I. Literary Tribute
F. W. Boreham asserted that “no other author has ever attained during his own lifetime such universal fame as Tolstoy.”1 William Lyon Phelps, a Christian professor of literature at Yale University, claimed: “During the last ten years of his life [Tolstoy] held an absolutely unchallenged position as the greatest living writer in the world…”2 Tolstoy’s earlier contemporary, Fyodor Dostoevsky, declared that Tolstoy was “unquestionably…the most beloved writer among the Russian public of all shades.”3 The great composer Tchaikovsky stated: “Tolstoy in my opinion is the greatest of all the writers the world has ever known.”4 Tolstoy was also Lenin’s favorite writer. Biographer Ernest Simmons observed that Tolstoy “probably had the largest personal mail of any man in the world” of that time.5 Many specialists in the field of literature would pleace Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Anna Karenina (or both) on the list of the top ten world’s greatest novels.
Professor Phelps, a Christian, claimed that “the Christian religion is the dominating force in the works of [the Russian writers] Gogol, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky.”6 While no one would deny that religious themes are certainly operative in Tolstoy’s novels, the brunt of this article will show that Tolstoy was not really a Christian at all—as is bountifully evidenced by his antisupernaturalistic theology.
Precisely because the bulk of this theological critique will be negative, at the outset a few of Tolstoy’s noteworthy personal features should be listed. First, on more than one occasion Tolstoy got personally involved in famine relief for Russian peasants. He donated sizable amounts of his ow funds, travled, organized, and solicited help from others on behalf of the starving peasants. In Gal 2:10, the apostle Paul encouraged Christians to “remember the poor,” which he was “eager to do”—and often some modern Evangelicals seem reluctant to do. Second, the world-famous author was an educational innovator in launching and teaching at a free school for peasant children. He also grieved over his own family’s wealth when so many around them were living at the barest minimum. Furthermore, he vehemently indicted legalized oppression of the poor. Consistent with his own theology, he practiced Matt 25:42-43.
II. Extensive Documentation
There is no need for biographers and critics to scratch around among a dearth of data on Tolstoy! Indeed, one would wonder if there has ever been as much firsthand material on any famous subject accessible for analysis. Tolstoy himself left an extensive diary covering long time periods. His wife Sonya began her diarying at age 16. Two of Tolstoy’s daughters (Tatyana and Alexandra), three of his sons (Sergei, Ilya, and Leo), his wife, his sister-in-law, a governess, and other contemporary friends all wrote biographies of Tolstoy (based on reminiscences, diaries, letters, etc.). Phelps remarked that “no author ever told us so much about himself as Tolstoy.”7
As of 1987, Aylmer Maude, an English biographer of Tolstoy who knew him personally, said that a Russian edition of over 100 volumes of Tolstoy’s writings was scheduled to appear!8 In 1985, R. F. Christian commented: “Tolstoy’s diaries and notebooks taken together occupy thirteen volumes of the ninety volume Soviet edition of his words…”9 Furthermore, Tolstoy himself quipped: “The diaries are me.”10 In summary, the primary resource documentary material on Tolstoy is massive—though even his own family members give widely diverging interpretations of their controversies on the subject.
III. His Monumental Novels
Very few novelists could vie with Tolstoy in offering two written works as candidates for the all-time top ten list of world classic novels. War and Peace is “commonly designated Russia’s national epic.”11 And epic it is, for the books-on-tape reader will discover that the unabridged War and Peace consists of over forty recorded tapes! Concerning the fourth section of War and Peace, Tolstoy’s contemporary and rival, Turgenev, [pronounced tour-GAIN-yev] lyricized: “It is doubtful whether anything as good has been written.”12 Thus, William Lyon Phelps summarized: “War and Peace is the greatest romance in the Russian language, perhaps the greatest in any language.”13
War and Peace is an intertwining of the international panorama with individual ingredients. The fortunes of three families–the Rostovs (represented most unforgettably by the pixie-like Natasha), the Bezukofs (presented in Tolstoy’s semi-autobiographical style through the awkward Pierre), and the Bolkonskys (embodied in the cold military officer, Prince Andrei)—are traced through the Russian army’s battles with Napoleon. War and Peace fills a sprawling, spacious terrain—literally and literarily. The book climaxes with (what some would consider an anticlimactic) philosophy of history.
Tolstoy’s rival, Dostoevsky, paid him the following compliment: “Anna Karenina as an artistic production is perfection. It appears…as a thing to which European literature of our epoch offers no equal.”14 William Lyon Phelps was even more laudatory: “It is surely the most powerful novel written by any man of our time, and it would be difficult to name a novel of any period that surpasses it in strength.”15
Anna Karenina is a world-class fictional commentary on the seventh commandment: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” It narrates the story of a charming woman married to a starched, upright civil servant. Anna falls in love iwth and has an affair with Vronsky. Eventually her life unravels in her social disgrace, separation from her little boy, and her taking of drugs. Anna Karenina ends with an ominous outcome already forecast at the beginning of the book—when she commits suicide by throwing herself under a train.
Tolstoy’s last major novel certainly possessed a biblical title—Resurrection (oddly for a writer who did not actually believe in a bodily resurrection). It is a molodramatic and didactic story of a young nobleman (Count Nekhludov) who seduces a poor girl (Katusha Maslova) only to see the results of his crime when she is later tried for murder and sentenced to Siberia. The novel narrates Nekhludov’s struggle with what to do (that is morally right) about the situation in which he had embroiled Maslova.
