The two chapters “Rebellion” and “The Grand Inquisitor” of Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamozov seem to be the culmination of doubt expressed by Ivan Karamazov. "The Rebellion" is a chapter filled with the stench and bitter reality of human suffering. Immediately following, in “The Grand Inquisitor”, Ivan’s prose shares an intriguing perspective of Roman Catholic Church history and his personal perspective of how the Church views Christ. It scrutinizes the notion of free will to its core. It seems that Ivan has come to an ultimate truth about God and the role of the Church. Stuck between these two forces, both of which his mind has penetrated and is now unable to accept, Ivan loses his sanity.
As the third brother and father Karamazov descend into a vice filled feud over money and women, Alyosha and Ivan meet at a restaurant and start discussing God. Here Ivan makes his strongest case against God. He and Alyosha both admit that they would not create a perfect world, even if the perfection of that world depended on the suffering of a single innocent being. Yet, that is what God has created, by the horrible atrocities that happen to innocent children. For us to love the Creator of such a world would be like a tortured man choosing to love his torturer.
It is here that Alyosha inducts the substitution of Jesus; it is His blood that covers all transgression. Ivan states that he cannot accept the philosophy of forgiveness and consequently substitution. Even if others could forgive the atrocities done to them or their innocent loved ones, in many circumstances they should not. Ivan goes on in his poem “The Grand Inquisitor” to tell his understanding of God and the Catholic Church.
God, in the form of Jesus, came to reveal the character of God. The greatest miracle that was ever preformed was that on the day of the three temptations in the wilderness. Jesus did no miracle but committed Himself totally to free will. And now, we have the freedom of choice, of how to distribute the limited resources on which we survive, of how to believe on a God that has not given us indisputable proof of His existence and of how to deal with our unruly conscience.
The Church has taken the power over the mind’s destitute hope of the afterlife that Christ left behind. They make decisions of the conscience for man, they give us hope and freedom and they in return take the freedom to consider the character of God. The Church now represents the character of God to us, for the truth is too much to bear. The Cardinal Grand Inquisitor tells this to Jesus. Jesus says not a word, but kisses the Cardinal as He walks out, banished into the night.
The conclusion made is that freedom is not a gift, but a curse that humankind is not able to handle and God knows it. Jesus’ kiss was like that of Judas, one of knowing what He had already done. God knows that free will is our own damnation, not a loving endowment of personal autonomy. He could have made our existence one of limited knowledge, autonomy and authority over others. In truth, it was so in the Garden, yet He also gave us a “kill” switch and a force superior to our own that misrepresented His limitation of our existence. Ivan cannot find a theodicy between these two chapters.
But is this the conclusion? If so, it is too much for Ivan to bear, because he never wants to talk of such philosophical things again. He goes on, being driven mad by his philosophies that justify his brother’s murder of his father. It could also be said that instead of a kiss of betrayal, that in the story, Jesus’ kiss is one of optimistic commitment to faith in a world of free will. At either turn both Ivan and Alyosha commit totally to free will, which almost by nature has to rule out their belief in the substitutionary role of Christ, but shows His role in revealing the true character of God. Whether that character is of benevolent or malevolent intention, I (as Ivan) have not yet determined.
Kelvin Harold is a graduate of Union College, Lincoln, Nebraska, and is a medical student at Loma Linda University.