A Christmas Carol

At this the spirit raised a frightful cry, and shook its chain with such a dismal and appalling noise, that Scrooge held on tight to his chair, to save himself from falling in a swoon. But how much greater was his horror, when the phantom taking off the bandage round its head, as if it were too warm to wear indoors, its lower jaw dropped down upon its breast!

Scrooge fell upon his knees, and clasped his hands before his face.

“Mercy!” he said. “Dreadful apparition, why do you trouble me?”

“Man of the worldly mind!” replied the Ghost, “do you believe in me or not?”

“I do,” said Scrooge. “I must. But why do spirits walk the earth, and why do they come to me?”

In chapter 16 of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells a parable of a beggar, Lazarus, and a rich man. Though he is miserable on earth, when the beggar finally dies he is received into Heaven and dwells at the side of the patriarch Abraham. Meanwhile, the rich man who enjoyed the comforts of the world finds himself burning in the torments of Hell. He cries out to Abraham to send Lazarus to him to cool his tongue with water, but is rebuffed. Then the rich man pleads with Abraham to send Lazarus to his father’s house, “for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.” Abraham replies, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

Abraham’s reply has been used by generations of Christian apologists as a defense against the argument from divine hiddenness, who argue that if a person chooses not to believe the extraordinary and unsubstantiated claims of the Bible without evidence, they would not believe those claims with evidence either.

But this is a severely distorted view of human nature. Of course atheists would believe if we were shown evidence equal in persuasive power to the claims of Christianity; why in the world would we not? And the fallacy of this apologetic defense is shown most clearly in, of all places, Charles Dickens’ beloved classic A Christmas Carol.

As my readers are doubtless well aware, this book tells the story of the bitter-hearted miser Ebenezer Scrooge, who is convinced to repent of his avaricious, selfish ways and become a man of rich heart and generosity after being visited by four ghosts on one fateful Christmas Eve night. As opposed to the Bible’s unrealistic excuse, this story paints a far more realistic picture of what would happen if an evil man received supernatural proof that he had been wrong. By revisiting the forgotten sentiments of his past, peering into the lives of those harmed by his stinginess, and experiencing and the dread fate awaiting him if he does not change his ways, Scrooge realizes his folly and changes his ways completely. Yet Christian apologists would have us believe that this story is wildly unrealistic, and that if such a thing were to actually happen, Scrooge would dismiss the spirits’ visions with a harrumph of disbelief, and the next day be about his business as if nothing had happened. Clearly, Dickens’ plot is by far the more plausible of the two.

Yet even as this story supports the atheist position by vividly dismantling the usual theodicies, in another way it falls short of fully grasping the implications of its own theology. No matter how radical the change in Scrooge’s character, he is only one man. Both in Dickens’ England and today there was and is a great ocean of need, far more than any one person, however wealthy or generous, could hope to alleviate. Indeed, the two men who come to Scrooge’s door at the beginning of the story to solicit donations for the poor paint a picture of the situation:

“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and Destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

…”Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the gentleman, “a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices.”

There must be many thousands of misers like Scrooge. Why do they all not receive spectral visitations to steer them onto the right path? Surely this would not be too much effort for ghosts who can bend time and space to their whims, still less for whatever higher power lay behind their sending. (Indeed, the first ghost to visit Scrooge, the shade of his old business partner Jacob Marley, shows him literally hundreds of other forlorn spirits wandering the world, wishing they could advise the living to steer clear of the paths they chose.) And why, for that matter, would such happenings be confined to Christmastime? People suffer from poverty and hunger three hundred and sixty-five days per year, not just one.

It is ridiculous to believe that Scrooge was in some way worsened or harmed by this experience, that this is something God should not have done. On the contrary, where before both Scrooge and the people around him (like the Cratchits) were miserable and unhappy, this experience brought much light and happiness into both their lives and saved at least one soul from an eternity of damnation. There is no downside whatsoever to Scrooge’s transformation, and the story’s recognition of that fact is largely why it is such a beloved classic.

