The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky: Elements of Christian Faith in the Novel

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The Faith Remains Strong

Even Christians have found the critiques of faith and the church in the parable presented by the Grand Inquisitor in the book The Brothers Karamazov as devastating to their faith. Many non-theists appeal to this parable and similar argumentation. However, this essay will show that this critique is not as effective as it sounds. The Grand Inquisitor builds an argument that shows the legitimate problem of power and ineffective ministry within the church, but it misses the point of the Gospel. Nonetheless, in the dialogue and circumstances in which the story is told, there remains remnants of the hope of the Gospel.

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Dostoevsky presents a case wherein Jesus returned during the time of the Inquisition, arriving in Seville, Spain. It is presented through a man named Ivan telling a doubting monk, Alyosha, what amounts to a parable. The return of Jesus was not meant to be his final coming; it was where “He visited His children only for a moment,” which happened to be right in the midst of “the flames…crackling round the heretics” (Dostoevsky 425). While on Earth, Jesus proceeded to complete many miracles among the people and He was beloved of them. These miracles were very reminiscent of what Jesus did during the time of the Gospels. For example, He healed a blind man, children came to him crying “hosannah,” and a young girl was raised from the dead. However, such a ministry was short-lived and soon led to a similar fate to His first coming, for it was judged that there was “no need for [Him] to come now at all” by the Grand Inquisitor (Dostoevsky 427). Indeed, Jesus was arrested by the leaders of the Inquisition to be burnt at the stake.

The Grand Inquisitor made a criticism of Jesus. Much of his criticism centered around Jesus’ behavior in his temptation in the wilderness. He said, “if there has ever been on earth a real stupendous miracle, it took place on that day, on the day of the three temptations” (Dostoevsky 429). The Grand Inquisitor saw Jesus’ answers to Satan as unhelpful giving a “promise of freedom which men in their simplicity and their natural unruliness cannot even understand” (Dostoevsky 429). Instead of simply giving man such freedom, He should have behaved differently: perhaps He should have turned the rocks into bread and given food instead of freedom. He suggested the people would say, “Make us your slaves, but feed us!” instead (Dostoevsky 430). In addition to the bread, the Grand Inquisitor also looked at the temptation to cast Himself down to be saved by the angels. The Grand Inquisitor said that men were not the same as Him, and thus He should have followed through with the miracle, in the same manner that He should have cast Himself down from the cross. This would have won more men. Lastly, he looked at the temptation to rule over all the kingdoms of the world. He claimed that the Church had done this while He had not.

After all of this takes place, Jesus, who had been silent, kissed the Grand Inquisitor on “his bloodless, aged lips” (Dostoevsky 440). Afterward, Jesus was told to not come back and the Grand Inquisitor led Him to the “dark alleys of the town” (Ibid). At the end of the story that Ivan told, Alyosha got up and did the same to him. As Dostoevsky put it, he “softly kissed him on the lips,” which Ivan called “plagiarism” (Dostoevsky 442). The kiss itself is never interpreted in detail in the text.

Throughout the critique of Jesus, the Grand Inquisitor revealed the nature of the Roman Catholic Church. He revealed that the leader of the Church had become Satan himself. The Grand Inquisitor even admitted that he “does not believe in God” (Dostoevsky 439). This seemed to be a secondary argument that was more subtle as the Grand Inquisitor directed much of his critique at how the Church acted, even in light of the Inquisition itself. Thus, there seemed to be a specific leveling of the attacks of the argument through the perspective of the Catholic Church, the western branch, which is unique because Dostoevsky and his audience were from the Eastern tradition. However, the complaint does not seem to wholly build on the problems just inside the Roman Catholic Church. For example, Alyosha himself claimed that the story showed the problems of Rome, and “not even the whole of Rome, it’s false–those are the worst of the Catholics” ( Dostoevsky 438). This seems to point to this story picking out “the worst of the Catholics,” because it was indeed the worst period of the Church at large.

