One day, Jesus comes back. He wanders through the streets and squares of a southern town, where just the day before 100 so-caleld heretics had been burnt at the stake. The story-teller narrates, ‘He appeared quietly, unostentatiously, and yet – strange, this – everyone recognizes him. Saying nothing, he passes among them with a smile of infinite compassion.’
People who touch his garment are healed, a blind man’s sight is restored. He even raises a small girl from the dead. The crowds erupt, shouting and sobbing. At this very moment, the Grand Inquisitor, a man of ninety, emerges from the cathedral. The crowd meekly parts, and they bow their heads to the ground. He then has the Visitor arrested.
Later, recieving the prisoner, the Grand Inquisitor says to him, ‘I know who you are.’ He accuses the prisoner of meddling. The old man sentences the Prisoner to being burnt at the stake the next day.
The gist of his accusation against the Prisoner is that whereas the Prisoner has acted to ensure humanity’s freedom, the Grand Inquisitor acts to ensure humanity’s happiness. He ensures their happiness by providing them with bread, with certainty, and with belonging. The people, claims the Grand Inquisitor, cannot bear the freedom that Jesus has left them with; it was uncharitable of him to attempt this. All those centuries ago, by refusing the temptations in the wilderness, Jesus had said no to buying people’s loyalty with bread, or with a display of miracles on demand, leaving them only their free wills and consciences from which to act. ‘But the people are mere sheep,’ said the Grand Inquisitor, ‘and you have asked too much of them. The freedom is an intolerable burden, which we have toiled for fifteen centuries to remove.’
The only response the Prisoner makes is to draw near to the old man, and kiss him on his bloodless ninety-year-old lips. The old man shudders and cries, ‘Go, and do not come back . . . . do not come back . . . . . ever!’
A paraphrase from Chapter V, ‘The Grand Inquisitor’, in Fyodor Dostoesvsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, pg.227-54