The following were notes given along with the message Woe to Him! - Habakkuk 2:6-17 given at the Inversion Fellowship on March 29th 2007.
A Comparison of Karma and Divine Judgment
There are several views of the world which populate the human landscape each of them wrestling with the various questions we face in our existence. One of the most perplexing issues is that of our own mortality. In fact, death has been said to be the great equalizer, the fate of the rich and powerful and the poor and destitute alike. One of the great mysteries is what happens when we die. Various beliefs have been held throughout time regarding life after death, but none greater than the big two. The eastern philosophy of karma/reincarnation and the widely believed philosophy of divine judgment. People in our culture today are fixated with the idea of Karma. You see it in the obsession of a regular guy named Earl on television, in the writings of Oprah Winfrey show superstar Gary Zukov, and it even appears in a line of Ben and Jerry’s low carb ice-cream.1 In our culture Karma has become kool and divine judgment is well, too judgmental for many. In this little essay, I want to compare the two and actually show that judgment is much more humane and coherent, though the consequences perhaps more severe.Karma 101
Karma is one of the main tenants interwoven in the diversity of philosophical views from the east. Eastern philosophy is a literal smorgasbord of ideas, practices, and religious concepts, but there are a few ideas which are universal in the various systems. The Law of Karma, the endless cycle of reincarnation, and the oneness of all things are common threads throughout the various genres of eastern thought. The law of Karma will sound familiar in part to people in the west. At its most basic level it is a teaching that says that all our actions, whether good or bad, have consequences. These consequences form a chain creating your reality into the future. What you do, the choices you make literally “create” your future. The idea of Karma goes beyond a mere understanding that “whatever a man sows, he also reaps” for Karma extends between subsequent lives and existences. Each person builds up positive or negative Karma over the course of this life which then determines their subsequent lives after being reincarnated. A person moves “up” through a succession of being in the lives they live with the hope of escaping the endless cycle of birth and rebirth, which is known by the term samsara. If you have bad Karma you may come back as a dung beetle, good karma may have you return as an upper class Brahman Hindu. So judgment is seen in the movement “upward” and “downward” in this chain of existence. Many western people fail to see that reincarnation is not a good thing to the eastern mind, but a cycle from which the soul desires to escape, to be absolved into the oneness of the universe finally eliminating the illusion of individual existence. I find the karmic view offers true insights on several fronts. First, it acknowledges that we do indeed reap what we sow and our actions do have consequences. Second, it realizes that our actions and choices are moral in nature. Though the eastern view sees good and evil as two sides of the same coin, part of one reality, it is in the view of Karma that eastern philosophy is a bit more honest. Good is good and bad is bad and you better work towards the good or your Karma gauges will be spinning in the wrong direction. Though many put forth the view of Karma as a pathway towards moral living without any view of judgment, Karma has some serious bad Karma of its own.Problems with Karma
There are several major philosophical and theological problems with Karma but I will only elaborate here on a very short list. First, Karma is a sort of score card for your life, where your good and bad tally up against each other. The problem I see in this is that there is literally “no one” there to keep score. Who is watching your life? Usually the answer is that the universe has a built in law that regulates these things, but there is no discussion on how this could be the case. If your good and bad “add up” it seems that somewhere this reality must be “known” by someone. This makes sense in a world in which God himself is taking our lives into account. Second, the law of Karma knows absolutely no grace. It is an unforgiving brutal taskmaster by which your life is determined by your previous lives. If you have a bad run now, it could be the result of previous incarnations where you were a real jerk. The problem is you know nothing of your former lives and are sort of screwed by them. There is no grace extended to sinners by Karma, sin becomes a millstone around your neck forever and ever through perhaps infinite reincarnations. Finally, there is an unexpected, but inevitable unjust result of Karmic thinking. You would think that this view only holds one responsible for our actions, but in fact it has unbelievably unjust societal consequences. Think about it. Who are the good guys in this life? The ones who had good Karma in previous lives. Who are these people? The upper classes, the “successful” people, the wealthy and the rulers are in their stations in life because they were good in past lives. So it is no coincidence that the Hindu system of caste, where the poor and low caste “deserve” their station in life and should not aspire better, arose from a Karmic philosophical tradition. They are working out bad Karma; these are the views that made the high caste Brahman in India, oppose the work of Mother Teresa with Indian low caste untouchables. She was interfering with them paying for their karma by serving them and helping them. The god of Karma, is the god of caste, which is a system of long term systemic oppression of those who were bad in previous lives nobody knows anything about.Judgment 101
