glaciers, but being a theologian and carefully studying biblical texts.

He took as his text Romans 5.12; “As by one man sin came into the world, and death by sin[30], which he discussed briefly along with 1 Cor 15 vs21. The heart of his sermon is an interpretation of Romans 8 vs 19-23, followed by a comment on Paradise Lost. In both the Romans 5 and I Corinthians 15 passages Buckland stresses that no mention is made of any “other part of creation” and that “death is mentioned only in immediate apposition to, and connexion with the remedy provided for it by the sacrifice of Christ”.

When Buckland came to Romans 8 vs 19ff, he emphasized that ktisis (creation) can mean both the “whole creation” or  the “whole human race”, and chose to cite Gill, an 18th century Baptist commentator of “ultra-conservative “ views that “Tis best of all by the creature to understand the Gentile world” i.e. not creation as such. He then referred to Colossians 1 vs 23 and Mark 16 vs 15 where pase te ktisis (the whole creation) clearly means humanity. After all, apart from St Francis, few preach to animals!

Without going into detail, Buckland’s interpretation is the minority one, but is not without support both now and in previous centuries. Arndt and Gingrich are very apt in their Greek-English Lexicon on ktisis and state;

The mng of kt is in dispute in Ro8: 19-22, though the pass. Is usu. taken to mean the waiting of the whole creation below the human level[31]

Yet few follow up Arndt and Gingrich on this point, though the interpretation has implications both on theodicy and environmental responsibility.

Having raised questions about Romans 8, Buckland then pointed out that such “erroneous” ideas are “so deeply imprinted on most mens minds, that maturer judgment rarely stops to enquire precisely as to the source…”  He alluded to painters and poets, especially Milton, almost anticipating both Hitchcock and Colenso. He took theological support from Shuttleworth and Bishop Bull to buttress his orthodoxy.

Buckland gave a short study on Genesis 3 and pointed out that, “Throughout these momentous passages, although the ground and some of its vegetable productions are included in the consequences of Adams sin, no mention whatsoever is made of any beast, except the serpent”  Here he uses a “literal” interpretation to undermine a “literal” view of the Curse and then went on to consider the nature of the “sentence” on Adam “you shall surely die” in Gen 2.17, which was used by Milton in P.L viii, 330;

Trangressd, inevitably thou shalt die

From that day mortal

Buckland then went to argue that had not Adam fallen, humans would have been mortal but without the pain of death would have passed on to another existence. Here he drew on the Discourse on the State of Man before the Fall by Bishop George Bull 1634-1710, who was very much in the Anglican tradition of Richard Hooker. Buckland seems to have done this to show that Milton’s view was not universal and that he had not diverged from traditional understandings of Genesis 3.

To conclude, Buckland’s sermon has a dated feel about it as it predates both evolution and most critical biblical scholarship, but he does wrestle with the issues raised and takes on those who wish to claim there was a Curse which afflicted the planet and all life on it. By 1839 most educated Christians had accepted the vast age of the earth and, by implication, that the Curse had no real effect on the earth and life, but did not consider the full implications and so for well over a century such questions were either not considered or avoided.

Edward Hitchcock against Milton



Edward Hitchcock (1793-1864) was one of the early American geologists who was a Congregational minister. He was instrumental in the formation of the Massachusetts Geological Survey and introduced ideas of a former ice-age to America. But his geological prowess should not detain us.


Hitchcock’s general geological section

In 1851 he published The Religion of Geology and its connected sciences[32] as an apology for geology to Christian doubters. On geology he reflects the geology of the day as befits a fine scientist, but his purpose in the book is to sway nay-sayers on geology. Like Buckland a few years before, Hitchcock dealt with the issue of universal death and the Fall at length. We may almost consider it as the American equivalent of Buckland’s Bridgewater Treatise and 1839 sermon. Both cover similar material and represent the best of geology and Christian apologetics of their day. As I re-read Hitchcock I found it hard to believe it was written over 160 years ago as it has so much freshness and pertinence to today’s issues among Evangelicals. As I take Harvard students to Snowdonia each year week to study Darwin and geology, I was fascinated by the account of his ascent of Snowdon in 1850 (p160-1).

