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This year marks a century and a half since the great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky gifted the world with Crime and Punishment (1866). As novels go, Crime and Punishment is neither a page-turner nor a particularly cheery read. It has a “happy ending,” I suppose, but it takes a lot of pain to get there, and even the resolution is painful. It is, after all, a Russian novel.

The protagonist, Raskolnikov, is a poor, melancholy student who spends far too much time living in his own head. He resents the world around him, considering himself to be a superior human being who shouldn’t be bound by the ethical concerns of the common herd. He has it within him to be a great man, a benefactor, a charismatic leader. 

Convinced of his superiority over the laws of God and man, Raskolnikov brutally murders a pawnbroker and her sister, purportedly to steal their money, but ultimately because he feels he has the right to do so. Eventually, though, he discovers he cannot so easily fool his conscience. He confesses and is exiled to Siberia, but there, accompanied by the saintly Sonya, he finds peace and forgiveness.

Crime and Punishment is rightly hailed for its psychological depth and realism, but it has another claim to fame that makes it required reading, especially for Christians concerned about moral relativism’s devastating effects on the modern world. Just as Alfred Lord Tennyson, in his epic poem In Memoriam (published in 1850 but written mostly in the 1830s), wrestled with the implications of Darwinian natural selection more than a decade prior to the publication of The Origin of Species (1859), so Dostoevsky, in Crime and Punishment, exposed the dangers and delusions of Nietzsche’s theory of the übermensch more than 20 years before Nietzsche introduced that figure to the world in Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883).

Nietzsche’s Superman

According to Nietzsche, the übermensch (German for “superman” or “overman”) is a person who finds within himself the courage to shake off the chains of middle-class morality—the moral and ethical standards “imposed” on us by religion. Whereas Marx would dismiss religion as the “opiate of the masses,” Nietzsche saw it as a slave ethic, a tool used by weak people to control the strong.

Undaunted by religious codes and superstitions, the übermensch rises above such man-made strictures—moves beyond good and evil—to assert his will to power. Only an individual who frees himself from these strictures can lead society forward to a glorious future. Though it isn’t altogether fair to blame Nietzsche for Hitler, his theories have provided ample justification for totalitarian leaders of all political stripes to cloak their acts of injustice under the guise of tools for advancing civilization.

In Raskolnikov, Dostoevsky presents us with a would-be Nietzschean superman, someone who doesn’t believe the rules apply to him, though he certainly expects others to follow them. The fact he feels the need to justify his actions to himself proves he’s an ethical being on whom the claims of morality are binding. He may consider himself immune to legal punishment, but he cannot escape his own internal judge, the conscience God placed in all of us. Raskolnikov knows he’s committed a crime—and the knowledge of that crime demands the existence of a supernatural standard neither relative nor man-made.

As pain signals something is broken in our body, guilt signals something is broken in our soul. Even as he tries to convince himself of his superman status, Raskolnikov is riddled with guilt and remorse. A modern Freudian therapist would likely tell him that his feelings of guilt are the problem, but they aren’t. The reality of his guilt is the fact that gives the lie to moral relativism, to the false belief man can live and choose and flourish in a world beyond good and evil.

Consequential Ideas

It’s clear to me Dostoevsky saw it as part of his mission as a novelist to warn against the satanic temptation of what would become known as the Nietzschean superman. I say it’s clear since 13 years after Crime and Punishment Dostoevsky began The Brothers Karamazov, a masterpiece that refutes the übermensch in a way no philosophical or theological treatise could hope to do.

Fyodor Karamazov, a depraved and rapacious fool, is the father of three sons who embody, respectively, the physical, intellectual, and spiritual sides of man: Dmitry, a passionate, impulsive soldier; Ivan, an overly rational intellectual who rejects faith in Christ; and Alyosha, a saintly monk who tries to minister to his tormented father and brothers.

During the course of the novel Fyodor is killed, and suspicion falls on the hotheaded Dmitry. In the end, though, we learn Fyodor was killed not by one of his legitimate sons but by his one illegitimate son, the bastard Smerdyakov. This revelation comes as a surprise to everyone, including the reader, but to no one more than Ivan.

You see, for many years the grotesque Smerdyakov has been a disciple of the nihilistic Ivan. Ivan has taught him there is and can be no justice or truth in the world; indeed, since God is dead, all things are permissible. For Ivan, this Nietzschean view of morality as purely relative and man-made isn’t much more than an intellectual game. True, he suffers angst over it, but he sees no need to put his academic theories into practice.

Not so Smerdyakov. Idolizing his half-brother, Smerdyakov takes all Ivan says as gospel truth and builds his own twisted worldview around it. If Ivan is right and morality is purely relative, then why shouldn’t Smerdyakov behave just as Raskolnikov does in Crime and Punishment? That is to say, why should he not commit a crime for its own sake? If he’s not bound by any set moral or ethical code, what’s to prevent him from killing the father he loathes?

The modern Nietzschean who reads The Brothers Karamazov will likely console himself by concluding that Smerdyakov misrepresented and perverted the nihilism of Ivan. But that’s not how Ivan receives Smerdyakov’s proud, remorseless confession of how and why he killed his father. Ivan sees his theories are not only faulty; they’re false, evil, and inherently destructive.

Dostoevsky forces Ivan to see the fruits of his beliefs, to see what a real übermensch looks like—not beautiful and tragic and noble (like Napoleon in exile), but low and mean and grotesque. As a result of this self-knowledge, Ivan renounces his atheism and embraces the God he’d once rejected. Ideas, it seems, do have consequences.

Not Above Falling

Our age may think of itself as radically democratic, but we’re not above falling for the deceptive rhetoric and utopian promises of the übermensch. Indeed, we’re not above becoming one ourselves. Let us take caution, then, and heed the warnings of Dostoevsky, who was prescient enough to see the dangers behind a theory Nietzsche would soon propound.

There is—in each of us—a smug, petty, resentful Raskolnikov or Smerdyakov struggling to get out.