Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

It is has become commonplace to regard Ivan Karamazov’s “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor” as a prescient parable glorifying human freedom and defending it against the kind of totalitarian threats it would face in the twentieth century. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s angry atheist delivers an uncanny prophecy of the omnicompetent, freedom-denying state that would arise in his own native Russia. But concerning the liberty that is the only cure for state-sponsored oppression, Ivan is terribly wrong. The Christ of the Grand Inquisitor advocates an idea of freedom that Dostoevsky considered an abomination. It is linked to Ivan’s critique of God for allowing innocent suffering. For Dostoevsky, the problem of evil and the question of human liberty are profoundly joined: our answer to one quandary determines our answer to the other. Freedom and suffering are interstitial realities, as the Grand Inquisitor understands, even if he understands them wrongly.

Western readers of The Brothers Karamazov have remained virtually blind to Dostoevsky’s critique of the Grand Inquisitor. The reason, I believe, is that Ivan’s vision of human freedom is so very near to our own secular notion of liberty, and thus to our increasing relegation of the Christian gospel to the private sphere of mere preference. Though he was a student of Western Christianity and culture, Dostoevsky remained fundamentally Russian in his conception of God and the world, of good and evil, of the sacred and the secular. We cannot properly understand his treatment of these matters, therefore, until we grasp his Orthodox reading of them. Thus must we examine his parable of the Grand Inquisitor vis-à-vis the Orthodox doctrine of human freedom as being founded not on autonomous choice but on communal dependence on God.

Ivan Karamazov is no straw atheist. He gives voice to the philosophical problem of evil perhaps more clearly and cogently than any other speaker or actor, any other philosopher or theologian, in the whole of world literature. Yet he is also a very Russian atheist. He thinks with his solar plexus, as D. H. Lawrence might have said. He is passionately intellectual. Ivan does not pose the question of theodicy as a philosophical conundrum, as it is often posed in the West. From Leibniz through Hume, from Alvin Plantinga to J. L. Mackie, the problem of evil has often been cast in bare intellectual terms: how to think through the contradiction that stands between the goodness, omniscience, and omnipotence of God, on the one hand, and the massive misery and undeserved suffering that characterize God’s world, on the other. In J.B. , his dramatic contemporizing of the Job story, Archibald MacLeish puts the intellectual problem of evil tersely but accurately: “If God is good He is not God. If God is God He is not good.” If God is imbued with the charity which He Himself enjoins His creatures to live by, then He must lack the divine power to create and sustain a world in which such charity obtains: He is not God. If, by contrast, God possesses the sovereignty and strength to perform what He wills, then this misery-riddled world must be proof that He is deficient in love itself: He is not good. Ivan does not make his case against God’s goodness in this intellectualized fashion. He is not a philosophical thinker who abstracts ideas from experience in order to test their logical clarity and coherence. As Albert Camus observed, “Ivan really lives his problems.” They are matters, quite literally, of life and death, of eternal life and eternal death, of ultimate bliss or final misery. Ivan is willing to face the anguish and terror inherent not only in thinking but also in living without God.

As one who knows the truths of the heart, Ivan also knows that reason alone cannot fathom the deepest things. On the contrary, reason can be put to nefarious uses: “Reason is a scoundrel,” he confesses. Ivan is willing, therefore, to live “even . . . against logic.” Yet he is unwilling to live as a mindless vitalist, embracing life without much regard for its meaning and, even less, with a blithe disregard for its injustice. So huge are the world’s moral horrors, Ivan argues, that they undermine any notion of divine order and purpose. Hence Ivan’s truly wrenching quandary: Can he love life without believing that it has ultimate meaning—believing, instead, that it is godless and absurd? Ivan is young and strong. He brims with intellectual curiosity no less than bodily energy. He wants to travel to Europe and to learn its science and its history. As a good romantic, Ivan cites Schiller’s celebrated line about the “sticky little leaves” whose gummy unfolding in spring seems to signal the whole world’s rebirth. They remind Ivan of all that is precious in life, the glories of human love and natural splendor, the inward movement of all things toward life’s energizing center.

