And Then the Onion Broke

by S.C. Lazar

Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov contains what is perhaps the most depressing illustration of salvation I have ever encountered. It is called the "Parable of the Onion" and it was brought to my attention by a Russian Orthodox seminarian as proof that Orthodoxy did not have a legalistic understanding of salvation. After reading it, I was grieved that anyone, let alone a clergyman, could think this was an accurate depiction of the gospel. While the parable is about eternal salvation and damnation, there is hardly a single Christian element in it. Indeed, notice that Christ Himself is entirely absent from the picture:

Once upon a time there was a woman, and she was wicked as wicked could be, and she died. And not one good deed was left behind her. The devils took her and threw her into the lake of fire. And her guardian angel stood thinking: what good deed of hers can I remember to tell God? Then he remembered and said to God: once she pulled up an onion and gave it to a beggar woman. And God answered: now take that same onion, hold it out to her in the lake, let her take hold of it, and pull, and if you pull her out of the lake, she can go to paradise, but if the onion breaks, she can stay where she is. The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her: here, woman, he said, take hold of it and I'll pull. And he began pulling carefully, and had almost pulled her all the way out, when other sinners in the lake saw her being pulled out and all began holding on to her so as to be pulled out with her. But the woman was wicked as wicked could be, and she began to kick them with her feet: "It's me who's getting pulled out, not you; it's my onion, not yours." No sooner did she say it than the onion broke. And the woman fell back into the lake and is burning there to this day. And the angel wept and went away (The Brothers Karamazov, trans. by Pevear and Volokhonsky, Book 7, Ch. 3).

Whether this parable was meant to reflect Dostoyevsky's own beliefs about salvation, I cannot say. But it does represent what often passes for 'Christian' faith among people who are unfamiliar with the Bible and the gospel.

After a fashion, the purpose of the story is meant to teach about humility. 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 Dostoyevsky later clarifies, the story is meant to help us recognize that we are all sinners like the wicked old woman. We too should be careful about how we live our lives, and eager to see that they are filled with good deeds.

Now, this attitude certainly has the appearance of humility. But from a Biblical perspective, this humility is 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 need only try a little harder, put in a bit more self-conscious effort, and produce more works. After all, God is so "gracious" that one little onion can save you from hell.

The gospel message of everlasting life teaches the exact opposite of Dostoyevsky's parable. According to the gospel, there is only one way to receive everlasting life, and it is not by doing good, being good, or otherwise working our way to heaven. The reason why works cannot save us is 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.

But if works cannot save us, what can? How can we find redemption? Enter the gospel, which proclaims that we can receive everlasting life simply by believing in Christ for it. Jesus promises to give everlasting 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 everlasting life simply by believing in Jesus' promise, once you have everlasting 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 preservation. Put simply, you will never perish. As Jesus said: "And I give them everlasting 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. 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 speaks 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?