By Bruce Clemenger. Original title “Freedom and Incontestable Anthills.” Reprinted with permission. Read more of these columns with a free print subscription to Faith Today.
In his novel The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky tells the story of “The Grand Inquisitor,” which takes place during the Spanish Inquisition. It tells of Jesus coming to earth to see how humanity was faring. This was not Jesus’s second coming but a visit some 14 centuries after He first dwelt among us.
Although Jesus does not speak in this narrative, He is recognized by the people and performs many miracles. He is also recognized by the Grand Inquisitor who, after witnessing Him raise a child from the dead, arrests Jesus and questions Him.
The reason for the arrest? The Inquisitor accuses Jesus of not giving people what they need to believe to be faithful and happy. Jesus instead acts to ensure our freedom – the freedom to believe or not, to be faithful or not. This freedom, the Inquisitor contends, is too much for humanity. People would rather just be happy.
Dostoyevsky’s plot revisits the temptations of Jesus from the Gospels (Matthew 4, Luke 4) showing Satan beckoning Jesus into the intersection of physics and metaphysics, to turn stones to bread and to test God by throwing Himself off the temple pinnacle.
“For Dostoyevsky these two temptations are about miracle and mystery.”
For Dostoyevsky these two temptations are about miracle and mystery. "Give man bread, and he will worship you," says the Inquisitor. Instead, the Inquisitor mocks, "you hungered for faith based on free will and not on miracles."
Succumbing to the third temptation to bow to Satan, which promised to bring all authority on earth to Jesus, "would have accomplished all that man seeks on earth," says the Inquisitor, "that is to say, whom to worship, to whom to entrust his conscience and how at last to unite all in a common, harmonious, and incontestable anthill."
The key point about humanity is that we are prone to serve and worship any earthly entity offering or giving us miracle, mystery and authority – thus counterfeiting the worship of the one true God.
What happens after Jesus’ temptations is notable. In Matthew and Mark, He speaks His first words of ministry – "Repent." Turn from gods and idols.
Jesus knew the human heart. For those needing healing, Jesus performed many miracles. But He also knew of the human craving for signs.
After Jesus had fed the 5,000, "the people saw the sign that he had done…. Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew" (John 6:15 ESV).
Jesus was wary of those looking for signs. "An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign," Jesus says, "but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah" (Matthew 12:39; 16:4 ESV).
Jesus calls for repentance from promiscuous loyalty – exchanging one saviour for another when new enticements are offered.
In Dostoyevsky, that temptation was to believe a single universal, institutional church with political power could provide happiness.
These days, the state beckons as an authority we can trust to provide, protect and preserve our way of life. The public is quick to demand that it rescue or advance lifestyles.
In the recent election one recurring theme was affordability. Will the state provide for our needs or create the conditions to enable us to provide for those dependent on us? Another was protection. Will government services be there when we need them? More generally, will we entrust the state with the power to respond to threats to our security and way of life?
These are good questions requiring discernment about what constitutes a legitimate need or want. Governments must consider them if they are to contribute to justice and prosperity. But governments are also limited and fallible, as are those who run them, as are we all.
“In our hearts do we shift our loyalties to whatever satisfies in the moment, to whatever promises happiness?”
The deeper question for individuals and communities is: How will we use our freedom? Who will we worship? Whom will we serve? In our hearts do we shift our loyalties to whatever satisfies in the moment, to whatever promises happiness? This puts enormous burdens on others to perform miracles and be magicians for us.
God does work in our lives but not in ways that override our freedom. God discerns needs and wants and provides what we need. When we feel threatened or needy, we must exercise our freedom by resisting idolizing anything or anyone else that promises provision and protection. God is our provider and protector.
Bruce J. Clemenger is President of The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. Please pray for our work and support us at www.TheEFC.ca/Donate or toll-free 1-866-302-3362.
Author: Bruce J. Clemenger