“What I believe” by Leo Tolstoy

[AKA: My Religion]

When I first read War and Peace five years ago, Tolstoy was nothing but a famous name to me. War and Peace was the first epic novel I’ve ever read, and, to me, it was perfect. Now that I’ve read most of Tolstoy’s works, I’d like to think that I have a decent understanding of the artist through his works, which make up a jigsaw portrait of himself. He is one of the writers whom I can relate to the most, for I often find my own thoughts and feelings reflected in his writings.

In “What I Believe”, Tolstoy articulates his moral and religious beliefs and convictions, and criticizes the doctrines and practices of the Church, which he believes obscures and deviates man from “the doctrine of Christ”. Unfortunately, his views have been marginalized by atheists and Christians alike, the former dismissed him for being religious and didactic, and the latter for being heretical and subversive. It seems to me Tolstoy is a man with whom it is possible to have an open and civil dialogue about religion. I wish I could converse with him in person, as one rational being with another, as individuals and equals. On the one hand, I don’t have the conviction that my beliefs are the Truth and will benefit those who read them, OTOH, I’m always inclined to give a defense to everyone who criticizes beliefs that seem rational and logical to me.

The Gospel According to Tolstoy

If I understand Tolstoy correctly, he doesn’t believe in the Divinity of Jesus nor the Resurrection, but he believes the Sermon on the Mount are God’s commandments. Jesus is one of the prophets, who make clear God’s commandments to Man. In this sense, Tolstoy himself is also a prophet, though perhaps to a lesser degree.

He derives five commandments of God from the Sermon on the Mount: do not be angry (do not judge); do not lust (nor divorce); do not take oaths (nor participate in any government); do not resist evil; love your enemies. The central point is non-judgment and non-violence.

He believes that God’s commandments are illuminated by the light of reason, not divine revelation. The commandments are profoundly simple and logically consistent, and man, as a rational being, is capable of obeying them, without any need of divine grace. It is inconceivable to Tolstoy that God would give commandments to Man which he is incapable of keeping.

He rejects the notion of immortality of the soul and individuality. He seems to think that individuality is bound up with self-interest, which is the cause of evils, and the cure is to immerse individuality into humanity. The individual is mortal, but humanity is immortal. The only way a human being can attain to a type of immortality is to keep God’s eternal law for humanity, even at the cost of his mortal life as an individual.


Tolstoy could have derived the same rules of life from the Sermon on the Mount without acknowledging the existence of God, or His sovereignty. Unlike the Mosaic Laws and the teachings of Jesus, there is nothing at all in the Tolstoyan rules that concern God. Why then does he believe and claim that those commandments are from God?

By his doctrine of non-resistance, Tolstoy precludes self-defense, and consequently, the life of an individual human being is rendered of no significance. The human race is made up of individuals, if each individual is insignificant, how can the human race as a whole be of any significance? If the individual is mortal, the human race is mortal as well, though the whole may last longer than the parts. There seems to be nothing eternal or infinitely noble in Tolstoyan ethics.

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9 thoughts on ““What I believe” by Leo Tolstoy

  1. Thank you for this article. Now I see the problem.

    Regarding his belief in non-violence, Tolstoy is very clear and his conclusions inescapable in “The Kingdom of God is within you.” But I could already detect what he had missed.

    Your summary makes clear to me that a number of his other beliefs muddied the water and sabotaged his credibility, as he was seen as attacking the very foundation of authority that he wished at the same time to appeal to.

    Tolstoy, together with most other Christians, missed the central command of the Sermon on the Mount, which is, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”. Christians forgive sins and trespasses, but not debts. Non-judgement and non-violence are indeed the next two most important commands, but they hang off of “No debts” logically and appear more like raw dogmatism without it.

    Enforcing debts requires both judging and violence. So it is contradictory to discontinue these practices without first eliminating the notion of debt. So long as people believe in debts, they will also believe in the necessity of judging and violence to enforce them.

    The problem today is that I find people every bit as receptive to the teaching of “no debt” as they were to Tolstoy’s teaching on non-violence, which is to say, not at all.

    They will boldly proclaim the Divinity of Christ, and will kill you if you disagree, just to prove how strong their convictions are. What they miss is the fact that an affirmative statement about another realm costs you nothing. These are the kinds of “beliefs” that Christians love. The freebies.

