Alfred Einstein stated: “Dostoevsky gives me more than any other thinker.”1 Nicholas Berdyaev was professor of philosophy at the University of Moscow until he was expelled by the Communist regime in 1922. Berdyaev testified that Dostoevsky “stirred and lifted up my soul more than any other writer or philosopher has done…when I turned to Jesus Christ for the first time.2 Some would assert that either The Brothers Karamazov [pronounced kare-uh-MAHT-tsov] or Crime and Punishment is the greatest novel ever written. Some thinkers within the Christian camp would claim Dostoevsky as one of our own, thereby lending added value to such a study as this.
II. A Brief Biography
Fyodor Dostoevsky3 (1821-1881) was the son of an ultra-strict Russian Orthodox father who was a medical doctor. He would call his sons names (e.g., stupid) when they got their recitations wrong. He compelled his sons to stand at attention when they spoke to him. Thus, the young Dostoevsky did not receive a very accurate mirror image of God the Father from his harsh human father.
When Dostoevsky was 18 years old, one of the most formative events of his life occurred. His severe father was brutally murdered by his own Russian serfs. The corpse lay out in the field for two days, and the police never conducted an investigation or made any arrest. There is evidence that young Dostoevsky felt something of a guilty complicity in this murder—if only, perhaps, as a death-wish. All four of Dostoevsky’s major novels revolve around a murder, and The Brothers Karamazov is constructed around parricide.
Dostoevsky hit the jackpot with his first novel, Poor Folk. Russia’s leading literary critic, Belinsky, announced a new star had arisen on the literary horizon. However, because Dostoevsky’s following works were more personally psychological than social commentaries, the radical Belinsky and other Russian writers began to be more severe in their criticism.
Eventually Dostoevsky became involved in the sociopolitical ferment of his era. He joined a group known as the Petrashevsky circle, which contained atheists and revolutionaries (during this pre-Communist period). They planned to publish anti-government propaganda on a secret printing press. Then the police stepped in. Dostoevsky was imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress, and a four-month investigation was conducted. Twenty-one of this group were sentenced to die.
On December 22, 1849, at 8 a.m. Dostoevsky and his compatriots were bundled away to be taken before a firing squad. They were to be executed three at a time. At the last moment a rider from the Czar came galloping up and announced that their sentence had been commuted. It was as if the writer had been granted a new life.
However, four years in a Siberian camp awaited him. Ten-pound iron chains were placed on his ankles. The prisoners’ sled was driven for two weeks—sometimes in minus-40-degree centigrade temperature—across Siberia to the Omsk prison. Dostoevsky reminisced about that lice-infested, filth-ridden cemetery-of-the-living in The House of the Dead. His release was followed by four years of enforced military service near the border of China. The only book Dostoevsky was permitted in prison was The Gospels which he retained to his dying day.
After approximately ten years in Siberia, Dostoevsky returned to society. He authored a dozen novels, often while he was in debt or bordering on starvation. In 1880 he gave a major address in honor of the poet, Pushkin. To his second wife, Anna, he announced the very day of his death. On that day he called for his prison copy of The Gospels, and the family read the parable of the prodigal son. Between 30,000 and 40,000 people attended Dostoevsky’s funeral, the first state funeral to honor one of Russia’s writers.
III. Four Major Novels
Dostoevsky’s literary offering included four masterworks. They are, in order of appearance: Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Demons, and The Brothers Karamazov. Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov may be among the world’s top ten novels, as mentioned above.
Crime and Punishment is a kind of commentary on the NT concept of a functioning conscience. It reveals a person mentally tormented by his crime until he finally confesses it. Raskolnikov is a poor ex-student who murders a despised woman pawnbroker. In the process he is also forced to do away with the pawnbroker’s weaker, more likable sister by means of an ax.
Raskolnikov had convinced himself that his desperate sister, Dunya, and mother really deserved the stolen money more than the “louse” of a pawnbroker. Prior to the murder he had also written an article dividing the world into ordinary people and gifted heroes (like Napoleon) who are above the ordinary laws. Raskolnikov executed his crime under the guise of his victim’s classification in this unworthy group of people.
Oddly, Raskolnikov’s “savior” is a young woman, Sonya, driven to prostitution by her alcoholic father’s impoverished family. One of the classics in the novel is the reading of the story of the raising of Lazarus to Raskolnikov the murderer by Sonya the humble prostitute.
Through the persistent pecking away of the Columbo-like detective Porphyry and the gentle persuasion of Sonya, Raskolnikov eventually confesses his guilt and is sentenced to penal servitude in Siberia, where he is faithfully accompanied by Sonya.
The Idiot began as a story by Dostoevsky about a Christ-figure, the ideal man. Like Don Quixote, however, this honorable and considerate man (Prince Myshkin) is often treated as an idiot. (Our term idiot really doesn’t quite capture the flavor of the Russian title.) The prince is somewhat socially inept, unpretentious, naive, overly friendly, and innocent. He also possesses Dostoevsky’s own social stigma: he is an epileptic. Nevertheless, he is courteous, kind, gentle, and more—a veritable string of boy-scout qualities.
