The story of Leo Tolstoy’s conversion, from the introduction to What I Believe, by Leo Tolstoy, Russian novelist (1828-1910)
I am fifty-five years old and, with the exception of the fourteen or fifteen years of my childhood, I have been until recently a “Nihilist” in the proper signification of that term. I have not been a Socialist or Revolutionist, but a Nihilist in the sense of being completely without faith.
Five years ago I came to believe in Christ’s teaching, and my life suddenly changed; I ceased to desire what I previously desired, and began to desire what I formerly did not want. What had previously seemed to me good, now seemed evil; and what had seemed evil, now seemed good.
It happened to me as it happens to a man who goes out on some business and on the way suddenly decides that the business is unnecessary and returns home. All that was on his right is now on his left, and all that was on his left is now on his right; his former wish to get as far as possible from home has changed into a wish to be as near as possible to it. The direction of my life and my desires became different, and good and evil changed places…
The thief on the cross believed in Christ and was saved. I, like that thief on the cross, have believed Christ’s teaching and been saved. And this is no far-fetched comparison, but precisely describes the condition of spiritual despair and horror at the problem of life and death in which I once lived, and of the condition of peace and happiness that now fill my soul. I, like the thief, knew that I had lived and was living badly; and I saw that the greater part of those around me were morally no better than I was. I, like the thief, knew that I was unhappy, and that I suffered; and that all around me were people who were unhappy and suffering likewise; and I saw no way out of this state of misery but through death. I, like the thief nailed to the cross, was nailed by some force to that life of suffering and evil. And as, after the meaningless sufferings and evils of life, the thief awaited the terrible darkness of death, so did I await the same thing.
In all this I was like the thief, but there was this difference between us: he was dying, and I still lived. The thief could believe that his salvation would be realized beyond the grave, but I could not; because, putting aside the life beyond the grave, I had yet to live on earth. I did not, however, understand life. It seemed awful to me until I heard the words of Christ and understood them; and then life and death no longer seemed to be evils; instead of despair I felt the joy of possessing a life that death has no power to destroy.
Luke 23:42-43 — Then (the other criminal) said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Acts 16:30-31 — (The jailer) then brought (Paul and Silas) out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved– you and your household.”
I John 5:5 — Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.
Almighty and merciful Father, whose clemency I now presume to implore, after a long life of carelessness and wickedness, have mercy upon me. I have committed many trespasses; I have neglected many duties. I have done what thou hast forbidden, and left undone what Thou hast commanded. Forgive, merciful Lord, my sins, negligences, and ignorances, and enable me, by the Holy Spirit, to amend my life according to thy Holy Word, for Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.
–Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)