    Tolstoy points out the real problem in summarizing the crux of the argument of all his critics:

    “Christ’s teaching, one of the consequences of which is non-resistance to evil, is of no use to us because it requires a change of our life. Christ’s teaching is useless because, if it were carried into practice, life could not go on as at present.”

    Yeah, it would be a damn shame if we stopped killing one another and no longer went to work each day wondering how on earth we were going to pay all the bills that were due by the end of the week.

    Truly unthinkable. Now pass the offering plate.

    1. Thank you for the thoughtful comment.

      To my mind, the foundation of the Sermon on the Mount is “Your / Our Father Who is in heaven”. We are commanded to forgive our debtors because our Father has forgiven, and will still forgive, our debts. The crux of the command is not “no debts”, but forgive. If there were no debt, there would be no need to forgive. Christianity teaches that forgiveness is in and through Christ, who redeemed us through His blood and reconciled us to the Father, when we were enemies and debtors of God because of sin and trespasses. It is by grace through faith that we are forgiven, and it is by grace through faith that we forgive our debtors. We are commanded to freely give what we have freely received from our Father, and we acknowledge that everything we have, even our own being, come from Our Father Who is in heaven.

      By rejecting the doctrine of the Divinity of Jesus and the Grace of God, Tolstoy essentially undermines the foundation of the Sermon on the Mount, which is also the foundation of Christianity.

      1. Tolstoy definitely undermined the foundation of his whole argument, and then tried to make the logic stand purely on its own merits. It is understandable that his appeal to the fact that these were the words of Christ rang hollow when he had already attacked the Divinity of Christ and his saving Grace.

        However, I do believe he misunderstood Grace, especially since it had been changed by the Protestants into an excuse for NOT obeying Christ in this life. Had he read the teaching on “actual Grace” from the Council of Trent, he would see that the catholic church clarified things in response to the Protestants, and made clear that it was indeed possible to fully obey the commands of Christ in this life. So the heretic Tolstoy was attacking a heresy, at least when it came to Grace, all the while believing that he disagreed with settled church doctrine.

        What the world missed out on by ignoring Tolstoy is the fact that the words of Christ have practical effect. Had every Christian simply refused to serve in the Army, World War I would not have happened. This is not pie-in-the-sky stuff. Millions are dead specifically because people who claimed to believe in Jesus, also thought it reasonable to ignore a part of his teaching.

        Today we find ourselves in the same situation. From Christ’s teaching, “no debt” is the goal. “Forgiveness” is the mechanism. Forgiveness is the means whereby we can achieve the goal of eliminating all debts. Debt is not something that arises when someone makes a mistake. That is Sin. Debt is a conscious choice. It happens every time we use money – every time we contract. It is a practical, daily reality. A world with “no debt” would look profoundly different to the world of today, just as a world with no Christians in the Army would look profoundly different.

      2. Why do you say “debt is a conscious choice”? I don’t quite follow you. Do you mean the demand for repayment of debt?

      3. Debt is a concept from contract law. A debt always arises when we consent to enter into a contract. There is no such thing as a debt that you did not knowingly choose to enter into, because without such consent a contract is void.

        Thus, Paul could say, “Owe no man anything, but to love.” He advised us to have no debts whatsoever, other than a general obligation to do good to all men. If debts happened unintentionally, like Sin does, his advice would make no sense.

      4. I think there is a wider meaning of the word “debt”.

        Paul says, “I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to wise and to unwise.” (Romans 1:14) He did not enter into a contract with the Greeks or the barbarians, but he was nevertheless a debtor to them, because he had an obligation to share the gospel with them, which he freely received from God. Paul teaches that all who receive the gospel are debtors to those who impart it to them. As he writes later, “It pleased them indeed, and they are their debtors. For if the Gentiles have been partakers of their spiritual things, their duty is also to minister to them in material things.” (Romans 15:27 )

        When we reflect on how many free gifts we have received from God, and through other people, we acknowledge that it would take all our lifetime, and everything we have, to repay the debts, and “owe no man anything”.