There is still an awful lot of centripetal force on our planet, Alyosha. I want to live, and I do live, even if it be against logic. Though I do not believe in the order of things, still the sticky little leaves that come out in the spring are dear to me, the blue sky is dear to me, some people are dear to me, whom one loves sometimes, would you believe it, without even knowing why; some human deeds are dear to me, which one has perhaps long ceased believing in, but still honors with one’s heart, out of old habit.

It is noteworthy that Ivan makes this confession to his young brother Alyosha just after he has broken off relations with Katerina Ivanovna. Ivan feels as free and light as the air. Living in this detached and uncommitted—indeed, this almost angelic—state, Ivan makes qualifications that are altogether as important as his affirmations. Though he wants to drink life to the lees, he confesses that only “some people” and only “some human deeds” are dear to him, and that he loves them only “sometimes.” Ivan deliberately denies the teaching of Father Zosima, the head of an Orthodox monastery who also stands at the religious center of the novel. Father Zosima insists that love cannot be selective, that it must be at once universal and concrete, that we must not love those who are conveniently remote so much as those who are inconveniently near. Already, it is evident, the philosophical and the religious arguments are linked. Ivan not only thinks but also lives in autonomous and anti-communal terms. It is precisely the neighbor whom we cannot love, he insists. The neighbor’s objective and objectionable otherness—his bad breath, his foolish face, his ill manners—threaten Ivan’s sovereign selfhood. Of such a neighbor, Ivan complains like an early Jean-Paul Sartre that “he is another and not me.” Despite his eager embrace of the world, therefore, Ivan wants to remain a solitary and transcendent judge over it, a godlike withholder no less than a gracious giver of praise. Others must satisfy his own criteria before he will embrace them. And because God does not satisfy the requirements of Ivan’s logic, he will not believe in God.

Yet Ivan’s logic is not sophomoric. He makes a strenuous case against God’s goodness. He refuses, for example, to cite the many natural calamities—typhoons and tornadoes, floods and droughts, fires and earthquakes and disease—that seem to disclose a ham-fisted Creator. Ivan knows that such cosmic evils might be attributed to a natural process that is divinely ordered. Like Job, he might discover that, while the natural order seems inimical to human happiness, its operations might have their own purposes, not revealing any divine hostility toward human well-being. But Ivan is not vexed chiefly with natural evils. He cares about moral evils, about the crimes that we human creatures commit. The standard explanation of such moral evils is that they are the unfortunate consequence of human freedom. God’s uncoerced creatures, so the argument runs, are capable of grossly misusing their liberty. If God were to prevent evil human actions, His world would no longer be free.

Ivan subjects the standard free-will defense of the divine goodness to devastating critique. At best, he says, the free perversion of human will explains only the suffering of adults, the grown-ups who are accountable for the evils that they both cause and suffer. They have eaten the apple of knowledge, says Ivan. Because they have followed the demonic temptation to become “as gods,” they deserve their self-wrought misery. What this standard theodicy cannot account for, Ivan maintains, is the agony of children whose wills are still innocent. That their suffering results from human cruelty more than natural mishap makes it all the more horrible. As Ivan notices, animals rarely torment their prey. Only our human kind derives erotic pleasure from its savagery, becoming virtual voluptuaries of cruelty. In a passage that would have made even the Marquis de Sade tremble, Ivan declares the awful allurement of unprotected innocence. “It is precisely the defenselessness of these creatures that tempts the torturers, the angelic trustfulness of the child, who has nowhere to turn and no one to turn to—that is what enflames the vile blood of the torturer.”

Ivan offers searing examples of such wanton and motiveless malignity. Indeed, he creates a virtual phantasmagoria of suffering from actual instances of human barbarity that he has read about in Russian newspapers: Turkish soldiers cutting babies from their mother’s wombs and throwing them in the air in order to impale them on their bayonets; enlightened parents stuffing their five-year-old daughter’s mouth with excrement and locking her in a freezing privy all night for having wet the bed, while they themselves sleep soundly; Genevan Christians teaching a naive peasant to bless the good God even as the poor dolt is beheaded for thefts and murders that his ostensibly Christian society caused him to commit; a Russian general, offended at an eight-year-old boy for accidentally hurting the paw of the officer’s dog, inciting his wolfhounds to tear the child to pieces; a lady and gentleman flogging their eight-year-old daughter with a birch-rod until she collapses while crying for mercy, “Papa, papa, dear papa.”

