What could the Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment have to do with Easter? Quite a bit, actually. In the beginning of the story the main character, Raskolnikov, commits a murder and in much of the rest of the novel the reader is drawn inside the mind of the killer, trying to find out, along with Raskolnikov, why he did it. He seems to have embraced a view common in his day that there were certain members of society who were special, above the law, who could make decisions to break the law if they deemed it best for the “common good.” As a young intellectual he would like to see himself as a part of this elite group. But he’s not sure if it’s a fit.
His name comes from a Russian word which means “split,” or “schismatic.” Dostoevsky is showing that Raskolnikov is not only divided in himself as to his identity and why he committed the crime, but he is also cut off from the faith of his childhood. As he wrestles with these issues, the ringing of bells becomes a common symbol. In his mind he keeps hearing the ringing of the bell of the home of the old pawnbroker he killed. The sound caused a “hideous and agonizingly fearful sensation.” The bell reminds him of his sin. At the same time he remembers the sound of bells from the belfry of the church he attended when he was growing up. These bells remind him of the faith of his childhood. The name Raskolnikov also resembles the Russian word for “bell.” Dostoevsky builds the growing tension of a man truly divided in himself. He is torn between the faith of his childhood and the godless worldview he has adopted as an adult. In the end, the faith of his childhood calls him back, and after reading the story of the raising of Lazarus in John 11, Raskolnikov, once “cut off,” and divided, is raised again to new life.
I grew up with a solid evangelical faith in a small country church in the mountains of West Virginia. On Easter Sunday, 1977, after hearing a powerful sermon by Pastor Jim Stewart about the death and resurrection of Jesus, I walked the aisle, as is the practice, and embraced faith in Christ as only an eight-year old can do.
The church had a huge bell that we all wanted to ring every week. The children would stand in line for a chance to pull the long, thick rope, calling parishioners to worship.
After I left home I went through a long period of doubt and agnosticism. Just like Raskolnikov I was profoundly divided between the faith of my childhood and the more “mature” worldview of adult life. But I could always hear the teaching and preaching of the truth in my mind, drawing me back, back to the ringing of the bell at Ceres Baptist Church.
Through much agonizing, wrestling, and denying, in my own search for self-discovery, as did Raskolnikov, I realized that I am a murderer, I killed Jesus. I have murdered and have sought to justify it. I am guilty and in need of redemption. He embraces me even though I rejected Him. Because Jesus is risen I have new life. Crime and Punishment is my story . . . and perhaps yours as well.
*If you are interested in an insightful essay on Crime and Punishment, check out the Introduction to the book in the Constance Garnett translation by Priscilla Meyer. Much of my material comes from her.