Dostoevsky’s “Rebellion” and the Problem of Evil


Dostoyevsky (2002) by Manuel Sandoval

 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.

Romans 8:18

C.S. Lewis wrote that we often say of some instance of human suffering that “no future bliss can make up for it,” but this is only because we cannot see “that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory.”[1] But what if there are some evils that are so blatantly egregious, so unrestrained in their dehumanizing cruelty that their very existence calls into question the reality of this future glory? In his book The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky offers the reader this powerful formulation of the problem of evil. In a chapter titled “Rebellion,” Ivan Karamazov recounts in excruciating detail incidents where young children were mercilessly tortured for fun. He challenges the idea that God could ever merge such evil with goodness into some sort of glorious, eternal harmony. Ivan even questions the morality of such an arrangement. “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,” he asks his brother, “but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature—that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance—and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?”[2] Ivan will not abide the sufferings of innocent children for, in his estimation, no future glory can make up for them.

Ivan Karamazov refuses to accept an end sum of perfect happiness if it must be reached through an equation with such inhumane variables – “if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price.”[3] How could such flagrant evil be necessary, he asks? Is it worth the reward of eternal bliss? “I hasten to give back my entrance ticket … It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket.” His brother remarks, “That’s rebellion.”

In this construction of the argument, Ivan does not directly challenge the logical problem of evil – the idea that a transcendent God could have some reasons beyond our finite knowledge for allowing evil – nor does he refrain from acknowledging that given the goodness of human freedom, a degree of human evil is possible. Still, logic be damned, Ivan says, when it comes to the suffering of innocent children. He refuses to accept that God’s reasons are beyond his comprehension. His moral intuition recoils at the thought that there could be reasons. He rebels against a God that has brought him into existence for such as this, regardless of what awaits him in eternity:

If all must suffer to pay for the eternal harmony, what have children to do with it, tell me, please? It’s beyond all comprehension why they should suffer, and why they should pay for the harmony. Why should they, too, furnish material to enrich the soil for the harmony of the future? I understand solidarity in sin among men. I understand solidarity in retribution, too; but there can be no such solidarity with children.[4]

For Ivan Karamazov, stoical resignation towards the murder of children is not a conscionable option and, in this, he betrays the Judeo-Christian convictions that nourish his rebellion. In his book The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?, David Bentley Hart writes, “at the heart of all such unbelief lies an undoubtedly authentic moral horror before the sheer extravagance of worldly misery, a kind of rage for justice, a refusal of easy comfort, and an unwillingness to be reconciled to evil that no one who believes this to be a fallen world should want to disparage.”[5] We as Christians can meet this rebel, for he is on our soil! No other view of the world can support his outrage. Ivan Karamazov lacks the acceptance of the atheist when it comes to the ultimate meaninglessness of the world as it is. He intuits that something is wrong with the current state of affairs. He demonstrates that a spirit which aches at injustice has in “some profound way been shaped by the moral universe of a Christian culture.”[6] He is not far from the Kingdom. We must not forget that another Rebel stood at the tomb of a friend and wept.[7] It is not God’s will that any should die.[8]

Ivan forces us to ask whether or not the suffering of an innocent child could ever be rationalized. For some, the very act of trying to fit such deeds into a syllogistic defense of God is heartless. Hart claims that our impulse to “believe that there is a divine plan in all the seeming randomness of nature’s violence that accounts for every instance of suffering, privation, and loss in a sort of total sum” is understandable but it is unwarranted.  He warns that this impulse does not do justice to the Gospel.

In short, Hart writes that our attempt to find some sort of hidden rationality in suffering is contrary to both the Biblical narrative and to the nature of evil itself. We intuit an arbitrariness to evil, so to give it a rationale for existing borders on travesty. That moral intuition should not be explained away. Instead, it should be seen as a pointer to the fact that, as Lewis wrote, everything in our experience of Nature “has all the air of a good thing spoiled.”[9]

Ivan’s intuition is the “warmth within the breast,” of which Lord Tennyson wrote in his poem “In Memoriam.” This warmth is the apprehension that even though Nature “is red in tooth and claw,” this is not the way things were meant to be.[10] When confronted with evil, we can affirm Ivan’s outrage because the New Testament teaches that “suffering and death – considered in themselves – have no true meaning or purpose at all; and this is in a very real sense the most liberating and joyous wisdom that the gospel imparts.”[11] Tooth and claw are not, at rock bottom, the ways of the world. Ivan’s outrage tells of a deeper rationality at work in the world that is genuinely repulsed by them. Of this reality, the Gospel speaks, too.