Such evils cannot be justified, Ivan argues, either by religious arguments based on history’s beginning or by secular arguments that look to its end. The Edenic exercise of free will is not worth the tears of even one little girl shivering all night in a privy and crying out from her excrement-filled mouth to “dear, kind God” for protection. Yet neither will Ivan accept the Hegelian-Marxist thesis that the harmonious final outcome of history sublates its present evils. The notion that such savagery reveals the necessary consequences of human freedom or that it contributes to history’s ultimate result is, to Ivan, a moral and religious outrage. Neither is he any more satisfied with the conventional doctrine of hell, which holds that the monsters of torment will themselves be eternally tormented. Hellish punishment for heinous malefactors would not restore their victims, Ivan reminds us. The impaled babies would not be brought back to life nor would their mothers be consoled, the dismembered boy would not live out his years, the weeping girls would not be comforted. Ivan rejects all such theodicies because they belittle innocent suffering and thus commit unforgivable sacrilege against innocent sufferers. With a dramatic metaphor drawn again from Schiller, he refuses to offer his hosanna for such a world: he returns his ticket to such a life.

Ivan’s brief against belief is intellectually unanswerable. Dostoevsky makes no attempt to provide such an answer anywhere in the course of the novel. He concedes that there is no logical justification for the suffering of innocents. Yet this is hardly to say that there are no theological answers to Ivan. It is rather to say that they will be found, if at all, elsewhere than in abstract argument; they will be located in the realm of religion and politics and the everyday requirements of true freedom. In seeking to embody such answers in living form, Dostoevsky offers the figures of Zosima and Alyosha as his religious counters to Ivan’s atheist revolt. The most notable fact about the monastic elder and his young disciple is that, unlike Ivan, they are not Euclidean men. They believe that, in the most important matters, parallel lines do indeed meet. Things counter can converge because the deepest truths are not univocal but analogical and paradoxical. Theirs is not a three-dimensional block universe but rather a layered cosmos containing multiple orders of being. For Zosima and Alyosha, the material and immaterial worlds are never distant and remote from each other, as in much of Western thought. The created and uncreated realms are deeply intertwined, each participating in the life of the other.

Ivan remains opaque to this interstitial cosmos that calls for interstitial discernment. Dostoevsky describes it as proniknovenie, an “intuitive seeing through” or a “spiritual penetration.” Such theological sight is the product not of any special intelligence but of the iconic imagination. The icons of Eastern Orthodoxy are produced by a theology of presence rather than one of representation. God’s own splendor is said to radiate through the icon, confronting worshipers with the experience of Uncreated Light. The icon is not an image that one looks at in order to discern an earthly image of something holy, in an attempt to portray the invisible in visible terms. Nor is it an expression of the artist’s own subjective experience of the sacred. Rather the icon looks out at the beholder. It seeks to open up the eternal realm so that its light might shine forth. Icons do not seek to embody a discarnate world, but rather to reveal an earthly world that has been rendered transparent by a spiritualization that embraces the entire cosmos. Worshipers are themselves transformed by the invisible light that emanates from the icon, penetrating to the depths of their being and forming their true personhood. At Zosima’s funeral, Alyosha has such a transfiguring experience of this mystical touching of the visible and invisible worlds. It prompts him to repeat the example of his dead master in an iconic gesture of prostration:

Filled with rapture, his soul yearned for freedom, space, vastness. Over him the heavenly dome, full of quiet, shining stars, hung boundlessly. From the zenith to the horizon the still-dim Milky Way stretched its double strand. Night, fresh and quiet, almost unstirring, enveloped the earth. The white towers and golden domes of the church gleamed in the sapphire sky. The luxuriant autumn flowers in the flowerbeds near the house had fallen asleep until morning. The silence of the earth seemed to merge with the silence of the heavens, the mystery of the earth to be touched by the mystery of the stars. . . . Alyosha stood gazing and suddenly, as if he had been cut down, he threw himself to the earth. . . . It was as if threads from all those innumerable worlds of God all came together in his soul, and it was trembling all over, “touching other worlds.” He wanted to forgive everyone for everything, and to ask forgiveness, oh, not for himself! but for all and for everything, “as others are asking for me,” rang in his soul.

