In Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s classic novel The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan presents a ringing challenge to Christianity by reciting the poem “The Grand Inquisitor,” in which Jesus is chastised by the Inquisitor for wishing to set men free. This old man believes that mankind cannot handle the burden of the freedom Jesus brings, suggesting that humanity is too weak to make the hard decisions it requires. To prove his point, he cites Jesus’ temptation and His refusal to turn the desert stones into bread (Matthew 4:3). If men are provided with bread, the Inquisitor argues, they will lose the freedom to choose but gain what they really want—security through material proof, authority, and miracle: “Man seeks to bow down before that which is indisputable, so indisputable that all men at once would agree to the universal worship of it” (The Brothers Karamazov, (Everyman’s Library) 1927, 1992, p. 254).
By resisting the temptation to assert His identity with a show of persuasive proof, Jesus empowers individual choice to follow Him, but the Inquisitor insists that this course cannot succeed without compulsion. The price of the freedom Christ grants, he argues, is too high. In its place, the Church must provide religious dogma that drives people to believe. The Church offers rules, miracles, and authority structures to provide absolute certainty, thus compelling the conscience to yield. Such blind faith is deemed essential to save humanity from itself, so laws and rules are devised to compel them. One can feel the flickering flames of hell in the background, inspiring people to surrender and yield their will, lest they must endure torture throughout eternity.
Much theological tradition casts a shadow over the individual’s quest for meaning, yet we find Jesus questioning such dogmas and proofs with Scripture. He says, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:4, ESV).
I find it fascinating that God takes no pleasure in forced obedience. Indeed, one could question the planting of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Why allow options? Why would God give humans the freedom to vote for the devil himself, that ancient serpent, unless He values the kind of life and love that only freedom can bring?
The burning scrub bush in the desert is not the greatest miracle that the Master of the universe could perform. One could easily argue that this demonstration should have been far more spectacular. The unassuming bush attracted Moses’ curiosity, but it left him the freedom to say “no.” It had no power to convince Moses to abandon his excuses, but it did point him to the revelation that God is with us even amid our troubles and suffering. It changed Moses by encouraging him to deal with what he observed.
Similarly, instead of splitting the sea in one thundering instant, God chose to have an east wind blow throughout the night (Exodus 14:21). It may be difficult to imagine how frightened we would be if trapped between the sea and a pursuing enemy. Unlike a Hollywood movie—its grand orchestral music cuing us to God’s next amazing move—real life leaves us with the difficult task of trying to determine what God is doing. The Egyptians might have concluded that the wind was just unusually strong. Though skeptics may seek any reason to doubt, we still have the inexplicable experiences of people left free to choose whether to trust Him.
In the wilderness of temptation, Satan tried again and again to entice Jesus to prove His power and authority with a trick. The masses would have been impressed to behold Jesus jumping from the pinnacle of the temple only to be snatched from death at the last instant. No doubt they would have accepted and worshiped Him, but Jesus refused to offer unequivocal proofs because He wanted people to be responsible for determining truth for themselves.
Jesus divested Himself of the divine prerogatives and power that come with being God. His entire life and ministry—the signs and miracles, the teaching and healing—were based on persuading and convincing. Jesus’ miracles were not merely signs and wonders but evidence that illuminated an understanding of His mission and message. Indeed, Jesus refused to perform miracles that distracted from this mission and message. Upon experiencing the miracle of Jesus feeding 5,000, the crowds wanted to make Him king by force, but in response, Jesus sent His disciples away and withdrew from the crowds because His way of persuading was not a form of compulsion (John 6:15).
On the cross, Jesus did not save Himself when the crowds demanded proof. Instead, He was crucified in weakness, and the penitent thief crucified with Jesus was redirected to a faith free of miraculous proofs and filled with serious thought about the nature of God’s kingdom.
Even the empty tomb of the risen Christ aroused perplexity instead of providing incontrovertible proof. The primary spectators at the tomb were women considered poor witnesses whose testimony was inadmissible in a court of law. It seems that God was not challenged by this lack of admissible proof. Though ample evidence confirms the account was not invented and that the event was larger than life itself, God was more concerned with entrusting a few people deemed insignificant in the world with a precious message of a glorified Christ than with indisputable proof.
When Thomas wanted proof for himself, Jesus offered him evidence in a surprising way. The resurrection was real, but instead of dazzling Thomas into belief with a spectacular radiant light, Jesus simply showed him His wounds. Jesus told Thomas, however, that some believe without seeing: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29, ESV).
Though the finite human mind is prone to doubt in its quest to grasp the infinite, this does not mean good faith is impossible. It does not mean there are no reasons to believe. When one moves away from proof and dogmatic certainty, the evidence for the divine does not fade. It may not be indisputably provable, but it is examinable. The Spirt is real, meaning is important, and reason is needed. God preferred to reveal Himself to Elijah in a “still small voice” rather than in a thunderous storm of wind, fire, and earthquake (1 Kings 19:11–12). The spectacular show of power on Mount Carmel was compelling, but God wants us to love Him because we have found Him worthy of such love. When God breathes a whisper, it moves us, leads us, and empowers us. God longs for love to be freely given. He wants us to worship Him because we have an intelligent appreciation of His character.
Faith does not rest in indisputable proofs but upon evidence that when understood, deepens our understanding and leaves us capable of reasoning. If we choose to deal with the evidence, it will empower and transform us. God will never force us to believe, but He gives us sufficient evidence upon which to rest our faith. God will appeal to our reason, but He will not force an offer we can’t refuse. That would be slavish compulsion, not the freedom that love demands. Jesus does not call Christians to be the moral courtroom that convinces people with proofs. God is committed to a freedom too wonderful to accept without serious contemplation and thought. Such freedom does not decrease but increases faith. It’s about embracing the deeper ethics of our faith and thinking rightly about God and our own purpose in life. As pearls hidden, the character of God’s love is to is to be sought after and exalted for the world to see.
Craig Ashton Jr.