IV. A Brief Biography
Before attempting a formal formulation of Tolstoy’s theology, considerable insight can be gleaned by tracing selectively a spiritual slant on our biographical subject. Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) was born at, and most of his life revolved around, his estate at Yasnaya Polyana, 130 miles southwest of Moscow. His mother died in 1830 and his father in 1837. He entered Kazan University in 1844 and left it three years later with venereal disease. In his diary for March 17, 1847, Tolstoy recounted: “I caught gonorrhea where one usually catches it from…”16 About that time he inherited Yasnaya Polyana with at least 5,000 acres and 330 male serfs and their families. One indicator of their family wealth was that the later Tolstoys sent all their laundry out once a year from Russia to Holland in order to have it done!”17
Tolstoy submitted to his diary on June 14, 1850: “The last three years…I have spent so dissolutely…”18 Reflecting upon his early religious upbringing, Tolstoy penned: “I was baptized in the [Russian] Orthodox Christian faith. I was taught it from childhood and through the whole time of my boyhood and youth. But…I at eighteen years of age…no longer believed any of the things I had been taught.”19 He says that his apostasy began at fifteen. By sixteen he had quit praying and taking communion, yet “I believed in something…I did not deny God, but what kind of a God, I should have been at a loss to say.”20 Meanwhile, while his guardian aunt discouraged his gambling (without good success), she (“a pure soul”) encouraged him to adultery (“that I should have a liaison with a married woman”)!21
Tolstoy’s first publication came in 1852 before he went as a soldier to the Caucasus. He wrestled frequently with purity and life’s purpose. On March 5, 1 855, he diaried: “A conversation about divinity has suggested to me a great…idea…the founding of a new religion…:the religion of Christianity, but purged of dogmatism and mysticism; a practical religion not promising future bliss, but giving bliss on earth.”22 Later, after tunneling through a period of severe struggle, Tolstoy affempted to do just that.
In 1861 the Tsar emancipated the serfs. Later in life Tolstoy told a Russian biographer: “When I was young, I led a very evil life…[involving] a liaison with a peasant girl [named Aksinya]…before I was married [resulting in an illegitimate son named Timofei]…and the second was the crime I perpetuated on Gasha, the maid who lived in my aunt’s house. She was innocent. I seduced her, they drove her out of the house, and she came to grief”23 (This latter incident is the basis of the tale behind Resurrection.)
When his admired brother Nicholas died in 1860, Tolstoy diaried that the idea had occurred to him to write a materialist (or rationalist) life of Christ. In 1862 he married Sophia (Sonya) Behrs. When he gave his wife his diaries of his bachelor escapades to read, it dealt her a shock from which she never fully recovered. Together they had thirteen children, six of whom died while young.
During 1862-1869 Tolstoy was writing War and Peace. During 1870-1873 he was working on Anna Karenina. Helen Muchnic wrote concerning Anna’s brother in the latter book: “Levin [pronounced LAY-vinn]…is one of Tolstoy’s most unmistakable self-portraits” and “Levin’s search for faith is a pale outline of Tolstoy’s own spiritual autobiography.”24 Levin inwardly admitted that “he was not a believer.”25 Through a conversation with a peasant, Levin arrived at a spiritual discovery. He discovered “he had been living rightly, but thinking wrongly.” He believed he had discovered the meaning of life—to live for God and the soul. Thus, by 1873 Tolstoy was formulating a form of faith to live by.
In Sonya’s diary for October 12, 1875 she referred to her husband’s “gloomy” condition, his “mental death.”26 In 1876 she could refer to Tolstoy’s “religious struggle…over these last two years.”27 In 1873 to 1876 the Tolstoys had three of their children die. From 1875 to 1877 Tolstoy once again attended the Russian Orthodox Church in his spiritual quest. Tolstoy’s biographer, Aylmer Maude, refers to his “fierce five-year inner struggle with doubt.”28 During this period the Tolstoys came into contact with English Evangelicals. (More will be said about this experience later.) In his Confession Tolstoy stated: “I felt there was nothing beneath my feet anymore…And I no longer had any prop to help me live…”29 About age 50 he thought of suicide. His reason found life unreasonable.
In a fable Tolstoy said he felt as if he had fallen into a well, only to discover a dragon was waiting at the bottom. The twig he was holding on to was being eaten by two mice. He tried to lick some honey that he spotted on the twig’s leaves, but how could the honey drops (syrnbolizing family and fame) prove all that sweet when the dragon of death waited to devour him as he hung on?
Tolstoy’s wife penned (on March 3, 1877) that he had “said today that he couldn’t endure much more of this terrible religious conflict with which he has been struggling these past two years, and hoped that the time was near when he could become a thoroughly religious man…”30 This spiritual struggle is reflected in Pierre (in War and Peace), in Levin (in Anna Karenina), and in Prince Nekhludov (in Resurrection). Prince Nekhludov had been feeling the need for “cleansing of the soul.” As a result, “The discord between the demands of conscience and the life he was leading was greater than it had ever been before.”31 This disequilibrium was experienced right before Nekhludov’s “newly awakened spiritual being.”32
Concerning 1875-77 Tolstoy wrote: “I accepted everything [in the Russian Orthodox Church], attended services, stood up in the morning and in the evening to pray, fasted, prepared myself for the communion, and at first my reason did not revolt against all that.”33 His daughter Tatyana verified this: “I can remember going to mass with him every Sunday.”34 Finally his reason revolted to the breaking point with the Russian Orthodox dogma and ceremony, and Tolstoy abandoned church-going. During the summer of 1877 Tolstoy visited the Optina Monastery with his friend Strakhov.
Aylmer Maude penned concerning the 50 year-old Tolstoy “that from about the year 1878 Tolstoy became sure of himself …”35 As one son (Sergei) assessed the situation: “1877 was a year of crisis in my father’s life. It was then that the complete change in his outlook described by him in A Confession took place.”36 As Tolstoy documented this charge in My Confession, he summarized: “Thus I lived for about two years, and within me took place a transformation, which had long been working within me, and the germ of which had always been in me.”37 Again, he asserted: “Now everything became clear to me.”38 Sophia Tolstoy specified an 1879 date when she diaried (for June 5, 1891): “He said that twelve years ago [or 1879] he had undergone a great change, and that I too should have changed with him…”39 Also, in June of 1879 Tolstoy visited the monastery at Kiev and returned dissatisfied.
