The Pity of God in Dostoevsky


The following passage is scandalous in the extent of its mercy. It is not in the canons – but in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Perhaps I love it because many of the men I knew in my early life were more likeMarmaladov (the old drunk) than like others. But this passage has always been a favorite. Forgive me if I scandalize any by quoting Dostoevsky. God will scandalize us all when we finally behold His mercy – for, I assure you, His mercy will be beyond human imagining. Of this I have no doubt.

In the following scene, Dostoevsky is in a bar with Marmaladov, a drunkard and n’er do well, who would even see his own daughter (Sonya) take up prostitution to feed the family, and even then use her money to spend on his drink. The drunkard begins to speak in the bar on the Last Judgment:

Why am I to be pitied, you say! Yes! There’s nothing to pity me for! I ought to be crucified, crucified, not pitied! Crucify me, O judge, crucify me, but pity me! And then I will go of myself to be crucified, for it’s not merry making I seek, but tears and tribulation!…Do you suppose, you that sell, that this pint of yours has been sweet to me? It was tribulation I sought at the bottom of it, tears and tribulation, and have found it, and I have tasted it; but He will pity us Who has had pity on all men, Who has understood all men and all things, He is the One, He too is the judge. He will come in that day and He will ask: ‘Where is the daughter who gave herself for her angry, consumptive stepmother and for the little children of another? Where is the daughter who had pity upon the filthy drunkard, her earthly father, undismayed by his beastliness?’ And He will say, ‘Come to me! I have already forgiven thee once…Thy sins which are many are forgiven thee, for thou hast loved much…’ And He will forgive my Sonya, He will forgive, I know it… I felt it in my heart when I was with her just now! And He will judge and will forgive all, the good and the evil, the wise and the meek… And when He has done with all of them, then He will summon us. ‘You too come forth,’ He will say, ‘Come forth, ye drunkards, come forth, ye weak ones, come forth, ye children of shame!’ And we shall come forth without shame and shall stand before Him. and He will say unto us, ‘Ye are swine made in the image of the Beast and with his mark; but come ye also!’ And the wise ones and those of understanding will say, ‘O Lord, why dost thou receive these men?’ And He will say, ‘This is why I receive them, O ye wise, this is why I receive them, O ye of understanding, that not one of them believed himself to be worthy of this.’ And He will hold out His hands to us and we shall fall down before Him… and we shall weep… and we shall understand all things! Then we shall understand all!… and all will understand, Katerina Ivanovna even… she will understand… Lord, Thy kingdom come!” And he sank down on the bench exhausted and helpless, looking at no one, apparently oblivious of his surroundings and plunged in deep thought. His words had created a certain impression; there was a moment of silence; but soon laughter and oaths were heard again.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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31 responses to “The Pity of God in Dostoevsky”

  1. Scott Lyons Avatar

    That passage has always been a favorite of mine, as well, Father. Thank you for sharing it.

  2. Meg Avatar

    You must know some strange people if they would find this scandalous.

  3. davidpwithun Avatar

    It’s sad times when a forgiving God is a scandalous idea.

  4. MuleChewingBriars Avatar

    There is a parallel passage in Flannery O’Connor’s luminous short story “Revelation”. How I wish Miss (I would never, ever call her Ms, unless it were unequivocally the Southern Miz) O’Connor’s work were in the Public Domain as is Dostoyevsky’s. The quote would fit well here.

    A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast
    swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of
    living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven
    with battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping
    and leaping like frogs. She recognized at once those who,
    like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the
    God-given wit to use it right. Yet she could see by their shocked
    and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away

    May God rest Miss O’Connor. Her Catholicism was fiercer and more Orthodox than my tepid Orthodoxy.

  5. fatherstephen Avatar

    I do know some strange people. You’d be surprised at how the mercy of God upsets some people. Some people want to be paid more because they worked longer than others, etc.