Prince Myshkin is attracted to the portrait of Nastasya Filippovna, a beautiful “kept woman.” Upon returning from a Swiss sanitarium he makes connections with the Epanchin family, and eventually the issue arises as to whether he will marry their daughter Aglaya. Nevertheless, he is still drawn to the mentally suffering Nastasya. However, at her wedding to Prince Myshkin, a wealthy scoundrel named Rogozhin carries Nastasya away. The book ends strangely—with Prince
Myshkin and Rogozhin (her murderer) sitting in the same room grieving over the woman’s corpse. Eventually, however, the apparent Christ-figure collapses and reverts again to his former state of inadequacy (both physically and mentally).
Demons (whose title is also variously translated as The Devils or The Possessed) is Dostoevsky’s most political novel—directed against nihilistic revolutionaries. Stepan Verkhovensky is an aristocratic liberal of the 1840s. His neglected son, Petr, is a nihilist agitator of the 1860s. Petr Verkhovensky admires a young man named Stavrogin, who had been taught by Petr’s father. Stavrogin is a mysterious, cool axis around whom other characters in the novel revolve. The others he has influenced are Kirillov (an intellectual who has pronounced himself god and commits suicide) and Shatov (who wants to get out of the revolutionists’ cell group and so is murdered by the rest).
All of the revolutionists are arrested for the murder of Shatov—except the chief catalyst, Petr Verkhovensky, who escapes to Europe. His father, who has become disillusioned with the revolutionary ferment, likens the situation to the Gospel account of the demons that are cast into the pig herd (hence, the novel’s title).
Dostoevsky’s books were first serialized, but one section of Demons was not permitted into a serialized family journal. It is Stavrogin’s confession of the rape of an under-age girl and her consequent suicide, which ultimately resulted in Stavrogin’s own suicide.
The Brothers Karamazov is one of the leading candidates for top honors as the world’s greatest novel. (However, this does not mean that all of that novel is streamlined reading. Instead, one analyst spoke of the “dishevelment of [Dostoevsky’s] prose.”4
Although Alyosha is—according to the author himself—the chief character of the novel, of his four great novels, this one comes closest to putting forward an entire collection of chief characters. The Karamazov family consists of four brothers: Ivan is the intellectual atheist. Dmitri is the emotional womanizer. Alyosha is the most lovable—a temporary monk. Smerdyakov is their father’s illegitimate child, who is treated as a family servant.
Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov is a debauched and neglectful father. He totally neglects his boys and virtually maintains a harem at home. Dmitri (who is most like his father) comes to hate him. The main reason for the hatred is that they both want the same woman, Grushenka. Because Dmitri had threatened to kill his father and because he appears to have made off with his father’s bribe-money (for Grushenka), he is accused of his father’s murder. However, Smerdyakov, the lackey, is the real killer.
In the bosom of the novel is one of the greatest anti-God arguments in literature, set forth by Ivan Karamazov. In addition to the atrocities recited by Ivan that have been perpetrated against helpless children, he presents a classic concerning the temptations of Christ. It is called “The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor.” Also commended to the reader is that touching chapter entitled “The Medical Experts and a Pound of Nuts.”
Though he is technically not guilty of the murder, Dmitri Karamazov is pronounced guilty by jury trial. Like Raskolnikov and Dostoevsky himself, Dmitri is sentenced to Siberia. In some fashion all the brothers acknowledge their collective guilt in the murder.
IV. Theological Evaluation
At this juncture we will assess five major pillars in Dostoevsky’s theological framework. Dostoevsky, of course, was not a systematic theologian by profession, so he is even less systematic than a theological thinker such as John Wesley in the way he formulates truth.
A. His View of God
In general, Dostoevsky’s doctrine of God appears to be orthodox. He exhibits no maverick views, as did his contemporary Leo Tolstoy, who was anti-Trinitarian. Intriguingly, the principal atheists in Dostoevsky’s novels (Stavrogin and Kirillov in The Idiot, Ivan and Smerdyakov in The Brothers Karamazov, and Svidrigaylov in Crime and Punishment) all commit suicide. It is as if Dostoevsky is saying that because these characters have forsaken Life—the One who is life—they see no meaning in this life and so end their earthly lives.
In Demons the author says that “faith in [God] is the refuge for mankind…as well as in the hope of eternal bliss promised to the righteous…”5
God was the fundamental datum beneath all of Dostoevsky’s writing. That is not to say that Dostoevsky did not wrestle with that reality over and over. As a matter of fact, he admitted that he would deal with doubts to his dying day. In his five-volume masterpiece on the famed novelist Joseph Frank commented: “Dostoevsky was to say…that the problem of the existence of God had tormented him all his life; but this only confirms that it was always emotionally impossible for him ever to accept a world that had no relation to a God of any kind.”6 As hinted earlier, the type of unkind father Dostoevsky had experienced in early life probably contributed significantly to the breeding of his later doubts.
In filtering out the novelist’s theology from his writings, one must take into account the fact that not all Dostoevsky’s characters enunciate the author’s personal beliefs. In fact, Dostoevsky, “as an artist, accord[ed] equal rights to his atheists,” and “it is the atheists in his novels who do most of the theological talking!”7
One character in The Brothers Karamazov who reflects an aberrant view of God is a semi-crazy monk named Father Ferapont who makes an unbiblical distinction between the Holy Spirit and the Holy Ghost. Nevertheless, the overall eccentricity that Dostoevsky accords this character makes it abundantly plain that the writer himself does not hold this bizarre view.
