The Onion: A Parable



“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: take now 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. 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 of 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.”

(From The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky)

Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.

Let’s think about this onion in Dostoevsky’s parable.

Is this “salvation by works”? Oh, please. (Don’t put undo pressure on a parable.) I think we can all agree that being pulled out of hell by an onion is grace! The lesson is this: In saving you, God is looking for something he can work with — and God can work with something as insignificant as an onion. The point of the onion in the parable is that it was the one tiny modicum of unselfishness in the wicked woman’s self-centered life. It was the point from which God could work toward her salvation. What God cannot work with is selfishness. Selfishness works against saving grace.

The object of salvation is you. Not your status or your afterlife, but you! God wants to save you from falling into a black hole of self-destruction brought on by a self-centered life. Jesus calls you to let go of yourself and be drawn into the his saving orbit. Jesus is at work to save you from yourself. But the moment you start thinking selfishly about your salvation, the onion breaks and the saving work is undone.

The bad can be saved as long as they are humble.
The proud cannot be saved, no matter how good they are.

Jesus does not divide the world into good and bad — Jesus divides the world into proud and humble.

We should think like this: “If I am to be saved, then surely lots of others will be saved too.”
When we start thinking, “No doubt I am among the few to be saved”…the onion breaks!

I worry about those who are certain of who is going to be in hell.
It invariably turns out to be those they dislike — the despised “them.”
For the self-centered soul, hell is imagined as the final solution for “them.”
The attitude of “heaven is for me and hell is for them” is a dangerous thing.
It’s me who’s getting pulled out, not you…and the onion breaks!

Salvation is not the final triumph of hatred and prejudice.
At last me and my kind are vindicated and those awful others get what they deserve.
No! That’s the very opposite of salvation!

When you try to kick others into hell, that’s when the onion breaks and you find yourself back in the self-induced hell of loving no one but yourself.

Listen to what the wise Elder Zosima says to the young Alyosha Karamazov about hell…

“What is hell? I maintain it is the suffering of no longer being able to love.” -Elder Zosima, The Brothers Karamazov

Hell as the suffering of being incapable of love? That sounds about right if God is love.

Jean-Paul Satre said, “Hell is other people.”

No. Hell is being unable to love other people.


If I have an arrogant assurance of my own salvation while savoring a secret delight in others going to hell…the onion is about to break.


The Lesson:
God can begin his saving work at any point in your life, as long as it isn’t self-centered…
Even if it’s only an onion.

A Prayer:
Jesus, find the onion you can work with and pull me out of the self-inflicted hell of my selfishness.
And I promise not to kick at others who are being pulled out too.


(The artwork is Dostoevsky by Daniel C. Griliopouls)