Dostoyevsky and the Problem of God
"Nothing is more seductive for man than his freedom of conscience.
But nothing is a greater cause of suffering."
The Brothers Karamazov, 1880.
In contemplating the creation of the novel The Idiot, Dostoyevsky wrote
in a letter to A.N. Maikov that he hoped to focus the work around a question
"with which I have been tormented, consciously or unconsciously all
my life--that is, the existence of God."1 Dostoyevsky's personal struggle
with the question of faith, and also his own experience with trying doubts
as a believer, are manifested in the characters he writes. A large number
of Dostoyevsky's books are written within the framework of a Christian
doctrine, juxtaposing characterizations of believers and non-believers,
enforcing the ultimate good and reason that follow from possessing a faith.
Dostoyevsky also describes however, the mental suffering and questioning
inherent in the step of realizing the "truth" of Jesus Christ.
Berdyaev, in a discussion on Dostoyevsky's mission, states that "he
did not have to solve the divine problem as does the pagan, but the problem
of mankind,which is the problem of the spiritual man, the Christian."2
Indeed, Dostoyevsky was raised in a religious home, "I descended from
a pious Russian family . . . We, in our family, have known the gospel almost
ever since our earliest childhood . . . Every visit to the Kremlin and the
Moscow cathedral was, to me, something solemn." 3 He was certainly
well acquainted with the contents of the Bible, as his devoted mother used
only the Old and New Testament to teach her children to read and write.
Dostoyevsky also recalled his favorite nurse in the context of the prayer
she taught him, "I place all my hope in Thee, Mother of God preserve
me under Thy protection." 4 Such a strong female association in his
early childhood perhaps influenced Dostoyevsky's later writing, enabling
him to write only females into roles that were true and wholly pious, evidenced
by Sonya from Crime and Punishment. Moreover, these childhood associations
seem to have strongly imprinted upon his mind, "This book [the book
of Job] Anna [his wife], it's strange -- is one of the first which made
an impression on me in life, I was just then only a little boy."5
While a large portion of Dostoyevsky's nurturing seems to have occurred
in a Christian nest, he was also exposed to the harsh qualities possessed
by man. His father was, though reverent, a drunk, and was later murdered
by serfs on account of his inhumane treatment.6
This rougher sphere of his upbringing manifested itself in Dostoyevsky's
early adulthood. He became involved in a group known as the "Russian
Utopian Socialists," influenced by Belinsky, a well known literary
critic. The partnership formed by the two presumably shook Dostoyevsky's
faith, as his revered mentor found that "as a socialist, he had to
destroy Christianity in the first place. He knew that the revolution must
necessarily begin with atheism."7 Later, though, Dostoyevsky broke
off from the specific branch of the movement, forming the Durov circle.
He was arrested for "the circulation of a private letter full of insolent
expressions against the Orthodox Church."8 Evidently, he had forgotten
his mother's teachings.
While in prison (where the only book allowed was The Bible) it appears
Dostoyevsky began to reemerge as a believer, writing in a letter to Mrs.
I believe that there is nothing lovelier, deeper, more sympathetic,
more rational, more manly and more perfect than the Savior;...If anyone
could prove to me that Christ is outside the truth, and if the truth really
did exclude Christ, I should prefer to stay with Christ and not the truth.9
Yet, the Dostoyevsky scholar Mochulsky, pounces on this declaration,
For him Christ was only the most beautiful 'sympathetic' and
perfect of men. He even allowed that the One who said of himself: 'I am
the Truth,' can be found to exist outside the truth; this premise is blasphemous
to every believer. Here is the direction in which Dostoyevsky's convictions
What is important however, is the actual regeneration of the faith which
is evident and steadfast in novels such as The Brothers Karamazov, Devils,
The Idiot, and Crime and Punishment. Another important consideration is
that this spiritual rebirth took place within the confines of a Siberian
prison, where Dostoyevsky was amassing a large storage of information on
the capacity for evil in men. That Dostoyevsky was able to cultivate a
belief within such a hostile environment demonstrates the strength of his
For Dostoyevsky then, the problem of God became not the recognition of
the truth, but the elimination of associated doubt. The primary source of
doubt which plagued Dostoyevsky was his struggle to reconcile the suffering
evident in the world and the notion of a loving God.
Dostoyevsky expressed this conflict in Ivan Karamazov, "It's not God
I don't accept, understand this, I do not accept the world, that He created,
this world of God's, and cannot agree with it."11 The Brothers Karamazov,
the novel in which Dostoyevsky deals most explicitly with the questioning
of God, was planned in a manner which "pitted faith versus atheism."12
Faith was primarily identified in the "active love" Alyosha displayed
towards his brothers, but fundamentally Zosima served as a prototype, through
which Dostoyevsky felt he could "compel people to admit that a pure
ideal Christianity is not an abstraction, but a vivid reality, possibly
near at hand, and that Christianity is the sole refuge of the Russian land
from all its evils."13 Both Alyosha and Zosima were imminently more
successful in serving as an example of the ideal goodness found in religious
men than Dostoyevsky's prior attempts. For instance, Prince Myshkin in
The Idiot, ended up being primarily that, an idiot characterized more by
ignorant simplicity than a base goodness founded in a strong Christian faith.
