Christ vs. the Grand Inquisitor

Many argue that human history is cyclical. The saying, “those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” assumes that history is cyclical by default; this is true despite the postmodern ethos of amoral progression. Even those who are renowned for dismissing “slippery slope” arguments have a conditioned fear of somehow finding themselves back in 1930s Germany (or whichever historical crisis they’d prefer).

When one looks at the various public discourses between traditionalists, conservatives, liberals, and libertarians, one can make out the recognition of looming crisis somewhere on the horizon. This state of anxiety is intrinsically (but not necessarily) linked to our fallen state, theologically speaking. As a result, since theology and anthropology are connected as per incarnational thinking, we are quick to fall back on the fallenness of this world. We place far too much trust in man’s ability to engineer our movement instead of trusting in an organic marriage between the Creator and humanity. Here, an illustration is needed to clarify this issue.

Behind this paradoxical fear of return or progression lies the worship of the Grand Inquisitor as portrayed in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov. In that novel, two brothers, the young believer Alexei and the older atheist Ivan, spar over the topics of power, evil, and God’s existence. Ivan presents a poem to Alexei that questions the existence of a benevolent God. The poem narrates a story from the height of the Spanish Inquisition and is centered around Christ confronted by an ominous figure called the Grand Inquisitor.

One of the first things that Ivan points out to Alexei is that the figure of Christ, in his poem, is entirely silent. He returns to Earth, enters Seville, and starts healing the blind and the sick, and after resurrecting a girl, is immediately arrested by the Cardinal Grand Inquisitor. Throughout all of this, Christ is treated as a silent specter who attracts people by an “invisible force.” But when He is arrested, the masses disperse, proving that the crowd is always at the mercy of those with the power of compulsion.

As one man the crowd immediately bows to the ground before the aged Inquisitor, who silently blesses the people and moves on.1

In prison, the Inquisitor says to Christ that he will have to burn him at the stake. He continues:

“Was it not you who so often said then: ‘I want to make you free?’
“Know, then, that now, precisely now, these people are more certain than ever before that they are completely free, and at the same time they themselves have brought us their freedom and obediently laid it at our feet.”2

Is it possible that human beings would demand less freedom and more authoritarianism? History is replete with examples that this is the case. The recent COVID-19 pandemic showed us how human beings are willing to snitch out their neighbors for the sake of “safety” as designated by institutions and their PR firms. The so-called dissidents are no exception. Nick Fuentes recently stated that he would rather live in a moral, “Christian” society and have less freedom. One wonders whether he’d be okay with lockdowns and compulsory vaccinations operating under a Christian veneer.

The existentialist Berdyaev writes:

In the Grand Inquisitor’s system self-will leads to the negation and loss of freedom of spirit, which can be found again in Christ alone. Dostoievsky’s way of setting this out is most admirable. His Christ is a shadowy figure who says nothing all the time: efficacious religion does not explain itself, the principle of religion cannot be expressed in words; but the principle of compulsion puts its case very freely indeed.3

This shadowy Christ haunts the Grand Inquisitor much like how humanity today is haunted by the revelatory Gospel of Jesus. The Inquisitor repeatedly attempts to justify his actions as something humans need for the greater good of their continued existence. But one senses that the Inquisitor overexposes himself and, therefore, tells on his own unbelief, which makes his position outright hypocritical and ridiculous.

Berdyaev continues:

In the end, truth springs from the contradictions in the ideas of the Grand Inquisitor, it stands out clearly among all the considerations that he marshals against it. He argues and persuades; he is a master of logic and he is single-mindedly set on the carrying out of a definite plan; but our Lord’s silence is stronger and more convincing.4

The Inquisitor argues that in refusing to turn stones into bread (Matthew 4:4) Christ increased mankind’s suffering tenfold. If a thousand stepped up to Christ’s high standard of humanity, what would become of the millions of others who are unable to endure the suffering that comes with foregoing bread and choosing freedom over necessity? The Inquisitor here proves to be a precursor to the Antichrist whilst channeling modern-day socialists in demanding the feeding of the masses at the expense of liberty.

The tension between liberty and necessity has haunted us since that deicidal event at Calvary. No great leader or philosopher seems to have found a cathartic solution to it. Churches, proclaiming the freedom of Christ, have found it difficult to safeguard liberty throughout history. The New Right, with its church-militant undertones, is just the latest iteration of the church being tempted by power. After all, the “bread” that the Inquisitor mentions repeatedly can also be the simplest thing as social and individual differentiation. As a result, we are confronted with this question: Is it appropriate to achieve good ends by evil means?