No major analyst has really raised any serious questions about the orthodox view of God that Dostoevsky apparently held.
While Dostoevsky does not express himself on every occasion explicitly in the terminology of a modern evangelical theologian, there seems to be no significant data for not accepting the novelist as orthodox in his views on the person of Christ. Dostoevsky did not hesitate to speak of Christ as the “God-man.” Even the anti-theist character Ivan Karamazov refers to the orthodox position on Christ as being “the One without sin” and indicates that “Christ…was God” (Part III, Book V, chap 4). Also his brother Dmitri owns that “Christ is God” (Part I, Book III, chap 5). Joseph Frank asserted concerning our author’s novels and letters: “Unless we entirely reject their veracity, they reveal Dostoevsky to be a believing Christian in his own way, inwardly striving to accept the essential dogmas of the divinity of Christ, personal immortality, the Second Coming, and the Resurrection.”8
On more than one occasion Dostoevsky expressed a view which would strike an evangelical ear strangely. He says that if it came to a showdown between rejecting Christ and the truth, he would side with Christ over against the truth! For those who take John 14:6 at face value, the statement strikes a strange note. Probably his declaration is simply literary hyperbole in adoration of Christ.
Transcribed in his notebook among Dostoevsky’s notes in his final years was the plan to write a book on the life of Christ. Obviously, if he had lived to fulfill his enterprise, a more accurate determination could be made concerning the orthodoxy of his position. However, throughout the gamut of his published writing no seriously disturbing notes appear on this subject, so it seems best to assume, as even secular analysts do, that the great Russian was broadly orthodox on the deity and humanity of Christ.
One final book Dostoevsky had hoped to write was to have been entitled The Life of a Great Sinner. After Dostoevsky became famous, people wrote to him in the way they do today to Ann Landers, asking for advice. Consequently, Dostoevsky replied to one unknown mother in 1878 (concerning a problem child): “if the child is bad, the blame lies…both with his natural inclinations (because a person is certainly born with them) and with those who brought him up…”9 This comment certainly reveals that Dostoevsky assuredly treated sin as inborn and instinctive.
On one occasion Dostoevsky offered something of his own definition: “When a man has not fulfilled the law of striving toward an ideal, that is, has not through love sacrificed his ego to people…he suffers and calls this condition sin.”10 This is hardly a formal definition to be found in a theological textbook, nor does it have a vertical (or Godward) orientation. Rather, it is an experiential crystallization he worked out amid life’s nitty-gritty and is congruent with his understanding of suffering (which will be treated in the next section).
William Leatherbarrow spoke of how in the Siberian prison-camp close contact with criminals “disabused Dostoevsky of his earlier utopianism and faith in the essential goodness of man…”11 Dostoevsky referred to one prisoner in the camp as a “moral Quasimodo.” The stubborn reality of sin runs like a subterranean stream beneath all of the novel-writing of Dostoevsky.
Homiletically, sin reveals itself pictorially in Dostoevsky’s corpus in at least four features (all beginning with the letter “s”). First, sin is seen as spite or spitefulness. Dostoevsky himself was a very irritable and spiteful person. His second wife, Anna, mentions (after her husband had insulted a waiter) that “he could not restrain his spite.”12
Dostoevsky’s novels are pimientoed with the term “spite” and its cognates. In Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov the murderer has a “spiteful…smile…on his lips” (Part I, chap 3). In “A Gentle Spirit,” a short story, the narrator-pawnbroker remarks to a fifteen-year-old girl, “I was spiteful.” In Demons one can find the “spite” terminology on pp. 252, 255, 340–41, 378 (twice), 441, 461, 521, 524, 533, 558, 591, 610, 612, 617, 675 (twice), 676, 693, and 701.13
A second figurative form that sin assumes in Dostoevsky’s canon is that of “stepping over.” This pictorial language immediately reminds the student of the Bible of the concept of transgression (stepping over a boundary). For instance, when Raskolnikov commits his ax-murder, the symbolical note of his “stepping over” the threshold is explicitly mentioned (as it is on other significant occasions).
A third depiction of sin takes the form of smog. Dostoevsky once wrote figuratively: “Sin is…smog, and the smog will disappear when the sun rises in its power.”14
The fourth simile for sin in Dostoevsky is that of schism or splitness. The liberal theologian Paul Tillich once depicted sin in terms of “gaps and splits.” The lead sinner (Raskolnikov) in Crime and Punishment bears in his Russian name the root raskol, which means “schism.” Berdyaev claimed, “That cleavage (dedoublement) in the spirit…is the essential theme of all Dostoevsky’s novels.”15 As William Leatherbarrow analyzed the human condition in our subject, he stated, “Man in Dostoevsky’s works, as in Genesis, is a tragic, split creature, excluded from paradise but longing for reconciliation.”16
Dostoevsky’s gallery of characters consists of a parade of clinical cases in abnormal psychology. (Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov is one of the very few near normal, healthy characters in his canon of works.) This phenomenon of splitness reveals itself repeatedly throughout his stories and novels. Splitness takes the form of spite and irrationality, a desire-to-please, yet a desire-not-to-please in the so-called Underground Man (or narrator) in Notes from the Underground.
