Brothers Karamazov Ivan Problem Of Evil Essay

Theodicy And Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov

Theodicy and Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov

The problem of reconciling an omnipotent, perfectly just, perfectly benevolent god with a world full of evil and suffering has plagued believers since the beginning of religious thought. Atheists often site this paradox in order to demonstrate that such a god cannot exist and, therefore, that theism is an invalid position. Theodicy is a branch of philosophy that seeks to defend religion by reconciling the supposed existence of an omnipotent, perfectly just God with the presence of evil and suffering in the world. In fact, the word “theodicy” consists of the Greek words “theos,” or God, and “dike,” or justice (Knox 1981, 1). Thus, theodicy seeks to find a sense of divine justice in a world filled with suffering.

Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky was among those philosophical thinkers who grappled with the task of explaining why evil exists in a world created by a perfect god. Despite the powerful influence of Christianity in his early childhood and throughout his life, Dostoevsky encountered difficulties in answering this question, which he described, “Nature, the soul, God, love – all this is understood by the heart, not by the mind” (Gibson 1973, 9). Nevertheless, Dostoevsky not only felt obligated to discover a solution to the problem, but also “responsible to his fellow believers for its success or failure” (Gibson 1973, 169). This quest for a solution to the problem of theodicy ultimately led Dostoevsky to write The Brothers Karamazov, a novel that attempts to explain the need for evil in the world. In posing his solution to this problem, Dostoevsky explains the necessity of suffering for the realization of human redemption, as well as the role of Christ’s atonement and human compassion in justifying and combating evil.

In attempting to account for human suffering and evil in The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky first presents an argument against religion in order to give “the atheist so much rope that he confronts the believer on equal terms” (Gibson 1973, 2), and then refutes the argument from the side of religion. This stylistic technique, referred to as polyphony, is a common characteristic of Dostoevsky’s writings. According to literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, Dostoevsky’s characters are not “voiceless slaves, but free people, capable of standing next to their creator, capable of not agreeing with him and even of rebelling against him” (Bakhtin 1994, 208). Additionally, the atheistic arguments presented by Dostoevksy represent, to a significant degree, his own struggles with the problem of theodicy, for “only a believer wrestling with his unbelief could speak with both voices with the same strength of conviction” (Gibson 1973, 77). In setting forth these anti-theistic arguments, Dostoevsky creates a powerful position, difficult to contend with for even the most devout and informed believer. While this would seem to weaken Dostoevsky’s defense of religion,...

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God, Dostoyevsky, and the Problem of Evil

Reconciling the Two Problems of Evil

In avoiding one evil, care must be taken not to fall into
another — Aesop [1]


When thinking about the problem of evil — the problem being that there is a seemingly inconsistent state of affairs in which we as humans suffer because of natural and human evils, and the fact that there is a God who is omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent — one can forget that there are two aspects to the problem. One aspect is the rational aspect, and the other is the existential aspect. In searching for the answer to the problem in both its element, the works of Fydor Dostoyevsky’s ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ (which comes from The Brothers Karamazovpaired) and The Book of Job, have been instrumental in providing such a basis.

The Novels

Both these works concern themselves with the problem of evil in two narratives that involve the discussion of suffering in two different contexts. In the Book of Job we have our main protagonist Job, who is introduced as

a man in the land of Uz, whose name [was] Job; and that man was perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil [2].

Later, God is challenged by Satan,

Then Satan answered the LORD, and said, From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it. And the LORD said unto Satan, Hast thou considered my servant Job, that [there is] none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil? Then Satan answered the LORD, and said, Doth Job fear God for nought? Hast not thou made an hedge about him, and about his house, and about all that he hath on every side? thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his substance is increased in the land. But put forth thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face. And the LORD said unto Satan, Behold, all that he hath [is] in thy power; only upon himself put not forth thine hand. So Satan went forth from the presence of the LORD [3].

So, Job spends the rest of the narrative undergoing Satan’s suffering. As he is tested, Job’s fidelity to God is accepted after a litany of Satan’s tortures.

