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The Table Video

Tim O'Connor& Thomas M. Crisp

Jesus, the Grand Inquisitor, and the Problem of Evil

Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Baylor University
CCT Scholar-in-Residence and Executive Board Member / Professor of Philosophy, Biola University
September 11, 2012

Tim O’Connor (Baylor University) considers Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, exploring the way in which the various characters respond to the Christian faith. Dr. O’Connor also discusses the role that moral saints play in the building up of communal faith and the way in which Dostoevsky interacts with the problem of evil.


Now, I can imagine someone saying, “Well, okay, so maybe there are some Father Zosima, “Father Zosimas out there.” And good for them, I mean, they’ve been able to attain this state of perfect love and solidarity with the suffering and instill cognizance of God’s goodness. But, most people can’t do that and now here I’m thinking of Ivan’s story of the grand inquisitor and this critique of Jesus’ program of salvation as being too difficult for the masses. Only accessible to a few excessively saintly types. And, for the rest of us and for the majority of us, wholly inaccessible and I can imagine someone saying to Dostoevsky, OK, I mean, great for Father Zosima but there are so many of us that aren’t going to be able to attain to that so this isn’t really a help for the most of us. Maybe at best, what you’re describing is a way out of the existential problem of evil for a few saintly types but for the rest of us, no help here. How do you respond?


Yes, I do think Dostoevsky was sensitive to that and I think the thing to say is we clearly live in a deeply broken world. And, we’re given as a kind of gift, I think really saintly individuals that can really strengthen our hope that the Christian faith is real. The kind of transformation that the gospel promises to us is a real possibility.

We experience a bit of it hopefully in our own lives but perhaps not as profoundly as some seem to have done. But, this life is not where it all comes together and so, we have to live in hope that in our redeemed life, we will ultimately come to experience that. It’s a mystery why some individuals are allowed to progress much further because they do so by the grace of God. And others struggle miserably and just barely cling to their faith and feel like they don’t see a great deal of progress.

They struggle against besetting sins and character flaws that they can’t seem to shake. And, this is part of the world in which God has set us. It’s a broken world and in a curious way, it’s a witness to the truth of the gospel. It teaches us just how deep the problem of sin is. So, and some people are in the unfortunate role of manifesting just how badly the brokenness can be. How ugly it can look both morally and just experientially effectively.

So, we have to hope that in our redeemed lives, all of us will eventually come to share so it’s true. In a way, the grand inquisitor is true that naturally speaking, given the range of human personalities and degrees of capacities to engage in discipline, spiritual. To participate in God’s process of transformation of ourselves in a disciplined, whole hearted way. We vary.

As human beings, we vary in every dimension and includes even our capacity to undertake strenuous self reformation by the grace of God. And that’s just a fact and we have to recognize that and recognize that some individuals are starting at a very different place and they need to measure their progress by where they’ve come from, not how far along they are along the path of true transformation.

So the thought is that the Father Zosimas of the world, the saints, they’re giving us a picture of what we can hope for in Christ in the long run. Perhaps not in this life, but in the life to come.

Yes, and one thing I should add is that what Zosima is telling us is that he started out in a pretty bad place. He was a deeply angry, self centered, aggressive individual. Not at all a saintly individual and by the grace of God he ended up in this very very different place. So, it holds out hope that it’s possible even for those who feel themselves to be the furthest from the ideal of Christ like character, that the gospel points us to.