A discussion of why God damns Dr Faustus, and whether the reader does the same. More interesting if you've read the play than if you haven't, probably.
When presented with the opportunity of ultimate power, here are some of the things Faustus does with it: makes a horse turn into hay; makes himself invisible in order to play practical jokes on the Pope; obtains grapes in the middle of winter; enquires about scientific theories; and briefly gives a man antlers, before removing them at the request of a monarch.
Faustus is in a sense too ‘small-time’ to be considered evil. His actions are not those of a man who knows what he wants to do with his near omnipotence, nor those of the kind of figure who could be described as a monster and universally reviled. Though he flirts briefly with the possibility of reigning ‘sole king of all our provinces’ - in itself a fairly limited kind of power, when compared to the almost infinite earthly possibilities available to him - he never seriously pursues this possibility, contenting himself with a mixture of historical tourism and petty tricks, a thirst for knowledge and a desire for distraction.
His damnation, then, does not rest on any inherently devilish qualities. He is damned because he does not (or can not) repent; he is damned because he fears the devil more than he fears God. The terrible irony of Faustus’ fate is that he only needs to be scared of hell because - he is so scared of hell. And yet - one of the reasons he so willingly signs his eternal life away is that he is unconvinced, even flippant, about Mephistopheles’ warnings of the horrors of the afterlife. It is only as the play reaches its climax that he begins to confront his deep-seated terror of the afterlife awaiting him. So initially, Faustus is damned because he has no fear of the devil; and ultimately, he is damned because he fears him too much. This apparent contradiction -he’s damned if he does, he’s damned if he doesn’t - may be a kind of evidence for the view of the play as essentially predestinarian.
There is something strange, too, about the way he seems to know that he can repent and yet not know it. Time and again he flirts with returning to God, culminating in his acknowledgement of the redemptive power of the blood of Christ:
See, see where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!
One drop would save my soul, half a drop. Ah, my Christ!
But then immediately he is ‘pulled down’ once more, in his mind by Lucifer
, in fact by his own shortcomings, by his lack of faith. He understands intellectually the possibility of redemption - but he cannot make himself believe in it in his gut
One of the mistakes he makes is to blame his damnation principally on Lucifer - for example, at the very end of the play he says
Curst be the parents that engendered me!
No, Faustus, curse thyself. Curse Lucifer,
That hath deprived thee of the joys of heaven.
If this is a kind of ascending tricolon, with Faustus blaming his parents the least and the Devil the most, it is a perverse one. In this instance he commits the same sin
when he tells God that he was given the fruit: it is his abdication of personal responsibility that renders him unforgivable. Lucifer and Mephistopheles never lie to Faustus, and never beat around the bush about the ultimate consequences of his actions. It is telling, too, that he so often refers to himself in the third person: this rhetorical device
may hint at this refusal a to take his actions upon himself, at a sense in which none of what he does is real or likely to have any true consequences. In this respect, his refusal to accept the reality of hell despite the assurances of a high-ranked demon
-surely the most reliable of evidence he could possibly get save the word of God himself - is highly relevant:
Come, I think hell’s a fable.
Think’st thou that Faustus is so fond
To imagine that after this life there is any pain?
Tush, these are trifles and old wives’ tales.
Mephistopheles is emphatically not an old wife: Faustus must know this, and is surely lying to himself.
Any gesture towards repentance must therefore inevitably be superficial, and he gives himself away here: as well as trying to blame Lucifer rather than himself, he is bitter about being denied the ‘joys of heaven.’ This suggests that any repentance here would be a matter of personal expediency rather than true contrition, and thus false.
This raises interesting questions concerning whether or not the doctrine of predestination is endorsed by Christopher Marlowe’s play. When is Faustus finally damned? Is it before he is born, or when he signs his compact with Lucifer, or is he still forgivable until the moment he is dragged into the fiery pits?
The most important thing to keep in mind when considering Dr Faustus from a theological point of view is that we must distinguish between the extremely complex theories of predestination contemporary with the play, and what is above all a play in its own right rather than a dramatisation of these issues. It is dangerous to extrapolate a set of beliefs for the playwright from his play: his primary concern is always what works dramatically. For example, in the final scene Faust says
...or let this hour be but
A year, a month, a week, a natural day,
That Faustus may repent and save his soul!
This is not really in keeping with any form of christianity. Repentance is meant to be possible at any point before death; but in the world of the play it is dramatically more interesting to present Faustus with the torture of believing that repentance had been possible, but is so no longer.