One of the most intriguing cases of all for Bible students is the story of “The Double.” It is virtually a takeoff on the classic chapter of Romans 7. “The Double” narrates the case of an ill-at-ease civil servant whose social problems cause him to hallucinate, thereby creating his own “double personality split off from his real self.” (Dostoevsky often possesses the knack of writing so that a reader can’t always tell what is intended as fact and what is intended as fantasy.) Theologian Bernard Ramm analyzed this fascinating fissure-in-the-soul, drawing out the parallels between Romans 7 and Dostoevsky’s “Double.”17
Like the major existentialists, Dostoevsky has done Christian theology a service by painting the portraits of people in a form that is consonant with that of Christian orthodoxy. Berdyaev asserted that Dostoevsky “uncovered a volcanic crater in every being.”18 And these volcanoes are always rumbling!
In The Idiot, on his birthday, Prince Myshkin challenges the atheists present to tell him “with what they will save the world?”19 In a general way Dostoevsky answered his character’s question in a letter: “in Christianity alone…the salvation of the Russian land from all her afflictions lies.”20 Leatherbarrow called Dostoevsky “a novelist with a mission. There is to be no harmony without redemption, no salvation without God, and no paradise on earth.”21 Joseph Frank evaluated: “The values of expiation, forgiveness, and love were destined to take precedence over all others in Dostoevsky’s artistic universe…”22
Initially, it seems necessary to say something about the genre of literature under our scrutiny here. A novel is not designed as a super-long evangelistic tract. One of the sad dilemmas is that a Christian reader often seems to have to choose between a profound Dostoevsky (whose works may appear defective, evangelically speaking) and some modern trite “Christian” fiction all gauged about the lead character’s getting saved (and usually an overdose of romance tossed in for good measure).
From the preceding paragraph the reader may already sense that (while his doctrines of God, Christ, and sin appear reasonably orthodox), Dostoevsky’s doctrine of salvation leaves something to be desired—from a biblical standpoint. If Dostoevsky had “mission” (Leatherbarrow’s term), what was his mission? In light of a full-orbed biblical mission, Dostoevsky’s solutions come up short of the mark.
At best, Dostoevsky’s major novels might be described as pre-evangelistic. If a novelist were planning to offer a distinctively Christian answer, Dmitri Karamazov (in The Brothers Karamazov), Raskolnikov (in Crime and Punishment), and Stepan Verkhovensky (in Demons) are off-target. At the end of these three major novels all three characters are primed for conversion, but the best we are given falls under the category of hopeful hints. Boyce Gibson remarks, “In the Epilogue of Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov avoids the Christian formula [of conversion]…”23 Similarly, Richard Peace commented concerning Stepan Verkhovensky (in Demons) that his “final words…seem more in keeping with some vague theism of the 40s than with true Christianity.”24
And what shall we say of Alyosha’s “conversion”? Alyosha (having gone through some serious doubts) threw himself onto the earth to kiss it. “Something…unshakable, like that heavenly dome above him, was entering into his soul for all eternity” (The Brothers Karamazov, Part II, Book VII, chap 4). Alyosha articulates his experience by asserting, “Someone visited my soul at that moment.” An ecstatic experience, yes. A Christian conversion? At best, an analyst must preserve an agnostic stance on the subject. It is certainly a vast cry from the “Jesus is Lord” experience of Saul of Tarsus in Acts 9. There is no real propositional content or identifiable theological referent to Alyosha’s mystical encounter. Who is the “Someone” Alyosha encounters?
Father Zosima is the lovable elder over the monastery (in The Brothers Karamazov) to which Alyosha is temporarily attached. Father Zosima says to his inquirer: “There is only one means of salvation…take yourself and make yourself responsible for all men’s lives.”25 For a Christian what is the “only…means of salvation”? Father Zosima’s response is hardly deemed the orthodox answer to the question. It seems light years away from Acts 16:31.
Ivan the intellectual cannonades Alyosha with atheistic arguments. One of Alyosha’s responses is to tell Ivan to “love life above everything. To this statement Ivan rejoins, “More than life’s meaning?” Alyosha responds, “Half your work is done, Ivan, you love life; now you’ve only got to do the second half [presumably to find life’s meaning] and you’re saved.” Those are strange statements to any evangelical Christian.
From his other writings we know that in Notes from the Underground Dostoevsky had planned “to advocate Christian faith as a means of attaining moral freedom,” yet “that swine of a [Russian] censor” (as Dostoevsky called him) wouldn’t allow him to publish a Christian message through the voice of such an unChristian character. Dostoevsky complained that the government censor suppressed the place where from all this I deduced the need for faith and Christ.”26 If we had this uncensored version, we might be able to better assess Dostoevsky’s soteriology.
There is one theme under this rubric, however, which is so pervasive in Dostoevsky’s writings that it cannot be ignored. That is the topic of salvation through suffering. In 1960 Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke of “the conviction that unearned suffering is redemptive.” One suspects that King was speaking of social liberation. However, exactly what Dostoevsky meant by using similar language remains ambiguous.