His third lecture Death a universal law of organic beings on this globe from the beginning makes his stance clear. Death in the animal kingdom is simply written into all life and “Few, I presume, would seriously maintain that the act of our first parents, which produced what Dr Chalmers calls an unhingement of the human race, resulted likewise in a change in the motion of the earth and the heavenly bodies.”  As we consider Creationist claims that “an unhingement” is the only true Christian view, it is hard to realize this was written over 160 years ago. Space forbids a full exposition of his treatment, but his earlier comments will not appeal to some Milton aficionados!

The great English poet, in his Paradise Lost, has clothed this hypothesis in a most graphic and philosophical dress; and probably his description has done more than the Bible to give it currency. ….  The current theology of the day has been shaped quite as much by the ingenious machinery of Paradise Lost as by the Scriptures … that they find it difficult to distinguish between them.[33]

Sharp words from a Congregational minister, echoing Buckland and later Colenso. Yet Hitchcock was not a controversialist rocking the boat. His views were widely held throughout all churches and after 1850 one almost searches in vain to find a Christian holding to a “young earth”, even among the most Evangelical. Yes, there were a few and mostly concentrated in the slave-owning Southern Presbyterians.

 The groanings of Bishop John Colenso


John Colenso (1814-1883) is a hero of Victorian liberal Christianity and is often credited with bringing biblical criticism to Britain. This is more in retrospect than in actuality. After Cambridge, Colenso became a country vicar and was consecrated as the first Bishop of Natal in 1853[34]. Little did the Archbishop of Cape Town anticipate what was to come. In 1861 he published a commentary on Romans which was less than conservative and disturbed the Archbishop, a staunch Anglo-Catholic. More was to come with his 5-volume study of The Pentateuch and the Book of Joshua published over the next fifteen years from 1862. This is not the place to discuss his biblical criticism but only his understanding of Geology and Genesis. This is to be found in Part IV published in 1863, which gives three hundred pages of rather verbose and secondary comment on Genesis I to 12. However it is remarkable that he had so much access to contemporary theology living as he did in Pietermaritzburg. In dealing with the Deluge in relation to geology he used conservative evangelical writers like Hugh Miller and Pye Smith, and thus his objections to a universal flood were not his own but based on those with evangelical principles. Clearly, Colenso’s tone in discussing the problems of a universal flood did not endear him to his fellow churchmen as he tended to sarcasm and flippancy when making serious points;

Could, then, the sloth and armadillo, from the tropical regions of South America, have marched up to the Icy North, and so across the Behring’s Straits, and, at length, after many years of painful wandering over filed and flood, have been received into the Ark? And did they again after the Deluge, travel back once more in like manner to their present abodes?[35]

This repeats what the Evangelical John Pye Smith wrote in 1838, who on the same issue pointed out that these miracles are “more stupendous than any recorded in Scripture and, tellingly, “The great decisive miracle of Christianity, the Resurrection of the LORD JESUS, – sinks down before it.[36] In fact, when Colenso discussed the scientific aspects of geology and Genesis he made great use of earlier Evangelicals.

To return to our theme of the effects of the Fall, Colenso deals with this in two chapters – XIII and XIV, which are more than 50% quotes from other writers. His citations are from the 17th Century theorist of the earth Burnett and German biblical scholars like Delitzsch. Vital to our theme is his discussion of Genesis 3 vs 17 and 18 [37]. Colenso repeats previous arguments by Pye Smith, Hitchcock and Buckland but does not cite Buckland. Crucial is his statement (Para 210) But Geology shows that the state of things upon the earth before man appeared upon it, was just the same as it is now. There are no signs of any curse having passed upon the earth. And then (Para 211) “It is the kind of life evidently meant for man by his Creator.. The next two pages (paras 213-216) expands this point looking to Pye Smith, Jeremy Taylor, Hitchcock and Archdeacon Pratt, an Evangelical who was Archdeacon of Calcutta and wrote an early paper on the isostasy of the Himalayas. The three 19th century writers were respected evangelical clergy of different traditions and, in fact, reflect the general outlook of all informed Christians of the 1860s, whether evangelical or not.[38] As for Colenso being a pioneer of liberal Theology here he is closely following “conservatives”! It is difficult not to see Colenso’s ideas as derivative from others. What is often overlooked is that it was Colenso’s views on Biblical Criticism that were controversial but not his views on early Genesis. Frequently the two are conflated, but the authors cited adopted only the mildest forms of Biblical Criticism.

