BY DANIEL T. GOMES
Few novels have chapters so rich and impacting they
can stand apart from the rest of the book, yet this
is precisely what has happened with the story of
“The Grand Inquisitor,” from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s final
novel, The Brothers Karamazov. In a shocking, unapologetic
tale, Dostoevsky expounds on one of the most baffling
questions ever put forth: “What would happen if Christ
came back to earth?”
The last book of famous Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, was able to both fascinate and influence some of the greatest minds of modern history, from Einstein to Freud and to Camus. Its thought-provoking plot
surrounding a dysfunctional family’s reunion and its consequences, together with the philosophical themes present in the story, continues to amaze readers to this day. Yet there is in this novel one chapter – or rather, part of one chapter – that has earned more than enough popularity to stand on its own feet and earn a name for itself. This is the story of “The Grand Inquisitor.”
The story comes up as two of the novel’s main characters, brothers Ivan and Alyosha Karamazov, get to truly know each other over dinner after several years of separation. Ivan, a nihilist, confronts Alyosha, a devout Christian and a novice at the local monastery, about the latter’s yearning to find out whether the former believes in God or not. Ivan explains his struggle with the problem of evil and suffering in the world, concluding that he cannot bring himself to align with a deity that would allow His creation to endure so much pain and injustice. In response, Alyosha reminds his brother of Christ’s sacrifice, who painfully and unjustly died for mankind’s sins. Ivan, however, is not surprised with the answer, and thus presents his “poem” in order to prove his point.
Ivan begins the story with Christ coming to earth in human form once more at the height of the Spanish Inquisition, eventually arriving to Seville. Common people recognize the Christ as He makes His way to the cathedral. Christ begins to perform miracles much like he did in the Gospels, including raising the dead; the Grand Inquisitor witnesses this and, rather than openly acknowledge Christ as Lord, he has Him arrested by his guards.
Later that night, the Grand Inquisitor appears to the incarcerated Christ. What follows is a long, vicious tirade from the Inquisitor on Christ’s failure to make men truly happy by giving them freedom – a failure that the Inquisitor believes to have been finally corrected by the Church through the works of the Inquisition. The old Inquisitor goes on to explain how Satan’s temptations in the wilderness were actually opportunities for Jesus to establish His Kingdom on earth, and how by granting freedom in faith Christ imposed a burden far too heavy on mankind. The Inquisitor also claims he and others like him have taken upon themselves to guide the “thousands of millions” to earthly happiness, even if that may end in eternal death and destruction, and that he would not allow Christ to interfere with his work. All throughout this extensive
lecture, Jesus remains silent. His only response to the Inquisitor is a kiss that catches the old man off-guard; the Inquisitor then frees Him, telling Him to never come back.
Despite its ambiguous conclusion, “The Grand Inquisitor” remains one of the most emphatic and relevant tracts of Dostoevsky’s novel. It forces its readers to envision a peculiar version of the second coming of Christ, to step into the mind of this old clergyman and to carefully consider his rationale. Embracing themes such as free will, the fallen nature of man and suffering, the “poem” is celebrated by religious and secular readers alike to this day. Its poignant appeal and remarkable deliberations serve to make this story an essential part of our tenth issue, especially dedicated to historical works.