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.