Towards the end of his exposition Colenso states that many “have imbibed, as unhappily we have, most of us, from childhood, the defective theological teaching of that great poet, who wrote;

“Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit

Of that forbidden fruit, whose mortal taste

Brought death into the world,

He brought in Pratt as a witness on Romans 5, 12 as “he admits that death was in the world before mans sin.. He was referring to an earlier edition of Pratt’s Scripture and Science not at variance. In my copy of the 6th edition (1871) Pratt said that many take Romans so strictly that blindfold they condemn the whole science of geology and ignore the universal testimony of the greatest and best men. [39] (There are those of us, when we speak or write in a similar way are criticized for being too dogmatic and confrontational!!) After citing Hitchcock on Milton as is quoted above, Colenso ends with a flourish

The truth is that we literally groan, even in the present day, under the burden of Miltons mythology.

That was written over a century and a half ago and with the advent and spread of Young earth Creationism we groan even more today, as it divides our churches and damages our education in all seven continents.

After Colenso

By the time Colenso made his remarks in 1863 the issue was apparently dead, and the conservatives he challenged were not concerned with geological time. Despite popular understandings very few after about 1855 were young earth, except in a few pockets (mostly American) until the publication of The Genesis Flood in 1961, and so for almost a century the churches apparently stopped “groaning under the burden of Miltons mythology”. I say “apparently” very deliberately as few considered the implications of the nature of the Fall, and of animal death and suffering going back billions of years and focused on atonement. This gave vulnerability to much evangelicalism which was its undoing with Creationism under the influence of Henry Morris.

Over the next century the question of Fall and possible Curse was largely ignored on both sides of the Atlantic, though it was more of an issue in the U.S.A. Most evangelicals did not see a nexus of Curse and Atonement. There were few doctrinal treatments apart from N. P. Williams and the popular treatment of C.S. Lewis in his classic The Problem of Pain. Williams in his Bampton Lectures for 1924[40] quickly dismissed Milton’s ideas as he did not accept a historical Adam and opted for a pre-human origin of evil, which he expounded in Chapter 7. C. S. Lewis was greatly indebted to Williams. All three of these deserve a full study.  However Evangelicals gave at least lip-service to a historical fall.

Although the problem of the Fall was rarely raised many Evangelicals were, in fact, very quietly groaning under the burden of Milton’s mythology. It was one theological issue which was evaded but it nearly came to light in the 1950s in Britain with a limited number of people. To put it into context Evangelicals were at a low ebb but after World War II underwent growth and revival, particularly within the Church of England. The general tenor of Evangelicals was pietistic and non-intellectual. However after the end of the Second World War there was an Evangelical renaissance on both sides of the Atlantic. This period also saw the founding and growth of the American Scientific Affiliation and the Research Scientists Christian Fellowship (RSCF) which later mutated into Christians in Science.

In Britain evolution was largely unquestioned until the 70s, and when I was at Oxford in the mid-60s the subject was never raised in Evangelical groups. I often wonder how I would have reacted if a YEC told me that my geology was all wrong ☺. What I had not realized until recently was that the problem of natural evil had been rumbling for years, which underlies issues today with YECs. This began to surface in the RSCF conference in 1956 on “The Problem of Pain, Suffering and Evil”, and more so in two articles in 1958 which accepted that animals died millions of years ago. This was countered by some “comments” accusing the RSCF of “endorsing 19th century liberalism…”  The main author was J I Packer (b 1926) (one of my theological mentors), who in 1955 claimed that “disease and much else would never have appeared but for Adams sin.  Oliver Barclay smoothed this over, but I think his niceness actually swept it under the carpet, only to crawl out in the 1970s. To me this apparently insignificant episode shows how fertile soil for YEC was developing below surface.[41] Packer has always seemed to be old earth, but now I am not so sure, especially with his involvement in the Chicago Declaration if 1979, which I consider to be the theological cause of ID, when historically considered. [42]