Berdyaev declared, “Dostoevsky believed firmly in the redemptive and regenerative power of suffering: life is the expiation of sin by suffering.”27 When Dostoevsky put down on paper his plan for Crime and Punishment, he transcribed, “The criminal himself resolves to accept suffering and thereby atone for his deed.”28 Dunya admonishes Raskolnikov: “Suffer and expiate your sin by it” (Crime and Punishment, Part V, chap 4). Later the detective Porphyry remarks to the murderer, “This may be God’s means for bringing you to him” (Part VI, chap 2). Raskolnikov’s sister Dunya asks her brother, who is on the verge of confessing: “Aren’t you half expiating the crime by facing the suffering?” (Book VI, chap 7).
In Demons the nearly sociopathic Stavrogin confesses, “I want to forgive myself and that is my…whole goal” (for his responsibility in a young girl’s suicide). He continues: “That is why I seek boundless suffering.” To Stavrogin, Bishop Tikhon offers strange advice (from a biblical viewpoint): “Christ…will forgive you, if only you attain to forgiving yourself.”29 Would any NT apostle have said that to an earnest inquirer?
William Leatherbarrow announced: “In The Insulted and Injured, for the first time in Dostoevsky’s novels, the idea of the spiritually healing power of suffering is opposed to the dream of heaven on earth.”30 As he analyzes Dmitri’s physical suffering and Ivan’s mental suffering (in The Brothers Karamazov), Leatherbarrow concludes: “All must be redeemed through suffering.”31 In the same novel a man who engineered a successful murder without getting caught says, “I want to suffer for my sins” (Part II, Book VI, chap 2). Finally, Alyosha owns to Dmitri (after he’s convicted—wrongly—of murder): “you wanted to make yourself [a new man] by suffering” (Epilogue, chap 2). In another place Dmitri stated, “I want to suffer and by suffering I shall cleanse myself” (Part III, Book IX, chap 5).32
On one occasion Dostoevsky wrote to his wife: “God gave you to me so that…I might expiate my own great sins…”33 The repetitiveness of this salvation-through-suffering theme is far too relentless in Dostoevsky to be downplayed. Joseph Frank concluded that “the highest aim of Dostoevsky’s Christianity…is not personal salvation but the fusion of the individual ego with the community in a symbiosis of love; the only sin that Dostoevsky appears to recognize is the failure to fulfill this law of love.”34
The book of Hebrews appears to grant some pedagogically perfecting power to suffering when rightly responded to (see Heb 2:10; 5:9; 12:2-11). God uses suffering as a teaching tool to conform us to Christ. Yet Dostoevsky (through the mouth of his characters) seemed to invest suffering with some spiritually regenerative power—and this we must repudiate. While Dostoevsky offered spiritual solutions for regeneration through his characters to other needy characters in his novels, I do not find forthcoming any clear-cut biblical prescription for salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.
In relation to Roman Catholicism, Dostoevsky set forth numerous virulent tirades in his books. However, it is never apparent that he is taking Romanism to task on the grounds of their unbiblical soteriology. He saw Roman Catholicism’s temporal power as the principal threat to truth and viewed it as acceding to atheistic socialism.
“The end of the world is coming,” wrote Dostoevsky in his notebook.35 During Dostoevsky’s days there was an excess of irreligion (in the form of atheism) and an excess of religion (in the form of apocalypticism). There is a considerable amount of apocalyptic talk occurring in both The Idiot and Demons.
One of the less serious characters in The Idiot, Lebedyev, is a “self-styled interpreter of the Apocalypse” [that is, the book of Revelation].37 In line with Matt 24:6, Dostoevsky remarked that “Christ himself…predicted…that strife and development will continue to the end of the world…”37 In The House of the Dead there is one discussion about the possibility of the return of the Jews to Jerusalem.
Revelation 6 crops up in one conversation between Lebedyev and Prince Myshkin (in The Idiot). Obviously the interpreter in this case adopts a historicist position by quoting events in Revelation 6 with the contemporary world of the 1800s. Lebedyev says “She agreed with me that we are living in the age of the third horse, the black one [Rev 6:5, 6], and the rider who has the balance in his hand, seeing that everything in the present age is weighed in the scales and by agreement, and people are seeking for nothing but their rights—‘a measure of wheat for a penny and three measures of barley for a penny’…and afterwards will follow the pale horse and he whose name was Death and with whom hell followed…[Rev 6:8]” (Part II, chap 2). Lebedyev’s apocalyptic interpretation is later called “mere charlatanism” by General Ivolgin (in Part II, chap 6). In the same book Princess Belokonskaya’s name reflects the symbolic fourth horse of Revelation 6, for belo in Russian means “white” and kon means “horse.”38
In The Brothers Karamazov Ivan interprets Rev 8:11 as the heresy of antisupernaturalism manifest in the German Enlightenment—once more an example of a historicist hermeneutic. Lebedyev (in The Idiot) connects Rev 8:11’s Wormwood—amazingly—with the network of European railroads (Part II, chap 11)!
Revelation 10:6 also appears in Dostoevsky’s two chief apocalyptic novels. Demons informs us, “in the Apocalypse the angel swears that time will be no more” (Part II, chap 5). A dying consumptive named Ippolit wryly plays upon Rev 10:6 (in light of his secretly projected suicide) when he informs Prince Myshkin: “tomorrow there will be ‘no more time’” (Part III, chap 5). Then he asks, “And do you remember, prince, who proclaimed that there will be ‘no more time’? It was proclaimed by the great and might angel in the Apocalypse” (Ibid). Of course, most modern Bible versions render “time…no more” in the way the New King James Version does: “there should be delay no longer.” While this retranslation undercuts the two preceding interpreter’s ideas, it nevertheless reveals Dostoevsky’s familiarity with the text of Revelation.