Ivan is blind to this iconic joining of the earthly and heavenly realms, perhaps because he is also blind to the Orthodox understanding of human personhood. After all, he is a man obsessed with Western ideas. Yet Ivan is not a rationalist, as is often said, but rather a thinker who wants to disjoin his thought from its rightful engagement with God and the world. He lives a dichotomous life. Ivan’s mind is even more severely perverted than his will. He fails to discern, for example, that the doctrine of immortality concerns not only the life that is transfigured in the world to come, but also the life that is meant to be transformed within this world. To use the language of St. Paul found in 1 Corinthians 15 and that of John’s Gospel contained in the novel’s epigraph, mortality is meant to put on immortality, the dying seed to bring forth much fruit. To become immortal is to become a unique and unrepeatable person who has been perfected in both loving and being loved.

Ivan’s contention that no one can truly love others as he loves himself is linked, therefore, to his denial of immortality. Ivan holds, as we have seen, that other persons stand like dense Euclidean clumps to block the path of his own autonomy. So long as we are confined within the realm of mere human possibility, Dostoevsky is agreed with Ivan. He despised the soupy benevolence that pervaded much of nineteenth-century European and American culture. “Those who love men in general,” he often said, “hate men in particular.” Yet he also insisted that Christ’s kenosis—the divine self—emptying hymned in Philippians 2—can accomplish what is humanly impossible: the emptying of human egoism for the sake of true charity. Through this kenotic love that Zosima and his disciple Alyosha both embody, one actually becomes a person by becoming another self—not an Ego but a Thou, a person who exists only in self—giving solidarity with Christ and thereby with others.

When personhood is measured in this kenotic manner, Alyosha can be seen as a credible character, rather than the ghostly and gossamer creature he is often accused of being. Unlike Ivan, Alyosha does not clip newspaper accounts of suffering children and then offer anti-theological arguments about them; instead, he actually seeks out the insulted and injured, identifying himself with them. He joins faith with practice, thinking with doing, thus answering the problem of evil with deeds rather than reasons—with his whole personhood, not with his mind alone. Through his patient and long-suffering friendships with children, Alyosha helps redeem the pathetic Ilyusha Snegirov, even as he also helps to set the nihilistic Kolya Krassotkin on the path to new life. Alyosha pulls these boys out of their misery only at great cost to himself. Dostoevsky makes clear in the novel’s final scene, when the youths gather to cheer Alyosha as if he were their savior, that he is a true icon of Christ, a man through whom the invisible light of eternity brightly shines. Yet Alyosha deflects all praise away from himself and toward Christ. As the only man who has suffered absolutely everything, says Alyosha, Christ alone has the right to forgive absolutely everything—even the tormentors of children. Yet Alyosha’s mere mention of the “only sinless One” so enrages Ivan that he comes forth with his “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor.”

Ivan’s parable appears to be an assault on the character of Jesus, when its real target is humanity itself. Though he professes to love “some men,” Ivan can no more give himself to other persons than he can grant the existence of God. For Dostoevsky, the one follows from the other: one cannot scorn the love of God and still love human beings. Ivan ends as a misanthrope, I maintain, because he has a modern secular conception of freedom that is incapable of fulfillment except by monstrous supermen.

The plot of Ivan’s legend is familiar enough, even if its meaning remains quite obscure. The risen Christ returns to earth in fifteenth-century Seville, where he immediately begins to perform miracles. The people hail him as their liberator from the awful autos da fé that the Spanish Inquisition is carrying out. Jesus is quickly arrested by the church authorities and imprisoned in a dimly lit dungeon. There the ninety-year-old Cardinal Grand Inquisitor relentlessly grills the silent Christ. This ancient church-ogre accuses Jesus of having required men to live by the strength of their strong wills, cruelly ignoring the fact that they are impotent creatures who can live only for the sake of a swinish happiness. The Inquisitor thus upbraids Christ for having rejected the Tempter’s wilderness offerings of bread and power and fame. These, he says, are the satisfying substitutes that human beings crave. They do not want the awful autonomy that Christ allegedly commanded:

Instead of taking over men’s freedom, you increased it still more for them! Did you forget that peace and even death are dearer to man than free choice in the knowledge of good and evil? There is nothing more seductive for man than the freedom of his conscience, but there is nothing more tormenting either. And so, instead of a firm foundation for appeasing human conscience once and for all, you chose everything that was unusual, enigmatic, and indefinite, you chose everything that was beyond men’s strength, and thereby acted as if you did not love them at all . . . . You desired the free love of man, that he should follow you freely, seduced and captivated by you. Instead of the firm and ancient law, man had henceforth to decide for himself, with a free heart, what is good and what is evil, having only your image before him as a guide.