In 1878 Tolstoy again had begun to write in his diary after desisting from it for thirteen years. My Confession was written in 1879 and depicts Tolstoy’s 1874-1879 experience. Biographer R. F. Christian declared about this book: “It is the best introduction to the spiritual struggle he was to wage for the remaining years of his life…”40
In 1880 Tolstoy wrote his Critique of Dogmatic Theology. As the title indicated, Tolstoy subjected the dogmas of the Russian Orthodox Church (including many broader Christian essentials) to rigorous review and rejection. Having taught himself Greek, Tolstoy also published a harmony and translation of the Gospels (1881-1882). He insisted that this publication “was more important than anything he had written.”41 His wife wrote to her brother (February 3, 1881) concerning her husband: “He has become a most sincere and firm Christian [yet he is] more depressed.”42 His son Sergei said of that same year: “Father…acted on the basis that he had been one kind of man up to 1881 when that man had died leaving his property to his family and a new man was born who had different ideas about the whole thing.”43 The wealthy Tolstoy had come to believe that property ownership was evil, so he willed his estate to his family members. Ernest Simmons spoke of “Tolstoy’s distraught state of mind from September 1881 to the end of 1883…”44
In 1883 and 1884 Tolstoy wrote What I Believe (also called My Religion). This book was followed in turn by What Then Must We Do? in 1884 and 1885. Along the way Tolstoy gradually renounced meat-eating, hunting, smoking, and alcohol. In 1886 he wrote The Death of Ivan Ilych, in 1889 The Kreutzer Sonata, in 1894 The Kingdom of God Is Within You, in 1897 What Is Art?, in 1898-1899 Resurrection, and in 1902 a scathing indictment of the church called Appeal to the Clergy. In 1901 Tolstoy was excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church. The latter end of the life of the author who wrote Family Happiness was family unhappiness. When he could no longer put up with the dissension at home (chiefly over his wife’s quarrels with his first lieutenant [Chertkov] over Tolstoy’s future book rights), he left home and died shortly thereafter in 1910.
V. Tolstoy’s Theology
A. The Bible and Supernaturalism
R. Poggioli remarked that Tolstoy was inclined to treat Christianity “neither as a divine revelation nor as a historical phenomenon, but as a teaching which gives us the meaning of life.”45 Dean F. W. Farrar asserted that Tolstoy “rejects the divine inspiration of the Old Testament and of the epistles…”46 Tolstoy placed the words of Jesus on a higher plane than any of those in the Epistles.
When Tolstoy read S. G. Verus’s volume on the Gospels, which denied that Jesus was even a historical person, he asserted that such an approach was valuable “for it makes it unnecessary to wrangle any further over refuting the authenticity of the Gospel stories about miracles…”47 His own translation took the same approach as Thomas Jefferson’s—simply to omit anything miraculous he so chose to disregard.
In Russian usage of that time the expression “the Bible” referred only to the OT.48 Tolstoy preferred the reading of the OT stories verbatim to peasant children above any other book. To enable the child to appreciate knowledge, Tolstoy said that “there is no book but the Bible.”49 However, along with its excellent parts was also material in the OT that was “crude, primitive, and immoral,” he felt.50
Like the Scottish translator James Moffatt, Tolstoy felt free to rearrange the Gospels in their chapters and verses according to his own discretion. He was interested in the morals, not the miracles. Tolstoy subscribed to the liberal or example treatment of the feeding of the 5,000. He even claimed that part of Matthew 22 had been copied from the Talmud!51
Aylmer Maude, Tolstoy’s friend, wrote that Tolstoy “frankly disliked and disapproved of much in the Epistles of Paul, whom he accused of having given a false bias to Christianity…”52 Most conspicuously, he abhorred Romans 13, for Tolstoy was overtly opposed to all human government. (Writers commonly call Tolstoy a “Christian anarchist.”) Thus, it can be seen that Tolstoy’s view of Scripture had little in common with that of historic mainstream Christianity. Tolstoy believed in reason rather than revelation as the vehicle for religious choice.
Even one of Tolstoy’s best friends, the poet Fet (himself an atheist), said: “Tolstoy…want[ed] to draw pictures that would destroy the people’s faith in miracles.”53 Tolstoy referred to “those offensive miracles with which the [book of] Acts [is] filled…”54 In The Kingdom of God Is Within You Tolstoy declared that “for us [modern people] these [biblical] words [about God, creation, the ascension, etc.] have no meaning whatsoever.”55 In other words, Tolstoy was in harmony with much of religious liberalism that, while the supernatural must be ousted, religious faith must be retained.
Pinpointing Tolstoy’s view of God is like trying to get one’s fist on the mercury of a thermometer. Nevertheless, Tolstoy’s contemporary, Gorky, penned: “The thought which beyond all others most often and conspicuously gnaws at him is the thought of God.”56 At age nineteem (June 16, 1847) the young Tolstoy spoke of God as “the highest, incomprehensible being, unlimited in space, time and power.”57 Five years later he formulated a working creed: “I believe in one, incomprehensible God, the immortality of the soul and eternal retribution for our acts; I don’t understand the secret of the Trinity and the birth of the Son of God, but I do…not reject the faith of my fathers.”58 As we will see, Tolstoy later did reject most of this credo.
