Virtue Ethics and Moral Transformation in A Christmas Carol

By Jake Doberenz

“Spirit!” he cried, tight clutching at its robe, “hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse.”

-Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Personal change is a major theme in both religion and literature. We can recognize that in any good story—be that a story told to entertain, or a story told to explain how the cosmos works—that a character must change. Sometimes this character goes from good to better while other times they go from bad to good. We really like to see someone redeemed.

In a famous example, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol tells the heartwarming redemption story of a grumpy uncaring misanthrope reinventing his life. In the span of a single Christmas night, Scrooge changes his whole identity. He redeems himself in the end by righting his wrongs and acting objectively more pleasant. It’s a favorite story at Christmas time because it captures the common sentiment of the season—being a good person is, well, good.

Dickens’ novelle has spawned all sorts of adaptations. The Muppets have done it. Mickey Mouse and the gang have done another. And most recently, Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds have a musical version that acts as a kind of back door sequel called Spirited.

All these versions ask a deep central question: how can a bad person change? How does a textbook misanthrope go through such a transformation?

How to Change a Human: The Classical Christian Approach

Why should you be a good person? The typical Sunday school might be: To get to Heaven and to avoid Hell.

To grossly generalize all of Christian History, fear of Hell has been the driving force for Christians to change for quite some time. It pops up again and again. In the 2nd century, Justin Martyr in his First Apology writes that:

“Every man will receive the eternal punishment or reward which his actions deserve. Indeed, if all men recognized this, no one would choose evil even for a short time, knowing that he would incur the eternal sentence of fire. On the contrary, he would take every means to control himself and to adorn himself in virtue, so that he might obtain the good gifts of God and escape the punishments.”

If we jump to the 18th century, the revivalist preacher Jonathan Edwards displayed similar sentiments in his infamous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” which kicked off the First Great Awakening and widely influenced sectors of American Evangelicals. Rich with imagery about Hell and how God really had zero problem putting people there, he ends with a final appeal for people to turn to Christ in order to avoid eternal punishment. Edwards urges:

“And let every one that is yet out of Christ, and hanging over the pit of hell, whether they be old men and women, or middle aged, or young people, or little children, now hearken to the loud calls of God’s word and providence.”

I even came across a blog post from 2018 that very explicitly uses this theological technique: “10 Quotes About Hell from the Saints that Just Might Scare You Into Heaven.” It includes the line in the beginning: “Yes, we should choose God out of love, but the Church has always taught that the threat of eternal punishment can have a very salutary effect on leading people away from sin and toward God.”

However, especially as belief in Hell is waning, it is time to consider other paths for moral transformation. Indeed, in our increasingly pluralistic and atheistic world, it’s time to consider non-religious paths to moral transformation. But more than that, we need a deeper ethic that what fear can offer us.

And A Christmas Carol does just that.

How to Change a Human: The Christmas Carol Approach

In Dickens’ work, Scrooge doesn’t change because of the fear of eternal conscious torment. His transformation comes from seeing the effects of his actions in his earthly life, rather than seeing his fate in the life after.

A Christmas Carol still works on the premise of a “life” after death, and through the character of Jacob Marely, who appears in chains to warn Scrooge of the danger ahead, does suggest that spirits wander the earth (although it doesn’t make note of a place-out-there, some Underworld) when they haven’t lived the best of lives.

It’s remarkable that Marley doesn’t take Scrooge on a tour of Hell, being the Virgil to Scrooge’s Dante. Instead, Marley introduces ghosts which take Scrooge on a tour of his life on earth (and the aftermath of his life, still with a focus on earth). Marley gets the chance that the rich man in Jesus’ Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus did not (Luke 16:19-31)—to go down to earth and speak to his family “so that they will not also come into this place of torment” (v.28, NRSVUE). Though, unlike in that story, Marley doesn’t appear to Scrooge to warn of Hades, but of the sad fate of wandering aimlessly as a spirit.

Marley proclaims, “I am here to-night to warn you, that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate. A chance and hope of my procuring, Ebenezer.”

Scrooge gets a chance to save his soul from that fate. But, though he sees some fearful things, the three ghosts don’t primarily use fear as the motivating factor. They use a much simpler approach—sharing with him his affects on the world around him.

The first twinge of empathy on the part of Scrooge in the original tale comes from learning that Tiny Tim, his employee Bob’s son, will die because he cannot get the care he needs. Though Scrooge has previously argued that decreasing the population is good economically, his moral argument doesn’t stand in the face of seeing a close connection suffer, in part because he pays his employee poorly and doesn’t give him enough time off.