The Grand Inquisitor and Jesus

The next narrative is that of Dostoyevsky’s “The Grand Inquisitor”. Here the problem of evil and suffering is in the plot, and in a less subtle way than in The Book of Job. The plot is told by Ivan Karamazov to his brother Alyosha[4]. It takes place during the Spanish inquisition, people are overjoyed to see the return of Jesus Christ as he comes to heal the sick. However, a problem arises when Jesus is captured by the grand inquisitor, who is the stories main antagonist[5]. The inquisitor tells him he ought to have accepted the temptations of Satan, this would be for the sake of bending people to his will in the face of avoiding evil[6].

Both of these narratives do provide questions for the reader. However, they also provide answers (or a theodicy) to the questions they bring up in to explaining why we face evil in the first place. Before delving into the theodicy itself, both aspects of the problem of evil have to be expounded on.

The Problem of Evil

The first aspect, the rational one, concerns giving a logically valid answer to the problem. An answer that is internally consistent (containing no contradiction) and consistent with the state of affairs we see in the world. This is the aspect meant to satisfy the skeptic or believer’s intellectual curiosity. The only problem is that while it can satisfy the intellect, the question of satisfy the heart is another.

The Biblical Scholar N.T. Wright points to the problem of solely focusing on the intellectual aspect,

As I said earlier, that is the intellectual counterpart to the immature political reaction of thinking that a few well-placed bombs can eliminate ‘evil’ from the world. No: for the Christian, the problem is how to understand and celebrate the goodness and God-givenness of creation and how, at the same time, to understand and face up to the reality and seriousness of evil [7].

This is where the existential problem comes in. The existential problem is how can we cope with the fact that we belong to a world wherein we have to face evil. Where every day we go on and ask why we even ought to bother.

Imagine for example we are a blue collar laborer, who has lost his job. In this scenario we are upset, and we go to our boss and seek to complain about all he could have done. All of our complaints have been answered, and there was nothing else they could have done. While all of our complaints to the problem have been answered, we still have to face a future with no job. With no way of income to provide for our families. This is why the existential aspect is so important.

Failed Theodicies

In both the Book of Job and “The Grand Inquisitor” we are given partial theodicies that fail to work in answering either one of more aspects of the problem of evil. To begin, one can start by looking at “The Inquisitor” as it shows the failure of a common defense against the problem of evil. This defense is to simply point to the fact that human beings have free will and for God to only allow us to choose good over evil would be tantamount to allowing a greater evil in existing. In modern analytical theology, this defense was popularized by the American philosopher Alvin Plantinga[8]. But Dostoyevsky, through the “The Inquisitor”, provides for the reader an objection to the believer who provides this defence.

Dostoyevsky’s villainous inquisitor, actually tells us that it still would be preferable to live without free will as opposed to accepting the free will and suffering evil. According to the inquisitor,

Thy freedom. Oh, we shall persuade them that they will only become free when they renounce their freedom to us and submit to us. And shall we be right or shall we be lying? They will be convinced that we are right, for they will remember the horrors of slavery and confusion to which Thy freedom brought them. Freedom, free thought, and science will lead them into such straits and will bring them face to face with such marvels and insoluble mysteries, that some of them, the fierce and rebellious, will destroy themselves, others, rebellious but weak, will destroy one another, while the rest, weak and unhappy, will crawl fawning to our feet and whine to us: “Yes, you were right, you alone possess His mystery, and we come back to you, save us from ourselves!”[9]

For those of us who do value our free will, such an objection may seem obscured, but for others who value overall wellbeing it does seem reasonable. People who can comprehend the extent evil and would be willing to give up their freedom are, on the inquisitor’s view, unfairly treated.

Not only would this objection be such that it illustrates the inconsistency of the defence with outside evidence (the fact that there are people willing to trade their freedom for their wellbeing), but goes to the heart of the existential problem. In light of the existential ramifications, many people would find peace of mind in knowing what they would avoid in losing their free will and go along with it. Imagine the father willing to sell himself into slavery in order for the suffering of his daughter. He would lose his free will (or an ample amount), but at the same time, he would rather have the wellbeing of his daughter.

If someone were to explain the suffering of his daughter by telling him that “it is better that we all -including the person who caused evil onto his daughter- have our freedom than just his people like your daughter have their full wellbeing”, we would understand how the father would be upset. His existential difficulties make any rationalizing of the problem rather insulting of the situation he faces. Not only does the inquisitor’s objection strike the rationality of the situation, he makes us empathetic to those who suffer the evils that this world has to offer and would be more than willing to give their freedom up to relieve themselves of it.