It is astonishing that so many readers have taken the Grand Inquisitor’s conception of freedom as if it were Dostoevsky’s own—and also as if it were true. Camus regarded it as an unprecedented statement of the human cry for liberty against all religious restraints. Camus can make such a claim only because, together with Ivan, he embraces the thoroughly secular conception of freedom that has largely prevailed in the modern West, from John Stuart Mill to John Dewey and John Rawls. Ivan’s Inquisitor belongs to their lineage. Liberty, he declares, entails a brave and lonely autonomy, as each individual determines for himself the difference between good and evil. Jesus serves not as the savior who redeems corporate humanity from sin, therefore, but as a moral example to guide solitary and heroic individuals—having himself trod the same lonely path of self-determination.

Michael Sandel has shown what is problematic about this notion of freedom as consisting entirely of unfettered choices. Such choices are prompted by nothing other than the individual subject and his private conscience acting either on persuasive evidence or the arbitrary assertion of will. Just as this modern secular self is not determined by any larger aims or attachments that it has not chosen for itself, neither does it have obligations to any larger communities, except those it autonomously chooses to join. The one moral norm, it follows, is the injunction to respect the dignity of others by not denying them the freedom to exercise their own moral autonomy. Such an understanding of human liberty, argues Sandel, opposes

any view that regards us as obligated to fulfill ends that we have not chosen-ends given by nature or God, for example, or by our identities as members of families, peoples, cultures, or traditions. Encumbered identities such as these are at odds with the liberal conception of [persons] as free and independent selves, unbound by prior moral ties, capable of choosing our ends for ourselves. This is the conception that finds expression in the ideal of the state as a neutral framework . . . a framework of rights that refuses to choose among competing values and ends. For the liberal self, what matters above all, what is most essential to our personhood, is not the ends we choose but our capacity to choose them.

Dostoevsky repeatedly attacked this modern secular notion of freedom and personhood, dismissing it scornfully as “socialism.” Astounded by the Inquisitor’s similar idea of liberty as absolute autonomy, Alyosha cries out to Ivan: “And who will believe you about freedom? . . . Is that the way to understand it? It’s a far cry from the Orthodox idea.” It’s also a far cry from the Jewish and Catholic and classical Protestant ideas of freedom. In all four traditions, we are not made into free persons by becoming autonomous selves who have been immunized from all obligations that we have not independently chosen. Our freedom resides rather in becoming communal selves who freely embrace our moral, religious, and political obligations. These responsibilities come to us less by our own choosing than through a thickly webbed network of shared friendships and familial ties, through political practices and religious promises. In a very real sense, such “encumbrances” choose us before we choose them. There is no mythical free and autonomous self that exists apart from these ties. There are only gladly or else miserably bound persons—namely, persons who find their duties and encumbrances to be either gracious or onerous.

Alyosha’s idea of freedom is communal because it is first of all religious. Athanasius of Alexandria articulated it most clearly in the fourth century: “God became man so that man may become God.” The central Orthodox doctrine is called theosis or theopoesis—the divinizing or deifying of humanity. The Eastern Church does not call for believers to imitate Jesus through the exercise of moral choice. It summons them rather to participate in the life of Christ through the transformative power of the liturgy and sacraments of the Church. To become persons in the true sense is to become what the New Testament calls “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). The modern secular notion of freedom articulated by the Grand Inquisitor is the very definition of slavery. As Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky observes, the Eastern Church regards choice as the mark not of freedom but of fallenness, as a debasement of true liberty, as a loss of the divine likeness: “Our nature being overclouded with sin no longer knows its true good . . . and so the human person is always faced with the necessity of choice; it goes forward gropingly.” To deliberate autonomously in the face of alternatives, it follows, is not liberty but servitude. True freedom, says Lossky, is revealed in the Christ who freely renounces his own will in order to accomplish the will of his Father. Alyosha is free in precisely this way. Jesus has not abandoned him to his lonely conscience in order to let him solitarily determine good and evil for himself. The self-emptying Christ has freed Alyosha to empty his own ego, to live and act in joyful obedience to God, and thus to be bound in unbreakable solidarity with his father and brothers, with his friends and enemies, and (not least of all) with the miserable children of his neighborhood.