    This, by the way, is truly one of my favorite Dostoevsky passages. I wish I knew O’Connor’s work as well. My wife thinks I’m not yet properly educated. The several short stories of hers that I do know are among my favorites.

  6. kevinburt Avatar


    This was one of my favorite Dostoevsky passages, too.

    I don’t think the people you know are all that strange. I think it’s all of us. It’s quite easy, on a religious online forum or comment box, to speak of the mercy of God upon all and wonder how anyone could question it (I know this, because I speak of myself).

    But when we go to church and see people who grate on our nerves, and who just aren’t so holy (or so it seems to us), or when I see the people like Dostoevsky describes in real life without the benefit of a beautiful Dostoevskyan text to rescue them… I suspect most of us simply stay away from those people as much as we can. Were we to be thrust together with them daily, we might find that we are a lot more scandalized by God’s mercy than we think we are. And possibly at times acting, where the rubber meets the road, like we’ll just leave the mercy up to God, because God knows I can’t stand that person, myself.

    I don’t know if that holds true for others, but I suspect it is more true of myself than I theoretically admit.

  7. david p Avatar

    My old neighbor (48ys) died last week…because of his drinking, I told him that this drinking will kill you if you don´t quit. After he moved away late last summer, his wife called up and invited us to his funeral. I know at times I pointed him to God and His Christ to save him and to change his life…I would wonder at times about him and pray for him…the pity of God article is a comfort.

  8. Juliana Avatar

    I work for a criminal defense attorney who receives court appointments from the state to represent indigent clients (overflow from the Public Defender’s Office). My boss has represented child molesters, rapists, drug dealers and murders. The clients have often come from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, many had been abused themselves as children. Still, I find it hard to show mercy. I understand that, for many of them, their unfortunate childhoods played a part in who they are today. But when I read about the horrific details of the crimes and the cruelty shown to their victims, it’s hard for me to have compassion. Lord, have mercy on me.

  9. Lewis Avatar

    One of my Russian interpreters in Moscow (December 1991) was a bright, courageous and gentle person named Sergei. He described himself as formerly a mean and angry man, but during his tour of duty in the Army, he reread Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” and “The Brothers Karamazov” (the unabridged versions — unlike the ones he read in secondary school.) From these readings, he became a Christian. Subsequently, he became an Orthodox believer and wrote the first masters thesis about Christianity (Alexander Mien) at Moscow State University after the collapse of communism.

    I can only wonder how many others have found their way to Christ through Dostoevsky’s writings.

  10. Karen C Avatar
    Karen C

    Three movies scenes come to mind that speak to this issue:

    1. In “Paradise Road,” a movie based on the real life testimonies of survivors of a Japanese POW camp where women were held during WWII, there is a particularly horrifying incident where a sadistic officer burns a woman alive in front of her fellow prisoners for smuggling medicine into the camp. In the aftermath, two of the main characters, an American socialite and an Irish nun are talking about the officer. The nun, who is a rock of strength and compassion in the camp, confesses, “The worse they behave, the sorrier I feel for them.” It is difficult to convey the power of that statement in its context. It reminds me of the insight of St. Isaac the Syrian that the scourging in hell comes from the experience of the love of God, not its absence!

    2. A second moment is in the movie “Wit” where a woman, an English professor, who has alienated everyone in her life by her sarcastic wit lies dying of cancer in the hospital. Her former English professor and mentor, a wise and compassionate older woman, comes to see her in some of the last moments of her lonely agony. She no longer even has the strength to speak. Her professor comes to her side on the bed, puts her arm around her and reads her the children’s book by Margaret Wise Brown, “The Runaway Bunny.” As she listens, peace transforms the dying woman’s face. Again, its difficult here to convey the power of that moment in its context. I found it a profound statement of the nature of grace.