The Book of Job offers us a similar examination of failed answers to the problem of evil. Job’s friends Eliphazn Bildad and Zophar came by to see Job and they had seen that after seven days of mourning he says,

“Let the day perish wherein I was born, and the night [in which] it was said, There is a man child conceived”[10].

In order to give council and help to Job, they wanted to explore reasons as to why he would be experiencing suffering at such a time. Although these explanations may be intended as an honest attempt to console Job, they failed and only made the situation worse.

The theodicy that Eliphazn tells Job is a justice theodicy, which means that evils that we perceive as existing are really punishments for imperfect people.

Remember, I pray thee, who [ever] perished, being innocent? or where were the righteous cut off? Even as I have seen, they that plow iniquity, and sow wickedness, reap the same. By the blast of God they perish, and by the breath of his nostrils are they consumed. The roaring of the lion, and the voice of the fierce lion, and the teeth of the young lions, are broken. The old lion perisheth for lack of prey, and the stout lion’s whelps are scattered abroad. Now a thing was secretly brought to me, and mine ear received a little thereof. In thoughts from the visions of the night, when deep sleep falleth on men, Fear came upon me, and trembling, which made all my bones to shake. Then a spirit passed before my face; the hair of my flesh stood up: It stood still, but I could not discern the form thereof: an image [was] before mine eyes, [there was] silence, and I heard a voice, [saying,]Shall mortal man be more just than God? shall a man be more pure than his maker?[11]

Job is being told he needs to come to grips with the fact he is just another imperfect person and he deserve whatever evil comes his way. While Eliphazn is trying to rationalize the problem, he not only fails to address the problem, but as Job confirms also fails to answer the existential aspect.

How forcible are right words! but what doth your arguing reprove? Do ye imagine to reprove words, and the speeches of one that is desperate, [which are] as wind? Yea, ye overwhelm the fatherless, and ye dig [a pit] for your friend. Now therefore be content, look upon me; for [it is] evident unto you if I lie. Return, I pray you, let it not be iniquity; yea, return again, my righteousness [is] in it. Is there iniquity in my tongue? cannot my taste discern perverse things?[12]

Job is at this point upset with what his friends are arguing for. They are making things worse and that Job reaffirms that he is in fact capable of differentiating good from evil (contrary to what his friends are implying).

Criteria for a Good Theodicy

Suffice to say, these are not the best of answers in responding to the problem of evil. They are not only unsatisfying answers, but they fail to answer both the rational and existential aspects of the evil we face. However, these are not the only criteria a theodicy ought to have. The theodicy ought to take into account the following criteria.

● They have to keep intact the three classical attributes of God (omniscient, omnibenevolence and omnipotence).

Ex. The theodicy cannot include placing limits on God’s power

● Not contradict science

Ex. The theodicy cannot appeal to a Young Earth model

● Meet foreseeable objections

Ex. The theodicy cannot be overcome with easy responses or first blush responses

All of these criteria can be met in order to justify why we have evil present within the world to begin with.

Defence vs. Theodicy

Before delving into the theodicy we have to reference a defence. The difference between the two is explained by the philosopher David O’Conner. A theodicy is,

An attempt to answer, in a systematic and comprehensive way, the question, “what is the source of the evil we find, and why does God permit it?” So understood, a theodicy tries to explain the ways of God to human beings, whereas a defense need not[13].

A defence however,

Succeeds if it shows that the prosecuting argument fails to establish its conclusion. And likewise for a defense against an argument aiming to show that some fact or facts of evil are improbable on theism[14]

In summation, a defence shows that the conclusion of the problem of evil does not follow (i.e. that just because there is evil in the world does not entail the non-existence of God), while a theodicy explains why there is any amount of evil in the world.

In order to respond to the problem of evil, one cannot have only a defence or theodicy. Instead they both need to be working in tandem. A theodicy requires a defence because a defence has to presuppose there is even a reason for evil in the first place. A defence requires a theodicy because a defence does not go far enough explaining the scope of the evil we are experiencing.