The faith displayed chiefly in Alyosha is countered by Ivan's intellectual
denouncement of God. Yet, as Mochulsky explains, Ivan's approach and defense
of atheism "lies in that he renounces God out of love for mankind,
comes forward against the Creator in the role of the advocate of all suffering
creation."14 The clash in opinion of these two Karamazov brothers
is representative of the struggle found in the human soul, "The awful
thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil
are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of men."15 Ivan
attempts to snare Alyosha on two points, the suffering of innocents and
the conception of freedom, essentially free will.
The suffering of children is most irrational and unjust to Ivan, and also
to Alyosha's mind. Ivan delivers a monologue in which he relates horrid
examples of the torture of children, probing Alyosha to reconcile such abuse
with his loving God. Ivan refocuses the argument in an effort to appeal
to Alyosha's immense kindness:
Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with
the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at
last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only
one tiny creature...and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would
you consent to be the architect on this condition?16
Alyosha counters, defending his beliefs with the example of Christ-who
suffered a excruciating crucifixion for the sake of man. Extrapolating
on this idea, Alyosha explains that 'each is responsible for all.' Any
guilt, and consequently any suffering should be common to every believer,
as we are all guilty of Adam and Eve's original sin. Gibson extends Alyosha's
comments with further interpretation, "and if we felt that responsibility
keenly enough we could abolish suffering -- for the future."17
In response to Alyosha's justification Dostoyevsky writes what has been
heralded as his most profound piece of writing, Ivan's "poem"
concerning The Grand Inquisitor. Within this discussion of free will the
reader hits on another problem of God, one of the major tenets of scholarly
atheism. Ivan blames Christ for man's downfall and disbelief in an astonishing
path of reasoning:
For the secret of man's being is not only to live but to have something
to live for . . . Instead of taking men's freedom from them, Thou didst
make it greater than ever! Didst Thou forget that man prefers peace, and
even death, to the freedom of choice in the knowledge of good and evil?
. . . So that, in truth, thou didst Thyself lay the foundation for the destruction
of Thy kingdom, and no one is more to blame for it.18
Berdyaev, in an explanation of Dostoyevsky's intense focus on freedom points
out that, "for him the justification both of God and of man must be
looked for in freedom..."19 This freedom is further defined:
The lesser freedom was the beginning, freedom to choose the good, which
supports the possibility of sin; the greater freedom was the ending, freedom
in God, in the bosom of God...The dignity of man and the dignity of faith
require the recognition of two freedoms, freedom to choose the truth and
freedom in the truth...But free goodness, which alone is true, entails the
liberty of evil. That is the tragedy of that Dostoyevsky saw and studied,
and it contains the mystery of Christianity.20
And consequently it revokes Ivan's argument, for if evil necessitates freedom,
than it is through humans that evil and suffering occurs, and therefore
God can not be blamed. Freedom is also required however, so that we are
allowed to fully appreciate God's love by choosing it. You can not have
a world, both free and good, human imperfection will not allow for it.
As Berdyaev finishes, "The world is full of wickedness and miserly
precisely because it is based on freedom -- yet that freedom constitutes
the whole dignity of man and his world."21
However, within the frame of the text Dostoyevsky answers the great paradox
of free-will not with debate, but with the actions of Alyosha. Gibson agrees,
explaining, "The answer is to go forward from theory to practice: and
Dostoyevsky distinguished in the end between the yearning love which does
nothing and submits, and the active love which has the power to save."22
The success of Alyosha's working love is seen in his interactions with
Kolya, a boy of about fourteen years, and with his classmates. Before the
young and fiercely loyal Ilyusha dies, Alyosha enables a reconciliation
between the failing boy and his school "hero" Kolya. While this
act in itself displays great love, Dostoyevsky examines the situation more
deeply, showing a fundamental change in Kolya's perspective as a direct
result of Alyosha's influence. Upon first meeting the "monk of the
world" Kolya challenges, "You must admit that the Christian religion
, for instance, has only been of use to the rich and the powerful to keep
the lower classes in slavery..."23 And yet, at Ilyusha's funeral he
exclaims, "Oh, if I, too, could sacrifice myself some day for the truth!"24
echoing Christ's action and demonstrating clearly that Alyosha's active
love has saved him, and that this love does answer God's call for Christians
to be responsible and consequently guilty for the sins of the world.