As opposed to the parables of the Bible, which are driven primarily by the need for theological justification, there are many fine writers – even religious writers – whose keen grasp of human nature shows up the flaws in this self-serving theology. There is simply no reason why God, if such a being existed, would not establish an orderly cosmos full of love and happiness. (I wrote earlier this month about a similar scenario imagined by another famous religious writer, in “The Theodicy of Narnia“). And there is no reason not to correct people who have strayed onto the wrong path, both for the happiness it brings them and for the joy it brings to those around them. What truly beggars belief is that there are some theists who would apparently prefer to see people remain cold-hearted and miserable – both at Christmas and throughout the year – in the name of preserving their free will. To the contrary, wrong decisions made in ignorance are not genuinely free at all. The best and freest choice is one informed by reason working within the dictates of compassion and loving kindness. Our hearts already understand that message well enough. It is due time for our creeds to catch up.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • bassmanpete

    Correct me if I’m wrong (I’m sure someone will!) but doesn’t the bible say to people not to look for signs from god for proof of his existence, just have faith. Also I seem to recall that the spirits of the dead are forbidden from appearing to the living to tell them anything of the afterlife.

    To me, this has all the hallmarks of a scam. In this case perpetrated by the priesthood, no doubt in collaboration with the rulers, as a means of controlling the masses. What amazes me is that, in this supposed age of enlightenment, so many people still fall for it.

    Another thing that always struck me as suspicious was Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. I can picture him on his way to persecute more Christians and suddenly having the thought: “These people are prepared to suffer/die for this Jesus Christ fellow – there must be a buck/quid/denarius to made here!” Probably something like Ray Kroc’s thought process when he saw the McDonald brothers’ fast food restaurant.

  • http://hellboundalleee.blogspot.com/ Hellbound Alleee

    It is not surprising with all the spirits and such, that in its day, “A Christmas Carol” was condemned by that time’s Christian Right as being pagan and wicked.

    I watched this movie last night and couldn’t help but think about what kind of a man Scrooge would have been at that time. If he isn’t a Jewish stereotype (I think the issue isn’t clear), he would have been almost a picture of a Puritan holdout. Christmas was quite new at the time, and who protested the holiday, but Christians. Looking again at the three spirits, particularly the spirit of Christmas Present, one can’t help seeing the pagan roots as more prominent. I don’t see these Thors and Kronoses in the bible.

  • andrea

    I pretty much sum it up as “if God/Jesus could take the time to allow Thomas to poke his wounds, why can’t he do the same for me?” Since he doesn’t, he doesn’t exist.

  • BILLF

    I don’t agree completely agree with you here.

    I think that if there was any truth to the existence of God, that proof would be available to us. Kind of like the apostles. They were not believers until they actually got to meet and greet with the deity. And see his miracles first hand.

    And I agree that Abraham’s response to Lazarus does not make sense. I think anyone who actually witnesses a resurrection is going to be influenced by that event. I am a skeptic, but raise up a corpse in my presence and I will become a believer.

    However, I think that the believer here can throw free will at you in your example. Ok. No one is hurt in the scrooge story. Everybody wins. Scrooge is bad, he is shown the light of goodness in a convincing manner, and he changes for the better. But where does it end? If god has to step in every time someone is acting poorly, do we really have free will? Or does god only step in when the transgression is enough for you to burn forever? But if that is the case, a sly person could always sin ‘just enough’ not to burn, secure in the knowledge that if he ‘crosses the line’ god will step in to keep him from doing so. There would be no risk to making a poor moral judgment.

    Don’t get me wrong. I think the free will defense is BS. But those who do buy into ‘free will’ will have no problem applying it to your example.