The Orthodox elder Justin Popovich answers:

All is new in the God-man and because of Him. He Himself is first, followed by salvation, the teaching regarding salvation, and the means of salvation. And the God-man’s message for the human race is uniquely new: Let us separate sin from the sinner, let us hate sin but love the sinner, let us kill sin yet save the sinner. Do not equate the sinner with the sin. Do not put the sinner to death because of sin. Save him from sin! A striking example of this is the woman found entangled in adultery. The all-merciful Savior separated her sin from her existence in the image and likeness of God. He condemned the sin but had mercy on the sinner. ‘I do not condemn; go and sin no more’ (John 8: 11). This is the Orthodox method of recovery, established as dogma, in the task of saving the sinner from sin. This method of Holy Tradition, developed in accordance with the wisdom of God and established in the Orthodox Church by the Holy Fathers, has been expressed in accordance with the Spirit of God by St. Symeon the New Theologian: ‘The good is not good when no good results.’
In the light of this sacred, evangelical Orthodox Tradition it is an atrocity, contrary to the Gospel and anti-Christ, to kill a sinner because he has sinned. Accordingly, there is no ‘holy inquisition’ that can be proclaimed as holy.5

One could object here that the question of liberty and power is not quite black and white in terms of morality. Berdyaev, however, makes the opposite claim. He writes:

A divine truth panoplied in power, triumphant over the world and conquering souls, would not be consonant with the freedom of man’s spirit, and so the mystery of Golgotha is the mystery of liberty; the Son of God had to be crucified by the princes of this world in order that human freedom might be established and emphasized. The act of faith is an act of liberty, the world’s unconstrained recognition of unseen things. Christ the Son of God, sitting at the right hand of the Father, can be seen only by a free act of faith, and he who so believes will witness the resurrection of the Crucified in glory. But the unbeliever, obsessed by the world of visible things, sees only the shameful punishment of a carpenter called Jesus, the downfall of one who had thought himself to be divine truth itself. There lies the whole secret of Christianity, and every time in history that man has tried to turn crucified Truth into coercive truth he has betrayed the fundamental principle of Christ.6

But compulsion works, doesn’t it? That would’ve been true if we were living in a pre-Christian world. The Calvary event has changed the trajectory of history to the point of no return. Now, every historical event that involves compulsion of some kind is automatically viewed through the lens of Jesus’ crucifixion, whether we claim to be religious or not. The Inquisitions, the massacre of Native Americans, slavery, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and every other violent event are looked upon with regret and shame. Even if compulsion worked, we, like the Grand Inquisitor, would be inwardly tormented and running for every kind of rationalization to justify our actions. But in the end, just like the fugitive Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment, we would have no choice but to turn ourselves in.

Ivan considers ending his poem with this:

When the Inquisitor fell silent, he waited some time for his prisoner to reply. His silence weighed on him. He had seen how the captive listened to him all the while intently and calmly, looking him straight in the eye, and apparently not wishing to contradict anything. The old man would have liked him to say something, even something bitter, terrible. But suddenly he approaches the old man in silence and gently kisses him on his bloodless, ninety-year-old lips. That is the whole answer. The old man shudders. Something stirs at the corners of his mouth; he walks to the door, opens it, and says to him: “Go and do not come again at all do not come never, never!” And he lets him out into the dark squares of the city.7

This ending to Ivan’s poem leaves Alexei bewildered, but we the reader can appreciate the atheist’s irony, that the nonviolent kiss of Christ would be the only appropriate response to such a tyrannical figure. The response of the Inquisitor is accurate in the sense that absolute power simply has no rational answer in the face of self-sacrificial compassion. Maybe the solution to the tension between liberty and power lies not in the anxiety-ridden discussions of cyclical power-grabbing and persecution. Maybe the trajectory of history is neither cyclical nor progressive but ascendant despite our resistance. The answer may lie in the deserted, dark squares of the city where Christ has been exiled. Regardless, it is clear that our faith in God cannot escape a careful consideration of our faith in humanity. The incarnation of Christ was revealed to us for precisely this reason.

1. The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky; translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky.
2. Ibid.
3. Dostoievsky: An Interpretation, Nikolai Berdyaev; translated by Donald Attwater.
4. Ibid.
5. Orthodox Faith & Life in Christ, Father Justin Popovich; translated by Asterios Gerostergios.
6. Dostoievsky: An Interpretation, Nikolai Berdyaev; translated by Donald Attwater.
7. The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky; translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky.

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