While Dostoyevsky examines his religious doubts, funneling his struggle
into the voices of his characters, it is clear that his final resolve lies
in a strong conviction of the presence of God. By noting the situation
he leaves his characters in at the completion of his works it is apparent
that the "good" or likable characters are aligned with God, and
the "evil" personalities rebel against the Almighty. The Brothers
Karamazov ends with Alyosha, Mitya, and Kolya all as believers, all of whom
we feel compassion towards, while the sly and sinister Smerdyakov commits
suicide, the strongest act of rebellion against God. Kirillov and Nikolai
in Devils also take their own lives, and are also the most reprehensible
characters within the work. Dostoyevsky distinctly pairs his heroes with
a strong faith in God and his villains with atheism (and socialism), suggesting
the conclusion which he would like to draw.
Also expressed in his texts are some of the minor snares which trap Dostoyesky's,
and consequently his character's, minds, such as the superman theory, the
example of unjust Christians, the excesses of churches, the triumph of sin
and the call for a absolute and genuine dedication to the "light".
In a letter to N.L. Ozmidov, in 1878, Dostoyevsky writes:
This superman theory, initially established in Raskolnikov from Crime and
Punishment is a result of doubt expressed in the very existence of God,
combined with immense pride. The theory allows Raskolnikov, without instigation,
to murder two women and potentially an unborn child. As a higher being,
he should be allowed to take the life of those less meaningful and essential.
Using the same justification Kirillov issues a form of challenge to God,
and in preparing to take his life explains, "If God exists, then everything
is His will, and I can do nothing of my own apart from His will. If there's
no God, then everything is my will, and I'm bound to express my will."26
This amazing arrogance stems from Kirillov's absolute absence of faith
in Christ, containing instead only a faith in himself,
Now assume there is no God or immortality of the soul. Now tell me, why
should I live righteously and do good deeds if I am to die entirely on earth?...And
if that is so, why shouldn't I (as long as I can rely on my cleverness and
agility to avoid being caught by the law) cut another man's throat , rob,
"If you shoot yourself, you'll become God, isn't that right?"
"Yes, I'll become God."27
This theory however, is refuted by Dostoyevsky in his plot development.
Raskolnikov is unable to live with himself after the murder takes place.
While his warped logic may allow some form of reasoning for his heinous
act, he is fundamentally unable to erase his sense of wrong and right.
Initially he attempts to continue life, enjoying his clever trick, and concluding
from his experiment that he is a superman. Yet, humble Sonya takes apart
Raskolnikov's intellect by reducing him to the base level of his soul, and
it is here that he recognizes he is guilty, he has committed and evil act
and he needs forgiveness. Dostoyevsky dissolves the superman theory by
condemning the involved characters to mental suffering until they recognize
the truth and light of Christianity.
Another troublesome notion suggested in Dostoyevsky's works which has the
potential to weaken one's faith is the example of unjust Christians. Scenarios
slip into the texts which shake the foundation of belief. For instance,
Adelaida Ivanovna, "left the house and ran away from Fyodor Pavlovich
with a destitute divinity student, leaving Mitya, a child of three years
old, in her husband's hands."28 Immediately we are called to question
-- a divinity student ran away with another's wife, also a young mother?
Dostoyevsky pushes this inconsistency further by developing characters
such Rakitin in The Brothers Karamazov. Rakitin, a monk, works more strongly
against God than the atheists within the novel. In Alyosha's time of great
sorrow, after his elder has died, Rakitin responds by presenting and encouraging
Alyosha to be tempted by food, drink, and Grushenka. Additionally, Rakitin
is known to be continually stirring up trouble and gossip, a milder Iago.
"Evil" and ingenuine Christians presumably cause Dostoyevsky
problems, as he writes them into his novels, in an attempt to consider and
Moreover, such obstacles for Dostoyevsky are not confined to religious
persons, but extend to the entity of the church itself (especially the Roman
Catholic church) and its excesses. There is a continual critique of the
established monk lifestyle, and its leniency towards treats such as jam.
Fyodor Pavlovich when he barges in on the Father Superior's meal delivers
a long tirade, condemning the entire organization of the institution,
No, saintly monk, you try being virtuous in the world, do good
to society, without shutting yourself up in a monastery at other people's
expense, and without expecting a reward up aloft for it--you'll find that
battle a bit harder . . . Look at the bottles the fathers have brought out
. . . And who has provided it all? The Russian peasant . . 29
Once Dostoyevsky has established a knowledge of the truth within his characters,
the next problem of God arises -- maintaining that truth, and not falling
Absolute conviction is called for, as seen in Tikhon's confession from
Devils. Nikolai, presented as a horrific character who has sexually abused
a young girl is not an atheist. That would be preferable. Instead, "just
as before both feelings [good and evil] are always too trivial and never
very powerful."30 By being indifferent to good and evil Nikolai is
dismissing the importance of the question of God. Atheists are preferable
in the sense that the existence of God is enough of a question for them
to consider and determine their belief.
