Christ Is Not an Idea

In Dostoyevsky's greatest novel, logic and rationalism don't hold up in the face of unexplained suffering--but Jesus does.

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He gets Alyosha, the true Christian, to agree with him. If one could build "the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny child ... and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears--would you agree to be the architect of such conditions?" Alyosha says that he would not. But, replies Alyosha, there is Christ, who can "forgive everything, forgive all and for all." To which Ivan responds with his now famous legend. It, and the preceding chapter, are deservedly revered. The writing races on a thousand legs and finally takes flight. It has the ferocity, the august vitality, the royal perspective, of scriptural writing. It is, truly, visited prose. In the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor, Christ is upbraided for allowing humans too much freedom. Humans do not want freedom, says the Inquisitor to Christ, humans are afraid of freedom. They want, really, to bow down to an idol, to subject themselves. They have no desire to live in the freedom to choose between good and evil, between doubt and knowledge.

In these two chapters, Dostoevsky mounts perhaps the most powerful attack ever made on theodicy (the formal philosophical term for the effort to justify God's goodness in a world of evil and suffering). In particular, Dostoevsky challenges the two chief elements of theodicy: that we suffer mysteriously on earth but will be rewarded in heaven; and that evil exists because freedom exists--we must be free to do good and evil, to believe in God or not to believe in Him. Any other existence would be robotic, unimaginable. In this scheme, Hitler must be "allowed" to have existed. To the first defense, Ivan says that future harmony is not worth present tears. And to the second--to my mind even more devastating--Ivan says, in effect, "why is God so sure that man even wants to be free? What is so good about freedom?" After all--Ivan does not say this, but it is implicit in his speech--we will probably not be very free when we get to heaven, and heaven sounds like a nice place. So why are we all so ragingly and horribly free on earth? If there are no Hitlers in heaven, why should it have ever been necessary for there to be Hitlers on earth?

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Dostoevsky did not invent these objections, of course. They are as old as rebellion. Moreover, he knew that theodicy has always been incapable of an adequate response to these hostilities. He merely gave them the most powerful form in the history of anti-religious writing. And this is why many readers think that the novel never manages to escape these pages, that the Christian Dostoevsky, in allowing such power to anti-Christian arguments, really produced not a Christian novel but an unconsciously atheistic one. The philosopher Lev Shestov thought that Dostoevsky, for all his orthodoxy, was so corroded by doubt that when he came to imagine the doubter Ivan, he could not help giving him a vitality and appeal far beyond the saintly and bland Alyosha. Those of Shestov's mind think that even if the novel demonstrates that atheism is finally a murderous idea because it kills Fyodor, religion is so damaged by Ivan's onslaught that it cannot mount a proper reply.

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