Present Suffering and Future Justice and Russian Literature

3 Jan

Cover of "The Brothers Karamazov (Barnes ...

After owning the book for several years and willing myself to read it, I have finally managed to devour Dostoyevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov, thanks to Afghanistan. I think the compulsive action of clicking the page turn button on the Kindle helped propel me through, but honestly, for a 1000 page 19th century novel translated from Russian, it was extremely readable, even enjoyable. The whole book is full of spiritual insights, but one scene in particular really grabbed me, as it just screamed with Gospel truth. The scene was a simple conversation between two brothers; Ivan, an intellectual atheist, and Alyosha, a spiritually sensitive believer. Ivan is not an unbeliever because of a lack of desire for eternal justice. In fact, in his heart of hearts, like every other person on earth, he wants nothing more than a future glory after this life. In one of my favorite quotes Ivan says,

Let me make it plain. I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidian mind of man, that in the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, of all the blood they’ve shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened with men–but though all that may come to pass, I don’t accept it. I won’t accept it.

This desire Ivan expresses so powerfully is central to every human person. With the world as broken as it is, God has created us to recognize this brokenness and crave a future healing for our suffering. Ivan goes on and says,

I must have justice, or I will destroy myself. And not justice in some remote infinite time and space, but here on earth, and that I could see myself. I have believed in it. I want to see it, and if I am dead by then, let me rise again, for if it all happens without me, it will be too unfair. Surely I haven’t suffered, simply that I, my crimes and my sufferings, may manure the soil of the future harmony for somebody else. I want to see with my own eyes the hind lie down with the lion and the victim rise up and embrace his murderer. I want to be there when every one suddenly understands what it has all been for. All the religions of the world are built on this longing, and I am a believer. But then there are the children, and what am I to do about them? That’s a question I can’t answer…If all must suffer to pay for the eternal harmony, what have children to do with it, tell me, please?

Even though every part of his being longs for a future justice, for a new heavens and a new earth in which all things are made right, Ivan is unable to accept the sufferings of this life, especially the suffering of children. He goes on to tell Alyosha several true stories of innocent children suffering and dying brutal deaths, including a story of a 7-year-old boy who was torn apart by dogs as a punishment for accidentally hurting the paw of a nobleman’s favorite hound. He concludes bitterly that,

if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price. I don’t want the mother to embrace the oppressor who threw her son to the dogs! She dare not forgive him! … she dare not forgive the torturer, even if the child were to forgive him! And if that is so, if they dare not forgive, what becomes of harmony? Is there in the whole world a being who would have the right to forgive and could forgive?

Even though Ivan deepest desire is for a Savior to wipe away all the tears of the world’s suffering, he rejects him on principle, because the suffering is too much to bear. He says,

“I don’t want harmony. From love for humanity I don’t want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong.”

I think many atheists feel this way. Douglas Wilson has a quote that goes something like; ‘every atheist says two things: 1. There is no God. 2. I hate him.’ Ivan rejects God not because his heart does not believe, but because he won’t accept the world God has created. He doesn’t want eternal salvation if it means that children must suffer, and suffer horribly, in this lifetime. I’m going to excerpt to the end of the section. Ivan poses Alyosha a difficult question. Hold out to the end, because the end is really good.

That’s rebellion,” murmured Alyosha, looking down.

“Rebellion? I am sorry you call it that,” said Ivan earnestly. “One can hardly live in rebellion, and I want to live. Tell me yourself, I challenge you–answer. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature–that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance–and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth.”

“No, I wouldn’t consent,” said Alyosha softly.

“And can you admit the idea that men for whom you are building it would agree to accept their happiness on the foundation of the unexpiated blood of a little victim? And accepting it would remain happy for ever?”

“No, I can’t admit it. Brother,” said Alyosha suddenly, with flashing eyes, “you said just now, is there a being in the whole world who would have the right to forgive and could forgive? But there is a Being and He can forgive everything, all and for all, because He gave His innocent blood for all and everything. You have forgotten Him, and on Him is built the edifice, and it is to Him they cry aloud, ‘Thou art just, O Lord, for Thy ways are revealed!’ “

Alyosha doesn’t understand suffering any better than Ivan does, but he knows a powerful truth which gives him the resources to deal with suffering. Jesus Christ entered into our suffering. He was the only truly innocent child, and he was ripped up by the Roman dogs in the greatest display of earthly injustice. Alyosha gets this. It was the shedding of Christ’s innocent blood and absorbing the wrath of God that makes him able to forgive all, and able to redeem all. To paraphrase Tim Keller: we don’t know why God has allowed suffering in the world, but we know what the reason isn’t. We know it isn’t that he doesn’t love us. He proved that he loved us by entering into our broken world of suffering, where he was torn apart on our behalf. He endured what we could never have endured. In this world of suffering, we do not have to believe in a Savior who is untouched by it. Ivan would rather cling to his “unsatisfied indignation” at the injustice of the world rather than worship at the feet of Jesus. Alyosha is not the intellectual that Ivan is, but he does not need to understand suffering to love and worship the Christ who suffered. He has a simple faith that when Christ redeems this world it truly will be exactly what we’ve been longing for- in Ivan’s own words; “for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, of all the blood they’ve shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened”.

 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling placeof God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.

Revelation 21:1-4

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