One of Tolstoy’s principal characters, Prince Andrei in War and Peace (on which the author was working from 1862 through 1869), wrestled with the God-question. Andrei reflected on “to whom” he should ask mercy. “Either [there is] a power infinite, inconceivable to which I cannot appeal…or nothing.”59 Christ is his second option or “there is nothing, nothing certain but the nothingness of all that is incomprehensible to us…”60 (That summary is—significantly—the end of Book I in War and Peace.)
Tolstoy denied any straightforward notion of God as supernatural Creator—as portrayed in Genesis 1. Aylmer Maude, his confidant, said that “Tolstoy prayed regularly and ardently, but he did not believe in a personal God…”61 In Tolstoy’s Thoughts on God (1900) he wrote, “Prayer is addressed to the personal God, not because he is personal (indeed, I know for certain that he is not personal, because personality is limitation, while God is unlimited)…”62 On February 11, 1891, Tolstoy diaried: “Father, help me. I know there is no Father as a person. But this form is natural to the expression of passionate longing.”63 Consequently, his oldest daughter stated that for him to “say his prayers” was “to summon up all the best energies of his being.”64
If Tolstoy was not a pantheist, he was close to it. Maude spoke of Tolstoy’s religion as a “cooperation with a Something greater than ourselves that makes for righteousness.”65 In his diary, Tolstoy said, “God is the illimitable All…Or, even better—God is that illimitable All of which man is conscious of being a limited part…God is not love, but the more love there is in man…, the more truly does [God] exist.”66 (Tolstoy denies 1 John 4:8 and 16! This note was written in the year of his death.)
Tolstoy commended Mathew Arnold’s Literature and Dogma “because he particularly insists on destroying the notion of God as something outside us, a ‘magnified man’ as he calls Him.”67 Thus, when Pierre (in War and Peace) views the sky, he meditates: “this is me, and all that is within me, and it is all I!”68
With the erosion of a personal transcendent deity, naturally the doctrine of the Trinity could nt be espoused. On August 3, 1898, Tolstoy entered in his diary: “I say that the God who created the world in six days and who sent His son, and also his son himself, are not God, but that God is the one existing, incomparable good, the beginning of evrything…”69 This is a direct denial of the Trinity.
In his Critique of Dogmatic Theology Tolstoy owned that the Trinity “forms the radical, essentially [orthodox] Christian dogma.”70 Yet in the same volume he concluded that “there are absolutely no proofs in Scripture in confirmation of the Trinity…”71 His final avowal is: “I reject this dogma.”72
Tolstoy acknowledged: “From my childhood I had been taught that Jesus was God…”73 In the same book Tolstoy said: “According to the Church, [Jesus] taught that he was the second person of the Trinity, the Son of God, and that he came into the world t atone by his death for Adams’ sin. Those, however, who have read the Gospels know that Jesus taught nothing of the sort…”74 Tolstoy wrote that “to consider [Christ] a God and pray to [Him], I esteem greatest blasphemy…”75 Dostoevsky realized “where Tolstoyan thought would lead—to a Christianity without Christ.”76
Naturally, Evangelicals wonder how Tolstoy could dismiss what they consider to be determinative NT evidence on Christ’s deity. As one would suspect, Tolstoy’s hermeneutic was radicallyy different on the “Son of God” terminology. For example, commenting on Matthew 16, Tolstoy wrote; “Peter says to Christ what Christ has always said about all other people, that is, that they are sons of God…”77 Later he wrote that “the appellation of the Son of God is precisely what Christ teaches…men to call themselves, and so Christ, if he had intended to say that he stood in an exclusive relation to God, would have been compelled to choose another expression in order to give it that meaning.”78 Further along Tolstoy penned that Jesus “taught that all men were the sons of God and must blend with God in life…”79 (The reader is invited to see pages 162-271 in his Critique of Dogmatic Theology, which is Tolstoy’s doctrine-by-doctrine attempt to refute of the Russian Orthodox Church’s dogmas.)
Concerning the resurrection Tolstoy asserted (June 13, 1889): “There is fabrication in Mohammed and Paul. There isn’t with Christ…He would not have been turned into a religion had it not been for the fabrication of the resurrection, and the chief fabricator was Paul.”80 Tolstoy, the Greek translator, even denied that there was a biblical word for “resurrection.”
On the subject of sin (or, more broadly, evil) Tolstoy did not speak blithely, as if he were some Christian Scientist. This was not “the best of all possible worlds” for him. In a letter to one of his disciples (M. S. Dudehenko) two years before his death (July, 1908), Tolstoy declared: “…I have been a sinner and am a sinner.”81 Even more revealing to his biographer Biryukov, Tolstoy owned: “To write about all my nastiness, stupidity, depravity, and meanness…entirely truthfully, even more truthfully than Rousseau, would make an alluring book…People would say: Beholdd…what a scoundrel he was…”82 Such statements would not normally classify one as falling within the liberal camp.
Despite Tolstoy’s statements about personal depravity, sin, and evil, the question arises as to the human locus of that “sin.” Probably his son Sergei hit the nail on the head when he wrote that his father “believed that false thinking is the reason for all evil in the world, that men were not evil by nature, but because of incorrect thinking…”83 (Contrast Sergei Tolstoy’s approach with Eph 2:1-3.) Tolstoy’s friend and biographer, Aylmer Maude, spoke with a group consciousness as a Toistoyan disciple when he penned: “we believe that evil does exist and that it is our duty to get rid of it.”84 Yet Maude recorded that to Olga Nikolaevna’s questions: “Could there be life without evil? Could man exist if there were no evil?” Tolstoy replied, “Man comes of good, not of evil.”85 Tolstoy also claimed: “The theory of the fall of Adam…was unknown to Jesus; he never spoke of it…”86 As we will see in the next section, despite Tolstoy’s litany of personal sins, it is hard (from an evangelical viewpoint) to credit him with any substantive (or at least biblical) view of sin, because of his repudiation of the biblical solution for sin.
