In the Shadow of the Grand Inquisitor

Perhaps the most famous chapter in all of Dostoevsky’s novels is that of the “Grand Inquisitor” in The Brothers Karamazov. It is a “poem” according to the character Ivan Karamazov, a fanciful tale that embodies all of the cyncism that Ivan can muster.

In a previous chapter, “Rebellion,” Ivan had mounted a devastating complaint against God with regard to the problem of evil. Having completed his tales of injustice (mostly involving children and for which he ultimately blames God), Ivan does not cry out that there is no God, but simply that “I refuse the ticket.” He will not accept Christ and wait for all injustice to someday be explained to him. He has had enough.

In the “Grand Inquisitor” Ivan moves to a different scene. In this “poem” he imagines that Christ has returned to earth during the trials of the Inquisition in medieval Spain. There Christ finds himself confronted with a Church that tells Him that He should leave. He is told that He has failed to give people what they want and that the Church will now have to do the job. He is no longer wanted.


These two chapters from Dostoevsky are among the most poignant in modern Christian literature. They are particularly powerful in that that bring the full force of modern indictments against God to bear (and this in a Christian novel). Nor does Dostoevsky treat them lightly. For readers of Dostoevsky it is clear that the only answer given to these philosophical rants is the example of the Christian lives that are lived.

This is always the case. The case for power is always replete with good reasons. The case for forgiveness is weak in the extreme. It is generally the case that those who take the commandments of Christ so seriously that they actually seek to live them inevitably look like fools against those whose knowledge and cynicism wield worldly power.

In Dostoevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor,” the answer to the rage and philosophy of the old Cardinal, is silence and a kiss from Christ.

There are many modern forms of the Grand Inquisitor – or at least that for which the chapter stands. Our human lives are repeatedly tempted to take up certain “Christian” goals and implement them. Indeed, the increased organization and efficiency of modern man seems quite capable of eradicating hunger, abuse, neglect and the like. Strangely, the many efforts towards such worldly perfection (in the name of heavenly goods) has left history littered with failed schemes and occasionally vast amounts of carnage.

I have written repeatedly: Christ did not come into the world to make bad men good, but to make dead men live.

It is not a great scheme through a united world, or a united Europe that will succeed in creating paradise on earth. I find it comical (were it no so tragic) that among the earliest accomplishments of the European courts is to banish crucifixes in the schoolrooms of Italians children. How many empty bellies will that feed? The Inquisitor (now in Strasbourg) will tell us it is for the children’s freedom.

The battle lines are not political (they never have been). The removal of one Inquisitor is simply to create a vacancy for the next. Indeed, the Christian response is not a response to the actions of man: it is a response to the actions of God.

Dostoevsky’s answer to the Grand Inquisitor is not a better-honed argument – but a kiss – it is the lives of holy characters such as the Elder Zossima and the young Alyosha Karamazov. For us, it is the day to day life of the simple believer: “Greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world” (1 John 4:4). The answer of the the Church, apart from everything else, is to live the transforming life of the indwelling Christ. Christians will be persecuted in this world. They will take away our crosses, smash our icons and tell us that we are wasting our time. They will tell us many things.

But Christ tells us: “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

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.





18 responses to “In the Shadow of the Grand Inquisitor”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Ζωντανό Ιστολόγιο, Ζωντανό Ιστολόγιο. Ζωντανό Ιστολόγιο said: In the Shadow of the Grand Inquisitor: Perhaps the most famous chapter in all of Dostoevsky’s novels is t.. […]

  2. Justin Avatar

    Wow, this is a powerful and moving post Father Stephen. That last part:

    “But Christ tells us: “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).” is greatly inspiring.

  3. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    “Christ did not come into the world to make bad men good, but to make dead men live.”

    That is a contemplation in and of itself as you, Fr. Stephen, often demonstatate. The way of the world is that of self-will, self-justification, and control/power.

    The Cross is God’s answer. Becoming a little child in a cave preceeds that.

    Be merciful unto me a sinner.

  4. TheraP Avatar

    “to live the transforming life of the indwelling Christ”


  5. Lazarus Avatar

    To introduce freedom into a finite creation is to create risk. It can be no other way.

    God in His wisdom chose to do it.

    Ivan, however, wanted a world of happy robots or else annihilation. To him, the cost of freedom was just too high. So he would get the best life had to offer while he was still young and strong, and when he turned thirty, he would just ‘check out.’

    When Ivan said he wanted to ‘return his ticket’ to the performance, Alyosha cried, “But that’s rebellion!”

    And so it is…

  6. Margaret Avatar

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for expressing these thoughts. The truths expressed by Dostoevsky and that you reflect upon here are such a blessing to me.

    If I may only add that it is the complete verse of John 16:33 that I have clung to: 33 These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will[a] have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”

    I was quite old before I realized Christ said “In this world you will have tribulation” and I am still learning so very much, Glory to God For All Things!

  7. Michael N Avatar
    Michael N

    “……Indeed, the Christian response is not a response to the actions of man: it is a response to the actions of God.”