      5. Paul is speaking about a debt of love (or gratitude) right through Romans. This is not the kind of debt that can be forgiven, or needs forgiving. It is the only obligation that remains once we give up contract law as the basis for interactions with our fellow man.

        Back to my first point. Real debt based on contract is enforced by judging and by the use of force. These are all things Jesus discussed in the Sermon on the Mount. What Paul talks about in Romans does not involve any of these three things.

        Paul is indeed summarizing the entirety of the Gospel, which is: Freely you have received, therefore freely give.

        Jesus makes this clear in the Sermon on the Mount when he says, “Give to him who asks of you”, and then two chapters later he says, “Ask and you shall receive.”

        Whether you listen to Jesus or Paul, the message is the same. No more buying and selling (contract). No more debt.

      6. I think the “debts” in the Sermon on the Mount is not contractual debt, but the debt of life and love that we owe, first to our Father, then to our brethren. Both Jesus and Paul are referring to this debt, not the debt incurred through buying or selling, for the latter is but a small part of the former.

        Firstly, the Lord’s Prayer is that Our Father forgive us our debts. If, as you say, the debt of love cannot be forgiven nor needs forgiving, and there is no buying or selling between Our Father and us, what debts of ours does He need to forgive then?

        Secondly, the contractual debt is indeed enforced by judgement and violence. We see that in the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant in Matt. 18. In a sense, the Mosaic Law is a contractual law, and whoever sins against the Mosaic law is punished by death according to the Law. This debt was paid in full by Jesus on the Cross, for He has not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill the Law. In other words, the only way to achieve “no debt” is to pay it in full., not abolish it.

      7. You are on the right track. The Mosaic Law is indeed contractual law. And it includes enforcement by the use of force, up to and including death. Paul called it “the law of sin and of death”. That is the essence of the Old Covenant.

        Sin is the transgression of the Mosaic Law. A huge portion of that Law that gets overlooked these days is the part about the forgiveness of debts. Every seven years was to be a Sabbath year, where ALL debts were forgiven. You can’t apply the harshness of the Mosaic Law without also applying its Mercy.

        “No debts” whatsoever is what makes the New Covenant “new”. When you stop engaging in debt, the Law is not abolished. It simply becomes inapplicable. As Hebrews tells us, there must be a “change of law”. How can you stop using force without either:

        1) Abolishing the Law that authorizes the use of force, or

        2) Changing which Law is applicable

        You have focused on our asking God to forgive us, but missed the fact that this also requires us to forgive others. That is exactly what the parable of the Unmerciful Servant is about in Matthew 18. Debt is not some allegory for an intangible concept. Obligations are a very real concept that drive our attitude towards others. We can sin simply by presuming that someone else has an obligation to love us.

        The Christian church misses the central teaching of Christ by refusing to apply the word Debt in its literal meaning. So of course, if they miss this, then the rest naturally follows. They remain under the Mosaic Law and they know intuitively that force must be justified in order to continue applying that law.

        Indeed, the sincere Christian can read the command of Christ to “Resist not Evil” and scratch his head in confusion over “two or three remote Oriental anecdotes written in corrupt Greek.” He doesn’t know what to do with this command, as the Mosaic Law is ALL about resisting Evil!

        To break this down another way:

        Our “debt” to God covers all past debts. We were all born under bondage to sin, and so we all have debts hanging over our heads even before we are legally bound by contract law. These debts were all “paid” by Jesus. But of course, no Christian teaches that you no longer have to pay your mortgage or your Credit Card. So do they even teach that his sacrifice covers “all” existing debts?

        With our past debts forgiven, we must then address the potential of future debts. We are told to cease from sinning. We must stop going into debt. For a start, even if we believe it is impossible to stop sinning, we must cease from putting others into debt to ourselves. This is possible. And if they owe us anything (even Love), we are to forgive them this debt us as God has forgiven us.

        Yes, if we sin again, we can still apply the forgiveness of Jesus. But this does not remove the necessity of ceasing the sinning in the first instance. Intentionally sinning and then asking for forgiveness is a sham, as the parable of the Unmerciful Servant makes clear.

        Needless to say, this concept of a total forgiveness of all debts/obligations is as foreign to Christians as is the concept of a total non-resistance to Evil. They instinctively see it as a challenge to their very way of life, and so react viscerally and often violently.

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