Nevertheless, it is revealing (despite the dilution of the sin-question) that in his deathroom (November 1, 1910) Tolstoy said to his right-hand man (Chertkov): “Evidently I shall have to die in my sins!” To this exclamation Chertkov replied: “That is not sin, but love that surrounds you. You have done all you could to escape from sin!”87 (What Tolstoy meant in this context is uncertain. He may simply have been referring to his running away from the hellish situation at home during his final days.)
In relation to evil, two subcomments may be in order here. First, as in some theologies, Tolstoy had a garbled view of sex and viewed all sex (including marriage) as interconnected with sin. Lavrin stated that “sex in general was proclaimed by [Tolstoy] to be dirt and abomination, whereas desexualized love was raised on to the pedestal of…goodness…”88 (NaturalIy the wife of an author who had fathered 13 children was rather embarrassed by these public pronouncements. Actually, Tolstoy could never really forgive himself for his early sexual affairs, and that guilt haunted him to his dying day.)
Second, for Tolstoy the ownership of property was intrinsically evil. Consequently, even though he’d willed his large Russian estate over to his family members, for him to continue living on that property and reaping its benefits caused him considerable inner anguish.
It is very easy for some readers to suppose—upon reading certain sections of War and Peace or Anna Karenina—that Tolstoy was a Christian because he freely uses the language of biblical soteriology (“saved,” “regeneration,” “new life,” “begin anew,” “believe,” etc.). However, when this theological terminology is cast against the background of his prose expositions of later antisupernaturalism, it becomes obvious that Tolstoy borrows Christian vocabulary in a figurative, experiential, and nonorthodox way.
In War and Peace the semi-autobiographical character Pierre (wrestling with life’s meaning) meets a Freemason. “This man knows the truth,” Pierre thinks. Because of this, Pierre (a former atheist) wants “to begin anew.” He wanted “regeneration.”89 But when we inquire into the Freemason’s formula for “regeneration,” we get a muddled answer (from a NT perspective). Among the Freemason’s answers given are: “He is in me. He is in you…a Being all-powerful, infinite, and eternal;”90 “only through the cleansing of my inner nature,”91 one must “undergo self-purification.”92
When a Christian reads Tolstoy’s last major novel, Resurrection, one would be apt to assume a Christian conversion has taken place. One reads of Nekhludev’s “cleansing of the soul,” of his “newly awakened spiritual being,” and that he prays, “Lord, help me, teach me, come enter within me and purify me of all this abomination.”93 However, in light of (1) the fact that Christ is never explicitly mentioned in the context of this “conversion;” (2) Tolstoy’s espousal of antisupernaturalism elsewhere; and (3) how Nekhludov reacts to a gospel presentation from an Evangelical later in the same novel, there is ample reason for concluding that Nekhludov’s experience is not equatable with biblical regeneration.
Tolstoy forged a pivotal statement which he formulated with clarity: “if obedience to the law is a condition of salvation, the salvation of men by the death of Christ is superfluous and quite useless. It is necessary to choose one or the other, and the church teaching in reality chooses the latter, i.e., it acknowledges the reality of the redemption…”94 If he had stopped there, we could heartily say, “Amen,” based on Gal 2:16 and 21. However (presumably from the ceremonialism of his Russian Orthodox experience), Tolstoy went on to add: “but…it [the church] does not dare make the last necessary deduction that the law is superfluous…”95 Later in the same volume Tolstoy addressed “the question as to what saves, whether faith or good works…Some say that faith saves, and others say that works save.”96 He then proceeded to quote a standard Russian Orthodox theology text: “No matter how great may be the value of faith…and although this faith is the first condition for the appropriation by man of Christ’s deserts—it alone is not sufficient [emphasis mine]…By faith alone a man may receive his justification and cleanse himself from sin in the sacrament of baptism, only when he just enters the kingdom of Christ’s grace; he may after that receive the…other sacraments of the church…that finally he may be able, after having completed his terrestrial activity, to appear as justified and sanctified at the terrible judgment of Christ—for all that, in addition to faith he needs good works…”97 Thus, Tolstoy saw clearly that the major church of his acquaintance rejected salvation by grace through faith alone.
Despite Tolstoy’s critique of the Russian Orthodox dogma, in the final analysis his view boiled down to the same thing—a do-it-yourself scheme of salvation. Lavrin asserted that Tolstoy declared: “Christ does not teach salvation by faith.”98 To the relative Tolstoy affectionately called “Granny,” the famous writer “belligerently declared that a thinking person could achieve his own salvation without the aid of anyone. She understood this ‘anyone’ to mean God, and no doubt he had intended it in this sense for her benefit…”99
Note the emotionally loaded term blasphemous in Tolstoy’s following assertion: “A man who is taught by the church the blasphemous doctrine about his not being able to be saved by his own efforts, but that there is another means, will inevitably have recourse to this means and not to his efforts, on which he is assured it is a sin to depend.”100 On December 16, 1906, four years before his death, Tolstoy said, “I think a man can only filifill God’s law by setting an example of good life, by purifying himself from evil, and increasing the good.”101 He added: “The Kingdom of God is won by effort, said Christ; and that kingdom is not without, but within us.”102 In another book Tolstoy wrote: “I do not want to think that [Christ] will redeem me, where I ought to redeem myself”103 Later in the same volume Tolstoy asked: “Why not permit me to think, as I do, that Christ has saved us by having discovered the law which gives salvation to those who follow it…?”104
Many are confused by Tolstoy’s rebirth terminology. His eldest daughter referred to “what is termed Tolstoy’s conversion or religious crisis (though he himself called it his second birth).”105 Even Christian professor William Lyon Phelps spoke of Tolstoy’s “Christian conversion,” which confuses many readers.106 Tolstoy interpreted “born again” in John 3 to mean that everyone “has a consciousness of a spiritual birth (John 3:5, 6, 7), of an inner liberty, of something within…”107 Despite an overlap with NT terminology, the bottom line for Tolstoy is expressed in My Religion: “There is no salvation aside from fulfillment of the doctrine of Jesus.”108 By “doctrine of Jesus” Tolstoy meant carrying out Christ’s commands. In a later section we will examine in what these chief commands consisted for him.