Given the Grand Inquisitor’s anti-Orthodox conception of freedom as unencumbered self-determining choice, it is not surprising that he should have contempt for the average run of men. He despises their dependence, their animal desire for security and comfort. The Inquisitor thus informs Jesus that the Catholic Church has been forced to correct his impossible summons to autonomy. Rome understands, says the Inquisitor, what Christ did not—that men must first be fed before they can be made virtuous. “Make us your slaves,” the Inquisitor’s masses cry out, “but feed us.” Thus has the cynical church of the Grand Inquisitor replaced Christ’s purported call for unfettered autonomy with its own sheepish substitutes: “miracle, mystery, and authority.” Yet even these sorry placebos will not finally suffice, the Inquisitor insists, for the modern world will confront men with such scientific wonders and terrors that the vast human horde will not be content even with comfort and security. They will finally demand the antheap of personal oblivion, in order that they might be relieved of their freedom. They want only to live in childish self-indulgence:

Freedom, free reason, and science will lead them into such a maze, and confront them with such . . . insoluble mysteries, that some of them, unruly and ferocious, will exterminate themselves; others, unruly but feeble, will exterminate each other; and the remaining third, feeble and wretched, will crawl to our feet and cry out to us: “Yes, you were right, you alone possess his mystery, and we are coming back to you—save us from ourselves.” . . . Yes, we will make them work, but in the hours free from labor we will arrange their lives like a children’s game, with children’s songs, choruses, and innocent dancing.

Inverting the gospel entirely, the Grand Inquisitor declares that only the Master Managers like himself will suffer. Yet these new secular christs of the omnicompetent state will bear their torment heroically. Knowing their totalitarian paternalism to be a gargantuan lie, they nonetheless retain the courage to feed it to the gullible millions: “For only we, we who keep the mystery, only we shall be unhappy. There will be thousands of millions of happy babes, and a hundred thousand sufferers who have taken upon themselves the curse of the knowledge of good and evil. Peacefully [these multiplied millions] will die; peacefully will they expire in [Christ’s] name, and beyond the grave they will find only death. But we will keep the secret, and for their own happiness we will entice them with a heavenly and eternal reward.”

This final prophecy of the Grand Inquisitor is perhaps the most frightening augury in the entirety of Dostoevsky’s work. With amazing prescience, he foresees the rise of the totalitarian state that has dominated much of late-modern life, killing more people by violent means than in all of the previous ages combined. This is the era of blood, and ours is the culture of death. That Dostoevsky mistakenly linked our calamity with the Catholic Church, and that he did not foresee its first triumph in his own beloved Russia, hardly invalidates his vision. On the contrary, Dostoevsky was right to prophesy that, if we begin (as Ivan does) with absolute anti-communal freedom, we will end (again as Ivan does) with absolute anti-communal slavery, whether in its individualist or its totalitarian form. Were Dostoevsky living at this hour, he might well ask whether the American reduction of nearly every aspect of human existence, including religion itself, to either entertainment or commodification constitutes a yet worse kind of herd-existence than the one Ivan describes—a subtler and therefore deadlier attempt to relieve humanity of its suffering and sin, and thus of its real character and interest.

Given Ivan’s horrifying vision of this grim and Christless future, it is not surprising that Alyosha regards Ivan’s “poem” as praising Jesus rather than reviling him. Yet Alyosha does not commend the Christ of the parable because he commands autonomous self-determination as the answer to a totalizing politics of oppression. Rather, the Jesus of Ivan’s legend is to be praised because his silence indicates his patient confidence that evil will eventually undo itself, and that Ivan is to be embraced rather than condemned in his concern for the suffering of innocents.

