Can Leo Tolstoy's Worldview Save the World?

As believers in Christ, it is important for us to be informed about different worldviews. You never know, a conversation with your next-door neighbor might reveal that their ideas about the world vastly differ from yours. We need to be prepared to give an account for the hope we have, with gentleness and respect, as Peter encourages us in 1 Peter 3:15. In order to communicate more effectively, we must do our best to understand the worldview of our neighbor, as well as their story. Let us pretend our neighbor is the famous 19th-century writer and philosopher Leo Tolstoy. For a few years he’s been wrestling with his beliefs; now he claims he discovered the truth that will save the world and he wants us to read his novel “Resurrection.” He mentions Christ a lot, so we assume he is a Christian.

       Growing up in Russia, I read a few of Tolstoy’s writings in school: “Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth,” “War and Peace.” Recently I came across Resurrection (1889-1899), Tolstoy’s last novel, written after his religious crisis in early 1880s. Tolstoy’s novels are fascinating not only because we get a window into what life was like in 19th-century Russia, but also because many of his characters are based on real people and events. The Russian edition of Tolstoy’s “Complete Collection of Works” in 90 volumes contains all of his writings including his letters and journals, with commentaries about the history behind the works. The original plot of Resurrection is based on a genuine story, an attorney-friend told Tolstoy.[1] It reminded Tolstoy of the sins of his youth. The novel is autobiographical in character: the struggles of the main character prince Nekhludov partially reflect Tolstoy’s own struggles. [2]  The commentaries on the novel reveal it took Tolstoy 10 years to finish it and he considered giving up at one point. The goal of the novel’s gradual publication in various magazines, simultaneously in Russia and abroad, was to raise funds to help a persecuted religious group, namely Dukhobori, to emigrate from Russia to Canada.[3] So basically, this novel was a fundraiser. The readers had to wait for the next edition of the magazine in order to find out what happened next: much like we have to wait for the next episode of a TV show.

       Without giving away the whole plot of the novel, allow me to briefly mention some key points. Resurrection starts with a court process against Katusha, a prostitute falsely accused of poisoning a merchant. Among the jury happens to be Nekhludov, a middle-aged man, who 10 years prior seduced Katusha, got her pregnant, and removed her from his employ, which forced her to choose this particularly unsettling occupation.

       The first thing that comes to the forefront in Resurrection is that Tolstoy is very familiar with the concept of worldview. Tolstoy allows his reader to follow the characters’ thought processes so that they can see the characters’ motives, presuppositions, and ultimately the entire scope of their worldview. Understanding a worldview as a complex philosophical system explained in abstract terms can sometimes be difficult to follow. In a sense, that makes this particular novel especially valuable: we see very concrete illustrations of how someone’s presuppositions affect their way of thinking.

       Tolstoy highlights that each person, whether they can articulate it or not, has a worldview: “Each person […] needs to see his actions as important and good. That is why, no matter what place the person finds himself in, he needs to create such a view of the human life in general, so that their activity would seem to them good and important.”[4] Tolstoy summarizes Katusha’s worldview in a few sentences: “This worldview consists in the notion that the ultimate good for all men, without exception […], is in sexual relationships with attractive women, and that is why all men, though they pretend that they are busy with other work, in essence just want this one thing. She—being the attractive woman—can either fulfill or refuse to fulfill that desire, and that is why she is an important and needed person.”[5]

       Tolstoy presents various worldviews through different characters, yet the primary overarching worldview at the center of the novel is that of Nekhludov. Having realized the consequences of his past actions, Nekhludov decides to help Katusha, even if it requires him giving up his current way of life and marrying her. Nekhludov expects her to be touched by his sacrifice. Instead, she responds with anger.

