[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.
As the Grand Inquisitor finishes his indictment of Christ, Christ walks up to the old man and kisses him gently on the lips. The Grand Inquisitor suddenly sets Christ free, but tells him never to return again.
As Ivan finishes his story, he worries that Alyosha will be disturbed by the idea that if there is no God, there are no moral limitations on man’s behavior. But Alyosha leans forward and kisses Ivan on the lips. Ivan, moved, replies that Alyosha has stolen that action from his poem. Ivan and Alyosha leave the restaurant and split up. Ivan begins walking home and Alyosha walks to the monastery where Zosima is dying.
The story of the Grand Inquisitor strongly resembles a biblical parable, the kind of story that Christ tells in the New Testament to illustrate a philosophical point. Both Ivan’s story and Christ’s stories use a fictional narrative to address a deep philosophical concern and are open to various interpretations. The similarity between Ivan’s story and Christ’s stories illustrates the uneasy relationship between Ivan and religion. At the same time that Ivan rejects religion’s ability to effectively guide human life, he relies on many of its principles in forming his own philosophical system. Like Christ, Ivan is deeply concerned with understanding the way we define what is right and what is wrong, and with understanding how morality guides human actions. However, Ivan ultimately rejects both Christ’s and God’s existence, as he cannot accept a supreme being with absolute power who would nonetheless allow the suffering that occurs on Earth.
The story also implicitly brings up a new point with regard to Ivan’s argument about expanding the power of ecclesiastical courts. By setting his story in sixteenth-century Spain, where ecclesiastical courts were at the height of their power to try and punish criminals, Ivan asks what verdict such a court would have reached in judging Christ’s life. Since Christian religions teach that Christ lived a sinless life, presumably an ecclesiastical court would have been unable to find Christ guilty of any sin. However, the fact that Ivan’s court finds Christ guilty of sins against mankind illustrates the difference between Ivan’s religious beliefs and his beliefs in the efficacy of ecclesiastical courts. He sees the courts as an effective way to guide human action, but not necessarily as a way to induce men to believe more strongly in God or religion.
The conflict between free will and security further illustrates the reasons for Ivan’s dissent from Christianity. The fundamental difference between Christ’s point of view and that of the Grand Inquisitor is the value that each of them places on freedom and comfort. Christ’s responses to the three temptations emphasize the importance of man’s ability to choose between right and wrong, while the Inquisitor’s interpretation of Christ’s actions emphasizes the greater value of living a comfortable life in which the right path has already been chosen by someone else.
The assumption at the heart of the Inquisitor’s case is that Christ’s resistance of Satan’s temptations is meant to provide a symbolic example for the rest of mankind. The Inquisitor interprets the rejection of the temptations as Christ’s argument that humanity must reject certain securities: comfort, represented by bread; power and the safety that power brings, represented by the kingdoms; and superstition, represented by the miracle. The Inquisitor believes that Christ’s example places an impossible burden on mankind, which is inherently too weak to use its free will to find salvation. Effectively, the Inquisitor argues, the only option is for people to lead sinful lives ending in damnation. The Inquisitor’s Church, which is allied with Satan, seeks to provide people with stability and security in their lives, even if by doing so it ensures that they will be damned in the afterlife.
Ivan’s story presents the Inquisitor, a man who considers himself an ally of Satan, as an admirable human being, acting against God but with humanity’s best interest at heart. Ivan does not believe that God acts in the best interest of mankind, but the implication that human nature is so weak that people are better off succumbing to the power of Satan is a radical response to the problem of free will. Ivan’s attitude stems from the psychology of doubt. Ivan’s over-riding skepticism makes it impossible for him to see anything but the bad side of human nature. As a result, he believes that people would be better off under the thumb of even a fraudulent religious authority rather than making their own decisions. Even though his argument is pessimistic, his reasoning is compelling.
Just as Alyosha is unable to offer a satisfactory response to Ivan’s critique of God, Christ says nothing during the Inquisitor’s critique of him, one of several parallels between Alyosha and Christ during this chapter. But Christ’s enigmatic kiss on the Inquisitor’s lips after his indictment completely changes the tenor of the scene. Recalling Zosima’s bow before Dmitri at the monastery in Book I, the kiss represents an overriding act of love and forgiveness so innate that it can only be expressed wordlessly. On its deepest level, it defies explanation. The power of faith and love, Dostoevsky implies, is rooted in mystery—not simply in the empty and easily digestible idea that God’s will is too complex for people to understand, but in a resonant, active, unanswerable profundity. The kiss cannot overcome a logical argument, but at the same time there is no logical argument that can overcome the kiss. It represents the triumph of love and faith, on their own terms, over rational skepticism. In having Ivan end his poem on a note of such deep and moving ambiguity, Dostoevsky has his major opponent of religion acknowledge the power of faith, just as Dostoevsky himself, a proponent of faith, has used Ivan to acknowledge the power of doubt. Alyosha’s kiss for Ivan indicates how well the young Alyosha understands the problems of faith and doubt in a world characterized by free will, and just how committed his own will is to the positive goodness of faith.