Ivan had in fact ended his parable by having the silent Savior gently kiss the Inquisitor on “his bloodless, ninety-year-old lips.” Alyosha instantly recognizes that Ivan’s imagination was groping for the profoundest of all truths—that nothing other than God’s self—emptying love can answer bitter unbelief. To bring home the point, Alyosha repeats Christ’s act: he kisses the tormented Ivan. It’s another Russian iconic gesture of humility and submission, and it calls for a recompensing kiss of humble recognition and identification. Ivan will not grant it, for then he, too, would be called to embrace the same kenotic suffering and joy that imbue Alyosha’s entire life. Instead, Ivan dismisses Alyosha’s act as mere plagiarism. Ivan must rid himself of this Christ“like gesture that is the real answer to human agony. It is appropriate, therefore, that the Inquisitor’s final command to the truth—gesturing Christ who kissed him is not Maranatha, but “Go and do not come again . . . do not come at all . . . never, never!”

Alyosha, as Christ’s earthly embodiment, will not depart. Instead, he confronts Ivan with the moral and religious consequence of his atheism. If God is dead, Alyosha famously declares, “everything is permitted.” We must not misread Alyosha here. He does not deny that men can be moral without believing in God. He insists, instead, that such morality has no ultimate basis, that freedom understood as self-construction hovers over an abyss of nihilism, and thus that all godless peoples and cultures await their inexorable plunge into the barbaric void. The first epistle of John defines sin precisely as lawlessness. Ellis Sandoz observes that John of Damascus, the eighth-century Greek theologian, linked this definition of sin to the larger claim that barbarism is the primal heresy: “Every man as independent and a law unto himself after the dictates of his own will.”

Dostoevsky regards individualist autonomy not only as barbaric but also as satanic. Perhaps the chief of Ivan’s demonic deceptions is the widespread acceptance of the Inquisitor’s argument that “miracle, mystery, and authority” are pathetic necessities for weak-willed men. Just as Ivan misreads freedom to mean unencumbered self-determination, so does the Inquisitor pervert the meaning of miracle, mystery, and authority. Nowhere in the novel does God perform miracles by jumping in and out of His creation like a divine factotum who accedes to human petition if it is sufficiently pious. It is exactly such a sentimental and superstitious understanding of miracles-namely, as God’s arbitrary violation of the natural order to heed clamant human request-that Alyosha is required to surrender. Hoping that Zosima’s corpse would be wondrously preserved, giving off the sweet odor of sanctity, Alyosha is horrified when it putrefies prematurely. The saint’s rapidly rotting body demonstrates to Alyosha that God is not a sacred Santa Claus who brings him whatever he wants. In the “Cana in Galilee” chapter, Alyosha learns that miracles do not precede and thus produce faith; rather, they follow faith as the by-product of the transformed life. That Alyosha can kiss the earth and bless the creation despite its rampant suffering, that he can live as a monk in a sex-sodden world, that he can increase men’s joy amidst human misery as Christ increased it by turning water into wedding wine—this, he learns, is the true miracle: the divine possibility that overcomes human impossibility.

Like a brittle Enlightenment philosophe, perhaps a Diderot or a Comte, the Inquisitor also slanders mystery. He reduces it to a cynical mystification, to a new secular priestcraft, a political anesthetizing of the masses with the morphine of heaven. “For only we, we . . . keep the mystery,” he boasts. For him, mystery can be hoarded as a weapon in his arsenal of deceit, as a spiritual poison gas meant to blind true vision and stifle true thought. For Alyosha and all other believers, by contrast, the mysterion enlivens such vision and thought. It’s a word that can also be translated sacrament. The mystery of God is thus not a riddle or a conundrum, not a brain-straining puzzle; it is the one reality that prompts an endless delectation of mind no less than heart and soul. “In the proper religious sense of the term,” writes Orthodox bishop Kallistos Ware, “‘mystery’ signifies not only hiddenness but disclosure . . . . A mystery is . . . something revealed for our understanding, but which we never understand exhaustively because it leads into the depth or the darkness of God.”

