Dostoevsky: God’s Existence and the Problem of Evil

Fyodor Dostoevsky

One of the most powerful and insightful dialogues that takes place in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s classic novel, The Brother Karamazov, is located in Chapter 3, Book V.  Two of the three brothers, Alyosha and Ivan, meet in a restaurant and Ivan, the second oldest son, decides it is time to get to know his younger brother better.  Their dysfunctional family and the struggles with their oppressive father set the context for this conversation.

Ivan, the Intellectual Skeptic

Ivan is clearly the studious intellectual in the family and he decides to share some of his deepest struggles with his twenty-three year-old brother who he has come to appreciate and respect.  He tells Alyosha that he has an intense desire to embrace life, but is distressed by the disorder and injustice he encounters everywhere he goes.  He sees that Alyosha has “an inordinate appetite for life,” and this makes Ivan “want to live and go on living, even if it is contrary to the rules of logic.  Even if I do not believe in the divine order of things. . . “

Alyosha, the spiritually-minded brother, responds enthusiastically, “I’ve always thought that, before anything else, people should learn to love life in this world.”  Ivan responds: “To love life more than the meaning of life?”  Alyosha fearlessly answers: “Yes, that’s right.  That’s the way it should be – love should come before logic, just as you said.  Only then will man be able to understand the meaning of life.”

The discussion then moves to Ivan’s views on the existence of God and immortality.  He believes that “man has invented God.  What is so strange and extraordinary is not that God really exists but that such a thought – the very idea of the necessity of God – should have occurred to a vicious wild animal like man. . .”  Ivan further elaborates his argument: “It is not God that I refuse to accept, but the world that He has created – what I do not accept and cannot accept is the God-created world.”

Ivan then passionately raises the issue of evil in the world, and he focuses particularly on the evil and injustice that children suffer.  How can there be a creator God who allows this to happen?

The Grand Inquisitor

When Alyosha reminds Ivan that he has forgotten Jesus, who “gave his innocent blood for all,” Ivan launches into a narrative he had created based on the 16th century Inquisition in Spain.  He describes a Christ-like figure who heals the sick and lame, but is arrested by an old Cardinal (Pope) of the Church – the Grand Inquisitor -who later enters Jesus’ darkened cell and severely reprimands him for appearing again and hindering the work of the church.

The Grand Inquisitor attacks Jesus for giving humanity freedom of choice and states that the mission of the church is to remove “the awful burden of freedom.”  He ridicules Jesus for expecting men and women to voluntarily choose to follow Him.  The Grand Inquisitor argues that now the Church has to correct this error and take away humanity’s freedom in exchange for happiness and security.

The Conclusion

In Ivan’s telling of this story, the only person to speak is the Grand Inquisitor; Jesus remains silent during the entire monologue with all of its accusations.  Then, in an unanticipated move, Jesus approaches the old Cardinal and kisses him on his dry, withered lips.  The Grand Inquisitor responds by freeing Jesus, but telling him never to come back again.

When Ivan finishes his long narrative, he realizes that he has put his younger brother into a difficult position and thus might have ended their friendship.  Alyosha’s response, however, is to lean forward and kiss his brother.

Alyosha recognizes that his brother Ivan has given considerable thought to these fundamental questions facing humanity and that they are not easily answered.  He also sees Ivan’s deep love for humanity and his pain over all of the suffering in his family and in the world – qualities of a person worthy of redemption.
My brief summary of these forty-five pages of Dostoevsky’s novel doesn’t do justice to this masterpiece, but I wanted to share the conversation between the two brothers to illustrate its depth and importance for addressing some of the most important issues of its time – and our time as well.