The Grand Inquisitor, then and now

The Grand Inquisitor, then and now

“The Grand Inquisitor” is a short story by the Fyodor Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov (1880).  It is told by Ivan, an atheist, to his brother Alyosha (Alexi), who is studying at a monastery.  Ivan’s fable begins with Christ’s brief visit to Spain in the middle of the Spanish Inquisition.  Rather than arriving on clouds of glory, Christ quietly appears amid a crowd of people, healing some, and raising a dead child.  Though he speaks not a word, everyone knows who he is.  The Grand Inquisitor has Christ jailed. 

The people don’t want you, says the Inquisitor, because all you can offer them is freedom and salvation.  What people really want is magic, mystery, and authority.  Add bread, and they will follow you anywhere.  Christ made the mistake of offering them freedom. 

Instead of the strict ancient law, man had in future to decide for himself with a free heart what was good and what was evil, having only your image before him as a guide.  (Karamazov, bk 5, c 5)

It’s not enough.  More than that, the quiet reappearance of Christ disrupts the authority of the church and the rules it has laid down.  The inquisitor will have Christ burned at the stake the next day.

Christ is silent, and the Grand Inquisitor continues. The Church, he says, is led by the few men who are strong enough to accept the burden of freedom, the knowledge of nothingness.  It is the Roman Catholic Church to which the Inquisitor refers, but most of his arguments apply to  any organized religion (but not to the cynicism of the clergy). 

Under the leadership of the strong few, humanity will live and die in happy ignorance.  Though he leads them only to “death and destruction,” they will be happy along the way. “Anyone who can appease a man’s conscience can take his freedom away from him.”  Most would give it gladly.

Christ wants what he never can have: for people to choose the way of Christ with perfect freedom to do otherwise.  It is the free choice of men and women of His way that is most precious to him.  As the Inquisitor puts it to Christ, “the freedom of humanity’s faith was the dearest of all things to you.”  Christ wants people to believe for the right reasons, not just eternal life, but an eternal life that participates in perfect communion with God. 

Trouble is, people aren’t like that.  Take away their earthly bread, and they will do anything and believe anything to get it back.  The Inquisitor is part of a small regime that has taken on the burden of freedom, so that men and women can be happy in the few short years they spend on this planet between the nothingness before birth and the extinction of death. 

Having not spoken a word the entire time, the silent Christ walks over to the Grand Inquisitor and kisses him full on the lips.  Continuing on his way, Christ walks quietly into the darkness; he has not yet reappeared. 

What if the Grand Inquisitor is onto something?

Every Christian believes that Christ arose from death after three days, and that this is a promise to all believers.  But, doesn’t this promise resemble a bribe?  What if it is simply good to believe in the values embodied by Christ because these are good values?  Christianity is good for its own sake, not just for the sake of eternal life. 

We become the best we can be when we love God and love each other.  This is more than the Golden Rule because it puts Christ, not just my own needs and desires, at the center.  Christ was pointing in this direction when he said.

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matthew 22: 35-40)

Christ was pointing in this direction because it’s not just “do unto others . . .,” but love them.  Love their lives as you love the lives of your children.  

Is this the hidden moral of The Grand Inquisitor?  Choose God not for the sake of eternal life, but because God is worthy of our love, which includes following Christ’s example in as much as humans can.

How many would remain Christians after this?  I’m not sure.  Many people, I hope, could be convinced of the value of a Pauline community.  Exactly what such a community would look like I know not.  I do know that Paul had the right idea.

For Paul, love had (for want of a better word) a social meaning as well.  The social form of love for Paul was distributive justice and nonviolence, bread and peace.  (Borg and Crossan, p. 204)

Bread and nationalism

Bread was important to the Grand Inquisitor as well.  Give them bread and they will follow you anywhere he says.  What if we think of this bread as the bread of communion, making us part of one body?  For the problem that religion addresses and the Grand Inquisitor exploits is the isolation and loneliness of mass society.  No amount of magic and mystery can take the place of community, but community can help fill the need addressed by magic, mystery, and tyrannical authority.  Nationalism is fake community, in which people are bound together by common hatreds instead of love.


Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Paul.  HarperCollins, 2009

Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002.  [The chapter on the Grand Inquisitor (book 5, chapter 5) is less than 25 pages, and has been reprinted separately many times.  It is available for free from Amazon or on the web.]

2 thoughts on “The Grand Inquisitor, then and now”

  1. How strange that nobody commented on this when I think it is one of yur most important posts.I shall copy it into my library
    of the short pieces I need and want to reread
    You write with such feeling and clarity

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