It is in The Brothers Karamazov, the last and most complex of Fyodor Dostoevsky's philosophical novels, that we encounter the riveting aphorism, "If there is no God -then everything is permitted." With the twentieth century behind us, many would now contend that these words ascribed to Ivan Karamazov reveal a penetrating truth not to be dismissed. For Dostoevsky personally - and as a writer and thinker - there was one tormenting question: that of the existence of God. All of his great characters are driven, if not obsessed, by this burning question and its solution.
In and through his unforgettable characters, Dostoevsky demonstrates how one's free choice in believing in or rejecting God will have profound consequences of a moral and ethical nature. Thus, the cycle of his famous novels - Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Demons, and The Brothers Karamazov - is an endless exploration of the consequences of the existence or nonexistence of God. This deepening transformation of the realistic novel of the nineteenth century into an artistic field of religio‑philosophical enquiry gives his rather topical novels a distinctively timeless quality. All lovers of great literature, and those who are keenly interested in precisely these ultimate questions of God, the meaning of life, salvation, and human destiny, will be richly rewarded for spending time and energy on one of his major works.
Through the Furnace of Doubt to Deep Belief Dostoevsky always claimed that he came to faith in God and Christ through a "furnace of doubt." He had involved himself in politically radical circles in St. Petersburg in the 1840s. For this he paid the terrible price of four years hard labor in a Siberian prison, followed by six more years of exile in a remote Siberian town. This followed the infamous mock execution in which Dostoevsky and other prisoners were actually convinced, up to the final moments before their dramatically orchestrated reprieve that they were to die at the hands of a firing squad for their involvement in revolutionary activity. (This harrowing experience was described with acute psychological insight by Prince Myshkin, the title character of The Idiot.) While in Siberia poring over his copy of the New Testament amidst hardened criminals from the peasant class, Dostoevsky claims to have rediscovered his faith in God.
Dostoevsky clearly knew the anguish of doubt and the moral paralysis that doubt in God's existence would lead to. His own experience of this religious doubt was such that he had compassion on those who shared this experience. In the last years of his life, when he had achieved a certain level of fame, Dostoevsky became something of a spiritual guide to many people who wrote to him and shared with him their innermost feelings and ideas.
The protagonists of his novels are those who are wrestling with doubt, such as Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment and Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov. They are not treated as evil, but as tragic. They prefigure the anti‑hero of twentieth-century literature rather than reflecting the melodramatic villain of nineteenth-century novels. (Such villains certainly abound in Dostoevsky's world, such as Svidrigailov of Crime and Punishment. He is a striking example of a person irredeemably lost in a kind of amoral vacuum that leaves him devoid of human passion, yet capable of inflicting harm upon others.)
Dostoevesky’s anti-heroes demonstrate that without God (and belief in immortality); life is one of isolation, inner loneliness, and brokenness. The soul is restless, caught up in a vortex of passions and sinfulness. This is the tragedy of life without God, keenly perceived by Dostoevsky. In fact, he once wrote that he "felt" ideas, thereby perhaps revealing something of his uncanny ability to embody or incarnate these ideas in flesh-and-blood literary creations.
On the other hand, Dostoevsky's positive types, some of whom are even saintly (Sonya in Crime and Punishment, Prince Myshkin in The Idiot, and Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov) are freed from the hell of disbelief by a deep and abiding faith in God. They love their neighbors - including great sinners - and are selfless in their sacrifice for others, because they experience God as compassionate and long‑suffering. Dostoevsky's believers are not only morally good, but ultimately Christ-like.
For Dostoevsky, as a Christian, faith in God was bound up with faith in Christ. His thought was completely Christ‑centered. The criterion of truth was Christ and all truth was to be found in Christ. Dostoevsky spoke of the “radiant personality of Christ.” In a well‑known passage from one of his letters, he wrote the following:
And yet sometimes God sends me moments in which I am utterly at peace; in those moments I love and find that I am loved by others and in such moments I have constructed for myself a symbol of faith in which everything is clear and holy for me. The symbol is very simple, here it is: to believe that there is nothing more beautiful, more profound, more sympathetic, more reasonable, more courageous, and more perfect than Christ and not only is there nothing, but I tell myself with jealous love there never could be.
A few years later, and with a more theological ring, he further wrote: "The source of 1ife and of salvation from despair and the condition of the whole world is contained in only these three words: the 'Word became flesh'."