A Defence of Love

The defence will be supplied by “The Grand Inquisitor”. In that narrative, when the grand inquisitor finishes criticizing the choice of Christ, Jesus gives us not a response but an action that does best in reconciling God with |evil. According to Ivan,

“I meant to end it like this. When the Inquisitor ceased speaking he waited some time for his Prisoner to answer him. His silence weighed down upon him. He saw that the Prisoner had listened intently all the time, looking gently in his face and evidently not wishing to reply. The old man longed for him to say something, however bitter and terrible. But He suddenly approached the old man in silence and softly kissed him on his bloodless aged lips. That was all his answer. The old man shuddered. His lips moved. He went to the door, opened it, and said to Him: ‘Go, and come no more … come not at all, never, never!’ And he let Him out into the dark alleys of the town. The Prisoner went away.[15]

God does not need an argument to reconcile himself to a less than perfect creation, rather in providing love to a less than perfect creation, the creator draws from out of it an even greater virtue. He provides something less perfect than him a mercy and compassion.

This scene serves as the perfect illustration of that moment. Even though the grand inquisitor was fully prepared to send Christ to the stake to be burned, Jesus was still willing to provide him love. God does not need to create something free of evil and suffering in order to be virtuous, but rather is even more virtuous in light of creating a world the is imperfect, that has evil and suffering and yet at the same time is created nonetheless. It would be the equivalent of adopting an imperfect child when one could have the power at their disposal to genetically alter the perfect child. Thus, as long as God is showing love to us (as many theists would believe), then it follows he is not evil.

At the end of the novel we see a second exchange taking place to remind us of the power of love to pull someone the thoughts of dealing with evil in our lives. In the Brothers Karamazov, the following scene takes place in order to solve a dispute,

“I thought that going away from here I have you at least,” Ivan said suddenly, with unexpected feeling; “but now I see that there is no place for me even in your heart, my dear hermit. The formula, ‘all is lawful,’ I won’t renounce — will you renounce me for that — yes?” Alyosha got up, went to him and softly kissed him on the lips. “That’s plagiarism,” cried Ivan[16]

Like family, we ought to remember that love can overcome any imperfection.

A Theodicy of Mystery in the Virtue of Humility

No matter how powerful love is, there are always moments of doubt and despair that we will always go through. Like husband and wife going through turmoil, in a relationship of love there will be times when that love is tested. It does not mean that such a thing means that said love was never there. It just means that there is doubt within that relationship that needs to be worked through. While it is important that love need be remembered, it is understandable when such a thing does not suffice.

Job himself confesses that despite the trials he faces in his life he still shows love for God,

But he knoweth the way that I take: [when] he hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold. My foot hath held his steps, his way have I kept, and not declined. Neither have I gone back from the commandment of his lips; I have esteemed the words of his mouth more than my necessary [food] But he [is] in one [mind,] and who can turn him?[17]

But it is not enough for him. Job is still in pain from the suffering that has befallen him and the family that he has lost.

In the end of the book, God arrives and provides Job an answer as to why he allowed him to suffer. God said

Who [is] this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me. Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding. Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it? Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof; When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?[18]

God in this case is informing Job that evil is something that is far too complex for him to understand. While it may seem cruel, it is still a powerful answer that does a better job of providing Job with an answer than his friends.

When God informs Job of how minuscule Job is compared to his creator, Job is provided with some much needed solitude as he says,

I know that thou canst do every [thing,] and [that] no thought can be withholden from thee. Who [is] he that hideth counsel without knowledge? therefore have I uttered that I understood not; things too wonderful for me, which I knew not. Hear, I beseech thee, and I will speak: I will demand of thee, and declare thou unto me. I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee. Wherefore I abhor [myself,] and repent in dust and ashes. [19]

God also reprimands Eliphazn, Bildad and Zophar for attempting to speculate on an answer of the suffering that Job encountered [20].

This goes back to the existential aspect of the problem of evil. Job finds his solitude in accepting his place as God’s creation. The Catholic thinker GK Chesterton reminds us that sometimes the hero needs to be comforted by a paradox to cox humility in ancient poetry, be it “The Song of Roland” or The Book of Job[21]. Sometimes when we embrace the absurd, it is not necessarily because the problem is unsolvable. It sometimes means accepting that there is an answer, but that it is beyond our comprehension.