    3. The third is in the movie “The Killing Fields” a grueling account (again based on a true story) of a Cambodian journalist’s entrapment in and survival of Pol Pot’s death camps during the war. His friend, an American journalist, escapes hours before his friend’s capture, and agonizes about his friend’s fate for three years following. He is filled with guilt for not doing more to try to save his friend. Finally, after a long search he discovers that his friend has survived and flies to meet him. Full of trepidation and survivor’s guilt, he approaches his friend begging forgiveness. His Cambodian friend, smiles radiantly, saying emphatically “Nothing to forgive!” and joyfully embraces him.

    Okay, I think I’ll just go get the tissues!

  11. abyssalleviathin Avatar

    Interesting passage. 🙂

  12. Dianne Avatar

    Thank you, Father, for posting this excerpt. I am finally, this winter, after many years of false starts, getting through The Brothers Karamazov. I’ve failed to finish Crime and Punishment so far, too, but some day . . .

    MuleChewingBriars: Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation” also occurred to me as I read this Dostoevsky excerpt. “Revelation” is an outstanding story, and the echoes between Mrs. Turpin’s vision and Marmaladov’s insight are remarkable.

    Father, if you want to expand your knowledge of O’Connor, I recommend to you the collection of her letters, titled “The Habit of Being.” You’ll love it.

    Karen C, thanks for the tip about “Wit.” Somehow, this movie escaped my radar. It’s in my Netflix queue now.

  13. Richard Collins Avatar

    Thanks for this Father.

    It reminds me of the Publican and the Pharisee (coming soon to an Orthodox Church near you!). We never hear of the fate of the Publican, whether he amended his ways, whether he left his life of Sin. All we hear is that he ‘left that place justified’.

    Truly God is looking at the heart, at that inmost place and seeking for humility, even if it is self-acknowledged humiliation. The prodigal son returned in humiliation, zacchaeus humiliated himself, the Syro-phonecian woman endured teasing from our Lord. We all carry our crosses, some hereditary or habituated, but through it all God recognises that ‘broken heart’, something which he can-not despise.

  14. fatherstephen Avatar


    Kinda makes you eager for the Great Canon of St. Andrew, doesn’t it!

  15. Karen C Avatar
    Karen C


    “Wit” is a stunning and stark drama (with moments of hysterical dark comedy) starring Emma Thompson. Be warned–it is intense! I cried buckets of tears at the end. It’s not light popcorn viewing! It is a good illustration of the principle of the “remembrance of death” putting life in its proper perspective. It was especially meaningful to me because I saw it when my children were preschoolers, and “The Runaway Bunny” was among their favorite stories.

  16. Richard Collins Avatar


    Already have Khouria Fredrica’s book ‘First Fruits of Prayer’ on order! I’m looking forward to my first Orthodox Lent (even if only as a catechumen!).

  17. Jonathan Avatar

    Thank you very much for posting this, Father. I found this post directly after reading correspondence from someone I know who was feeling deep anxiety that her husband, a lapsed Catholic, was going to be excluded from Heaven for being atheist. I gave her the Dostoyovskey quote, and she took great comfort from it.

    I’m also surprised like others here that you would think others would see Dostoyovskey as being somehow beyond the pale; he’s very much an Orthodox writer, a repentant sinner.

    The Dostoyovskey quote is not Orthodox *teaching*. The quote expresses a hope, a hope in the salvation of all. This is a very Orthodox hope: think of the prayers we offer for those in Hell at Pentecost, and for all the dead on Saturdays.

    Thank you again Father, and please pray for me.

  18. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Shakespeare reminds us that “in the course of justice, none of us should see salvation” Jesus tells that he would have mercy, not sacrifice. Too ofen, I fear, it is far easier to seek justice rather than righteousness, moral exactitude rather than virtue. There is no virtue without love, again something I was reminded of recently watching Shakespeare’s Twelvth Night.

    Martin Luther King in the early days of his crusade emphasized that racism is a sin that harms both whites and blacks. He was praying and acting so that that sin could be healed for the benefit of both. Now, it seems that civil rights has become about seeking justice. Division is the result.

    Much the same can be seen in the idea of “Social Justice” for the poor and others. It seems to me that mercy is replaced by sacrifice. God is the only one who can be just, because He is the only one who loves enough.