The question of groaning under the burden of Milton’s mythology came back with a vengeance with the publication of The Genesis Flood in 1961, with an appendix on theodicy. Initially YEC emphasized a global flood and a six day creation above theodicy. Gradually the emphasis moved to theodicy and the need for a “real Curse” as that is from what Christ is alleged to have redeemed humans. This has proved a highly successful polemical tactic and some YECs, like Ken Ham, almost make this the lynch-pin of Christian Faith.  This is vital to their theology as Christ redeemed us from Original Sin and if the Fall was not historical than Christ and his redeeming work is meaningless. An immediate corollary of this is that there was no animal death or suffering before the Fall and thus, by definition, the earth has to be young.

Against this, denials of a historical Adam, and thus a curse by Enns and others is seen as threatening or liberating. It is also very controversial in some sectors. The perceived problem of the Curse/Groaning lies at the heart of contemporary controversies over evolution and few have actually faced it. Hopefully this historical study, puts the issue into context and give guidelines for understanding suffering in relationship to the Christian faith. But perhaps we shall go no further than Job, “the Lord gives and the Lord has taken away”, and will either bless Him or not.

The standard view accepting geological time and all that follows means that suffering and death is written into all life by its very nature. As soon as life started four odd billion years ago, death was present. I am tempted to say that the earliest forms may only have lived a few seconds before dying or replicating. There are examples of predation in the fossil record – chewed trilobites and dinosaurs come to mind, not to mention arthritic dinosaurs or those with badly healed broken limbs. This means that a doctrine of creation cannot look to a perfect time when there was no death and suffering but must say it was there from the beginning as both 19th century writers like Buckland, Pye Smith and Colenso argued for , and also contemporary writers on science and Christianity who are too numerous to mention.

On the surface YEC gives an answer which allows a perfect creation in that death and suffering were not of the order of Creation but came in subsequently. And this is through the Fall and the actions of two people eating what they were told not to. Its plausibility lies in the seamless way the whole bible is seen as historical but is challenged on two points; first, the vast age of the earth – hence the efforts in “proving” the earth to be young, and, secondly, what must be seen as the disproportionate , dare I say, vindictive, reaction of God cursing the whole of creation. Many cannot see this the action of a loving god

A conclusion

Hopefully this historical study puts the issue into context and gives guidelines for understanding suffering in relationship to the Christian faith. But perhaps we shall go no further than Job, “the Lord gives and the Lord has taken away”, and will either bless Him or not.

It also depends whether

The whole creation has been groaning with labor pains until now:


The whole of humanity has been groaning with labor pains until now:

And whether

The truth is that we literally groan, even in the present day, under the burden of Miltons mythology.





[1]  Roberts, M. B , Design up to Scratch, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, Dec 1999, vol 51, 244

[2] Roberts, M. B. Darwin, Buckland and the Welsh Ice Age, 1837 – 1842,   Proceedings of the Geological Association 2012  vol 123 p 649-62


[3] J.W. Colenso,  The Pentateuch and the Book of Joshua, London, Longmans, 1863, Part 4, p143

[4] Colenso op. cit. p146

[5] Calvin, J., A Commentary on Genesis. London. Banner of Truth 1965 p172ff

[6] Calvin, op cit p79

[7] Hooykaas , R., 1972  Religion and the Rise of Science, Edinburgh, Scottish Academic Press, p 114-30

Roberts, M. B. , 2008   Evangelicals and Science , Westport, Greenwood Press, 2008,  p36              

[8] Rudwick, M. J. S. 2014, Earths Deep History, Chicago, Chicago University Press, 2014, chapter 1.