The system of interpretation revolving around Revelation 13 and Antichrist also makes its presence felt in Dostoevsky’s novels. “Is it true that you expound Antichrist?” the amateur analyst Lebedyev is asked (The Idiot, Part II, chap 2). Lebedyev responded that he “unfolded the allegory and fitted dates to it.”
Most literary analysts concur in seeing Stavrogin in Demons as an antichrist figure. Stavrogin is not blatantly villainous, but he is the cold-and-bold, unpredictable polar personality around whom many of the other characters in the novel revolve. The name Stavrogin is related to the Byzantine word stavros (and Greek stauros), meaning “cross.” Yet the rog part of his Russian name means “horn,” making the student of eschatology think of Rev 13:1 and Dan 7:20-25.39 Furthermore, Stavrogin’s first name is Nikolai (meaning “conqueror of people”) as in the name of the Nicolaitans in Rev 2:6 and 15.
Stavrogin’s chief henchman is Peter Verkhovensky. In Russian verkhovenstvo means “supremacy.”40 Verkhovensky is the mean-spirited, nihilist revolutionary agitator in Demons. He says to Stavrogin, “You are my idol” and “I’ve been inventing you” (Part 2, chap 8). With these notions should be compared Rev 13:11-15. In the narrative Verkhovensky is an incendiary, so he—in effect—brings fire to the earth, paralleling Rev 13:13. In Demons the convict Fedka speaks to Verkhovensky of “every beast from the book of the Apocalypse” (Part III, chap 3).
Also in Demons the intellectual Kirillov talks to Stavrogin about “the man-god.” To this notion Stavrogin queries, “[You mean] the God-man [by which he refers to Christ]?” Kirillov rather rejoins, “The man-god—that’s the whole difference” (Part II, chap 5). Again, the Bible student cannot help but reflect upon the parody of Christ found in antichrist (as in 2 Thess 2:3-4).
In Crime and Punishment Marmeladov, the alcoholic father, refers to drunkards “made in the image of the beast and his mark” (Part I, chap 2). Compare Rev 13:15-17. Consequently, the thought and terminology of Revelation 13 played a significant role in the thinking of Dostoevsky.
A parallel with Revelation 17 and 18 comes through when the Europe of the 1860s is likened to Babylon: “their Babylon is indeed going to collapse; great will be its fall…” (Demons, Part II, chap 5).
Joseph Frank wrote that Dostoevsky “sought to accept the essential dogmas of the divinity of Christ, personal immortality, the Second Coming and the Resurrection.”41 When Raskolnikov (in Crime and Punishment) decides not to end his life in a canal, “he could not understand that his decision against suicide arose from a presentiment of a future resurrection and a new life.”42
In Demons, Shatov, a nationalist who supports Christianity but isn’t a Christian himself, “believes that Christ’s second coming will be among the Russian people, who will then bring about the spiritual rebirth of the rest of the world.”43 Thus, one of Dostoevsky’s characters provides a most interesting locus for Christ’s return.
In The Brothers Karamazov Ivan refers to Christ’s return in heavenly glory—like lightning (Part II, Book V, chap 5). Later Father Zosima’s friend says, “The sign of the Son of Man will be seen in the heavens” (Part II, Book VI, chap 2) as in Matt 24:30.
The Brothers Karamazov ends on a high note. After they return from the boy Ilyusha’s funeral, the youth Kolya asks Alyosha: “Can it be true what’s taught us in religion that we shall all rise again from the dead and shall live and see each other again, Ilyusha too?” To the youth’s question Alyosha replies: “Certainly” (Epilogue, chap 3).
Judgment is not missing in Dostoevsky’s novels. Frank notes that in the corpus of novels there is a “lurking imminence of the Day of Judgment and the Final Reckoning.”44 Demons refers to the Last Judgment (Part I, chap 4).
Hell would seem to be a reality in Dostoevsky. Dmitri Karamazov asks whether he will go “to Heaven or to Hell…?” (The Brothers Karamazov, Part III, Book IV, chap 8). Berdyaev reported that “evil for [Dostoevsky] was evil, to be burned in the fires of hell.”45 Peace claimed, “A striking feature of The Brothers Karamazov…is the extent to which the characters are obsessed by hell…”46 The debauched father (in The Brothers Karamazov) declared, “I believe in hell” (Part I, Book I, chap 4). Nevertheless, Father Zosima “did not literally believe in hellfire.”47
In summary, then, Dostoevsky shows an overall respect for the Bible’s eschatology, although some of his characters promote bizarre interpretations. In A Raw Youth “Versilov speaks of the Second Coming which will end with the rapturous hymn that greets ‘the last resurrection.’”48
Thus, Dostoevsky seems to concur with historic orthodoxy that the Second Coming of Christ is that one far-off divine event toward which all creation moves (to borrow Tennyson’s language).
