One of the most misguided and depressing illustrations of salvation is found in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, in the Parable of the Onion. It illustrates the deeply legalistic character of popular Orthodox soteriology, which, despite its talk of grace, mercy, and love, teaches that our eternal destiny ultimately depends on our works. Indeed, while the parable is about eternal salvation and damnation, notice that faith in Christ isn’t mentioned at all:
“You see, Alyosha,” Grushenka turned to him with a nervous laugh. “I was boasting when I told Rakitin I had given away an onion, but it’s not to boast I tell you about it. It’s only a story, but it’s a nice story. I used to hear it when I was a child from Matryona, my cook, who is still with me. It’s like this. ‘Once upon a time there was a peasant woman and a very wicked woman she was. And she died and did not leave a single good deed behind. The devils caught her and plunged her into the lake of fire. So her guardian angel stood and wondered what good deed of hers he could remember to tell to God; ‘she once pulled up an onion in her garden,’ said he, ‘and gave it to a beggar woman.’ And God answered: ‘You take that onion then, hold it to her in the lake, and let her take hold and be pulled out. And if you can pull her out of the lake, let her come to Paradise, but if the onion breaks, then the woman must stay where she is.’ The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her; ‘Come,’ said he, ‘catch hold and I’ll pull you out.’ And he began cautiously pulling her out. He had just pulled her right out, when the other sinners in the lake, seeing how she was being drawn out, began catching hold of her so as to be pulled out with her. But she was a very wicked woman and she began kicking them. ‘I’m to be pulled out, not you. It’s my onion, not yours.’ As soon as she said that, the onion broke. And the woman fell into the lake and she is burning there to this day. So the angel wept and went away. So that’s the story, Alyosha; I know it by heart, for I am that wicked woman myself. I boasted to Rakitin that I had given away an onion, but to you I’ll say: ‘I’ve done nothing but give away one onion all my life, that’s the only good deed I’ve done.’ So don’t praise me, Alyosha, don’t think me good, I am bad, I am a wicked woman and you make me ashamed if you praise me. Eh, I must confess everything. Listen, Alyosha. I was so anxious to get hold of you that I promised Rakitin twenty-five roubles if he would bring you to me. Stay, Rakitin, wait!”
Whether this parable was meant to reflect Dostoyevsky’s own soteriology, I cannot say. But it does represent what often passes for ‘Christian’ faith among people who are unfamiliar with the Bible and the Gospel. And it is meant to have a seemingly humble purpose. It is meant to make us reflect upon our own lives, and cause us to ask whether we have any “onions” that could help pull us out of hell, should the time come. More poignantly, as Grushenka clarifies, the story is meant to help us recognize that we are sinners like the wicked old woman, who should be careful about how we live our lives, and eager to see that they are filled with good deeds.
Now, there is some truth to the parable. We are all sinners. And it certainly has the appearance of humility. But from a Biblical perspective, this humility is entirely false. How so? True humility always elevates Christ and His work, not man’s work. It glories in the cross, not in our own feeble efforts. And this parable says nothing about the cross, nothing about Christ, nothing about faith in the Gospel promises. It is entirely anthropocentric, entirely about man and his works. And so, rather than convince a person to look to Christ alone for their eternal salvation, the parable teaches that men only need to try a little harder, put in a bit more self-conscious effort, and produce more works to be saved. All you need is one little onion!
The Gospel message of eternal life teaches the exact opposite of Dostoyevsky’s parable. According to the Gospel, there is only one way to receive eternal life, and it is not by doing good, being good, or otherwise working our way to heaven. The Bible rules out salvation by works because, as Jesus explained, no one is good but God alone (Mark 10:18; see also Rom 3:10). If no one is good, then no one should expect to be saved by their works, for they have none! But if works cannot save us, what can? How can we be saved?
Enter the the good news of the Gospel, which proclaims that we can receive eternal life simply by believing in Christ for it. Jesus promises to give eternal life to everyone who believes in his promise. It is that simple. Just believe. Again and again the NT repeats this: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16); “He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:36). It is not the person who tries to do good who will be justified before God. On the contrary! If you are trying to justify yourself before God by doing ‘good’, that means you are deceived about the true helplessness of your spiritual state, ignorant of God’s holy character, and condescending towards Christ’s atoning death. Imagine the pride it takes for someone to think they can supplement Christ’s finished work with their own little “onions”! The Bible says that it is not the one who tries to do good who will be justified, but the one who stops trying to do good, and instead, only looks to Christ in faith: “But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness” (Rom 4:5). What a marvelous truth! What a wonderful Savior!
But that is not all. Not only do you receive eternal life simply by believing in Jesus’ promise, once you have eternal life, you are secure forever. The devil can’t rob you of your eternal destiny. Nor can you forfeit it. Once you believe in Jesus, nothing on earth can separate you from God’s own loving preservation. Put simply, you will never perish. As Jesus said: “ And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand” (John 10:28-29). These are incredible promises that Jesus makes to everyone who believes in Him, and yet one cannot find them in Dostoyevsky’s parable. So I ask you, what would you rather trust to save you from eternal damnation: a pitiful onion, or the Son of God? What Jesus once said to a woman, He now says to you: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26) How will you answer?