Bah-Humbug: The Sad Gospel of Charles Dickens

Every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips,” Scrooge said, “should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.” Charles Dickens is best known, particularly at this time of year, for his character Ebenezer Scrooge. In his classic A Christmas Carol, Dickens reminds readers of the need for generosity and gratitude at Christmas. But did Charles Dickens get the gospel?

For starters, Dickens wrote an account of the gospel for his children by the title of The Life of Our Lord.  He never wanted it to be published. But since his descendants didn’t follow his wishes, we can take a look at how Dickens understood the message of Jesus. The most telling section is the prayers at the back of the book that he included for his children to repeat at night.

Shortly before Dickens’ youngest child, Sir Henry Fielding Dickens, passed away, he bequeathed the manuscript of The Life of Our Lord to his wife with these words, “Being his son, I have felt constrained to act upon my father’s expressed desire that it should not be published, but I do not think it right that I should bind my children by any such view, especially as I can find no specific injunction against such publication.”

It was published in 1934, 64 years after Charles Dickens’ death. Here’s a portion of one of the prayers for his children:

O God, “Who has made everything, and is so kind and merciful to everything He has made, who tries to be good and to deserve it ; God bless my dear Papa and Mamma, Brothers and Sisters and all my relations and friends. Make me a good little child, and let me never be naughty and tell a lie, which is a mean and shameful thing. Make me kind to my nurses and servants, and to all beggars and poor people, and let me never be cruel to any dumb creatures, for if I am cruel to anything, even to a poor little fly, God, who is so good, will never love me. And pray God to bless and preserve us all, this night, and forevermore, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

I wonder what it must have felt like for his children if they actually believed that their cruelty to a fly would prevent God from loving them. This prayer sounds more like it is being made to Scrooge than the Savior. Did Charles Dickens get the gospel? Not if this prayer is any indication.

The whole point of Christmas is that we cannot be good enough to earn God’s love. The good news of the gospel is that we can never merit God’s favor. While we were still sinners, Christ died for the ungodly: even children with messy fly swatters. Tim Keller offers a helpful contrast to this sort of misunderstanding of the gospel, the sort of confusion on display in Dickens’ prayer, with the true meaning of the Incarnation:

Christmas is the end of thinking you are better than someone else, because Christmas is telling you that you could never get to heaven on your own. God had to come to you. It is telling you that people who are saved are not those who have arisen through their own ability to be what God wants them to be. Salvation comes to those who are willing to admit how weak they are.

That’s no bah-humbug. That’s the gospel truth. Merry Christmas.