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Fyodor Dostoevsky on the Literal Meaning of Genesis

On a bitterly cold day in November 1849, Fyodor Dostoevsky together with several others was marched from his cell in the St. Petersburg prison known as the Peter-and-Paul Fortress to Semenovsky Square and prepared for execution. He had been convicted on charges of treason for his role in the conspiratorial Petrashevsky Circle—a “reading group” inspired by atheistic, materialistic, and socialist ideas. Dostoevsky and his comrades were ordered to dress in funeral shrouds. A priest offered a final prayer for the condemned “freethinkers” and urged them to repent of their sins. The men’s heads were then covered as a firing squad took aim. In these moments, Dostoevsky later recalled, he caught a glimpse of rays of sun on the gold cupola of a church and was filled with terror at the great unknown of death, as well as a sense that his life in some way was about to start anew. The order to fire was given.
Instead of shots ringing out, however, a decree was read. The Tsar Nicholas had mercifully commuted the death sentences of the conspirators to hard labor in Siberia. As he was being transported into exile, a woman in a town along the way pressed into Dostoevsky’s hands a copy of the New Testament, which was to be the only book Dostoevsky was permitted to read during most of his sentence. Ten years later, Dostoevsky would emerge from Siberia an intellectually and spiritually transformed man, convinced of the moral and intellectual poverty of secular rationalism and scientific materialism, and convicted of the necessity of faith in the Christ of the New Testament. He would devote the rest of his life to defending the truth he had discovered in Sibera—not in the abstractions of dogma, but in the experience of suffering and in the person of Jesus. “If someone proved to me that Christ is outside the truth and that in reality the truth were outside of Christ,” Dostoevsky later wrote, “then I should prefer to remain with Christ rather than with the truth.”
Dostoevsky is unquestionably the greatest Christian novelist who ever lived. In the eyes of many non-believers, he is simply the greatest novelist who ever lived. Sigmund Freud wrote that “The Brothers Karamazov, is the most magnificent novel ever written.” Nietzsche said that Dostoevsky was “the only psychologist from whom I have anything to learn.” Albert Einstein declared that Dostoevsky “gives me more than any scientist.” How, then, might this literary and intellectual giant—who was also a passionate defender of Christ and the biblical conception of humanity against social Darwinian theories, scientism, fashionable liberalism, and materialistic atheism—respond to the questions of faith and science we have been wrestling with in this series over the past several days? Did Dostoevsky’s faith in the risen Christ compel him to a literalistic reading of Genesis 1?
Facing Difficult Thoughts
Scientific materialism or philosophical naturalism, Dostoevsky saw, leads directly to nihilism. Here was the great paradox of the European Enlightenment. The movement had begun with a noble vision of shared human dignity, peace, and progress drawn from the beliefs of Judaism and Christianity. But by seeking to ground these ideals in reason rather than in faith, Enlightenment humanism ended by undermining its own highest commitments. Science can provide only mechanistic, reductive, and objectified descriptions of human nature, so when scientific reasoning is held up as the only grounds for discovering truth we are left without any basis for statements of value or meaning. We come to see humanity in purely instrumental and deterministic ways. We lose all sense of good and evil.
Russia’s intellectual radicals in the middle of the 19th century–who Dostoevsky knew well from his days in the Petrashevsky Circle–were nevertheless determined to carry the logic of philosophical materialism/naturalism through to its final conclusions. These “New Men” rejected all religious and metaphysical values and embarked on an audacious project of social and political re-engineering unbounded by older notions of morality or the authority of revelation. Bourgeois moral sentiments and feelings of compassion—the residue of outmoded Christian beliefs—had to be ruthlessly overcome in order to elevate humanity to a new plain of evolutionary consciousness. Difficult thoughts—and deeds—had to be faced with unflinching “hardness” in order to transform the human animal into its own divinity.
All of Dostoevsky’s greatest novels are densely inhabited with characters who represent these claims of the New Men. Dostoevsky’s most compelling and sympathetic rebel against faith, however, is Ivan Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov, who simultaneously embodies both the idealism of the Enlightenment humanists and the nihilistic logic of the new generation of hard-headed materialists. Ivan’s rebellion is captured in his “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor,” which he tells to his saintly brother Alyosha in an attempt to unsettle his faith.
The Logic of the Grand Inquisitor
The legend is set in Seville during the Spanish Inquisition and involves a meeting in a prison cell at night between a captive, silent Christ and the Jesuit Inquisitor charged with executing heretics. The Inquisitor accuses Christ of placing an impossible burden on humans by giving them freedom. Individual freedom and dignity, he says, cannot be reconciled with such collective animal needs as shelter, security and food—which are all the weak herd wants or needs anyway. By giving humans freedom, God has in fact become complicit in the senseless and unmitigated suffering of even the most innocent children, which Ivan describes in harrowing detail.