    My first reaction to these type of current events is a little anger then grieving because I am “in the world.” I remember hearing once, and again in another way this time, that the world will transform towards the good only when it contains transformed individuals. God made all of creation for us and we were made to be in union with God. Although creation seems harmed when an important “symbol” is banned, it seems union with God is still possible: to morn man’s sin of pride (believing we hold the power “of the good” not God).

    “Blessed are they that mourn.” [Matt. 5:4]

    “Next, what is the reward for these? “For they shall be comforted,” said He.

    Where shall they be comforted! tell me. Both here and there. For since the thing enjoined was exceeding burthensome and galling, He promised to give that, which most of all made it light. Wherefore, if thou will be comforted, mourn: and think not this a dark saying. For when God does comfort, though sorrows come upon you by thousands like snow-flakes, thou will be above them all. Since in truth, as the returns which God gives are always far greater than our labors; so He has wrought in this case, declaring them that mourn to be blessed, not after the value of what they do, but after His own love towards man. For they that mourn, mourn for misdoings, and to such it is enough to enjoy forgiveness, and obtain wherewith to answer for themselves. But forasmuch as He is full of love towards man, He does not limit His recompense either to the removal of our punishments, or to the deliverance from our sins, but He makes them even blessed, and imparts to them abundant consolation.

    But He bids us mourn, not only for our own, but also for other men’s misdoings. And of this temper were the souls of the saints: such was that of Moses, of Paul, of David; yea, all these many times mourned for evils not their own.”

    St. Chrysostom

  8. Mike Avatar

    I was raised in a protestant church in a passively christian home: publicly christian, privately emotionally and sometimes physically abusive. I am now 39 years old and an extreme skeptic but before I completely turn away from Christianity I would like to know what true Christianity is. I live each day in a constant struggle to discover the promise of God that so many speak of but don’t demonstrate. I know we are all sinners of which I am the worst but shouldn’t I see a flickering flame of the light of God in each “Christian” soul that I encounter? What does it mean to be Christian? What is the promise of Chrisitianity?

  9. fatherstephen Avatar

    The promise of Christianity is that Christ will dwell in us, and that His life will become our life – in greater portions. There are many who are “nominal” Christians and have reduced a living relationship with God (Christ in us) to simply a collection of do’s and don’ts. They will range from nice people to judgmental people.

    A true Christian should have something of Christ himself about them. His love, His kindness, His forgiveness. If none of this is present, you have not yet had opportunity to encounter Christ. I will pray for you that you have opportunity to meet a Christian soul. Sometimes they seem to be abundance and sometimes quite rare. But it is worth it to find one.

  10. […] Considering the Grand Inquisitor. […]

  11. TheraP Avatar


    Pray for the grace of ‘seeing’ the burning heart of one of God’s ‘lanterns’ – a living channel of God’s Holy Presence. Seek and you shall find. Keep “knocking” and asking. Or perhaps God will give you a glimpse in your own heart. (I so agree with Fr. Stephen’s words. He is pointing you in the right direction.)

  12. easton Avatar

    mohandas gandhi said”i like your christ, i do not like your christians. your christians are so unlike your christ! sad but true for many. but i agree with father stephen, when you meet the real deal, you will know and not forget it.

  13. Sean Avatar

    @Easton: I am so afraid I am one of those christians Gandhi disliked…

    @Father Stephen: Father, does it ultimately matter whether we have the right to demonstrate crucifixes publicly or not? If I were to be asked I ‘d say that I’d rather have one on public display than not, but on the other hand I am thinking: Even if we have a trillion crucifixes in public but do not become living examples of faith, and humility and love and hope what good does that do? I have found that the faith has prospered and been more alive when persecuted than when favoured or embraced by the institution. Yes, the crucifix is there as a reminder and a symbol of life, sacrifice and love but I find that the most influential paradigm is the one of christians bearing in them the true message of the Gospel in their daily lives.

  14. fatherstephen Avatar

    They need not be mutually exclusive. The destruction of Christian civilization or it’s artifacts is not a light thing.

    Father Stephen+

    Sent from my iTouch

  15. Kate Avatar

    Father, bless

    Where is that picture from? It looks like a wonderful place.

  16. fatherstephen Avatar

    I’m sorry, I have no information on the photo. It is beautiful indeed.

  17. T. Nathaniel Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    Father, bless!

    The destruction of Christian civilization and its artifacts may not be a light thing, but at this point it seems inevitable – for they are destroyed whether they remain in the public sphere or not.

    I listened to a report on the recent Supreme Court case involving the cross in the Mojave desert, and the arguments in favor of keeping the cross in place were as devastating to it as a religious symbol as simply removing it.

    Justice Scalia argued that the cross is not a Christian symbol, but that it is a universal symbol of sacrifice – and thus a fitting memorial for our soldiers who sacrificed themselves for our country.

    I am less afraid of our symbols being banished from the public sphere precisely because they do still communicate their traditional content than having them remain in place to be reinterpreted according to secular goals and interests.

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