       As believers in Christ, we might assume Tolstoy is setting up the plot to talk about redemption. Although the analogy is not ideal, there is still the notion of a fallen person needing to be saved by a redeemer. But here Tolstoy goes a different direction. It is Nehkludov and not Katusha who needs saving. Katusha summarizes it well: “You used me for pleasure in this life, you want to also use me to save yourself for the next life!”[6] Nekhludov’s struggle is between his “spiritual man” who is constantly fighting against his “animal man”.[7]

       Together with moral struggle of man against sin, Tolstoy highlights the problems of his day: the state of the prisons, the abuses and misery of the convicts, the flaws of the judicial system, the problems of the peasants, and the religious persecutions. I must confess that as I continued reading, I expected the Gospel to be presented as the solution to the problem of evil.

       The Gospel message does appear through two characters, namely the German preacher Kiezevetter and the British missionary visiting Siberian prisons. The prototype for both of these is a German-born missionary F. W. Baedeker whom Tolstoy met in person in 1889, the year he started working on Resurrection. [8] Baedeker was connected to Lord Radstock, who played a key role in the early evangelical movement of late 19th century Russia.

       Kiezevetter is depicted as a passionate preacher to the social elite at a home gathering. With tears in his eyes, he speaks about the desperate state of men and presents the solution: “Here is it is, simple and joyous. Salvation is the poured-out blood of the only son of God, who gave himself unto suffering for us. His suffering, his blood saves us.”[9] I was glad to finally see the Gospel in a nutshell. However, Tolstoy uses Kiezevetter as an object of mockery, comparing him to an actor entertaining the public and giving them a cheap solution, which allows them to feel good about themselves and their rich, lazy, immoral life. Baedeker’s biographer writes: “But it is when we come to Tolstoy's version of Baedeker's gospel that we find the novelist most at sea. Let us give Tolstoy the benefit of the doubt. He misrepresented because he did not comprehend.”[10]

       Having finished Resurrection, I had only a vague idea about Tolstoy’s understanding of God and his anthropology. Tolstoy wrote that he never sought to part ways with the Russian Orthodox Church, but the more he studied, the more he disagreed with its teachings.[11] Tolstoy was excommunicated from the Church in 1901, following the publication of Resurrection. One might think: a mere excommunication does not necessarily mean Tolstoy was wrong, wasn’t Luther also excommunicated?

       An exposition of Tolstoy’s religious views can be found in his work conveniently titled "What I Believe,” which was published and promptly censured in 1884. In 1885 the book was translated and published abroad in French, German and English. In Russia it became available only after the reforms of 1905.[12] Upon reading the history of this publication it becomes clear why Tolstoy needed to be more subtle in Resurrection. Its publishers intentionally worked with Tolstoy to edit it so it would pass the censure.

       In What I Believe Tolstoy writes that Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Churches all misinterpret the essence of Jesus’ teaching. Some elements of his description of Christianity we can agree with, others are a clear caricature of the Christian faith.

       A significant presupposition which affects all of Tolstoy’s worldview is the denial of miracles. For example, the feeding of 5,000 by Jesus was a mere redistribution of wealth. His denial of miracles includes the most profound miracle of the New Testament, namely the resurrection. According to Tolstoy, Jesus never spoke about his own resurrection, nor did he promise the resurrection of the dead.[13] This causes one to wonder: how many passages in the New Testament do you need to throw out in order to deny the resurrection? The only way that is possible is when the nature, integrity, and authority of Scripture is questioned.

“Tolstoy gave the novel the title “Resurrection” while denying the resurrection.”

       Tolstoy embarked on a quest to find the true meaning of Jesus’ teaching. It’s not surprising his method is similar to the scholars presented by R. Strimple in “The Modern Search for The Real Jesus.” Tolstoy questions the reliability of Scripture, struggles with the translations of biblical passages, consults Greek and Hebrew dictionaries, and engages in textual criticism. He mentions a variety of scholars and sources such as the Tübingen School, Griesbach, Tischendorf, and Strauss. Akin to the 2nd-century heretic Marcion, Tolstoy picks and chooses which parts of the Bible belong to Christianity.