The Church will therefore do what Christ refused to do. It will—by assuming control of individual consciences and enforcing doctrinal conformity—unite “all the insoluble historical contradictions of human nature,” taking both the glories and the burdens of freedom upon itself in order to usher in a final harmony. The end result, for the great masses of people, will be “a common, concordant, and incontestable anthill.” Only the few guardians who hold the secret truths of the ant-heap and are permitted to think about difficult questions will be unhappy and suffer. But this cannot be avoided, according to Ivan, since Christ has placed impossible demands on humans to freely love their neighbors as themselves and to have faith in Him in the face of insoluble intellectual and existential dilemmas.
“Your Inquisitor doesn’t believe in God, that’s his whole secret”, Alyosha declares at the conclusion of Ivan’s tale. “What of it?” Ivan replies. Whether one believes or not makes no difference: God’s order is flawed and unjustifiable, even if accepted as true on its own terms. The Church must therefore do what Christ, in his love for freedom, did not. It must assume control of the minds of the simple masses of people, and it must do this for their own good.
Faith, Science, and Murder
But is the Grand Inquisitor’s case against freedom as powerful as it first appears? And does the question of belief or unbelief really make no difference? Dostoevsky’s complex theodicy and defense of freedom requires that we absorb the full force of Ivan’s accusations, which on their own terms may be logically irrefutable. “The dolts have ridiculed…my faith,” Dostoevsky wrote in his diary of his secular critics shortly before his death. “These fools could not even conceive so strong a denial of God as the one to which I gave expression.” But readers who assume that Dostoevsky’s depiction of the pathos of metaphysical rebellion stems from a lack of artistic control or secret rebellion of his own fail to grasp what Joseph Franks calls “the depth and daring of his Christian irrationalism.”
Faith, in Dostoevsky’s thinking, in order to be pure must be totally unsupported by evidence of the kind secular reason demands, while the arguments of “Euclidean” logic against faith must be given their full strength and allowed to play themselves out to their final conclusions in human lives and relationships. To engage in a purely rationalistic or dialectical defense of faith for Dostoevsky would be to accept the premises that constitute the heart of the problem.
Yet while Dostoevsky does not attempt to directly refute the logic of Ivan’s tale or to rationally resolve his antinomies, his response to Ivan is not without its reasons. In order to understand these reasons we must pay careful attention not only to Ivan’s words but also to his actions and experiences through the entire course of the novel. Dostoevsky’s refutation of atheism is an indirect and aesthetic one based upon the literary juxtaposition of different ways of living. His response to Ivan’s rebellion is not a scientific one, but a poetic revelation of the existential results of his ideas as they are played out in Ivan’s life and the lives of those around him.
What we discover is that Ivan’s intellectualism—his belief that values are made rather than found, and that freedom cannot be reconciled with order—causes him to become increasingly detached from society and divided within himself. He is lacerated by his still noble feelings of compassion and pity on the one hand and by his colossal pride and resentment against God and imperfect humanity on the other. In the end, Ivan is unable to suppress his feelings of compassion and love for others, despite what his “Euclidean logic” tells him. “I want to live, and I do live, even if it be against logic,” he tells Alyosha. “Though I do not believe in the order of things, still the sticky little leaves that come out in the spring are dear to me, the blue sky is dear to me, some people are dear to me, who one loves sometimes, would you believe it, without even knowing why.” Ivan therefore continues to honor “out of old habit” deeds “which one has perhaps long ceased believing in” but which are still somehow “dear” to his heart.
Yet Ivan’s theoretical leap beyond conventional morality—his assertion that “everything is permitted”, emerging from his disappointed love for humanity and his refusal to accept any transcendent source of meaning or redemption—serves as the subtle inspiration for Smerdyakov, the sullen household lackey, to murder Ivan’s father. Ivan is horrified and repulsed to the point of mental collapse by Smerdyakov, but he must face his own complicity—as ironic, intellectualizing proselytizer for atheism—in the crime. “Such a bond exists whether Ivan desired it or not,” Joseph Frank writes, “because Smerdyakov has become indoctrinated with the amoral nihilism of Ivan’s ideas, which had now begun to ferment within a mind and heart quite lacking in his own sensitivity to human suffering.”
Does Fundamentalism Give Expression to a Viable Way of Life?
What might Dostoevsky have to say, then, in response to Adventists debating questions of faith and science and the meaning of Genesis? Dostoevsky was unimpressed by rigidly literalistic hermeneutics. He was also untroubled by the concept of evolution as such. “Christ directly announces that in man, besides the animal world, there is a spiritual one,” he wrote in one of his letters. “Well, and so what [if humans are descended from monkeys]—let man originate from anywhere you like (in the Bible it’s not at all explained how God fashioned him from clay, took him from the earth), but it is said that God breathed into him the breath of life (though sometimes man in his sins can turn into a beast again).”
