It is in The Brothers Karamazov, the last and most complex of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s philosophical novels, that we encounter the riveting aphorism, “If there is no God -then everything is permitted.” With the twentieth century behind us, many would now contend that these words ascribed to Ivan Karamazov reveal a penetrating truth not to be dismissed. For Dostoevsky personally – and as a writer and thinker – there was one tormenting question: that of the existence of God. All of his great characters are driven, if not obsessed, by this burning question and its solution.
In and through his unforgettable characters, Dostoevsky demonstrates how one’s free choice in believing in or rejecting God will have profound consequences of a moral and ethical nature. Thus, the cycle of his famous novels – Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Demons, and The Brothers Karamazov – is an endless exploration of the consequences of the existence or nonexistence of God. This deepening transformation of the realistic novel of the nineteenth century into an artistic field of religio‑philosophical enquiry gives his rather topical novels a distinctively timeless quality. All lovers of great literature, and those who are keenly interested in precisely these ultimate questions of God, the meaning of life, salvation, and human destiny, will be richly rewarded for spending time and energy on one of his major works.
Through the Furnace of Doubt to Deep Belief
Dostoevsky always claimed that he came to faith in God and Christ through a “furnace of doubt.” He had involved himself in politically radical circles in St. Petersburg in the 1840s. For this he paid the terrible price of four years hard labor in a Siberian prison, followed by six more years of exile in a remote Siberian town. This followed the infamous mock execution in which Dostoevsky and other prisoners were actually convinced, up to the final moments before their dramatically orchestrated reprieve that they were to die at the hands of a firing squad for their involvement in revolutionary activity. (This harrowing experience was described with acute psychological insight by Prince Myshkin, the title character of The Idiot.) While in Siberia poring over his copy of the New Testament amidst hardened criminals from the peasant class, Dostoevsky claims to have rediscovered his faith in God.
Dostoevsky clearly knew the anguish of doubt and the moral paralysis that doubt in God’s existence would lead to. His own experience of this religious doubt was such that he had compassion on those who shared this experience. In the last years of his life, when he had achieved a certain level of fame, Dostoevsky became something of a spiritual guide to many people who wrote to him and shared with him their innermost feelings and ideas.
The protagonists of his novels are those who are wrestling with doubt, such as Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment and Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov. They are not treated as evil, but as tragic. They prefigure the anti‑hero of twentieth-century literature rather than reflecting the melodramatic villain of nineteenth-century novels. (Such villains certainly abound in Dostoevsky’s world, such as Svidrigailov of Crime and Punishment. He is a striking example of a person irredeemably lost in a kind of amoral vacuum that leaves him devoid of human passion, yet capable of inflicting harm upon others.)
Dostoevesky’s anti-heroes demonstrate that without God (and belief in immortality); life is one of isolation, inner loneliness, and brokenness. The soul is restless, caught up in a vortex of passions and sinfulness. This is the tragedy of life without God, keenly perceived by Dostoevsky. In fact, he once wrote that he “felt” ideas, thereby perhaps revealing something of his uncanny ability to embody or incarnate these ideas in flesh-and-blood literary creations.
On the other hand, Dostoevsky’s positive types, some of whom are even saintly (Sonya in Crime and Punishment, Prince Myshkin in The Idiot, and Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov) are freed from the hell of disbelief by a deep and abiding faith in God. They love their neighbors – including great sinners – and are selfless in their sacrifice for others, because they experience God as compassionate and long‑suffering. Dostoevsky’s believers are not only morally good, but ultimately Christ-like.
For Dostoevsky, as a Christian, faith in God was bound up with faith in Christ. His thought was completely Christ‑centered. The criterion of truth was Christ and all truth was to be found in Christ. Dostoevsky spoke of the “radiant personality of Christ.” In a well‑known passage from one of his letters, he wrote the following:
And yet sometimes God sends me moments in which I am utterly at peace; in those moments I love and find that I am loved by others and in such moments I have constructed for myself a symbol of faith in which everything is clear and holy for me. The symbol is very simple, here it is: to believe that there is nothing more beautiful, more profound, more sympathetic, more reasonable, more courageous, and more perfect than Christ and not only is there nothing, but I tell myself with jealous love there never could be.
A few years later, and with a more theological ring, he further wrote: “The source of 1ife and of salvation from despair and the condition of the whole world is contained in only these three words: the ‘Word became flesh’.”
A Voice in the Wilderness
In nineteenth-century Europe and among his fellow Russians, it often appeared that Dostoevsky was a voice crying in the wilderness. This was the century that witnessed the rise of social, political, scientific, and ideological systems that were implicitly or explicitly atheistic. With a kind of prophetic insight, Dostoevsky envisioned the logical consequences of these systems that ignored or rejected God. It was openly stated that God, and belief in Him, were relics of the past. Religious faith was a sign of mankind’s immaturity, at best a preparatory stage in mankind’s progressive liberation from dependence on supernatural assistance.
The atheistic humanism of Western Europe enticed and obsessed the Russian intelligentsia. In all of this, Christ was seen in the romantic garb of a humanitarian teacher of moral truths – or a dangerous dreamer. Marx’s famous dictum that religion was the “opium of the people” seemed to capture this revolt against God in a convincing manner. Later in the century, Nietzsche declared that “God is dead.” The theories of Darwin and Freud – natural selection and psychoanalysis – further reduced the human person to a product, if not plaything, of the environment, or to inner impulses and desires.
These theories both fascinated Dostoevsky and filled him with great trepidation. He was convinced that the godless world envisioned by these ideas would eventually become an inhuman world wherein “everything is permitted” against flesh-and-blood human beings not “in step” with the reigning ideas or the reigning party. Dostoevsky saw that the worth of a human being is grounded in the will and love of God, who has created each and every human person in His image and likeness. In the dialectics of Dostoevsky’s artistic vision, the human person, once robbed of this spiritual likeness to God, is eventually enslaved by mankind’s “liberators.” As the socialist theoretician Shigalev said in Demons: “I started with total freedom and ended up with total enslavement.”
Or, from the perspective and in the words of the saintly elder Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov:
The spiritual world, the nobler side of man’s being, has been rejected altogether, banned as it were triumphantly, perhaps even with hatred. The world has proclaimed freedom, now more loudly than ever; but what do we find in that freedom of theirs? Nothing but enslavement and suicide!
For Dostoevsky, true freedom is found in faithfully preserving the “pure and undefiled image of Christ” as it has been received “from the fathers of old, the apostles and martyrs.” With uncanny insight, Dostoevsky intuitively sensed the coming storm of the twentieth century, when the truly demonic side of godless ideologies would unleash all of its fury. At times there was an apocalyptic intensity to his vision: “The end of the world is coming . . . The end of the century will be marked by a calamity, the likes of which has never yet occurred.”
Yet, when the time came that really manifested the truth of Dostoevsky’s statement – “If there is no God, then everything is permitted” – even he would have been struck by its brutality and ferociousness. This is why he was so alarmed at the rise of revolutionary socialism/communism in his own time. Its militant atheism, combined with a destructively nihilistic attitude toward traditional forms of personal and social life, pointed toward frightful consequences for the future.
Yet, the rise of rampant individualism and materialism imported to Russia from the West (rather scathingly depicted and exposed in The Idiot) was hardly a solution for Dostoevsky. The atomization of society caused by these forces undermined the organic vision of social life that Dostoevsky posited as an ideal based on the Christian principles of unity and love. Each person and each nation must live by a “higher idea.” This found expression in Dostoevsky’s Diary of a Writer:
Without a higher idea, neither a man, nor a nation, can exist. But on earth there is only one higher idea, and mainly – the idea of the immortality of the soul, for all the other “higher” ideas of life, by which man can live, flow from it alone.
For Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whose analysis of the contemporary world is close to Dostoevsky’s, the underlying problem of our century is that “man has forgotten God.”
Crime and Repentance
The crime of murder sustains the dramatic and moral tensions of a Dostoevsky novel as well as it shapes the often frenetic pace of the plot. The question, though, is not, “Who did it?” but rather, “Why was it done?” What intellectual and spiritual aberrations are at the heart of such a horrible crime? Those who murder, such as Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, are testing the moral and religious truth of the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.” They want to discover whether or not they are “strong” enough to transgress the moral law of God.
Denial of the existence of God will inevitably lead to contempt for humanity. “Am I a man, or am I a louse?” is the anguished question of the ax-murderer Raskolnikov, directed to the saintly prostitute Sonya. In moving beyond good and evil, this tormented character is testing the principle that “everything is permitted.” Without God, his own will and desire becomes the source of everything. “If there is no God, then I am God,” proclaims Kirilov in Demons. Thus, the principle of the God-man is rejected in favor of the newly created man-god.
This illegitimate self-deification actually proves to be the final descent into a self-enclosed hell of estrangement from both God and humanity. All relationships become severed. In the light of God’s truth, murder is ultimately self-murder, a kind of spiritual suicide. The one remaining link with the Other – be it God or human beings – is the conscience.
Dostoevsky is unsurpassed in his exploration of the dynamics of the human conscience. Conversion remains a possibility as long as the conscience is still alive. Dostoevsky’s great sinners can only find redemption through repentance, confession, voluntary suffering, and a rekindled love for both God and neighbor. The hint of such a conversion to a new and better life in Raskolnikov closes the epilogue of Crime and Punishment. When even the human conscience has died, as with Svidrigailov in Crime and Punishment and Stavrogin of Demons, then actual suicide is the final act of despair. Dostoevsky’s novels reveal both the saved and the lost.
A Rewarding Effort
Dostoevsky does not make light or easy reading. Yet, he is very readable. His novels are filled with a seemingly endless gallery of fascinating characters – murderers, prostitutes, epileptics, intellectuals, bureaucrats, nihilists, atheists, monks, and so on. One encounters the extremes of good and evil, the saintly and the demonic. (There are, of course, a few normal people as well!) His plots are a well-sustained whirlwind of events that completely capture the attention of the reader. With his great sense of humanity, there is a good use of humor. And his works are profoundly Christian, in that the question of God is at the heart of his artistic world.
An Orthodox monk, Fr. Seraphim Rose, said that good literature is capable of “forming the soul.” Not because it is openly didactic (didactic literature, as in the case of the later Tolstoy, usually fails as literature), but by honestly raising questions and dilemmas of a moral and spiritual nature; by illuminating the subtler aspects of the clash between good and evil; and by locating the human person as an historical and social being choosing one or the other in the infinitesimal network of relationships that make up human existence. In other instances, literature may yield more open examples of Christian virtue which impress themselves upon the minds and hearts of the reader. This is particularly true of the great classics: Dante, Cervantes, Balzac, Dickens, Eliot, the Brontes, Gogol, Tolstoy, etc. Time spent with Dostoevsky and these other giants can open up to us new worlds in our ongoing discovery of what it means to be human – and of our need for God.