Sixteen centuries after His crucifixion, Jesus Christ has returned to earth. The period coincides with the Spanish Inquisition. Just the day prior to the appearance of Jesus, nearly a hundred heretics had been burnt at the stake in an auto-de-fe, the name of which carries the meaning of the ritual: an act of faith. The Roman Catholic Church has been carrying out these punishments under the sentencing orders handed by the Grand Inquisitor. The sentencing was carried in the presence of the cardinals of the church, the king of Spain and his court and the entire population of Seville.
Somehow Jesus is immediately recognized by the people despite not performing any miracles or making a demonstration of who He is other than offering a radiantly glimmering smile endowed with the compassion of the infinite. Once recognized, the passage of Jesus through the crowd results in fulfilled calls of blessings and healing and even the resurrection of a dead child. The outpouring of good faith and love toward Jesus alarms the Grand Inquisitor to the point where he sends down the order for His arrest and imprisonment.
Deep within the dark bowels of His underground prison cell, Jesus receives a visit from the Grand Inquisitor who insists that eventually he will have Jesus tied to the stake and burned as the very exemplar of heresy.
What is important to understand is that “The Grand Inquisitor” as short story is really just a chapter extricated from the novel The Brothers Karamazov. At this point in the story, two of those titular characters discuss the imprisonment of Jesus and the Grand Inquisitor’s assertion that He is the ultimate heretic. This bizarre observation by a cardinal of the Church is eventually explicated: the Pope’s place on Earth is as the representation of Jesus, which makes the return of Jesus utterly and irrefutably irrelevant.
The story proper returns with the Grand Inquisitor launching into what is effectively a very long monologue with no interruption by his prisoner. During this monologue, the key points seem to be those which confirm the Inquisitor’s belief that the Pope—and by extension the entire hierarchy of the Catholic Church—have taken over the mantle of responsibility of the rest of the people from Jesus. The people live under the delusion that this gives them freedom; in reality, they are merely slaves to the church. This lack of free will is a good thing because free will never made anyone happy.
The Inquisitor goes on to expand on this view by saying Jesus made a mistake when he was tempted in the desert by the serpent. While it is certainly true that man does not lived by bread alone, it is also true that men who have no bread are too hungry to have free will. The Church recognized this mistake and have learned how to control the masses by feeding them bread and security. Since salvation almost always fails as the result of a weak faith, the security provided by the Church has filled in the gap that was missing from the religion of Jesus. Of such devotion from the masses are empires built and the return of Jesus is simply too dangerous to continued expansion of that empire. Therefore, Jesus must burn.
Finally—mercifully, even—the Inquisitor’s long monologue grinds to a close and he waits patiently for Jesus to raise objections. Instead, the Christ says nothing, but instead merely kisses the Inquisitor softly upon the lips before walking away.