  • http://infophilia.blogspot.com Infophile

    What truly beggars belief is that there are some theists who would apparently prefer to see people remain cold-hearted and miserable – both at Christmas and throughout the year – in the name of preserving their free will. To the contrary, wrong decisions made in ignorance are not genuinely free at all. The best and freest choice is one informed by reason working within the dictates of compassion and loving kindness. Our hearts already understand that message well enough. It is due time for our creeds to catch up.

    BILLF raised some good points on this issue, but I thought I’d throw my own opinions in anyways. Personally, I’d challenge anyone who made this claim to show me where Scrooge’s free will was violated. He made the decision to reform completely on his own based on new information at hand. The only thing he was forced to do, in the end, was listen to the new information. Maybe that’s what Christians are really mad about, that they should ever be forced to listen?

  • andrea

    I would take the position of Devil’s advocate. Ebeneezer was frightened into becoming good. He did not make a truly free choice.

  • http://www.johnnysstew.com/cool/coolwet J

    “If he isn’t a Jewish stereotype (I think the issue isn’t clear), he would have been almost a picture of a Puritan holdout.”

    Fagin was Dickens’ purest Jewish stereotype. And I agree: Scrooge is a better example of Puritanism. Had he been an Anglican churchgoer in mid-19th century England or America, there would have been very little to prevent Scrooge–miserable miserliness and all–from being a totally respected pillar of the Christian community. Slacktivist has remarked about how, under Calvin, the traditional attitude of charity in Christianity was essentially stood on its head and the act of not helping the poor became the requisite sign of holiness. And of course, Calvin intellectually begat and begat and begat until we ended up with Joel Osteen and, in the larger sense, America.

  • Matt R

    The argument that even if God made himself known, “unbelievers” wouldn’t listen isn’t logical even from the Biblical perspective. From the Biblical perspective, The whole Bible thing started when God appeared to “unbelievers” who became “believers” and then wrote down what they experienced. If someone who believes the Bible is claiming that unbelievers won’t listen even if miraculous things happen then where did the first “believers” come from? If the answer is anything but “from God” then the Bible is just an invention of men. If the answer is “from God” then we turn their own argument back on them.

    Furthermore, the Bible itsself has examples of people who do believe because of extraordianry evidence. As BillF said, the apostles believed because they saw Jesus and his miracles. Moses believed because the bush was on fire and wasn’t consumed. The Apostle Paul believed because he had a miraculous encounter with Jesus.

    But, In all fairness perhaps in this parable Jesus wasn’t making an argument for the existence of God, maybe he was commenting on the nature of people. There is lots of hard evidence that kindness, generosity, and good morals are far better for the happiness of society and the individual. Despite this there are still lots of criminals, greedy people, and very immoral people who just end up miserable because of their own actions.

    I think the parable means that “Some people still do things that are bad even though there is overwhelming evidence that bad actions lead to misery”.

    I also think that this is an excellent example of literary irony. Jesus tells a parable that states “people won’t believe, even if someone is raised from the dead”. Later in the book of Luke, Jesus is crucified, rises from the dead, and here we are 2000 years later, not believing. That is outstanding!

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    But where does it end? If god has to step in every time someone is acting poorly, do we really have free will? Or does god only step in when the transgression is enough for you to burn forever?

    This reminds me of the old story of the doctor who asked the psychiatric patient why he coats his peas with honey. The patient replies, “Because it stops them rolling off my knife.”

    In a certain sense, yes, it would seem silly to have an army of ghosts standing ready to correct people every time they stray. But that only seems silly because God, if there is such a being, created human beings so manifestly imperfect to begin with! Rather than going to great lengths to solve a problem that you yourself created, it makes much more sense to avoid the problem in the first place, and that is something an omnipotent being could easily have done. There are many imaginable scenarios that preserve free will without permitting the existence of moral evil as widespread or as severe as it is in our world.

    I would take the position of Devil’s advocate. Ebeneezer was frightened into becoming good. He did not make a truly free choice.

