How the Roman Empire Humiliated Monotheists

A meditation on Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor poem

Benjamin Cain
8 min readDec 16, 2021

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Image by Mauricio Artieda, from Unsplash

InIn The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky presents what’s become known as the Grand Inquisitor poem, about the perils of organized religion. The inquisitor represents the established Church and criticizes the second coming of Jesus for being obsolete.

According to the inquisitor, Jesus erred in playing coy with people by protecting their freedom of choice to worship God or to oppose him with secular ventures. The devil tempted Jesus by challenging him to reveal his full divinity with miracles that would compel the masses to worship of him, but Jesus declined and although he performed some smaller-scale miracles, he kept his power hidden enough to allow for reasonable doubt about whether God had ever visited our world.

Eventually, after Jesus resurrected and left the scene, ascending to Heaven, and after the memory of his exploits and of his moral purity faded, his followers would have to exercise faith in him. This is to say that they could only trust they weren’t wasting their life following a crucified spiritual leader.

But due to the vicissitudes of history, including the destruction of Jerusalem and the collapse of the Roman Empire, the followers of Jesus eventually prevailed, establishing a Christian institution that would switch its allegiance from Jesus to the devil, according to the inquisitor. The proud inquisitor calls his demonic inspiration “the wise spirit, the fearful spirit of death and destruction.” Thus, the fallen Church accepts “a system of lies and deception” and leads “humanity consciously this time toward death and destruction,” “deceiving them all the while in order to prevent them from realizing where they are being led,” thus forcing “the miserable blind men to feel happy, at least while here on earth.”

The Church’s trick is to hold up Christian “Mystery” to tempt the masses to enthrall themselves to that political, unspiritual organization. The Church’s elites are secretly atheists and infidels, but in God’s absence they deprive the gullible masses of their freedom, molding them with fears of Hell and with outlandish promises of paradise. As a result, the Church ensures its flock’s earthly self-confidence and redeems the suffering of Christian…

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Benjamin Cain