Because of the readership of this journal and because Tolstoy did interact with Evangelicals, we include here a separate section as it relates to soteriology.
Tolstoy wrote Anna Karenina from 1870 to 1873. In the pages of the novel Anna’s husband and brother interact with Evangelicalism (though it is not expressively labeled such). The Countess Lydia Ivanovna speaks of one whose “heart was made new.”109 Anna’s husband (Alexei) grasps that they are “talking of religion.” The countess asserts that believers’ “sin has been atoned for.”110 To her comments Oblonsky objects (from James) that “faith without works is dead.” She responds: “What harm has been done by the false interpretation of that passage [in James 2]. Nothing holds men back from belief like that misinterpretation.” Anna’s husband chimed in approvingly. “We are saved by Christ who suffered for us. We are saved by faith.”111 The countess held the position: “To be saved one only need believe…“112
Tolstoy investigated Buddhism, Islam, and other major religions. “Even the popular ‘New Christians’ of that time, the Evangelicals, who professed salvation by faith in the Redemption, were sympathetically considered. Tolstoy knew followers of Lord Radstock, the…English Evangelical preacher…One of them, Count A. P. Bobrinski, Minister of Ways of Communication, visited [Tolstoy] in February 1876, and [Tolstoy] wrote to Granny of this prominent [Evangelical]: ‘No one ever spoke better to me about faith than Bobrinski…you feel that he is happier than those who do not have his faith…And this I desire.’”113
In his diary for March 10, 1884, Tolstoy entered: “What a stupid phenomenon Luther’s reformation was. A triumph of narrow-mindedness and folly. Salvation from original sin through faith and the vanity of good works are just as bad as all the superstitions of Catholicism.”114 Two months later (May 27, 1884) he diaried: “Reading
Augustine: Thought a lot about the fact that Paul’s, Augustine’s, Luther’s…teaching of redemption—the awareness of one’s weakness and the absence of struggle—are of importance.”115
In Resurrection (published in 1899) Prince Nekhludov encountered Evangelicals. He is invited to hear a preacher named Kiesewetter (an “adherent to that teaching which holds that the essence of Christianity lies in a belief in the Redemption…this teaching repudiated all ceremonies, icons, and sacraments…”)116 Later in the book an Englishman comes into a prison preaching “that Christ pitied [the prisoners] and loved them and died for them. If they believe in this, they will be saved.”117 In an earlier section Kiesewetter had told them “there is a way to be saved [from “everlasting torment”]. Here it is—a joyful, easy way. Salvation is in the blood shed for us by the only Son of God, who gave Himself up to torments for our sake.”118 With the repeated mention of Christ’s “blood,” Nekhludov felt “disgusted” and secretly left the room. (This was Tolstoy’s final reaction toward Evangelicalism.)
In the year Tolstoy died his wife recorded in her diary (July 2, 1910) that (Tolstoy’s first lieutenant) Chertkov’s mother was “a ‘Radstockist’…and believes in redemption; she believes too that Christ dwells within her…”119 On July 12th of the same year Chertkov’s mother had two Evangelical preachers visiting her. One preacher named Fetler (says Sonya Tolstoy) “tried assiduously to convert me to his faith—in Redemption. I argued with him only when he insisted on a material redemption, the shedding of blood, and the suffering and death of Christ’s body.”120 Then Fetler “got down on his knees and started praying for me, for [Leo Tolstoy], for the peace and happiness of our souls…It was a beautiful prayer, but it was all so strange!”121 Whether the Tolstoys got an adequate presentation of Evangelicalism or not, they rejected the brush that they had with it.
G. The Kingdom of God
Tolstoy’s view of salvation was intensely bound up with his concept of the kingdom of God and the heart of the Sermon on the Mount. Lavrin summarized Tolstoyanism by saying: “the whole of Christ’s teaching consists in giving the Kingdom of God, i.e., peace to man…Men need only trust in Christ’s teaching and obey it, and there will be peace on earth.”122 For Tolstoy, “the Kingdom of God must be established here and now on this earth and in this, the only real life that is accorded us.”123 Said Alymer Maude (his friend): “He was sure that it is our business to establish the Kingdom of God on earth.”124 Tolstoy declared: “Let all the world practice the [teaching] of Jesus and the reign of God will come upon earth.”125
For Tolstoy the Gospels were the heart of the Bible, and the Sermon on the Mount was the heart of the Gospels, and Matt 5:39 (“resist not evil”) was the heart of the Sermon on the Mount. Non-resistance to evil “involves [for Tolstoy] ultimately the entire abolition of compulsory legislation, law courts, police, and prison.”126 Tolstoy was a humanitarian anarchist who stood opposed to all human government and violence.
Tolstoy boiled down the essence of what he thought Christianity was to obeying the five commands of Christ in Matt 5:21-48. If people would genuinely fulfill these commandments, then the kingdom of God would be activated on earth.
Interestingly, there were pilot communities set up to practice Tolstoyan principles, but they all inevitably met with failure and went defunct. His disciple, Aylmer Maude, who had been personally involved in a Tolstoy communal project, commented candidly that Tolstoy’s teaching, which was supposed to save humanity, “alienated him from many friends, brought discord into his family life, strained his relations with his wife, and left him spiritually alone.”127 At the communal level, Maude said: “not one single Colony or Group formed under the influence of [Tolstoy’s] writings, either in Russia, or elsewhere in Europe or America, was able to hold to his principles and show a satisfactory record.”128 In pragmatic, empirical reality Tolstoy’s views of the kingdom of God never worked.
