Freedom is Frightening!

“In the end, they will lay their freedom at our feet and say to us:
‘Make us your slaves, but feed us.’”

Fydor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamozov (1880), book V, chapter 5.

A Brief Visitation:

According to the story-teller, the Lord appeared to a “tortured, suffering people, sunk in iniquity, but loving Him like children.” He arrived the day after a hundred heretics, for the glory of God, had been burned at the stake by the Grand Inquisitor (GI).

They flocked to Him as he silently radiated gentleness and compassion, blessing and healing people along the way. Some threw flowers. Others sang hosannas. He encountered a funeral procession and raised a little girl back to life. Amid the weeping and confusion, the old cardinal himself (the GI) approached this intruder and had Him arrested. The crowd watched in submissive silence.

I am describing a parable within a novel. The Brothers Karamozov (1880), by Russian author Fydor Dostoyevsky, is the greatest novel I have ever read. I just want to focus here on one chapter, titled: “The Grand Inquisitor” (book V, chapter 5). It’s a stand-alone parable about Jesus returning to Seville, Spain, in the 16th century during the Spanish Inquisition.

Ilya Repin

Back to the story: The GI visits Jesus in his cell to explain why the Church no longer needs Him. The GI said, “For fifteen centuries we have been wrestling with Thy freedom, but now it is ended and over for good… [The people] have brought their freedom to us and laid it humbly at our feet.”

The GI frames his comments around the three temptations Jesus faced in the wilderness (see Matthew 4:1-11), namely, to turn stones into bread, to leap from the Temple and be saved by angels, and to rule the kingdoms of the world. Bottom line, the GI thinks Jesus was wrong to turn Satan down on each count.

Stones Into Bread!

The GI’s advice to Jesus matched the first temptation of Satan. He said, “Turn [stones] into bread and mankind will run after Thee like a flock of sheep, grateful and obedient, though forever trembling, lest Thou withdraw Thy hand and deny them Thy bread.” In other words, if only Jesus had altered His mission from providing heavenly bread to primarily giving out bread for bellies, far more men would have followed Him. After all, “Obedience is bought with bread. Power is purchased with bread. Every man has his price.” The GI added, “Feed men, and then ask of them virtue!”

But Jesus replied, man shall not live by bread alone.

Take a Flying Leap!

As for the second temptation, if Jesus had jumped off the high temple wall and been saved by angels, then the question of His divine sonship would have been an easy sell. Years later, He could have come down from the cross to victoriously prove Himself! After all, “man seeks not so much God, as the miraculous.”

But Jesus did not want faith that is purchased with spectacular miracles. He wants our faith to be our decision, freely made—not purchased with proof. Again, the GI scolds Jesus for promoting freedom rather than exerting greater control over the minds of men.

Rule the Kingdoms of the World!

In the third temptation, Jesus was offered earthly power as a tool for providing universal happiness and unity. Think of the good Jesus could have done with great political authority. With such potential at stake, what harm could it do to toss Satan a bone?

The GI rebuked Jesus: “Hast Thou taken the world and Caesar’s purple, Thou wouldst have founded the universal state and have given universal peace. For who can rule men if not he who holds their conscience and their bread in his hands?” He added, “Had Thou accepted that last offer of the mighty spirit, Thou wouldst have accomplished all that man seeks on earth—that is, someone to worship, someone to keep his conscience.” The GI believed that planning the universal happiness of man is “real” love and Jesus should have known that. He thought that it is through compulsion, not freedom, that the people can be provided the tools to end human suffering and unite humanity under one banner. Isn’t it more loving to reduce the cost of discipleship and lighten the burden that comes with genuine freedom?

But Jesus had no bones for Satan and He resolved to serve the Lord God only. This would mean enduring severe rejection and humiliation from those in power, for a higher purpose than temporal happiness and peace.

Finally finished, the GI waited for the Prisoner to respond. Jesus silently approached the old man and kissed him on the forehead. The cardinal shuttered and told the Prisoner; “Go and come no more… never, never!”


To increase freedom is to increase both struggle and personal responsibility. Satan wanted Jesus to veer off of God’s plan and protect humanity from the hunger, guilt, and the pain that comes with true freedom. According to the GI, people prefer rules and bread over freedom and painful choices. We would rather worship those who provide us with bread, miracles and power than the One who came to set us free.

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