One can excuse this is a rather anti-Sisyphusian take on the problem of evil (Sisyphusian in that the only way of dealing with the absurd is by a radical embrace of it). According to the existential writer Albert Camus, this is a form of suicide,

I am taking the liberty at this point of calling the existential attitude philosophical suicide. But this does not imply a judgment. It is a convenient way of indicating the movement by which a thought negates itself and tends to transcend itself in its very negation. For the existentials negation is their God. To be precise, that god is maintained only through the negation of human reason[22]

What Camus overlooks is that it is not an abandonment of human reason, but rather an embrace that there will be an answer that God provides. The paradox is not without answer, but rather we recognize that if there is a God, he is more equipped to provide the answer. God reminds us through Job that he is the author of wisdom[23], therefore it stands if there should be an answer, he would be the best candidate to provide it.

The next objection is that God is morally obliged to provide us an answer. But the problem with this objection is that it is not true for good reason. As God tells Job,

“who then is able to stand before me? Who hath prevented me, that I should repay [him? whatsoever is] under the whole heaven is mine”[24].

The first problem is that if we hold God morally accountable, then there has to be a moral basis for judgement that goes outside of God. However, let us concede for the sake of argument that such a thing is possible. Would not God know how best to reveal to humanity the answer that takes into account our existential problems as Wright points out?

The last problem is the mystery of divine lies. This makes the claim that we have no basis to exclude the possibility that God could have a morally sufficient reason as to lie to us that remain mysterious because of our lack of intelligence. But the problem with this objection is that such an argument ignores that many Christians theologians would hold a lie is categorically wrong.

However, when it comes to the mystery theodicy that Job presents us, it allows God to draw upon our humility to build faith and fidelity in obedience. Furthermore, it allows us to focus on our existential problems, to focus on helping others deal with theirs. This does not mean that evil will never be eliminated. At the end of the Book of Job, God bestows to Job a new family and even more property to Job for all of his troubles at the end of the book, eliminating Job of his own suffering [25]. Likewise, at the end when we can see creation as a whole and not just in part, our suffering will be taken care of so that we could move on forward.

Meeting the Criteria

This combination of mystery and love meets all criteria. It is rational, it addresses the logical possibility of God co-existing with evil in the love defence. Both the love defence and the mystery theodicy let us focus on our existential problems. It allows God to retain all of his properties, or tri-omni attributes. It makes no claims on science. Lastly, it answers objections rather well.


Both the Book of Isaiah and “The Grand Inquisitor”are instrumental in a believer understanding how to face evil. Like Alyosha, we need to recognize that love is the main vehicle in keeping our faith in God alive in the face of evil, and that God (and by extension his followers) is even more glorified in overcoming and bringing good out of evil. Like Job, we have to realize that it is humility in God and working to overcome evil rather than seeking intellectual answers to problems. Existential problems will not be solved just by hearing the answer. We may even reject good things just for the immediate satisfaction like the grand inquisitor and freedom. But we must hold steadfast on faith until God lets us see the whole of his creation with a future free of suffering and people fully content.

Note Summery

1. Distinguish between existential and rational problems of evil.

2. Answer a logical problem through accepting the virtue in creating a world where there is evil, and the more evidential problem requires an appeal to mystery.

3. God creating a world where there is evil, as opposed to one where there is only good, is an act of love since an imperfect world allows God to better illustrate his love for his creation.God does not love his creation because it is perfect, but despite its imperfection, demonstrating a greater quality of love.

4. God withholding his answer to the sum total of evil allowed in the world is to wait until we are existentially ready for such an answer, as the rational answer would do little while we are in the midst of such suffering.


Aesop, and George Fyler Townsend. “The Doe and the Lion.” Aesop’s Fables. Kindle Edition ed. Seattle, WA: Amazon Digital Services, 2008. Print.

Dostoyevsky, Fyodor, and Constance Garnett. “”The Grand Inquisitor”” In The Brothers Karamazov. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1897. < >

Wright, NT. Evil and the Justice of God. Downers Grove, Il: Intervarsity Press, 2013.

Beebe, James R. “Logical Problem of Evil.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed December 17, 2014.

Connor, David. God and Inscrutable Evil in Defense of Theism and Atheism. Lanham, Md.: Rowman& Littlefield, 1998.

Chesterton, GK. “Introduction.” In The Book of Job, XXV. London: Cecil Palmer & Hayward, 1916.<>

Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus & Other Essays. Paris: Gallimard, 1942. < >

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