Additionally, an inaccurate faith, based on the wrong premises is clearly
problematic. As the Almighty has presented his people with such a large
quantity of miracles, these displays, Dostoyevsky shows, can found people's
belief and turn their creed into a form of entertainment. In The Brothers
Karamazov the tenet that God only exists if you believe in him is established
in Father Zosima's healings, "aroused by the expectation of the miracle
of healing and the implicit belief that it would come to pass; and it did
come to pass."31 Furthermore, because the elder's body begins to decay
following his death, (instead of remaining pure) heavy criticism falls on
the monastery, and many people lose faith, because they were dependent on
the presence of a miracle.
Finally, the last problem of God suggested by Dostoyevsky is the continual
urge to and consequent act of sin. Mitya confesses, "Though I may
be following the devil, I am thy son, O Lord."32 Here, the danger
lies only in maintaining the perspective that God is the Father, whom we
should be subservient to, though we may blunder at times.
While Dostoyevsky's works clearly and thoroughly deal with the struggle
of recognizing the existence of God and maintaining that belief, his ultimate
conclusion is unquestionable -- though as humans we may try to rationalize
God, stirring up supposed inconsistencies, as believers we will be recieved
in our trifling ignorance with grace. The resurrection of Ilyusha in the
hope of his schoolmates closes The Brothers Karamazov and is an appropriate
profession of the faith Dostoyevsky has in Christ's resurrection. At points,
the brilliant logical debates Dostoyevsky writes seem to suggest the author
is losing his conviction. However, the actions and power of active love
dismiss any doubt concerning the foundation of Dostoyevsky's faith. We,
as readers of Dostoyevsky, and witnesses of his debates, are placed in the
position of approaching faith with logic and reasoning, as does The Grand
Inquisitor. However, to truly realize Dostoyevsky's intent, we must remember
and respond to his portrayal of Christ,
He [the Grand Inquisitor] saw that the Prisoner [Christ] had listened intently
and quietly all the time, looking gently in his face and evidently not wishing
to reply. The old man longed for Him to say something, however bitter and
terrible. But He suddenly approached the old man in silence and softly
kissed him on his bloodless aged lips. That was all his answer.33
1 Dirscherl, Denis S.J. Dostoevsky and the Catholic Church. Chicago:
Loyola University Press, 1986. 59.
2 Berdyaev, Nicholas. Dostoievsky. Translated by Donald Attwater. New
York: Sheed and Ward Inc., 1934. 24.
3 Dirscherl, 43.
4 Dirscherl, 43.
5 Dirscherl, 43.
6 Dirscherl, 44.
7 Dirscherl, 47.
8 Dirscherl, 48.
9 Dirscherl, 52.
10 Dirscherl, 53.
11 Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov. V, 3.
12 Dirscherl, 112.
13 Gibson, Alexander Boyce. The Religion of Dostoevsky. Philadelphia:
The Westminster Press, 1973. 169.
14 Mochulsky, Konstantin, "The Brothers Karamazov." In: Dostoyevky,
Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Translated by Constance Garnett. Edited
and revised by Ralph E. Matlaw. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.,
15 Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov. III, 3.
16 Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov. III, 4.
17 Gibson, 179.
18 Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov. III, 5.
19 Berdyaev, 67.
20 Berdyaev, 68-69.
21 Berdyaev, 85.
22 Gibson, 176.
23 Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov. X, 6.
24 Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov,. Epilogue, 3.
25 Dostoyevsky, Selected Letters of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Ed. Frank and Goldstein.
U.S.A. : Rutgers University, 1987. 446.
26 Dostoyevsky, Devils. III, 6.
27 Dostoyevsky, Devils. III, 6.
28 Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov. I, 1.
29 Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov. II, 8.
30 Dostoyevsky, Devils. III, 8.
31 Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov. II, 3.
32 Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov. III, 3.
33 Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov. V. 5.
A. Primary Sources:
Dostoyevky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Translated by Constance
Garnett. Edited and revised by Ralph E. Matlaw. New York: W.W. Norton
& Company, Inc., 1976.
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. Devils. Translated by Michael R. Katz. New
York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. Selected Letters of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Edited
by Frank and Goldstein. U.S.A.: Rutgers State University, 1987.
B. Secondary Sources:
Berdyaev, Nicholas. Dostoievsky. Translated by Donald Attwater.
New York: Sheed and Ward Inc., 1934.
Dirscherl, Denis, S.J. Dostoevsky and the Catholic Church. Chicago:
Loyola University Press, 1986.
Gibson, Alexander Boyce. The Religion of Dostoevsky. Philadelphia:
The Westminster Press, 1973.