As those both inside and out of the church are forced to acknowledge, there is a struggle for power. The church is not free from this struggle. In the Bible itself there are examples of powerful leaders, who God approved, who still were corrupted and failed as leaders when they were given wealth, fame, and power. For example, Solomon was labeled the wisest man to live, yet at the end of his life he had fallen very far from the man of faith he once was. Such a pattern continues to this day within the church and its various branches. It is helpful to remember that what Jesus and Scripture at large demand is humility. As Jesus said, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:11 ESV). Paul likewise says, “in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3 ESV). A glimmer of this shows through in the person of Jesus in the story. Although the Grand Inquisitor paints a picture of a religion that is hungry for power, Jesus shows humility. Jesus kissed the Grand Inquisitor at the end, instead of trying to answer all of his numerous complaints. So while the Grand Inquisitor may point to something that truly is a problem, there is hope seen in Jesus’ own actions, which more clearly point to what Jesus said. The true church seeks to follow the teaching and example of Christ. The Grand Inquisitor truly represents someone who is outside of the real church, as he does not even have use for Jesus.

The Christian should also consider the story that was primarily used to build the Grand Inquisitor’s argument. It is a story that has significance in and of itself within Scripture. The Christian should consider the temptation of Jesus in its context within the Bible: to see how the Christian should interpret it, it helps to see how it is viewed elsewhere in Scripture. In Hebrews, the writer says, “For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15 NKJV). The Grand Inquisitor presented a case where Jesus should not have resisted these three points of temptation. That he was able to resist them is to be a comfort to Christians in their own own fight against sin. As the author of Hebrews continues, in light of what he said in the verse before, “Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16 NKJV). Overcoming the temptations had a specific purpose for Christians and allows us to come before God with confidence. Furthermore, Jesus’ sinlessness, in that He could overcome temptations from the deceiver himself is the basis of the truth of the Gospel: for Jesus to atone for the sins of the church, he needed to be “a lamb without blemish or spot” (I Peter 1:19 ESV). Even while this is not the direct argument of the Grand Inquisitor, the Christian needs to look at all of Scripture and see the significance of the events of which he spoke! Thankfully, the Gospel again shines through the commentary outside of what the Grand Inquisitor was positing, showing a greater understanding on the part of Aloysha. He acknowledged that what his spiritual leader said was “not the same, not a bit the same” as the story that Ivan was telling (Dostoevsky 438). Instead, there was a better understanding of the freedom of the Gospel, which suggests that the Grand Inquisitor’s interpretation of the passage was not all right.

Because the Grand Inquisitor made much of this argument around freedom, it is helpful to see how Jesus approaches freedom. The Grand Inquisitor fails to address both what Jesus meant and how the Christian community at large interprets it. As Paul says, “For freedom Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1 ESV). Jesus made references to a sort of freedom himself. He says in Matthew 11:30 that “my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (ESV). However, even in that passage, Jesus shows that He does not offer total freedom, for “no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matthew 11:27 ESV). Elsewhere Jesus says that “no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father” (John 6:65 ESV). Jesus even denies to the disciples explicitly that they had total freedom in choosing Him when He said, “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (John 15:16 ESV). While His followers are given freedom, Jesus never makes such an increase in man’s freedom that he might “with a free heart decide for himself what is good and what is evil” (Dostoevsky 432). Thus, it is important to understand the false theological premises that the Inquisitor gives and realize that they do not square with the teachings of Jesus himself. However, it is not precisely clear if this is ultimately the argument that Dostoevsky himself is making, because the character of Aloysha helps to give some hope to a proper interpretation.

Likewise it must be acknowledged many of the false premises that were used to address Jesus, showing the Grand Inquisitor’s faulty doctrine. For example, much of the fault he gave Jesus for responding as He did to the three temptations was around this notion of freedom. He explained what Jesus offered by saying, “Instead of taking possession of man’s freedom, Thou didst increase it…man must hereafter with free heart decide for himself what is good and what it is evil” (Dostoevsky 432). The Grand Inquisitor noted that this would lead to the downfall of the church. This is a similar argument that has been made by many Christians: total freedom leads to all rejecting Christ.

When the true Biblical view is considered, the arguments of the Grand Inquisitor appear as much less serious blows to the Christian faith and church at large. Christians and non-Christians alike should examine the arguments in light of larger Christian teaching and practice to see how the argument is a less serious blow than is often firstly perceived. Furthermore, they should be aware of the hope that Dostoevsky leaves placed in the elements surrounding the parable itself.

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