Themes

(Short Stories for Students)

God and Religion
The fundamental tension in ‘‘The Grand Inquisitor’’ is between God, in the form of Jesus, and religion, in the form of the Roman Catholic Church. According to the Grand Inquisitor, the two cannot coexist in the modern world; one must give way because they require different things from their followers. Jesus refused to make things easy for his followers. He could have given them bread when they were hungry in the desert and satisfied in one gesture their need for material comfort and their need to see miracles. But he refused, demanding instead that his followers believe on the strength of their faith alone, without any proof. God will not force people to believe in him, or to follow him. Each person must be free to choose her own path. This road to salvation, says the Grand Inquisitor, is appropriate only for the very strong. Ordinary people are too weak to find this satisfying, as he explains: ‘‘Thou didst promise them the bread of Heaven, but ... can it compare with earthly bread in the eyes of the weak, ever-sinful and ignoble race of men?’’

People seek ‘‘to worship what is established beyond dispute, so that all men would agree at once to worship it.’’ This is the reason for religious wars: people demand that everyone believe as they do, and ‘‘for the sake of common worship they’ve slain each other with the sword.’’ In placing the freedom to choose above all else, God has permitted this misery. And yet, ‘‘man is tormented by no greater anxiety than to find someone quickly to whom he can hand over the gift of freedom.’’ In short, says the Inquisitor, God does not understand the true nature of human beings.

To fill that need, the Church has stepped in. The Church offers the mystery and the community that people need, and so it has joined forces with the devil to deceive people and take away their freedom. The Grand Inquisitor knows that he is in league with Satan, and he accepts the damnation that will be his in the end, because he is making people happy—something Jesus refused to do. The Inquisitor once followed Jesus, but ‘‘I awakened and would not serve madness.’’

Critics have debated about Jesus’s silence in the face of these accusations, and wondered whether the Grand Inquisitor speaks for Ivan, and whether Ivan speaks for Dostoevsky. Does Jesus stand silent because he has no answer, or because he is God and...

(The entire section is 993 words.)