It is necessary, too, to keep the two versions of the play distinct. `there are vital differences between them in this religious context, amongst which the two versions of the Bad Angel’s line in 2.3 are perhaps the most interesting:
(a text) never too late, if Faustus can repent
(b text) never too late, if Faustus will repent
Such a fundamental dichotomy demonstrates that the two cannot be lumped into a single entity, and that it is dangerous to talk in absolute terms about Marlowe’s intentions in the two combined, lest we lose sight of the fundamental ambiguities in each text.
The ambiguities are large. It is impossible to say definitively whether or not Dr Faustus is a play with a sense of predestination. this is in part because the logic behind the theory of predestination itself is so paradoxical and complex that disentangling the ideas it involves is an extremely difficult process when they are presented in the abstract; set in a play, it is almost impossible.
It is also partly because Marlowe refuses to explicitly state whether or not Faustus has a chance at salvation. This allows Dr Faustus to be two different plays at once: a play which shows us the predestined tragedy of Faustus, and plays with ideas of fate in a classical tragical sense; and a play in which Faustus’ fate is not certain, and there is always a chance that he will be redeemed. It allows it to avoid the risks of being interpreted as a single issue religious tract. It allows it, fundamentally, to be more interesting.
One fascinating part of the religious aspect in the play is the fact that we might disagree with God. We may agree that, technically, Faustus must inevitably be damned; but at the same time, we may question whether he really deserves that damnation, and whether we are not in fact rather sympathetic to his cause. The Faustian desire - to
resolve me of all ambiguities
is essentially the same desire as that at the heart of the Renaissance. Amongst other things, Dr Faustus is a dramatisation of the dichotomy between Medieval and Renaissance values. There is an inevitable tension between religious beliefs which demand that everything be accepted on faith and the new hunger for scientific knowledge; above all, the Renaissance was an era which embraced the sentiment of the prologue to The Jew Of Malta that
There is no sin but ignorance.
In this context, Faustus’ desperate desire to know all that he can of how the universe works -it is, after all, his first question after sealing the contract - does not seem unreasonable. We might think of the Tower of Babel. We share his curiosity, even as we are aware that the price he has paid is a terrible one.
Faustus is certainly not an unsympathetic character aside from his pact. He is a learned man; he has a great thirst for knowledge; he is kind to his manservant; he never causes any great harm with his extraordinary gift, and often uses it to delight others. As a result, it is hard for us to judge him as God does. He is human, and fallible, and makes a great mistake; but his failure to repent is borne out of fear rather than arrogance, and he has all the charm of every character who takes an extraordinary risk in part as adventure. It is hard to imagine many audiences cheering as he is dragged into the furnace, even in contemporary times; in a modern era which has entirely embraced the spirit of discovery - we sent a man to the moon principally because it was possible - Faustus begins to look like an intrepid discoverer, rather than a heretic.
It is interesting to note that whereas the Devil pushes his claim to Faustus’ soul, God
sits back and watches, never playing an active part in the course of the play. It is up to Faustus to save himself: though the good angel and the old man are of God, they are not necessarily sent by God: in many ways the most important ‘character’ in the play has no lines, and never appears on stage. (One can’t read too much into this, of course: to present God on stage would have been a heresy.) God’s authority, though unquestioned, therefore seems distant: the part of our nature closer to Lucifer seems much more real and much more immediate. (Certainly, Faustus himself often seems to feel decidedly at home with Mephistopheles, calling him ‘sweet friend’, and being able to confide in him what he cannot tell any other except at the end of the play.) We might wish that Faustus could ‘get away with it’, and sneak into heaven despite his renunciation of God.
Ultimately, it is because Dr Faustus works above all as a human tragedy that we remain sympathetic to the man who sells his soul to the devil. Rather than being made a monster by this, it is a consequence of his harmartia, his too-great desire to understand the universe. And because Faustus’ fate is so devastating and so absolutely final in a way impossible in any other tragedy -death itself, the usual tragic conclusion, doesn’t come close to an eternity of being ‘fed with sops of flaming fire’ - we may feel more than usually sympathetic for a man who made a choice with very clear consequences which he, at some level or other, must have understood. The play would be a great deal less successful if it were a simple morality play, a tale of the bogeyman Faustus who sold his soul and paid the price: infinitely more complex than that, it is deeply morally ambiguous and capable of leaving an audience wrestling with its own conscience. We may accept that God damns Faustus: we may nevertheless wish that he had not. It is possible to both accept and understand his damnation, and retain a degree of sympathy and admiration for a character who is perhaps the most extreme example of the burning passion of the Renaissance spirit.