The Grand Inquisitor in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov is Ivan Karamazov’s (a rank materialist and atheist) tale to Alyosha (a young Christian mystic) of Christ’s revisit to earth (Spain) during the period of the Inquisition. In Ivan’s story, Christ appears out of nowhere and is almost instantly recognized as divine, powerful, radiant, and full of love. The people are drawn to Him, and He performs for them miracles of biblical origin, restoring sight to the blind and raising the dead to life. However, almost immediately after Christ appears, the Grand Inquisitor, one of the Cardinals of the Church, unexpectedly steps forth and commands that Christ be arrested and thrown in jail.
Then, in the middle of the night, the Grand Inquisitor comes to visit the cell and puts forth his case against Christ. The Grand Inquisitor points his finger at Christ and sentences him to death: “To-morrow I shall burn Thee. Dixi.”1
Like many of us, Christians and non-Christians alike, the Grand Inquisitor is furious with God. We are angry with His supposed omnipotence and goodness while death and destruction, the suffering of multitudes, the earthquake in Nepal, horrendous cruelty imposed by ISIS, extreme poverty, the unjustified deaths of friends, and the desperately broken and corrupt state of society ramble on in the world. As a result, the Grand Inquisitor, along with the many people who refuse to believe in a genuinely good God, sentences Him to death.
Many people who do believe in God stoically explain this suffering as God’s just punishment for our human sinfulness. Others explain this suffering as a means to some greater end—that God needs this suffering to happen in order to further his grand plan. They believe in a mysterious course being taken—an ultimate purpose—that resides behind such misery and anguish. The ultimate premise of these explanations, however, is that God is the root of it all. In this logic, we are necessitating suffering as the first link in a greater chain, and we attempt to console ourselves with the vision that God is causing this misery to bring about some greater glory. Yet, the origin of evil, if God is truly Almighty, points directly towards Him. Voltaire, an atheist, critiqued this view. Theologian David Bentley Hart summarized his view: “Do not, says Voltaire, speak of the great chain of being, for that chain is held in the hand of a God who is Himself enchained by nothing.” The conclusion of this reasoning, then, is that if God is enchained by nothing, the existence of evil within the world is ultimately a manifestation of His will—which is frustrating to many believers.
And thus, like the Grand Inquisitor, we wait for a response from Christ; we long to hear His voice—to hear Him reply to our accusations.
“Suddenly He [Christ] rises; slowly and silently approaching the Inquisitor, He bends towards him and softly kisses the bloodless, four-score and-ten-year old lips. That is all the answer.” Thus Ivan concludes the story.
Perhaps the reason why we cannot find reconciliation between God and suffering is because there is no reconciliation. Perhaps the kiss from Christ suggests an affirmation of sorts; that there is valid moral outrage in the type of teleological logic that would require suffering to be necessary. Perhaps by kissing the Grand Inquisitor, Jesus is affirming that the old man is quite justified in calling that type of God—one who deliberately causes or allows in his omnipotence the deaths of thousands through an earthquake, and the murder and torture of innocents, for a mysterious greater purpose—monstrous.
Maybe the great question asked by many of us, “Did God truly plan the Fall of Man, or in a narrower sense, need it to demonstrate His glory?,” can be answered by our recognition of who God is. The Christian God is utterly sufficient in Himself, and did not need the existence of death and destruction to manifest his glory. Instead, what if at that moment before the Fall, before Adam chose to bite into the fruit that caused fallen human nature, God had truly given him the freedom to choose? That God had placed humanity in such esteem that He limited his own full omnipotent control over us to give us the chance to truly decide for ourselves the fate of our relationship with Him? And maybe this was because for love to be fully realized, the independence of who we really are, and the state of our souls, must be a manifestation of the choices that we ourselves make.
This freedom given to us is exemplified in the Grand Inquisitor’s discussion of the three biblical temptations confronted by Christ in the desert (Mt 4:1-11). When Jesus, in his hunger, rejected the temptation of turning stone to bread, He was demonstrating that rather than have his obedience be bribed by earthly bread, man should freely choose to obey God. When Jesus rejected the temptation of testing God’s faithfulness to Him (by sending angels to keep him from harm), He was demonstrating that man should not need a miracle to keep his faith in God alive. When Jesus rejected the temptation of ruling over all the kingdoms of the world, He was demonstrating that man should not need authorities to tell him to submit to God. Because of Jesus’ humanity, Jesus’ refusal to succumb to those three temptations means something about human freedom.
But because of Jesus’ divinity, it also means something about God’s freedom. The Grand Inquisitor mentions these three temptations as methods in which God can easily capture the hearts of men. Giving man his bread, a sure meaning to live for, and something to worship, the Cardinal argues, would ensure his faithful obedience. However, through this story, God proves that by His nature, He does not need to resort to the bribery of bread, the sureness of a miracle, or the authority of a King as offerings in exchange for human faithfulness—He, instead, reminds us that He is sufficient. To the Inquisitor, suffering is a prerequisite to obedience: man is attracted to bread because he is hungry, he is attracted to miracles because life makes faith difficult, and he is attracted to authority because chaos and disorder run rampant. Yet by rejecting these things, Jesus proves He did not require the hunger, the ignorance, or chaos of humanity to demonstrate His glory. In His divinity and humanity, He demonstrates that He did not need the suffering of man to establish His sufficiency. Human suffering was never necessary from God’s perspective and for God’s purposes. It can be healed and used by Him, certainly; but God never needed to inflict it.
Our God is not a God who works by way of every catastrophe, every tragedy, and every atrocious misery; rather, he is one who works despite all of these symptoms of fallen humanity. Christianity is a story of redemption—and salvation—from the plunders of sin and death that had no part in God’s original will for us. When we accuse God of creating evil, we forget the age-old Christian belief of an ancient alienation from God that has marred creation in its inmost being, ripping us apart into shattered remains of the world He intended. But when we seek solace in our brokenness, there is none greater than knowing that in the death of a child, or the murder of a family, what we see is not the face of our God, but that of His enemy. And while we are indeed broken, it is because of His unquenchable love that He would not abandon his creatures to be enslaved by those powers and principalities that lead to death and destruction.
We need not make sense of suffering and misery in our fallen land because there is no sense to be made. When we set our eyes upon the multitudes of tragedies ravenously devouring the downtrodden history of mankind, God is not behind the scenes pulling the strings to some grander “glorious” scheme. He is embracing us, comforting us, and crying out with us in divine fury and anguish. He is trying every day, every minute, and every single moment in time to reconcile what is with what could have been. From His throne He rose and came to Earth as a man, reaching out not only his hand but also his body and his life, to every broken, to every fallen, to every hopeless human being, and has, will, and forevermore wipe away all their tears, all their sorrows, and all their pain, lying upon that terrible wonderful cross finally saying, “It is finished.”
The verdict? The Grand Inquisitor sets Christ free. The Inquisitor felt he no longer had jurisdiction over God, and that though he might have had valid judgment upon his initial perception of God, this God still deserved vindication.
D.K. ‘18 is a rising sophomore living in Lowell House. He likes snowboarding, sunrises, Rwandan gorillas, Russian literature, chili mangoes, and making jokes that are only funny to him.
- Latin: “I have spoken.” ↩