During the sixteenth century in Spain, at the height of the Inquisition, someone resembling Christ appears unannounced in the streets. The people recognize Him immediately and begin to flock about Him. But, as He is healing several of the sick and lame, an old cardinal also recognizes Him and orders the guards to arrest Him. Once again Christ is abducted.
If Christ had accepted the proffered bread, man would have been given security instead of a freedom of choice, and if Christ had performed a miracle and had cast himself down from the pinnacle, man would have been given something miraculous to worship. The nature of man, insists the Inquisitor, is to seek the miraculous. Finally, Christ should have accepted the power offered Him by the devil. Because He did not, the church has now had to assume such power for the benefit of man. And since Christ’s death, the church has been forced to correct the errors made by Him. Now, at last mankind willingly submits its freedom to the church in exchange for happiness and security. This balance, says the Inquisitor, must not be upset.
At the end of the monologue, the Grand Inquisitor admits that of necessity he is on the side of the devil, but the challenge that Christ placed on mankind allows only a few strong people to be saved; the rest must be sacrificed to the strong. The Grand Inquisitor’s scheme, at least, provides an earthly happiness for the mass of mankind even though it will not lead to eternal salvation. On the other hand, Christ’s method would not have saved these same weak and puny men either.
When he finishes, the Grand Inquisitor looks at Christ, who has remained silent the entire time. Now He approaches the old churchman and kisses him on his dry, withered lips. The Grand Inquisitor frees Him suddenly, saying that He is never to come again.
Ivan finishes his story and wonders now if Alyosha will reject him or will try to accept him as a brother. As an answer, Alyosha leans forward and kisses his brother. “You are plagiarizing my poem,” Ivan cries in delight. The brothers leave the restaurant together, but then they part, each going his separate way.