In recent decades, the concept of karma has made its way into everyday conversation in Western culture. That dishonest salesman who finally got busted for his shady deals? Karma. The guy who cut you off in traffic, only to skid off the road and into a ditch? Karma.
We throw the word ‘karma’ around, often in celebration, to recognize some notion of cosmic revenge that is beyond our control. In its simplest definition, we understand ‘karma’ to mean that actions have consequences. But is that what Eastern religions mean when they invoke karma? And should Christians even believe in karma at all?
The Eastern concept of Karma is not compatible with Biblical Christianity. The law of karma is a law of works and merits. By contrast, Christianity is premised on God pouring our undeserved favor (grace) through the work of Jesus on the cross.
What is Karma
To help us understand why karma is not compatible with Christian teaching, let us first familiarize ourselves with the law of karma as it is taught in Hinduism and other Eastern religions.
Cause and Effect
As stated in the introduction, actions have consequences. Careless driving can lead to accidents. Crime, when discovered, is prosecuted and punished. Such proximate results of our actions and choices are easily recognized as a natural effect, and need not invoke a spiritual or religious teachings. These cause-and-effect relationships are self-evident.
But the law of karma, while affirming the natural idea of causality, operates on a much longer timeline. And so karma theory suggests that over time, actions will produce results according to their moral intent (ethicization). In other words, morally good acts will produce rewards, while bad acts will generate negative results.
But sometimes, the rewards and punishments are not immediately realized. Often, cruel tyrants seem to prosper while good people suffer. And since karma necessitates a balanced distribution of consequences commensurate with the actions that produce them, karma theory teaches that the consequences of our actions may come to fruition in this life, or in a future life.
Karma and Rebirth
In Hinduism, Buddhism, and other Eastern religions, karma is inextricably tied to the idea of reincarnation. Such religions teach that souls go through an indefinite cycle of rebirths, each a result of the person’s accumulated karma from past lives. This cycle may only be broken, according to most Eastern religions, by reaching ‘enlightenment.’
Since karma earned in prior lives results in consequences in subsequent lives, a person with good karma might be born in the next life into a position of power, wealth, and status. Similarly, an accumulation of bad karma may result in rebirth into a life of poverty and disease. And one who has accumulated a significant portion of negative karma might even be reborn as an animal or insect.
Karma and Caste
Many Eastern cultures are organized, to some degree along a caste system. In broad terms, castes stratify and define classes of people. Sometimes this manifests in a divide between ethnic groups, or across certain classes of occupations.
Though a full exposition of the history and function of caste systems is beyond the scope of this article, it is important to note the relationship between caste systems and karma theory.
Since the law of karma necessitates that actions have consequences, the logical conclusion is that present circumstances are viewed as a result of past karma. So many societies dominated by Eastern religions operate according to castes, dividing the populace into different social strata.
How these castes are defined and recognized might vary across different locations and eras, but the broad concept is that each person is born into the caste that they have earned.
Famously, during the British colonization of India, the priestly rulers rigidly codified the caste system into law. This lead to sharp divides between social classes, with human rights abuses meted out on the lower castes. The Hindu religion and law of karma were used to justify this ill-treatment of lower castes, while simultaneously reinforcing the notion among the oppressed that their fate was earned, and that only by suffering could they redeem their bad karma.
The laws in India have since been amended to address outright physical abuses and provide for economic relief for at least a portion of the lower castes. But the general notion of social stratification still permeates the attitudes and applications of Eastern thought, as it is generally understood that interfering with another’s karma can have long-reaching consequences for both parties.
The Christian Response
When we examine the three karmic concepts of castes, reincarnation, and ethicization through the lens of scripture, it becomes apparent that none of these ideas should be embraced by Christians.
“Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” – Hebrews 9:27
Reincarnation is perhaps the easiest Eastern teaching to address. The Bible teaches that we are uniquely and specifically made by our Creator (Psalm 139:13-16). And each of us is given one life to live, after which we are subject to judgment.
Jesus declared that “no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again,” (John 3:3). But it is clear both from Jesus’ words as the chapter continues and from the words of the apostles that this rebirth refers to a one-time spiritual transformation, and not a repeated cycle of reincarnation.
As Peter adds in the opening words of his first epistle, “In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,” (1 Peter 1:3b).
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” – Matthew 25:40
Reincarnation is the mechanism through which the law of karma says actions and consequences are balanced. But without multiple lives, we no longer have a basis for assuming that a person’s socioeconomic standing or temporal circumstance is a consequence of their accumulated karma.
Instead, scripture reminds us that we are all created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27). And Jesus lived in such a way that affirmed the personhood of all people.
He befriended prostitutes, tax collectors, and other sinners.
He healed untouchable lepers and the demon-possessed.
And he taught us to care for the poor, the imprisoned, and the sick as if we are caring for him (Matthew 25:31-46).
To judge and treat others according to their caste is to fail to recognize that we serve God by serving others. And specifically, Jesus directs our attention to the poor and the helpless, because he calls us to act according to his grace and mercy, which leads to our final rebuttal of karma.
Grace and Mercy
“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” – Romans 5:6-8
Jesus shattered any basis that people use for stratifying and judging one another by choosing to give his own life for ours. This, of course, is the central doctrine of the Christian faith, the truth upon which every other tenet of Christianity is built. And it rebuts the law of karma in two ways.
First, Jesus took on a punishment that he did not deserve so that all who believe in him may receive grace, the undeserved favor of God. And grace operates hand-in-glove with mercy, which ensures that we who believe in Jesus are not subject to the punishment (spiritual death) that we do deserve. As Paul so succinctly says, “the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord,” (Romans 6:23).
And second, Jesus’ atonement rebuts karma by making salvation an act of grace rather than works. The law of karma provides for a continuous series of consequences until such time that the person (thorough great suffering and personal effort) achieves enlightenment.
Christianity, on the other hand, acknowledges that we are unable to earn salvation. And so we must rely solely on the work of Jesus because even our best work is still marred by the stain of sin (Isaiah 64:6).
In our humanness, we sometimes want to see people get what they deserve. But as Christians, we are called to set aside the notion of karmic justice. For each of us has been saved by grace, and each of us is promised an eternity with our Father. And all of this has been done for us, given freely by Jesus, and not earned by our own merits.