What Dostoyevsky’s Prostitute Can Teach Us About the Cross

Crime, punishment, and Christ's easy yoke.
What Dostoyevsky’s Prostitute Can Teach Us About the Cross
Image: Jill Lang / Getty Images

The cross of Christ has sometimes been compared to the electric chair or other forms of execution, meaning we are wise to remember that it was an instrument of death in the ancient world. The cross is also often used to prompt us to give ourselves sacrificially for him and others. But comparisons to other forms of execution can miss the deeper biblical teaching about the cross. And the cross is much more than an object lesson in how we should live. It’s very shape, it turns out, is not incidental to its deeper biblical meaning nor to the very nature of God who hung there.

To get at the deeper meaning, we can turn to the great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, especially one scene in the middle of Crime and Punishment. The lead character Rodion Raskolnikov had brutally murdered an elderly pawnbroker and moneylender, Alyona Ivanovna. When Ivanovna’s half-sister, Lizaveta, stumbled upon the scene, he murdered her as well.

Raskolnikov later meets a young woman, Sonia, who has been compelled by poverty to become a prostitute to support her family. He is immediately drawn to her, and after he learns that Sonia had been friends with Lizaveta, he feels compelled to confess his murders to her. He finally musters up the courage to do so, but only indirectly, leaving her to work out for herself that Lizaveta’s murderer is the man speaking with her. When it dawns on her what he has just confessed,

She jumped up, seeming not to know what she was doing, and, wringing her hands, walked into the middle of the room; but quickly went back and sat down again beside him, her shoulder almost touching his. All of a sudden she started as though she had been stabbed, uttered a cry and fell on her knees before him, she did not know why. “What have you done—what have you done to yourself?” she said in despair, and, jumping up, she flung herself on his neck, threw her arms round him, and held him tightly.

Raskolnikov is not the only one who is shocked by Sonia’s gesture. The reader is as well. What is going on here? Why is Sonya embracing this murderer in what seems to be a fit of compassion? When she next speaks, she explains,

“There is no one—no one in the whole world now so unhappy as you!” she cried in a frenzy ... and she suddenly broke into violent hysterical weeping.

There we see the meaning of the Cross and the revelation of the deepest nature of God. Jesus did not consider the glory of divinity as something to exalt in, but decided to bear the yoke of human nature. He showed himself not only to be a man of sorrows, but also a God who has borne our griefs; not merely a man wounded for our transgression, but also a God bruised for our iniquities (Isa. 53). He saw the grievous sin of humankind, and the Cross is the sign of his “violent, hysterical weeping” for us.

Wrath driven by love

Lest we become sentimental here, let us recall the full picture, both in Crime and Punishment and in biblical revelation. Sonia’s love also violently weeps for the murdered, adamantly insists that Raskolnikov repent before God and the whole earth, and demands that he turn himself in and endure justice. And when Jesus dies on the cross, he does so not only in compassion for our sin but in fierce judgment against it. In his ministry, Jesus regularly became angry with sin, especially hardness of heart (Mark 3:5) and hypocrisy (Matt. 23). In the Gospel of John, we are told that the wrath of God remains on those who reject Christ (John 3:36). The fact that it took Jesus—God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God—to die for sin means that sin is a problem of transcendent proportions. It is not something to be dismissed with a wave of a divine hand.

But for this little essay, I would have us note that the judgment against sin is not merely severe. It is a judgment grounded in a righteous anger that also weeps, in a search for justice that is framed by compassion, by a wrath that is driven by love. Such is the complex and mysterious nature of our God that our sin also causes him to grab the sinner around the neck and weep hysterically, for he knows better than anyone what sin has done to us, knows the tragic sadness that overshadows us. This sadness is not merely a negative emotion in the breast. It’s closer to depression, which permeates every inch of our body from head to foot. It’s even closer to a cancer that will eat away at us until there is nothing left. This is the sort of thing sin does to us. It’s no wonder our loving Creator weeps.

The cross and the yoke

And yet there is more. A weeping God doesn’t do us much good in the end. We appreciate the sympathy, but we need more than sympathy. So the cross is not only a sign of God’s compassion for us but also his commitment to us. In the confession scene in Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevky notes Raskolnikov’s stunned reaction:

“Then you won’t leave me, Sonia?” he said, looking at her almost with hope.

“No, no, never, nowhere!” cried Sonia. “I will follow you, I will follow you everywhere.”

Later in the conversation, Raskolnikov tries to talk Sonia out of accompanying him to prison in Siberia—the place of judgment and exile, the symbol of suffering and desolation. Sonia responds by giving him a cross to wear, and while she wears one herself, saying, “We will go to suffer together, and together we will bear our cross!”

This brings to mind Jesus’ saying in Matthew:

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (11:28–30)

The yoke is a crossbar with two U-shaped pieces that encircle the necks of a pair of oxen, mules, or other draft animals working in a team. Jesus here pictures himself as accompanying us in the yoke, but taking upon himself the full weight of the burden. This is why his yoke is easy and the burden light, because on the cross he shouldered all, making himself nothing, “taking the very nature of a servant” (Phil. 2:7).

When Paul tells us to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2, NKJV), he’s not placing upon our backs a new religious obligation. No, the “law of Christ” here is like the law of gravity, that is, a description of the way things work, the way reality operates. Bear one another’s burdens, he is saying, because this is the secret of the universe; this is the way the deepest reality works; this is how the Creator of Reality operates day in and day out.

Jesus indeed calls us to take up our cross (Mark 8:34), but the full weight of the cross-beamed yoke is born by him, the God who sorrows for our sins, the man who bears our griefs. This is the Lord and Savior who promises to never leave or forsake us (Matt. 28:20) and actually helps shoulder the burdens that life with him invariably entails, even if our journey takes us to desolate places—no, especially when our journey takes us to the most desolate of places.

Mark Galli is editor in chief of Christianity Today.

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What Dostoyevsky’s Prostitute Can Teach Us About the Cross