H. Future Immortality
While over the years Tolstoy revealed some ambivalence about a personal existence beyond this earthly existence, on the whole Tolstoy denied individual immortality. When he was 24 years old, Tolstoy encapsulated his embryonic “creed” as embracing “the immortality of the soul and eternal retribution for our acts.”129 In War and Peace Pierre asks Andrei: “Do you believe in a future life?”130 After Andrei’s death, Natasha wonders, “Where has he gone? Where is he now?”131
Aylmer Maude claimed that Tolstoy “expressed now one and now another view” on “a future life.”132 [n 1871 Tolstoy’s brother-in-law, Dr. Behrs, asked him: “How can a man live at peace so long as he has not solved the question of a future life?” Tolstoy (apparently sardonically) pointed to two horses grazing and so laying up for a future life. Behrs indicated he was speaking “of our spiritual, not our earthly life.” To this Tolstoy replied: “Well, about that I neither know nor can know anything.”133 On April 25, 1876, Tolstoy spoke of death and “Nirvana—the illimitable, the unknown.”134 On September 12, 1884 he applauded Buddhism in that “one doesn’t ask questions about eternal life.”135 In 1885 in My Religion Tolstoy claimed (astoundingly!): “Jesus said nothing about…personal resurrection.”136 He reiterated that “Jesus, who is supposed to have been raised in person, said nothing in affirmation of individual resurrection and individual immortality beyond the grave.”137
Ernest Simmons tried to make a case that between 1884 and 1887 Tolstoy altered his position. He declared that “in one significant respect [Tolstoy] seems to have changed his view. In What I Believe (1884) he firmly indicated a disbelief in a personal resurrection and immortality…; in On Life , however, he rather vaguely suggests the possibility of a future life.”138 The evidence for this view, however, is not very strong.
The same set of conflicting viewpoints is found in later Tolstoy quotations. On December 25, 1894, Tolstoy diaried: “One may wish to, and believe one can, fly away to Heaven, or be resurrected after death, but it won’t occur to anyone to wish for or believe that 2 + 2 will make 5…”139
Tolstoy wrote “Granny” in 1904: “It may be that we shall not see each other again in this world; if this pleases God, then it is well. Nor do I think that we shall meet in the other world, as we understand the meaning of ‘meeting’; but I do think and am fully convinced that in the after-life all the kind, loving, and fine things that you have given me in this life will remain with me.”140 This is a far cry from 1 Thess 4:16-17. However in 1908, two years before his death, Tolstoy said to Henry George’s son: “We shall not see each other again. What message do you give me for your father in the other world?”141
The crystallization that seems more representative of Tolstoy’s truest thought is found in My Religion: “As opposed to the personal life, Jesus taught us, not of a life beyond the grave, but of that universal life which comprises within itself the life of humanity, past, present, and to come.”142 In his letter of excommunication the Russian Orthodox Church declared that Tolstoy (among other cardinal doctrines) denied a future life and any recompense after this life. “Belief in personal immortality always seems to me a misunderstanding,” Tolstoy stated in 1896, calling such belief “superstition.”143 Consequently, while Tolstoy’s thought on the question of a future life was not static, his most representative position seems ambiguous and agnostic (at best) about any immortal personal existence and consistent in denying all future bodily resurrection.
While a surface reading of War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and Resurrection might make a Christian reader suspect that Leo Tolstoy was a Christian, his non-fiction prose reveals unquestionably that he was anything but that. Of course, Tolstoy believed that virtually he alone had discovered real Christianity and his family constantly spoke of him as a “Christian.” From the vantage point of historic Christian orthodoxy, however, his excommunication from the Russian Orthodox Church was warranted.
Tolstoy was ambiguous about whether God was truly a personal being. He denied the doctrine of the Trinity and the deity of Christ. Naturally, corollaries of those denials meant that he did not believe in the virginal conception of Christ, His genuine miracles, His redemptive death, or His bodily resurrection. To Tolstoy Jesus was simply teaching that He was what all people were and potentially could be.
It is clear from Tolstoy’s writings that eventually he was disgusted with (what he knew—for better or for worse—of) Evangelicalism. Whether he got an adequate picture of evangelical doctrine and personal attractiveness is not clear. Nevertheless, he stood adamantly against the notion of salvation by grace through faith alone. He expected people to be ushering in God’s kingdom by means of carrying out Christ’s commands found in the last part of Matthew 5. The genius of Tolstoyanism was embodied in the doctrine of non-resistance to violence (which for him implied the abolition of all governments, courts, and police).
Tolstoy was an eclectic on world religions, so for him Christ only meant a formulator of what was truest in all the great religions. Basically he was a religious naturalist. Despite being the world’s most famous writer at his death, Tolstoy died with a dysfunctional family and a set of disciples who couldn’t agree enough to form a cohesive unit. In his tragic death Tolstoy was the prodigal son reenacted—running away from home as an old man—but without any happy homecoming in the aftermath or conviction of individual immortality in the afterlife. Tolstoy may have achieved literary immortality, but he denied theological immortality. “What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (see Charlie’s comment here)
1F. W. Boreham, A Faggot of Torches (Chicago: The Judson Press, 1926), 212.
2William Lyon Phelps, Essays on Russian Novelists (New York: Macmillan Company, 1911), 171.
3George Steiner, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky (New York; Vintage Books, 1959), 325. For further information on Dostoevsky see “Dostoevsky and His Theology” in Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society (Autumn, 1997): 49-68, by this writer.
4Sergei Tolstoy, Tolstoy Remembered by His Son (New York: Athenaum, 1962), 227.