By the time the Ghost of Christmas Future enters the scene, Scrooge is already primed to be a better person, at least if his dialogue is to be believed. He notes to the Ghost, “I fear you more than any spectre I have seen. But as I know your purpose is to do me good, and as I hope to live to be another man from what I was, I am prepared to bear you company, and do it with a thankful heart.” It’s clear that most of his moral transformation came from seeing the effects of his actions in the present.

But the final Ghost puts the nails in the coffin, so to speak, of his redemption arc. For Scrooge is shown that if he doesn’t change his life, his funeral will be attended only by those wanting a free lunch. People will be indifferent or even worse, happy, that he died.

A Christmas Carol shows that our actions on earth matter for the sake of life on earth—whether or not there is a punishment looming over us. It wasn’t this fear that drove Scrooge to be gone with Humbug days and embrace charity and laughter. It was seeing that his actions mattered in the larger story of the universe. He changed his character because he seemed to deeply fell like that was the right thing to do.

Virtue over Fear

There is a slow but welcome shift in Christian culture away from fear of Hell as a driving force into the recognition that our life on earth matters more than just to score points to get into the right spot in the afterlife.

Beginning this movement, writing 80 years after Dickens, Walter Rauschenbusch’s foundational work on the Social Gospel, A Theology for the Social Gospel, sets forth a vision of Christian ethics where ethical choices are not rooted in afterlife destinations. In his opinion, views of the afterlife came about for Christians and Jews because of a displeasure at the current social order; thus, they needed to see an escape from their present reality. He uses that historical critical view to justify minimizing the importance of eschatology. Regarding Hell, Rauschenbusch notes that with the increasing spread of democracy and human rights, we are less concerned with vindictive punishment but instead “remedial and disciplinary, aiming at the salvation and social restoration of the offender.” He doesn’t specifically deny the existence of Heaven or Hell but notes how difficult it is to ascertain their character.

With that important set-up, Rauschenbusch cautions Christians to be careful in what way they see Heaven and Hell. He writes that, “It is possible to fear hell and desire heaven in a pagan spirit, with a narrow-minded selfishness that cares nothing for others, and is simply an extension to the future life of the grabbing spirit fostered by the Kingdom of Evil. The desire for heaven gets Christian dignity and quality only when it arises on the basis of that solidaristic state of mind which is cultivated by the social gospel.”

In summary, Rauschenbusch suggest that if Heaven is the goal, you are living selfishly. Our actions are not truly good even if they “look” good. He suggest Christian virtue calls believers to live the good life for the sake of living the good life instead of only to gain promised rewards.

If our moral transformation doesn’t come from hope in getting into a good afterlife, where does it come from? From what does Scrooge draw to do his good deeds at the end of the novelle? The answer: his character. Our moral choices must come from within—from the depths of our character. Stanley Hauerwas in A Community of Character defines this kind of social ethic: “An ethic of virtue centers on the claim that an agent’s being is prior to doing.” This is against a deontological ethic where duty takes central stage and we do things whether we like it or not because we feel we have to (like trying to get to Heaven).

Hauerwas wisely declares that, “Like any skills, the virtues must be learned and coordinated in an individual’s life, as a master craftsman has learned to blend the many skills necessary for the exercise of any complex craft. Moreover, such skills require constant practice as they are never simply a matter of routine or technique.” Scrooge’s lesson in virtues happened thanks to three ghostly teachers, thought interestingly the ghosts didn’t preach at him but showed him other people’s lives of virtue (like Bob Cratchit’s family) and how his own life was not virtuous. Even the vision of the lonely future which Scrooge had to endure was about virtue; if he lived a life of genuine love, he would receive a life of genuine love.

The Dicken’s Model of Moral Transformation

A Christmas Carol thus raises the possibility, in narrative form, that human beings can change without fear of torment. Moral transformation happens when humans are planted in the wider community with a sense of virtue. We strive toward moral and ethical living just because that’s who we are through and through.

Although of course we can quibble with the specifics of right and wrong, Dickens’ novelle offers us a chance to consider the ways in which people, regardless of religious convictions, can change. It doesn’t have to be—and probably shouldn’t—be with some threat looming over them, like Edward’s vivid description of God’s relationship to humans being like holding a spider over a fire. Healthier transformation starts by asking what kind of human we should be in society rather than asking what kind of human we should be to get a mansion after death.

Jake Doberenz is an early career theologian who teaches middle school while writing and podcasting online. He graduated with a Master of Theological Studies at Oklahoma Christian University. Jake occasionally blogs at www.JakeDoberenz.com and quite often tweets at @JakeDoberenz. His creative work can be found at. www.TheophanyMedia.com.

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