[N]othing has ever been more insufferable for man than freedom!
Ivan explains his prose poem, “The Grand Inquisitor.” In a town in Spain, in the sixteenth century, Christ arrives, apparently reborn on Earth. As he walks through the streets, the people gather about him, staring. He begins to heal the sick, but his ministrations are interrupted by the arrival of a powerful cardinal who orders his guards to arrest Christ. Late that night, this cardinal, the Grand Inquisitor, visits Christ’s cell and explains why he has taken him prisoner and why he cannot allow Christ to perform his works. Throughout the Grand Inquisitor’s lecture, Christ listens silently.
The Grand Inquisitor tells Christ that he cannot allow him to do his work on Earth, because his work is at odds with the work of the Church. The Inquisitor reminds Christ of the time, recorded in the Bible, when the Devil presented him with three temptations, each of which he rejected. The Grand Inquisitor says that by rejecting these three temptations, he guaranteed that human beings would have free will. Free will, he says, is a devastating, impossible burden for mankind. Christ gave humanity the freedom to choose whether or not to follow him, but almost no one is strong enough to be faithful, and those who are not will be damned forever. The Grand Inquisitor says that Christ should have given people no choice, and instead taken power and given people security instead of freedom. That way, the same people who were too weak to follow Christ to begin with would still be damned, but at least they could have happiness and security on Earth, rather than the impossible burden of moral freedom. The Grand Inquisitor says that the Church has now undertaken to correct Christ’s mistake. The Church is taking away freedom of choice and replacing it with security. Thus, the Grand Inquisitor must keep Christ in prison, because if Christ were allowed to go free, he might undermine the Church’s work to lift the burden of free will from mankind.
The first temptation Christ rejected was bread. Hungry after his forty days of fasting, Christ was confronted by Satan, who told him that if he were really the son of God, he could turn a stone to bread and satisfy his hunger. Christ refused, replying that man should not live by bread, but by the word of God. The Grand Inquisitor says that most people are too weak to live by the word of God when they are hungry. Christ should have taken the bread and offered mankind freedom from hunger instead of freedom of choice.
The second temptation was to perform a miracle. Satan placed Christ upon a pinnacle in Jerusalem and told him to prove that he was the messiah by throwing himself off it. If Christ were really God’s son, the angels would bear him up and not allow him to die. Christ refused, telling Satan that he could not tempt God. Beaten, Satan departed. But the Grand Inquisitor says that Christ should have given people a miracle, for most people need to see the miraculous in order to be content in their religious faith. Man needs a supernatural being to worship, and Christ refused to appear as one.
The third temptation was power. Satan showed Christ all the kingdoms in the world, and offered him control of them all. Christ refused. The Grand Inquisitor says that Christ should have taken the power, but since he did not, the Church has now has to take it in his name, in order to convince men to give up their free will in favor of their security.
The Grand Inquisitor tells Christ that it was Satan, and not Christ, who was in the right during this exchange. He says that ever since the Church took over the Roman Empire, it has been secretly performing the work of Satan, not because it is evil, but because it seeks the best and most secure order for mankind.