IV. Was Dostoevsky a Christian?
The conclusion of philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev is: “I personally know no more profoundly Christian writer than Dostoevsky…” and asserts that Dostoevsky “loved Christ consumingly…”49 Given such complimentary conclusions, some readers might consider it almost sacrilegious to raise the question that entitles this section of the article. However, since Christians are commanded to be claim-testers (in 1 Thess: 5:21 and 1 John 4:1), the question must be deemed a legitimate issue to raise—especially in light of the previously discussed defective soteriology. We shall survey Dostoevsky’s religious heritage and then wrestle with the question of possible conversion points in his experience.
A. His Religious Heritage
Dostoevsky was raised within the womb of the Russian Orthodox Church. His grandfather was an archpriest, his uncle was a village priest, three aunts married village priests, and his father had even attended seminary for a while.50 Also his maternal grandfather corrected proofs of theological law in Moscow.51 Dostoevsky recorded. “I came from a pious Russian family…In our family, we knew the Gospel almost from the cradle.”52 His childhood reading primer was 104 Sacred Stories from the Old and New Testaments. Job was one of the Bible stories that most fascinated him as a youngster. Furthermore, a deacon visited the Dostoevsky home and taught Scripture lessons “from one and a half to two hours” each week.53
A later strategic item in Dostoevsky’s story is his receiving a copy of The Gospels from three women en route to Siberian prison. One of the three, Natalya Fonvizina “knew [the Bible] almost by heart; she read the works of the Fathers of the Orthodox Church and the writers of the Catholic and Protestant churches…”54 Dostoevsky treasured and preserved this gift of The Gospels to his dying day, as we have noted.
B. The Conversion Question
This is a complicated question, because Dostoevsky was a complex person with complicated writings. The question is compounded by his involvement in one of those sacerdotal types of Eastern churches. Little Fyodor said his prayers daily before the family icon of the Virgin Mary: “Mother of God, keep me and preserve me under Thy wing!”55 His second wife reported that he said this favorite prayer with his children every evening at 9 p.m.56 Often such churches do not stress the importance of a clear-cut conversion decision. (Of course, we might also have a tough time determining from the Gospels exactly when Peter or any of the apostles were converted.)
It is possible that Dostoevsky began to believe in Christ during his early childhood experience. Like many children growing up in a Christian family, it may be hard to trace any neat before-and-after date. That is one possibility for attempting to pinpoint a starting point for Dostoevsky’s Christianity.
His life-sparing traumatic experience before the firing squad in 1849 left him feeling that he had been given new life—a sort of resurrection, but other documented factors would seem to militate against this event being assessed as a Christian conversion. His reported words to his brother Mikhail on that occasion were. “Now, in changing my life, I am reborn in a new form. Brother! I swear that I…will keep my soul and heart pure. I will be reborn for the better. That’s all my hope, all my consolation!”57 Note that the writer said both “I am reborn” and “I will be reborn.” Because of what Dostoevsky said earlier to another prisoner, it is best to assume that here he was simply using flowery, figurative language. He was undoubtedly rejuvenated, but unlikely regenerated at this juncture in his life. He used similar words when his ten-pound leg chains were removed upon his release from the Siberian prison (“Freedom, new life, resurrection from the dead…!).58
If Dostoevsky was already a Christian before he left Siberia in 1859, he “never seemed to grow as a Christian,” reported an anonymous Christianity Today reporter. “He had an affair. He became a compulsive gambler and lost so much money [that] he was all but bankrupt.”59 This addiction to gambling; which placed his family in poverty, is chronicled in Dostoevsky’s novel The Gambler.
Another experience while he was in the Siberian prison is often cited by biographers. During one Easter week in prison Dostoevsky recounted a mystical experience. Before that, he had despised the other convicts. After it his attitude was completely altered. He related: “…suddenly felt I could look on these unfortunates with quite different eyes, and suddenly as if by miracle, all hatred and rancor had vanished from my heart.”60 However, as Joseph Frank evaluates this so-called “conversion,” it was “not faith in God or Christ…rather, it is a faith in the Russian common people. Dostoevsky’s regeneration [here]…centered primarily on his relations with the people…”61 This was a social rather than strictly spiritual conversion.
The principal problem with Dostoevsky’s salvation is his doctrine of salvation as expressed (or unexpressed) in his novels. There is such a stress upon a salvation by suffering that this theme raises real questions about an authentic Christianity in the famous author himself. Dostoevsky unquestionably believed he had a religious mission in his writing, but any message of clear-cut conversion—and how to become a Christian—fails to come through in the great novels. At best, they serve a pre-evangelistic purpose, which is indeed a valuable function. At the climax of his novels Christianity comes through more as a flickering light at the end of a dark tunnel. Even the Dostoevsky-praising philosopher Berdyaev observed that the famed Russian “did not tell us how to acquire [freedom of spirit], how we may attain spiritual and moral autonomy…”62
In an 1875 letter Dostoevsky advised N. L. Ozmidov: “Wouldn’t it be more to the point…if you read somewhat more attentively the epistles of St. Paul?”63 Ah, we could only wish that Dostoevsky had heeded his own admonition when it came to the subject of soteriology!
