Furnace of Doubt

Furnace of Doubt

“I believe in Christ and confess Him not like some child; my hosanna has passed through an enormous furnace of doubt.”

– Fyodor Dostoevsky

Dostoevsky as young manOrphaned at age seventeen, Dostoevsky had his whole life before him. Though he graduated from a military engineering school, honoring his father’s wishes, he did not want to be an engineer. With a small income from his father’s estate, Dostoevsky devoted himself to writing and achieved instant notoriety with the publication of his first novel, Poor Folk. That success gave him access to intellectual and literary circles in St. Petersburg, where he became involved in the sociopolitical issues of the day.

Now watch as God dramatically intervened in his circumstances…

Dostoevsky joined the Petrashevsky Circle, a utopian socialist group that secretly published propaganda against the Russian Tsar. In April 1849, he and others were arrested for sedition and sentenced to death. While he waited in prison for his execution, a small group of women brought him a New Testament. As he pored over the Gospel accounts, a profound shift occurred in his understanding of life.

Dostoevsky mock executionBut after eight long months in prison, execution day came in late December. Blindfolded and stripped, the first three prisoners were tied to stakes. Dostoevsky stood with the next group of three, waiting. A firing squad took aim. At the very last moment, a man on horseback rode up waving a white cloth. Guns were lowered as the rider read a notice from the Tsar, detailing a different sentence—four years of hard labor in Siberia. Though their lives were spared, one prisoner died on the spot from fright and two others went insane from the cruel mock execution.

Dostoevsky knew God had mercifully given him a second chance. At this turning point, he left behind his ideas of social revolution, embracing instead the spiritual values that would radically shape his future novels. Still, more suffering lay in store.


Dostoevsky’s New Testament

With ten-pound shackles around his feet, he rode on a sled for two weeks in subzero temperatures from St. Petersburg to Siberia, carrying his hidden Bible. Later his daughter, Lyubov, wrote about the divine coincidence: “He studied the precious volume…pondered every word, learned it by heart and never forgot it. All his works are saturated with it and it is this, which gives them their power.  ‘What a strange chance that your father should have had only the Gospels to read during the four most important years of a man’s life, when his character is forming definitively,’ many of his admirers have said to me. But was it chance? The work of Jesus is not finished; in each generation He chooses His disciples.”[1]

During his years in Siberia, Dostoevsky witnessed the dark side of human nature, meeting many murderers and thieves who would eventually form the characters in his novels. He contemplated many spiritual questions, which he later grappled with in his writing: Is man shaped by his environment? Is free will really free? How does God balance judgment and mercy? Can forgiveness and unconditional love transform a person?

Though he didn’t write anything in Siberia, he left there a better writer.

After prison, he endured four years of forced military service. He married and soon lost his first wife, Maria Isaev. Her death left him with a greedy stepson. Then, his attempts at journalism failed. Stress triggered frequent epileptic seizures. Adding to his grief, his favorite brother Mikhail died, leaving Dostoevsky financially responsible for his brother’s family. Depressed and weighed down with debt, he gambled and pawned off household items to meet his obligations.

Dostoevsky’s life seemed to be in a downward spiral, but his writing began to soar. With Crime and Punishment in its final stages, the publisher agreed to pay off Dostoevsky’s debts, if he met a certain deadline. If he failed, the publishing rights to all his writings would become the avaricious publisher’s property.

Anna Dostoevsky, 1846-1918

Anna Dostoevsky, 1846-1918

God saw this frail writer under enormous pressure, and again, engineered circumstance for great purposes. At this precarious point in Dostoevsky’s life, he was introduced to Anna Snitkina, a 22-year-old stenographer, whose administrative skills helped him reach the ominous deadline.

As their friendship grew, he told Anna that he had never known happiness. She wrote later:

“Fyodor always spoke about his financial straits with great good nature. His stories however, were so mournful that on one occasion I couldn’t restrain myself from asking.

‘Why is it, Fyodor, that you remember only the unhappy times? Tell me instead about how you were happy.’

‘Happy? But I haven’t had any happiness yet. At least not the kind of happiness I always dreamed of. I am still waiting for it… In spite of all the grief that has come to me, I still go on dreaming that I will begin a new, happy life.’”[2]

Happiness would no longer elude him.


Read next week’s final post about this amazing man and “The Grand Inquisitor,” one single chapter of his crowning novel, The Brothers Karamazov, that has touched millions of people.

Tell me about your furnace of doubt…Did God meet you there?


[1] Fyodor Dostoyevsky: A Study, by Liubov Fedorovna Dostoevskaia (Dostoevsky’s daughter, page 81.

[2] Dostoevsky: Reminiscences by Anna Dostoevsky, page 29.