    As Shakespere also reminds us, “..we do pray for mercy; And that same prayer doth teach us all to render the deeds of mercy.” It is both harder and simpler than it sounds

  19. Robert Bearer Avatar
    Robert Bearer

    Fr. Stephen, while I wholly agree with you that God’s mercy will be beyone human imaginging and will scandalize us all when we finally behold it, I admit to be troubled by this passage from Dostoevsky as I read it. I do not detect in Marmaladov’s words (in your excerpt) the kind of humility exhibited by the Zacchaeus or the Prodigal son or the Publican or the workers who went into the fields at the 11th hour. His words seem to me to be tinged with presumption on God’s mercy as he persists in his self-destructive behavior due to which others, too, are put in jeopardy. While Christ is clear that His mercy is boundless, He also warns us that their are goats who are not able to enter into the Kingdom; there are those who call Him “Lord” who are lawless and put out of His sight; there are those shut out where there is weeping and gnashing of teach. When this occurs, it is their own doing because they will not receive His mercy and respond to it with gratitude, joy and compassion for others rather than continuing narcissm, seflishness and pride.

    I fail to see how Marmaladov’s understanding of Christ’s Kingdom and salvation is even slightly Orthodox. It is minimalist in the extreme, conceiving of salvaton as escape from Hell and entrance into Heaven by Christ’s “overlooking” the sinners faults–rather than healing them and replacing them with virtue and participation in the life of the Holy Trinity. Poplulating heaven with unrepentant sinners is like populating it with the blind, the halt, the maimed, the lepers and the still dead. No, these defects must be let go of in exchange for healing, wholeness, cleansing and life. Divine grace is not the overlooking of sin and death, but swallowing them up in victory. But does Marmalov even desire such deliverance? What is he willing to do or suffer FOR OTHERS–including his daughter–to enjoy it? May our Lord have mercy on each of us when we stand before the dread judgment seat of Christ? May He make us merciful and even now open our hearts to His mercy lest when that time comes we find ourselves separated from Him by a gulf which no man may cross.

    charis & shalom,

  20. fatherstephen Avatar

    I do not think Dostoevsky portrays Marmaladov in a good light. Indeed, in the novel, goodness is focused in his daughter, who has taken such sin on herself for the sake of her starving family, and is something of a redemption for the murderer Raskolnikov.

    Marmaladov, though, is somewhat illustrative of the extremes of mercy that some of Dostoevsky’s characters will speak of. The only thing that is “Orthodox” in the character Marmaladov, is the extreme audacity of his proclamation of God’s mercy. He does use rather primitive imagery (he’s no saint) imagery not unlike that of some of Christ’s parables. He claims no righteousness, only God’s pity, and Christ’s proclamation, “because none of you thought you were worthy.”

    If you compare this small vignette to Chrysostom’s great Paschal sermon, it, too contains extremes that go beyond the bounds of Christ’s parables, welcoming even the “heedless” to the banquet. Of course, he makes no comment on whether the heedless will come. There will be many (perhaps all) called to the banquet, but not all will come. Just as it is today. As you prayed, may we open our hearts to his mercy.

    It’s just Dostoevsky, by the way, not Scripture, though he is certainly greatly beloved by most Orthodox writers of later generations. And I like to throw of bit of Dostoevsky in now and again because he amazes me.

  21. nsittler Avatar

    Fr Coniaris, in his catechism book “Introduction to the Orthodox Church,” says that saints will be surprised to find themselves in Heaven. Intersting thought to contemplate in light of this passage. I like the passage, and I’m still trying to talk myself into starting (again) and finishing the whole Dostoevsky book.

    Thanks, MCB, for the O’Connor quote, very cool.