[9] Miller, Hugh 1858 The Testimony of the Rocks  Many editions!!  p386

[10]  Isaac Watts, A short view of the whole scripture History, London, 1781 p7

[11] I use the word savant following Martin Rudwick as the term scientist is anachronistic before 1840

[12] I have recently obtained the 200th anniversary reprint of the map and find it awesome, checking out how he represented some geology I know well.

[13] Townsend, Joseph., The Character of Moses as an Historian, Recording Events from the Creation to the Deluge’ 1813

[14] Rudwick, M.J.S. , 2002 “Jean Andre de Luc and Nature’s Chronology” in The Age of the earthfrom4004BC to AD2002 ed Lewis and Knell,  London, geological society of London SP190

[15] Phillips, John, ed Torrens, H.R., 2003, Memoirs of William Smith, LL.D., Bath pp. 189–191)

[16] Roberts, M.B.,  Genesis Chapter One and Geological Time from Hugo Grotius and Marin Mersenne to William Conybeare and Thomas Chalmers (1620 to 1825),  Myth and Geology; ed Piccardi and Masse (Special Publication 273 of the Geological Society of London , London, 2007 p39-50

[17]  King-Hele, D, 199, Erasmus Darwin, A Life of Unequalled Achievement, London, Giles de la Mere p341

[18] Bugg, George, Scriptural geology. London, Hatchard, 1826-7 and here in Christian Observer 1828. P329

[19] Mortenson, T, The Great Turning Point, U.S.A. Master Books, 2004.

[20] Roberts, M.B. Adam Sedgwick (1785_1873): geologist and evangelical; Religion and Geology. Ed Kolbl-Ebert, Geological Society, London, Special Publications 2009; v. 310; pp155-170

[21] Roberts, M. B. Darwin, Buckland and the Welsh Ice Age, 1837 – 1842,   Proceedings of the Geological Association 2012

[22] Buckland, W, Reliquiae Diluvianae. London John Murray 1825

[23] Roberts, M.B.  Design up to Scratch , Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, Dec 1999, vol 51, 244-53

[24] Of annual Bampton lectures three have dealt with science; Nolan in 1833, Frederick Temple (arguing for evolution) in 1884and Arthur Peacocke in 1978. Many years ago I had a good discussion with Peacocke about this

[25] Letter from Mary Buckland to Whewell, 12th May 1833; in, ed Morrell. J, & Thackray, A. Gentlemen of Science, London, Royal Historical Society, 1984, p168.

[26] Buckland W.  Geology and Mineralogy London, John Murray, 1836

[27] Rupke, N. A., The Great Chain of History, Oxford, Oxford University Press,  1983, p14

[28] Rupke, op. cit. , p251

[29] Buckland, W., An inquiry whether the sentence of death pronounced at the fall of man included the whole animal creation or was restricted to the human race, London, J. Murray 1839.

[30] All texts cited as from Buckland’s sermon.

[31] Arndt, W.F. & Gingrich, F.W. , A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament, Chicago, Chicago University Press, 1957 p457.

[32] Hitchcock, E., The Religion of Geology and its connected sciences, Boston, Phillips, Sampson &Co, 1851.

[33] Hitchcock, op cit, p78-79

[34] The wiki entry https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Colenso gives an adequate account of his life

[35] Colenso, op cit,  vol vi p 178

[36] Pye Smith, J 1838 On the relation between the Holy Scriptures and some part of geological science, London, Jackson and Walford, p 156-7

[37] Colenso, op cit., vol vi, p145-149

[38] The literature on this is vast; Livingstone, Moore, Lindberg and Numbers are just a few

[39] Pratt, J, Scripture and Science not at variance, (6th edit) London, Hatchards, 1871,  p87

[40] Williams N.P. The Ideas of Fall and Original Sin, London, Longmans 1928. P447ff

[41] This is based on Rios, C.M. Rios 2014, After the Monkey Trial, New York, Fordham University Press, 2014. P95-102

[42] Roberts, M. B. 2008 Evangelicals and Science  Westport , Greenwood Press, 2008, p50-53

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