There are several views of the world which populate the human landscape. Each of these views wrestle 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 serious.
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. 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 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.
On Divine Judgment
Temporal and Eternal Justice
Before moving to a biblical understanding of divine judgment I want to make a few things clear. When we speak of the judgment of God we are talking about a judgment that has finality to it. We realize that during our time on earth it can temporally seem as if injustice triumphs and the wicked prosper. In fact, the biblical authors wrestle with this reality (Jeremiah 12:1-4, Habakkuk 1:1-4, Psalm 73:1-3, Psalm 94:1-5). Even though this age is mingled with justice and evil we trust and know that when all is said and done, the creator will judge the world with equity. This judgment will be altogether righteous and all the failures of justice in the courts of men will be set right for eternity. The following description is a succinct summary of the biblical teaching on final judgment.
The biblical concept is that at the end of history Jesus Christ will return in glory to earth, the dead will be raised, and they, together with all the living, will be finally judged by Christ and assigned their eternal destiny in heaven or hell. This great eschatological event will be a visible, public, and universal judgment; Christ’s glory and His victory over sin, death, and Satan will be fully manifest; righteousness will be exalted; the perplexing discrepancies of history will be removed, and the mediatorial reign of Christ will reach its ultimate triumph as believers inherit the kingdom prepared for them.2
With this in view let’s compare the view of divine judgment with that of Karma/Reincarnation.
Divine Judgment 101
The biblical view of life after death is a very different than the view of Karma. 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 (Acts 17:30-31). God does not show favoritism in that he will take our sins into account and does not turn a blind eye towards the sin 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 us to live and die once and then be judged with impartiality (Hebrews 9:27). 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 that happens to you directly on you. 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. 3
- See Karb Karma at http://www.benjerry.com/our_company/press_center/press/bfyfactsheet.html
- Geoffrey W. Bromiley, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1988; 2002), 2:1162.
- 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 some problems in Eastern philosophy.