The biblical view of life after death is a bit different. Like the view of Karma, our actions, both good and evil have consequences, but in our view God is the observer and judge of our lives. He treats us as responsible moral agents in relationship to Him, creation, and other people. We are responsible to God and others for our actions and their consequences. All persons, rich or poor, “successful” or not, powerful or not are all completely equal and responsible for their lives. We live this life before God and when we die our lives will be judged by God and his appointed one, his own Son Jesus Christ. He does not show favoritism in that he will take our sins into account and does not turn a blind eye towards the wrong done on the earth. Wonderfully, the God who is our judge chose to take our place and receive the judgment we deserve for our sins. It is in the gospel that God extends to us the hand of mercy and grace, the very one who will judge our wrongful deeds, against whom we have committed sin, is the one who pays our debt and freely forgives. This is the view of the Bible. God treats us as responsible human beings but willingly provides payment for our sins, atonement is the biblical word, so that we can be reconciled with God and be judged as righteous because of the work of Christ. The book of Hebrews teaches us that it is appointed for a man to live and die and then face judgment. We either face God in our sin or with an advocate and substitute for our sin. Jesus is the one who delivers us from just wrath and judgment of God and all glory and honor goes to him.
The path of Karma makes you the one who receives glory for your good and blames everything bad on the sinner. In the gospel we see that God works by the law of the Spirit of life to set us free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. You might even say he sets us free from the tyranny of the taskmaster of Karma. 2
Would God Sing a Mocking Song?
In this chapter a strange thing occurs. The prophet Habakkuk is given a vision from God. This prophecy is ultimately from God through the prophet. In this vision the nations of the world which had fallen to the Chaldeans rise up in concert to mock the Chaldeans proclaiming the judgment of God upon them in a series of poetic Woes. This is a bit strange because the literary genre of the passage is in the form on an ancient near eastern taunting song. Sort of a poetic, grown up nanny, nanny, boo-boo kind of deal. So at first glance it appears that God is actually mocking the Chaldeans through this song from the nations. This has made some a bit uncomfortable.. Is this a cool thing for God to do? Mock people? After all, he is a loving God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (See Exodus 34:6 Numbers 14:18, Nehemiah 9:17, Psalm 86:15, Psalm 103:8, Psalm 145:8, Joel 2:13, Jonah 4:2). In studying this passage I even found a diverse opinion on the matter in the commentary. Yet it is clear from both the literary genre and the rest of Scripture that though God is merciful and loving, he also will in no way clear the wicked. The prophet Nahum reminds us of this as he opens his prophecy: The Lord is slow to anger and great in power, and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty. (Nahum 1:3a). O. Palmer Robertson has some good words for us on what God is doing here:
It might appear beneath the dignity of God to embarrass the proud before the watching world. But a part of his reality as the God of history includes his public vindication of the righteous and his public shaming of the wicked. His glory before all his creation is magnified by the establishment of honor for the humble and disgrace for the arrogant. In this case, the shame of Babylon shall be as extensive as its conquests. All of them, all those nations conquered by Babylon, shall join the mockery. Even the tiniest of nations shall rehearse these sayings without fear of reprisal.3
Lest we become arrogant and proud reading this, we must not forget the devastating reality that we ourselves have no moral high ground to mock anyone. We ourselves are not better than the Chaldeans; if not for the grace of God in Christ, we ourselves would not arrive at any sure fate. David Prior gives a great reminder here:
The heart of God is broken both by the suffering of the violated and by the sinfulness of the violator. The woes are torn from that broken heart in holy indignation. It is our job, not to take the moral high ground, but to express the holy heart of God…That is the tone and thrust of these five woes in Habakkuk.4
Before we go pronouncing our own woes and singing our own mocking songs, we should be humbled by the gospel and compelled to share Jesus with those around us. For us and our friends our prayer is to humble ourselves before the foot of the cross and allow God to be the only one who publically humiliates the wicked in his time.