       For Tolstoy the center of Christianity is in the Sermon on the Mount, from which he derives his philosophy of “non-resistance to evil” based on Matthew 5:39. Tolstoy critiques the Church for teaching that men are incapable of doing good and they need redemption—he sees this as the heart of its error. Tolstoy asks the rhetorical question: why would Christ in the Sermon on the Mount command the impossible? He concludes: people are inherently predisposed to do good, once they understand the value of being good, they will surmount trials for its sake.[14]

       Christ, according to Tolstoy, preaches repentance, not redemption.[15] This explains why he does not elaborate on redemption in Resurrection. Tolstoy’s solution to the problem of evil is in the worldview that he presents. It is the light of rational knowledge, the right worldview will save the world; it is that which will make men do the right thing.

       Upon reflection, this one question kept lingering in my mind: If Tolstoy denied the resurrection, why even title the novel “Resurrection”? Then I remembered that one of the key scenes happens on Easter Sunday. The Russian words resurrection (воскресение) and Sunday (воскресенье) are pronounced the same way and they differ only by one letter. Tolstoy describes the following scene after the Easter service: for one moment the poor and the rich, the peasant and the prince were on the same level, as they greeted each other with a kiss, exchanging “Christ is risen”—“He is risen indeed”.[16] This scene is full of purity, light, and joy—a stark contrast with the mood of the rest of the novel.

       Through this novel Tolstoy encourages the reader to have empathy for the hurting world. As believers in Christ, here we are reminded about the need to show mercy, to forgive, to be selfless. We are also reminded of how damaging hypocrisy is to the witness of Christ. But in Resurrection Tolstoy is the least concerned with Christ’s glory. Tolstoy doesn’t deny his divinity explicitly, but to him Christ is divine only in the sense that he teaches a great divine truth.

       We can conclude, then, at first glance it seems that our neighbor Tolstoy would refer to himself as a Christian: he uses Scripture as authority and his novel is permeated with Christian motifs. However, nowhere does he present Christ as a person or does he signal his redemptive sacrifice on the cross as a solution. From “What I Believe” it is clear that what he is preaching is a completely different religion.

       Tolstoy gave the novel the title “Resurrection” while denying the resurrection. He looked at Scripture through a worldview which did not allow him to see what was plainly before him.  It is as if he came very close to the truth and completely missed it; it is as if he was looking for the true essence of Christianity and ended up cutting out its heart.

How would you respond to your neighbor? May this remind us to pray that the Lord opens hearts and minds as we share the Gospel.


[1] V. Tchertkov, “History of The Writing and Publishing of Resurrection,” in Collected Works of L. N. Tolstoy in 90 vols, Vol.33. (Moskva «Literary works», 1935), chap. 1. Apple Books.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid. ch. 4

[4] Lev N. Tolstoy, “Resurrection,” in Collected Works of L. N. Tolstoy in 90 vols, Vol.32. (Moskva «Literary works», 1935), Part 1, chap. 44. Apple Books. Here and later in this article all translations from Russian are the present author’s.

[5] Ibid. Part 1, chap. 44.

[6] Ibid. Part 1, chap. 58.

[7] Ibid. Part 1, chap. 16.

[8] R.S. Latimer, Dr. Baedeker and his apostolic work in Russia. (London, Morgan and Scott, 1907), 198-207.

[9] Lev N. Tolstoy, “Resurrection,” Part 1, chap. 17.

[10] R.S. Latimer, Dr. Baedeker and His Apostolic Work in Russia, 203.

[11] Lev N. Tolstoy, “What I Believe,” in Collected Works of L. N. Tolstoy in 90 vols, vol.23 (Moskva «Literary works», 1957), chap. 11. Apple Books.

[12] N.N. Gusev, “What I Believe: The History of the Writing and Publishing,” in Collected Works of L. N. Tolstoy in 90 vols, vol.23 (Moskva «Literary works», 1957), chap. 3. Apple Books.

[13] Lev N. Tolstoy, “What I Believe,” chap.10.

[14] Ibid., chap. 1.

[15] Ibid., chap. 5.

[16] Lev N. Tolstoy, “Resurrection,” Part 1, chap. 14.

Eva Quiram, WTS MAR 2019, is married to WTS alumnus and current student Paul Quiram and is stay-at-home mom to their son Matvei.

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