5Ernest Simmons, Leo Tolstoy (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1946), 689.
6Phelps, Essays, 206.
8Aylmer Maude, The Life of Tolstoy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 2:524-25.
9R. F. Christian, ed., Tolstoy’s Diaries (New York: The Scribner Press, 1985), I:vii.
11Steiner, Tolstoy, 47.
12Maude, The Life of Tolstoy I:311.
13Phelps, Essays, 195.
14Maude, The Life of Tolstoy, I:437.
15Phelps, Essays, 198.
16Christian, Tolstoy’s Diaries, I:4.
17Tatyana Tolstoy, Tolstoy Remembered (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1977), 248.
18Christian, Tolstoy’s Diaries, I:17.
19Leo Tolstoy, My Confession (New York: Willey Book Co., 1904), 3.
22Janko Lavrin, Tolstoy (New York: Macmillan Co., 1946), 93.
23R.F. Christian, Tolstoy: A Critical Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 218.
24Helen Muchnic, An Introduction to Russian Literature (Garden City, NY: The Country Life Press, 1947), 205, 207.
25Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (New York: Penguin Books, 1954), 433.
26Aylmer Maude, The Life of Tolstoy, II: 9.
27Ernest Simmons, Leo Tolstoy, 323.
28Aylmer Maude, The Life of Tolstoy, I:360.
29Tatyana Tolstoy, Tolstoy Remembered, 186.
30Cathy Porter, translator, The Diaries of Sophia Tolstoy (New York: Random House, 1985), 850.
31Leo Tolstoy, Resurrection (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1899), 114.
33Tolstoy, My Confession, 73.
34Tatyana Tolstoy, Tolstoy Remembered, 188.
35Aylmer Maude, The Life of Tolstoy, I: 443.
36Sergei Tolstoy, Tolstoy Remembered by His Son, 161.
37Leo Tolstoy, My Confession, 60.
39Cathy Porter, translator, The Diaries of Sophia Tolstoy, 146.
40R. F. Christian, ed., Tolstoy’s Diaries, I:172.
41Ernest Simmons, Leo Tolstoy, 333.
42Aylmer Maude, The Life of Tolstoy, II:59.
43Sergei Tolstoy, Tolstoy Remembered by His Son, 130.
44Ernest Simmons, Leo Tolstoy, 374.
45George Steiner, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, 286.
46Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God Is Within You (Boston, MA: L. C. Page and Co., 1893), 43.
47Ernest Simmons, Leo Tolstoy, 588.
48Aylmer Maude, The Life of Tolstoy, I:264.
53Sergei Tolstoy, Tolstoy Remembered, 206.
54Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God Is Within You, 59.
56George Steiner, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, 246.
57Tolstoy’s Diaries, I:12.
59Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace (Garden City, NY: The Literary Guild of America, 1949), 168.
61Aylmer Maude, The Life of Tolstoy, II:58.
62Leo Tolstoy, Thoughts on God (New York: Willey Book Co., 1904), 416.
63Tolstoy’s Diaries, I:301.
64Tatyana Tolstoy, Tolstoy Remembered, 217.
65Aylmer Maude, The Life of Tolstoy, II:56.
67Ernest Simmons, Leo Tolstoy, 393.
68George Steiner, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, 270.
69Tolstoy’s Diaries, II:461.
70Leo Tolstoy, Critique of Dogmatic Theology (New York: Willey Book Co., 1904), 162.
73Leo Tolstoy, My Religion (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell and Co., 1885), 15.
75R. F. Christian, Tolstoy: A Critical Introduction, 269.
76George Steiner, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, 326.
77Leo Tolstoy, Critique ofDogmatic Theology, 178.
80Tolstoy’s Diaries, I, 237.
81Ernest Simmons, Leo Tolstoy, 707.
83Sergei Tolstoy, Tolstoy Remembered by His Son, 63.
84Alymer Maude, The Life of Tolstoy, II:38.
86Leo Tolstoy, My Religion, 154.
87Aylmer Maude, The Life of Tolstoy, II:510.
88Janko Lavrin, Tolstoy, 128.
89Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, 212.
93Leo Tolstoy, Resurrection, 113-14.
94Leo Tolstoy, Critique of Dogmatic Theology, 279.
98Janko Lavrin, Tolstoy, 102.
99Ernest Simmons, Leo Tolstoy, 529.
100Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God Is Within You, 79.
101Aylmer Maude, The Life of Tolstoy, II:453.
103Leo Tolstoy, Critique of Dogmatic Theology, 247.
105Tatyana Tolstoy, Tolstoy Remembered, 19.
106William Lyon Phelps, Essays on Russian Novelists, 171.
107Leo Tolstoy, My Religion, 125.
109Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, 766.
113Ernest Simmons, Leo Tolstoy, 319.
114Tolstoy’s Diaries, I:204.
116Leo Tolstoy, Resurrection, 284.
119The Diaries of Sophia Tolstoy, 504.
122Janko Lavrin, Tolstoy, 101.
123George Steiner, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, 254.
124Aylmer Maude, The Life of Tolstoy, II:89.
125Leo Tolstoy, My Religion, 160.
126Ernest Simmons, Leo Tolstoy, 332.
127Aylmer Maude, The Life of Tolstoy, II:71.
129Tolstoy’s Diaries, I:63.
130Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, 210.
132Aylmer Maude, The Life of Tolstoy, I:216.
135Tolstoy’s Diaries, I:224.
136Leo Tolstoy, My Religion, 144.
138Ernest Simmons, Leo Tolstoy, 421.
139Tolstoy’s Diaries, I:343.
140Simmons, Leo Tolstoy, 640.
142Leo Tolstoy, My Religion, 151.
143Janko Lavrin, Tolstoy, 98.