A Tough Question of Responsibility Before God
An objection can be made at this point in the book of Habakkuk. God has raised up the Chaldeans to do his will in the earth. Namely, to bring disaster and judgment upon the wayward people of Judah. God then holds the Chaldeans responsible for their sinful actions, which he used to accomplish his purpose. Do you feel the tension? How can God blame them when he sovereignly used them for his purposes? At this point we must remember a few things. First, the Chaldeans, though raised up on the world scene by God, were human beings and not puppets. Second, in conquering the nations around them, including Judah, they were doing exactly what they wanted to do. They did what their hearts desired most—namely to exalt themselves and brutally conquer others. So we must see that there are two levels of willing and acting at play, that of God and that of human beings. God allowed them to continue in their desires to conquer and destroy. His hand did not hold them back, but his hand in no way forced them to do something other than what they wanted to do. So the Chaldeans are guilty, even though their guilty actions were used, in a larger framework, to fulfill the purposes of God.For both the will of God and will/desires of people to be connected, theologians have puzzled for years on how this works. The Scriptures are very clear on two points here. God is sovereign over all things, using both good and evil for his good purposes. Second, human beings are responsible for their actions before a completely just and holy God. If God is in Sovereign control over people and nations, then he wills all things for his purposes. If God holds us accountable our actions are very much “ours” and will be judged accordingly. This has led many theologians and thinkers to suggest the kind of “free will” that humans posses to be “freedom of desire” or “freedom of inclination.”5
Simply put, our hearts always do just what we desire most , and our decisions are not random and without causes. In this view, a human being, without the work of God in her life, would persist in sin and rebellion (See Romans 3). It is only when God’s grace changes us in the gospel that we now desire God and his ways and are set free to live for him. Understanding that we have the freedom to do our deepest desires demonstrates that God is right in judging the Chaldeans’ sins and it also shows us how God is still Sovereign. He in no way is caught off guard by the “free will decisions” of people who some say are spinning his world hopelessly out of control. The Bible presents a God who is big enough to use the evil of people in his purposes, but in no way relieves us of our responsibility for our sins. Yet there is the offer of full pardon in the work of Christ. Take it! Then thank God every day for him.
- See Karb Karma at http://www.benjerry.com/our_company/press_center/press/bfyfactsheet.html
- For more on Eastern philosophy you can read the sections by LT Jeyachandran in Norman Geisler and Ravi Zacharias, Who Made God? And Answers to Over 100 Tough Questions on Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003). Additionally, though I heartily disagree with his views of election and predestination, Paul Copan’s Chapter Why Not Believe in Reincarnation from That’s Just Your Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001) is an excellent treatment of the problems in Eastern philosophy.
- O. Palmer Robertson, The Books of Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1990), 185. Emphasis Added.
- David Prior, The Message of Joel, Micah & Habakkuk: Listening to the Voice of God (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1999), 244.
- For more on this kind of freedom see Bruce Ware’s God’s Greater Glory—The Exalted God of Scripture and the Christian Faith (Wheaton: Crossway, 2005) for the best treatment of God’s providence and evil as well as a treatment of the shortcomings of Libertarian/Contra Causal understanding of free will. For those who are bold you can take up Jonathan Edwards Freedom of the Will—very difficult reading, but worth it for those who wade in.