Perversely, if also consistently, Ivan has the Inquisitor voice a skewed understanding of authority. He regards it as the tyrannical power of the state or the church to suppress individual autonomy. For him, authority can have only the negative meaning of raw coercive force. For Alyosha, again in notable contrast to the Inquisitor, true authority (both human and divine) invites free submission of the will for the sake of the good-submission to the rightly constituted state, to his elder Zosima, to the incarnate Christ, to the merciful God. Free subjection of the will begins in penitence, as when Zosima confesses that all men are sinners and that he is the worst. It ends in the acceptance, even the embrace, of suffering.

Perhaps the novel’s chief irony is that Ivan has turned rightful religious concern for injured innocents into wrongful personal justification of his own hatred and scorn. Claiming to care about the world’s innocent sufferers, Ivan cannot care for the creature who is his own closest kin, his father. In a nightmare interview with the Devil, Ivan is made to recognize his own moral culpability for his father’s death. He had poisoned Smerdyakov’s mind with the demonic gospel that God is dead and that all things are permitted. Acting out what Ivan had intellectually advocated, Smerdyakov has killed old Fyodor in a dreadful demonstration that, in a godless world, absolutely nothing is forbidden. Since Satan is the primal deceiver, it is no wonder that Ivan has been made into his agent. Dostoevsky maintains that demonic perversions of mind are no mere intellectual failings: they issue in demonic perversions of will. Philosophical deicide results in existential parricide. The mental killing of God breaks the deepest of human bonds. It is thus fitting that Ivan the perverted intellectual should end in madness.

Yet Ivan’s final insanity is not to be explained as psychosis alone. In the Orthodox tradition, to deny the presence and reality of God is to be subject to a psychopathic condition. Not sharing the Western doctrine of original sin, the Orthodox hold that every person retains an efficacious awareness of God, even after the Fall. “Just because it is light,” writes Vladimir Lossky, “grace, the source of revelation, cannot remain within us unperceived. We are incapable of not being aware of God, if our nature is in proper spiritual health. Insensibility [to God] in the inner life is an abnormal condition.” Lossky adds, far more darkly, that total unawareness of God “would be nothing other than hell, the final destruction of the person.” It follows that Zosima is not a golden-hearted humanist when he defines hell as “the suffering of being unable to love.” He is describing Ivan’s spiritual condition exactly. Ivan suffers the hellish laceration of the soul that occurs when freedom is exercised negatively—not to engender life but to bring death. “Death for a person,” declares Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas, “means ceasing to love and to be loved, ceasing to be unique and unrepeatable, whereas life for the person means the survival of the uniqueness of its hypostasis [personification], which is affirmed and maintained by love.”

To possess true freedom and personhood through love is, in Dostoevsky’s view, to suffer rightly. It is to accept responsibility, not only for one’s own sin, but also for the sins of others. All theodicies fail if they do not recognize that only the embrace of innocent suffering can answer the infliction of innocent suffering. One who is willing to suffer for Christ’s sake must be willing, moreover, to suffer fools. Father Zosima exhibits such foolish suffering when, early in the novel, he makes a low bow of humility before the cruel buffoon who is old Fyodor Karamazov. It is an act utterly unlike the abstentions practiced by Nietzsche’s Übermensch. The Overman is akin to a lion who has claws but refrains from using them. He doesn’t show mercy so much as he seeks to humiliate the weaklings of the world with his contemptuous self-restraint. Though having the rightful authority to condemn the despicable old lecher, Zosima gestures forth his solidarity with Fyodor in bowing down before him. Unlike the Overman, Zosima identifies himself with the wretched creature. He knows that old Fyodor has become a buffoon, in large part, because everyone regards him as a fool. In secret pride and contempt for others, he fulfills their scornful judgment. Zosima refuses such judgment. He humbles himself before the despicable Fyodor, discerning in him the divine image and likeness: a person meant for agapeistic community rather than buffoonish autonomy. For Dostoevsky, the gospel of suffering in communal love is the only lasting answer to the perennial problem of evil and thus to the perennial question of human freedom. It is a gospel peculiar neither to East nor West because it is centered in the common Christian ground of the Incarnation, Cross, and Resurrection.

Ralph C. Wood is University Professor of Theology and Literature at Baylor University.

Image by Wikimedia Commons licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift