People use the parable of The Grand Inquisitor for all kinds of political arguments. A friend just beat me over the head with it.

In the parable of the Grand Inquisitor Christ comes back to Earth at the time of the Inquisition and performs miracles from the Gospels, so the people recognize him, but he is arrested by the  Inquisition and sentenced to be burnt to death the next day. The Grand Inquisitor visits him in his cell to tell him that the Church no longer needs him. Most of the story is the Inquisitor explaining to Jesus why his return would interfere with the mission of the Church.

The Inquisitor does not believe that humanity can handle the freedom which Jesus has given them. The Inquisitor implies that Jesus, by giving freedom to choose, has made the majority of humanity to suffer.

The Inquisitor says that the Church follows “the wise spirit, the dread spirit of death and destruction”, ( Satan). “We are not with Thee, but with him, and that is our secret! For centuries have we abandoned Thee to follow him“. Satan, through compulsion, provided the tools to end all human suffering and unite under the banner of the Church. Humanity then is guided through the Church by the few who are strong enough to take on the burden of freedom. Though he leads them only to “death and destruction“, they will be happy along the way. The Inquisitor says that “anyone who can appease a man’s conscience can take his freedom away from him“.

The Inquisitor explains to Christ, “Feed men, and then ask of them virtue! That’s what they’ll write on the banner they’ll raise against Thee and with which they will destroy Thy temple. Where Thy temple stood will rise a new building; the terrible tower of Babel will be built again, and though, like the one of old, it will not be finished“. Casting himself down from the temple to be caught by angels would cement his godhood in the minds of people, who would follow him forever. Rule over all the kingdoms of the Earth would ensure their salvation, the Grand Inquisitor says.

Christ, who has been silent, kisses the Inquisitor on his “bloodless, aged lips” instead of answering him. The Inquisitor releases Christ but tells him never to return. Christ, still silent, leaves into “the dark alleys of the city”. Not only is the kiss ambiguous, but its effect on the Inquisitor is as well. Ivan concludes: “The kiss glows in his heart, but the old man adheres to his idea”.

Ivan (who tells the parable) identifies with the Inquisitor. Ivan asks Alyosha if he “renounces” Ivan because of his views. Alyosha responds by giving Ivan a soft kiss on the lips, to which the delighted Ivan replies: “That’s plagiarism… Thank you though”.


Reading through to the end, it is clear Dostoevsky did not write the parable of the Grand Inqusitor purely as a pro-Jesus parable. He didn’t write it as only a criticism of the Church. He wrote it to get his readers to wrestle with reality. Interpreting it as criticism of the church, or criticism of materialism, is naive. (The context of my getting beaten over the head was Snowden and the NSA, with Snowden in the role of Jesus and me as Grand Inquisitor.)

It is also criticism of the pious church that would damn starving men to hell for sin committed while starving. It is a criticism of damning people for sin when they saw no way out of their hell on earth. 

The Grand Inquisitor does not support any single position. For Christ disappears into the dark alleys of the city (among the poor). But christ has blessed the Inquisitor. The Grand Inquisitor has let Christ go. The Inquisitor’s heart is not dark, but motivated by what brought Jesus to earth in the new testament – to be a savior.