Dostoevsky’s opinion of a certain kind of biblical literalism and religious piety is evident in The Brothers Karamazov in his depiction of Father Ferapont—a half-crazed ascetic monk absorbed with perfectionism and doctrinal purity, who prides himself on his simple diet, who harshly condemns the other monks in his monastery of apostasy, and who concretizes the mysteries of faith in a naively materialistic fashion (most notably by claiming to see devils in physical form). What matters to Dostoevsky, Charles Guignon notes, “is not whether propositions are true or false in some abstract sense, but whether the form of life they embody and express is viable or not.” And the form of life embodied by dogmatic literalists in Dostoevsky’s fiction is a mirror image of atheistic skepticism. Ferapont’s faith cannot stand without a reduction of all spiritual matters to certainties and physical evidences (what we might call “creation science”). It is therefore in reality not faith at all. And perhaps the clearest evidence of the untruth of his hermeneutics is that his harsh and prideful claims to “truth” make him simply insufferable to be with!
While allowing for properly scientific and even evolutionary concepts and rejecting fundamentalist religiosity, Dostoevsky nevertheless vigorously opposed the reductive materialism of Darwinian theory and scientific rationalism. The Enlightenment project’s denial of the divine image in humankind and rejection of the supernatural was for him a kind of inverted faith of its own. “It is not miracles that bring a realist to faith,” he wrote in The Brothers Karamazov. “A true realist, if he is not a believer, will always find in himself the strength and ability not to believe in miracles as well, and if a miracle stands before him as an irrefutable fact, he will sooner doubt his own senses than admit the fact. And even if he does admit it, he will admit it as a fact of nature that was previously unknown to him.”
But stubborn faith in “realism” of this kind doesn’t merely lead to atheism in Dostoevsky’s thinking—it leads to madness, murder, and suicide. Fundamentalism is always destructive of communities and lives, Dostoevsky reminds us, whether that fundamentalism is of the religious or the naturalistic kind.
“If You Love Each Thing, You Will Perceive the Mystery of God in Things”
What, then, of the Grand Inquisitor’s assertion that humans are incapable of Christ-like love and so face a stark choice between either personal freedom at the price of community or order at the price of servility? Dostoevsky agrees with Ivan that love for one’s neighbor is impossible from the standpoint of calculating rationalism and for those who willfully sever themselves from the source of all love. But for Dostoevsky, the refusal to love one’s neighbor—in the light of biblical anthropology and the luminous example of the Christ of the New Testament—remains a human choice.
This means that the image offered by the Grand Inquisitor of a pathetic humanity incapable of fulfilling Christ’s law of love and so in need of centralized political and doctrinal control is a lie. Even Ivan is mysteriously filled with an irrational and noble love of life that his logic tells him should not exist. It requires strenuous intellectual effort to suppress or explain away these spontaneous feelings, which are in fact evidence of the supernatural origins of human nature and God’s grace at work even in the most unrepentant human hearts.
Those who open themselves to the witness of the living Christ in history like the saintly Alyosha and the monk Zosima (Dostoevsky’s heroes in the novel) therefore find evidence all around them that love is the primordial reality of the universe. God does not create natural evil (as Jonathan Edwards believed) in order to punish the wicked in the present or to teach us vivid lessons in how God plans to destroy sinners at the final judgment. Instead, God gives the creation freedom and life, with all the possibilities and dangers freedom always contains. God then suffers with the creation in that very freedom.
Dostoevsky’s view of the theological meaning of suffering in nature is perhaps revealed in the epigram he inserted at the beginning of his greatest novel–“Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” What death in nature reveals to us about God, in Dostoevskian perspective, is the very shape of God’s life, which from even before the creation of the world was self-emptying, suffering, all-loving, and cruciform.
“Love all of God’s creation, both the whole of it and every grain of sand,” Father Zosima declares. “Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love animals, love plants, love each thing. If you love each thing, you will perceive the mystery of God in things. Once you have perceived it, you will begin tirelessly to perceive more and more of it every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an entire, universal love.” There is a “living bond with the other world, with the higher heavenly world”, Zosima continues. But “if this sense is weakened or destroyed in you…you become indifferent to life, and even come to hate it.”
Whether one sees in the world of nature and human history the cruel and senseless workings of a giant machine or the fallen but still good work of God’s creative and redemptive activity therefore depends upon one’s prior subjective orientation and one’s openness to the possibility of transcendence. There are clear ethical and political as well as epistemological implications to Dostoevsky’s cosmic panentheism (not to be confused with pantheism) and his assertion of the primacy of divine love in sustaining and animating the universe while giving it its freedom. Contrary to what Ivan thinks, and precisely because we are all compromised accomplices in injustice and evil—because we too have failed to “notice the beauty and glory of it all”—we must embrace our connectedness with our neighbors. We must identify with those who suffer and act in love to redeem the world.
The danger in such action, which will necessarily be flawed and halting, is the temptation to control and manipulate others for our own purposes or millennial dreams–to become mini-Grand Inquisitors. The temptation is real. Absent God’s love radiating into the world and individual human hearts, Dostoevsky believes, it is in fact insurmountable. But the step towards one’s neighbor, he insists, must still be taken. Active love—not intellectual head-trips—is the only path by which we might discover the truth of God’s creation and become truly free.
*Note: parts of this posting will be appearing in forthcoming manuscript of mine; all rights are reserved by the author.
Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet, 1871-1881 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002).
Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (New York: Everyman, 1992).
Charles Guignon, “Introduction” to The Grand Inquisitor (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993).

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