Hart reminds us that the church fathers considered the nature of evil to be an absence of goodness. They defined it “as a steresis agathou or privatio boni, a privation of the good, a purely parasitic corruption.”[12] With evil, all that is good – including meaning, truth, and beauty – is corrupted with meaninglessness, absurdity, and deformity. This is why we are repulsed by evil if our own senses have not been desensitized. “Christian metaphysical tradition,” Hart writes, “asserts that God is not only good but goodness itself, not only true or beautiful but infinite truth and beauty: that all the transcendental perfections are one in him who is the source and end of all things, the infinite wellspring of all being.”[13] So, Ivan Karamazov’s moral revulsion at the torture of children confirms the objectivity of evil, and he “does honor, in an elliptical way, to the Christian God.”[14] The challenge for Christians is to rid our own theodicies of falsities that do not honor Him.

This is a key truth that is often overlooked in our rush to defend God and find some immediate comfort in what we think is a high view of His sovereignty. We must assert that there is a stark difference between what God permits and what God wills. God does not need evil in any way to achieve His good and perfect ends. The picture of God’s sovereignty that emerges in the Christian story is one that works in spite of evil. “Providence works at the level of what Aquinas would call primary causality,” Hart writes, “that is, it is so transcendent of the operation of secondary causes – which is to say, finite and contingent causes immanent to the realm of created things – that it can at once create freedom and also assure sure that no consequence of the misuse of that freedom will prevent him from accomplishing the good he intends in all things.”[16]

Within this created realm of secondary causation, we have human choice, yes, but the Bible speaks of an angelic realm that exerts a certain degree of delegated authority, as well. Part of that realm is fallen and, as Paul indicates, this is the true enemy that we battle.[17] This world is enemy-occupied territory and, as Christians, we have joined forces with the Rebel King that wept at the tomb of his friend. Hart writes,

[T]he gospel is pervaded by a sense that the brokenness of the fallen world is the work of rebellious rational free will, which God permits its reign, and pervaded also by a sense that Christ comes genuinely to save creation, to conquer, to rescue, to defeat the power of evil in all things … not [as] a charade … but [as] a real consequence of the mystery of created freedom and the fullness of grace.[18]

Christianity tells us that the Incarnation was an invasion. We are not to be resigned to suffering and death because it was somehow a part of God’s plan all along, but to resist it as our King modeled for us. We are not to find some sort of shallow comfort in a swollen view of God’s sovereignty that swallows up human free-will and moral responsibility. That amounts to a fatalistic determinism that is ultimately an insult to the Cross. This is not in accord with the teachings of our New Testament that tells of a world that is groaning and exhorts us to grieve with those that grieve.

When Dostoevsky’s Ivan rails against the injustice of suffering children, we join him in condemning their torturers as our Lord did: “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.”[20] Our Lord expressed dire warnings for those that would hurt children, saying that “it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”[21] These are not the words of a sovereign God that would use their suffering for His glory. Ours is a God that would enter their suffering in order to defeat it. In Christ, Hart writes, we learn that God relates to sin, suffering, evil, and death, with “a regal, relentless, and miraculous enmity: sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers.”[22]

Dostoevsky does construct a kind of living answer to Ivan in the character of Zosima. In him, we learn that it is through cultivating the virtue of genuine charity for all people (something Ivan admits to lacking himself) and for the world as God created it, that one begins to understand the glory of such a Love that could fill the emptiness left behind after evil has been at work. Cultivating Tennyson’s “warmth in the breast” is key.  After all, Hart warns, a rebel such as Ivan must be careful of determination on his part “to freeze [the suffering child] forever in the darkness of her torments – as a perpetual symbol of his revolt against heaven – rather than release her into a happiness that he thinks unjust.”[23] Implicit in Ivan’s rage is the idea that the child’s suffering is so great that it is better that she never have been born. But who is he to say this for her?

After the false images of divine causality have been stripped away, the glory, though muted, shines through this world for those who have eyes to see. We must practice finding the dimmed glimmers of goodness that shine despite this “veil of death and our estrangement from God.”[24] Until we do, we cannot receive the foretaste of the future glory we will experience in His presence.

Love is more fundamental to reality than suffering and death. To see this, like Zosima, we must cultivate charity in our hearts by His grace. This is not the love of humanity in the abstract, but a concrete love of our neighbor. When we do, we can sense that in the goodness of this world, our Father is near.

For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:38-39


[1] C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (HarperOne), 27.

[2] Michael L. Peterson, The Problem of Evil: Selected Readings (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992), 66.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 65.

[5] David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea (Grand Rapids, MI: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005), 15.

[6] Ibid.

[7] John 11:32-35, ESV: Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept.

[8] 1Tim. 2:4, ESV

[9] C.S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001), 196.

[10] Lord Alfred Tennyson, “In Memoriam A.H.H.”

[11] Hart, 35.

[12] Ibid., 72-73.

[13] Ibid., 54.

[14] Ibid., 25.

[14] Ibid., 90.

[16] Hart, 83.

[17] Eph. 6:12, ESV: For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

[18] Hart, 97.

[19] I Thessalonians 4:13, ESV.

[20] Matthew 18, ESV.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Hart, 87.

[23] Ibid., 88.

[24] Ibid., 67.

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