Thankfully, there is some evidence to be adduced on the positive side of the fence. We have Dostoevsky’s own utterance: “If you believe in Christ, then you believe you will live eternally.”64 His wife Anna also narrated a visit to a monastery where her husband was asked point-blank by a Father Ambrosius whether he was a believer. To him Dostoevsky responded that he was.65 When Dostoevsky was about to be shot in 1849, a fellow prisoner named F. N. Lvov documented that Dostoevsky exclaimed to Speshnev: “We shall be with Christ.”66 (The problem here is that Speshnev was a known atheist!) William Lyon Phelps, a Christian professor at Yale University, acknowledged that Dostoevsky “found in the Christian religion the only solution of the riddle of existence…”67
There is much valuable grist for a Christian’s mental mill to be found within the sterling novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky. His presentation of God, Christ, and sin are generally aligned with the theological thought of Christian orthodoxy. Sadly, however, his crystallizations that relate to the subject of salvation in his novels often appear defective. Do we suffer for our sins, or (as the NT declares) has Christ sufficiently suffered for our sins (Heb 9:26-28; 1 Pet 2:21-24; 3:18)? Dostoevsky almost seemed to embrace an in-this-life purgatory. Suffering here on earth is purgative, regenerative for him, which does not square with NT teaching. Suffering did prove personally beneficial in Dostoevsky’s own life, so he probably read his NT through this experiential grid. But experience will not necessarily be prescriptive for exegesis.
On this salient subject Dostoevsky is considerably less than a student of the NT could wish. However, just as we can profitably read the monumental works of the Arian John Milton or sing the hymns of another Arian—Isaac Watts, so a Christian does well to wrestle with the world-class novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky.
1 William Leatherbarrow, Fedor Dostoevsky (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1981), 169.
2 Nicholas Berdyaev, Dostoevsky (New York: Meridian Books, 1957), 7.
3 Both of Dostoevsky’s names are transliterated several ways.
4 Thais Lindstrom, A Concise History of Russian Literature (New York: New York University Press, 1966), 186.
5 Fyodor Dostoevsky, Demons (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), 663 (Part III, chap 7).
6 Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal 1850-1859 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), 43.
7 A. Boyce Gibson, The Religion of Dostoevsky (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1973), 68, 121.
8 Frank, Dostoevsky, 307.
9 Joseph Frank and David I. Goldstein, eds., Selected Letters of Fyodor Dostoyevsky (London: Rutgers University Press, 1987), 452.
10 Frank, Dostoevsky, 306.
11 Leatherbarrow, Dostoevsky, 23.
12 Anna Dostoevsky, Reminiscences (New York: Liveright Publishers, 1975), 372.
13 Dostoevsky, Demons.
14 Gibson, The Religion of Dostoevsky, 199.
15 Berdyaev, Dostoevsky, 26.
16 Leatherbarrow, Dostoevsky, 36.
17 Bernard Ramm, “‘The Double’ and Romans 7” Christianity Today (April 9, 1971): 14-18.
18 Berdyaev, Dostoevsky, 20.
19 Richard A. Peace, Dostoyevsky: An Examination of the Major Novels (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971), 116.
20 Selected Letters, 470.
21 Leatherbarrow, Dostoevsky, 56.
22 Frank, Dostoevsky, 63.
23 Boyce Gibson, The Religion of Dostoevsky, 89.
24 Richard Peace, Dostoyevsky, 205.
25 Boyce Gibson, The Religion of Dostoevsky, 190.
26 Leatherbarrow, Dostoevsky, 68.
27 Berdyaev, Dostoevsky, 95.
28 Leonid Grossman, Dostoevsky (New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1975), 352.
29 Dostoevsky, Demons, 711.
30 Leatherbarrow, Dostoevsky, 62.
31 Ibid., 161.
32 Richard Peace, Dostoyevsky, 282.
33 Anna Dostoevsky, Reminiscences, 67.
34 Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky, 307.
35 Berdyaev, Dostoevsky, 135.
36 Leatherbarrow, Dostoevsky, 100.
37 Frank, Dostoevsky, 303.
38 Leatherbarrow, Dostoevsky, 102.
39 Ibid., 130.
40 Ibid., 129.
41 Frank, Dostoevsky, 307.
42 Gibson, The Religion of Dostoevsky, 90.
43 Leatherbarrow, Dostoevsky, 123.
44 Frank, Dostoevsky, 64.
45 Berdyaev, Dostoevsky, 94.
46 Peace, Dostoyevsky, 264.
47 Ibid., 291.
48 Avrahm Yarmolinsky, Dostoevsky: Works and Days (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1971), 337.
49 Berdyaev, Dostoevsky, 209, 217.
50 Grossman, Dostoevsky, 5.
51 Ibid., 9.
52 Frank, Dostoevsky, 43.
53 Ibid., 44.
54 Ibid., 74.
55 Frank, Dostoevsky, 44.
56 Anna Dostoevsky, Reminiscences, 242.
57 Ibid., 62.
58 Ibid., 86.
59 Author unknown, “The Dostoevsky Who Might Have Been,” Christianity Today (August 7, 1981): 15.
60 Frank, Dostoevsky, 123.
61 Ibid., 125.
62 Berdyaev, Dostoevsky, 224.
63 Selected Letters, 446.
64 Frank, Dostoevsky, 303.
65 Anna Dostoevsky, Reminiscences, 294.
66 Frank, Dostoevsky, 58.
67 William Lyon Phelps, Essays on Russian Novelists (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1911), 169.