  22. nsittler Avatar

    Oh, yes, Fr Stephen, I did have a question for you on this: Meekness is mentioned in the passage and I read meek in one of the lectionary readings for today, as well. In Matthew, Jesus talks about His yoke being easy and light, and refers to himself as meek and gentle. I read in the notes (Orthodox sudy Bible) that Meekness is the forerunner of Humility, as well as leading to discernment (and another virtue which I forgotten already!). If it’s not too off topic, could you flesh this out a bit for me? I don’t understand “meek” very well.

    Thanks for your shepherding here on this site. It is truly a blessing.

  23. fatherstephen Avatar

    Interestingly, Moses is called “the meekest man on the face of the earth.”

    Fr. Thomas Hopko’s short description of meekness is as good as I can think of:

  24. nsittler Avatar

    Wow. Thanks for that reference. So much different than the lame definitions found in most dictionaries.

  25. Jonathan Avatar

    Father, yesterday I found this and just wanted to share it with you:

    it is a Paschal sermon by Saint Jonah of Hankow, who was a Bishop at the time, and he also quotes the same passage from Dostoyovskey!

  26. Cori Avatar

    I’m not so religious, but i found this website and all of you sound very knowledgable about the bible. I am reading crime and punishment for school and was wondering if this passage has any parallel to the bible. I saw o judge crucify and immediatly caught the religious reference, but I need a passage or two to prove its parallelism to my teacher. Thank you!

  27. GL Avatar
    GL in internet contains unexpected historical facts behind Dostoevsky’s novel “Idiot” (”PROTOTYPE OF PRINCE MYSHKIN”)

  28. James Avatar

    ‘Tis a Protestant song, but I love it, and this post reminded me of it.

    He is jealous for me,
    Loves like a hurricane, I am a tree,
    Bending beneath the weight of His wind and mercy.
    When all of a sudden,
    I am unaware of these afflictions eclipsed by glory,
    And I realize just how beautiful You are,
    And how great Your affections are for me.

    And oh, how He loves us so,
    Oh how He loves us,
    How He loves us all

    Yeah, He loves us,
    Oh! how He loves us,
    Oh! how He loves us,
    Oh! how He loves.

    We are His portion and He is our prize,
    Drawn to redemption by the grace in His eyes,
    If grace is an ocean, we’re all sinking.
    And Heaven meets earth like an unforseen kiss,
    And my heart turns violently inside of my chest,
    I don’t have time to maintain these regrets,
    When I think about, the way…

  29. fatherstephen Avatar

    The word “Yeah” in the song tells me that I shouldn’t feel so bad that I’ve never heard it. My stint among evangelical protestantism ended in about ’75. We were still singing mostly choruses drawn directly from King James.

    “Grace as an ocean” – if only the writer had read St. Isaac the Syrian, he would have been even bolder and noted that the sins of the whole world, by comparison, are as a grain of sand.

    Great hymn writers of the early Church – such as St. Ephrem the Syrian – go places modern hymn and song writers never dreamed of. There are times in Church, when the choir is singing verses on the Psalms (such as at Vespers), that I want to shout, “Stop!” “Sing that again!” Instead, I stop and listen to it again and again in my heart. There the words find their rest and break the hardened crust that lies beneath them.

  30. Gianetta Avatar

    Have tried for several years to get through Dostoevsky’s, The Brothers Karamazov. Found this website in hopes of being enlightened or inspired to try once again. My renewed inspiration was upon reading Friedl Bell’s remarkable book, She Cried for Mother Russia. In reading books like this and Wild Swans by Jung Chang, I continue to be amazed at anyone who can keep their hope of a faith in a God who really loves us. How can He bear to see what so many of His people for generations have had to endure. Granted some of us deserve the affliction we have chosen, but so many seem to be so undeservedly depraved and persecuted. I realize I am not the first to ask this question, but I have yet to find even a light at the end of this tunnel. My priest suggested The Brothers as it was his light. I am still looking for even a flicker…any insights???

  31. fatherstephen Avatar

    I think He must be found in the midst of the suffering. Not above it not as cause nor as explanation. Christ crucified and all suffering ever anywhere always- that too is in His Cross.

    Sent via DROID on Verizon Wireless

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