It is quite unfortunate how often “Christian” fiction is interpreted to mean “nice” fiction. After all, the gospel (and most of the Bible) is not very nice. It is often necessary to forgo nice if you want to write something deeply true. Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment is a perfect example. While a story about an ax murderer and a prostitute is not exactly an easy sell as a Christian novel, it’s arguably one of the best Christian novels ever written.
Crime and Punishment explores the parallel ideas of sin and grace, depravity and redemption, darkness and light. Dostoyevsky takes advantage of one of the great benefits of fiction: creating extraordinary situations to explore ideas that fall to the background in everyday life. His characters walk the fine line between extreme and relatable.
The main character, Raskolnikov, is an intellectual, and becomes a murderer on those terms. He wants to prove he is one of society’s strong men. Sonia is a woman forced to prostitution by desperate circumstances. Most of us have little in common with either of these characters as far as outward circumstances go. But I have heard so many students finish the book saying how much they relate to those portrayed in the book. The reason, as far as I can tell, is because Dostoyevsky brilliantly explores the sin in his characters that is entrenched in our own hearts.
One of my favorite passages in the book captures this aspect of the story:
“The candle-end was flickering out in the battered candlestick, dimly lighting up in the poverty-stricken room the murderer and the harlot who had so strangely been reading together the eternal book.”
The eternal book is, of course, Scripture.
The moment is potent because it speaks so powerfully to the reason Christ came in the first place. He did not come to call the righteous, but the sinner to repentance.
This picture of two helpless sinners sitting in the midst of hopeless poverty as the light flickers dimly, reading eternal words of life, should stand out to any Christian for one simple reason: It is a picture of us. At the end of the day, we were all just like Raskolnikov and Sonia. The day I found Christ, I was a murderer and a harlot trying to understand God’s truth in a dark world. And it was His love that redeemed me, a theme that also explored in this work
Of course, these are not the only themes in Crime in Punishment. This is an incredibly deep and complex work with many underlying themes and sub-plots. But this is my favorite theme, because it’s my theme.