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.

Atlas Shrugged: Too Much of a Good Thing
Atlas Shrugged: Job Creators
Atlas Shrugged: Kill the Redshirts
A Christian vs. an Atheist: On God and Government, Part 15
About Adam Lee

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