It’s from the section in the book that’s sometimes referred to as “The Grand Inquisitor.” Ivan, the atheist brother, tells Alyosha, the believer, a story about Jesus coming back to earth during the time of the Inquisition. Jesus begins performing miracles, and people recognize him for who he is—and he’s arrested, of course, by the Inquisitors, who sentence him to be burned to death.
The night before his sentence, the Grand Inquisitor visits Jesus in his cell. Jesus doesn’t speak, but the Grand Inquisitor speaks to him at length about how the church doesn’t really need Jesus anymore. And that, frankly, his return at this point is just disruptive to the overall meaning of the church. In other words, the Grand Inquisitor says that the church’s mission in preaching Jesus has become more important than Jesus himself. And the great line, the quote that I really gravitated towards is this one here:
“Anyone who can appease a man’s conscience can take his freedom away from him.”
What I love about the story is that it’s become a kind of atheist manifesto, if you will. Many non-believers cite this passage as the reason why they do not believe—forgetting, by the way, that Dostoevsky himself was quite a fervent believer. But they also forget the end of the story: what happens after the Grand Inquisitor makes this huge statement, and lambastes Jesus for not speaking up for himself. Jesus simply stands up, walks up to the Grand Inquisitor, and gives him a kiss.
I am well into Part III of the book, and it discusses what happened after Jesus died and goes into why his message caught on so well, so you should definitely read the book. Paul took Jesus’ message and detached it from its very Jewish foundations. I am sure that one could argue about that, but the book really does put the time before Jesus’ birth, during his life, and after his death and resurrection into a historical context that I was completely unaware of. Devout evangelical or fundamentalist Christians will find the book troubling, but someone like you might get quite a lot out of it unless you are much better versed in 1st century history than I was.