    There is a difference between persuasion and coercion. As frightening as some of Scrooge’s visions were, the story gives no suggestion that they were not actually accurate depictions of the fate he was headed for if he did not change his ways. Nor do any of the ghosts physically threaten him to get him to behave as they desire. The existence of Hell could be considered forcible coercion, but none of the ghosts were responsible for that state of affairs, and it does not play a major role in the story. Even the terrifying Ghost of Christmas Future only shows Scrooge visions of himself dead and everyone who knew him either not caring or positively happy about it – it does not show Scrooge visions of himself as a tormented specter like Marley. (By contrast, in the 1988 comedy Scrooged, the Ghost of Christmas Future makes Bill Murray’s Scrooge character imagine himself alive in a casket rolling into the crematorium. That would be an example of something that crosses the line from persuading someone by providing accurate information into trying to forcibly change their behavior through coercion.)

  • padraighh

    Dickens clearly identifies Scrooge as a social Darwinist ( ‘Let them die and decrease
    the surplus population’)- a sentiment that is sometims expressed in this forum -see comments 3 and 4 in Holy water frail hope.

    The ghosts employed by Dicken are a ‘Deus ex machina’ or let us say a literary device.

    In fact, for all we know Scrooge just has a bad dream. The point that Dickens is making is that the heart can be changed and that we are our brothers keeper. I don’t see this as a particularly difficult interpretation to cull from the story.

    Regarding the question of free will. The only people who don’t believe in the practical existence of free will are people who don’t have children (or who neglect them). Free will is implicit in Dickens proposal that Scrooge can be changed by
    gaining more knowledge of the poeple in his life.

  • http://battlepanda.blogspot.com Gene

    This kind of reminds me of a back-and-forth I was having on my wife’s website with a global warming denier. He just couldn’t bring himself to believe that humans were having that great an effect on the environment. In response, I informed him that my intuition would preclude the possibility of 130 tons of steel flying across the Pacific Ocean, but having flown from San Francisco to Taipei just weeks before, the reality was impossible to ignore.

    Every belief that a person holds is tempered to a greater or lesser extent by evidence. I cannot shut my eyes and make myself believe that I am on the moon. The air I breathe, the sounds of parades and fireworks outside my window, the feel of my kitchen floor beneath my feet all remind me that I am still on Earth. I could confabulate the rhetorical escape hatch that my kitchen, the entire city of Taipei, and a good portion of Earth’s atmosphere were transported along with me, but as I have abundant evidence of this not happening, and having no precedent for it ever happening, I am left with only one reasonable option. If I opened my eyes and saw my neighborhood leading a procession and shooting bottle rockets over the Sea of Tranquility, I’d be forced to reorient my thinking, but alas, this has not yet happened.

    Off topic, Ebonmuse; just curious, but have you ever considered a book? I’ve been checking in on your sites for over a year now, and I think you have a good take on things.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Hello Gene,

    Off topic, Ebonmuse; just curious, but have you ever considered a book?

    You might say that, yes. :) Check out this post from October, which discusses the idea: Daylight Atheism: The Book?

  • Andreas

    “The existence of Hell could be considered forcible coercion, but none of the ghosts were responsible for that state of affairs, and it does not play a major role in the story.”

    If the existence of Hell is forcible coercion, why is it that Christians think that the existence of prisons (or death penalty) isn’t?

  • Stephen

    Going off ever so slightly on a tangent: people sometimes talk about the bible containing “fine writing”. Well, I suppose some passages are moderately effective. But to my mind the richness and power of Dickens’ writing utterly eclipses anything in the bible.

  • Alex Weaver

    I tried to read a Dickens piece once, and was so singularly struck by the difficulty of enduring the pages on end of exposition–in retrospect I would compare it to swallowing a regulation football–that, having been informed from various corners that this was fairly typical of his writing, I have steered clear of it since. I suppose I might give this one a shot…