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Karma Versus Christianity

Dec 26, 2019

Can Biblical Christianity and karma coexist?

Is the Eastern concept of karma the same as some principles found in biblical Christianity? The short answer is no: karma and grace are as profoundly different as are Eastern religions and Christianity. But let me offer the longer answer to this question.

The best way to do this is to get some clarity on just what the term actually means in Eastern thought, and what the Christian faith has to say about such matters. While Hinduism and Buddhism differ in a number of key respects, they both affirm the notions of karma and reincarnation.

Briefly put, our current situation is a result of decisions and actions (good and bad deeds) made in our past lives. In an iron-clad law of cause and effect (karma), what you do in your past lives will have consequences in your present and future lives.

We are trapped in the wheel of birth, death and rebirth (samsara), and our actions keep compounding in upcoming lives. There are certain ways of breaking free of this, or finding release or liberation, (moksha) to get off this relentless treadmill. In Buddhism for example, as per the Four Noble Truths, the elimination of all craving and desire leads to final emptiness and liberation.

Obviously Christianity does not teach reincarnation, but resurrection. As Hebrews 9:27-28 puts it, “And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.”

But does not Christianity teach a law of cause and effect as well? Not quite. What we find in Galatians 6:7-9 comes the closest to this thought: “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.”

But the differences are pronounced. As far as the fate of the saved and the lost is concerned, this is determined in one lifetime only, not over many thousands of lifetimes. And it is not about trying hard enough, trying to be good, or hoping you have more good deeds in your ledger than bad ones.

We are all sinners heading to a lost eternity. Only what Christ did at Calvary as he took our place for the punishment we deserve for our sins can make a difference in our lives. Those who come to Christ in faith and repentance can find forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal life. This is all of grace.

And we do not always get just what we deserve thankfully. We all deserve hell, but those who partake of what Christ offers us can avoid the just punishment that we deserve and become part of God’s family. That is grace, and it really is the polar opposite of karma.

Moreover, karma is an impersonal force whereas the God of the Bible is a personal God that we can have a loving relationship with. Thankfully God offers us his love and grace freely, if we will but accept it and turn from our sin and selfishness.

Let me offer another way of highlighting the differences. In his book, The Lotus and the Cross: Jesus Talks with Buddha (Multnomah, 2010), Indian-born Ravi Zacharias offers us a conversation between a seeker, Buddha and Jesus. Part of the dialogue goes as follows:

Priya: May I… may I ask about myself, here? What then happens to all the evil that I lived with in the past, if I cannot do anything about it?

Jesus: I have paid for it, Priya. I have paid for it. Old things can pass away and I can make all things new. I took the evil and suffering of this world. I bore it on my body. I carried your heartaches and your sorrows so that you can remove the weight of wrong and put it on my shoulders. I came into the world to bear those very sins. You may be like a lotus seedling still submerged under the water; someone else may be a full-grown plant. It makes no difference. The Cross is for everyone who thirsts for forgiveness and for eternal life. A child can come to me, as can the most learned. There is only one way.

Buddha: This “suffering that you have borne for my sin…” I almost see it, Jesus. But somehow I don’t see how it is just.

Jesus: If justice is what one wants, untempered by mercy, then where is there any recourse for Priya? Justice is fulfilled when one offers to pay the full price of restitution on behalf of another who cannot pay. Karma will never pay, Gautama. Go and ask anyone here if they expect to attain nirvana this time around. They never know if it’s paid.

Priya: So you’re telling me that as I place my trust in you, I can go back to my room knowing that I’ve been completely forgiven?

Jesus: I’m telling you more than that. Though this body of yours will die, you will rise again and live forever, because I rose from the dead and offer eternal life to everyone who believes in me.

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Biblical salvation has nothing to do with how one might find release from the cycle of birth and rebirth in Eastern thought. We cannot pay off the debt we owe. Unless someone else pays the debt, we are goners. Jesus has paid the debt. That is the good news of the gospel which offsets the bad news of karma.

But there is a sense in which even the Christian can experience a type of sowing and reaping. For example, if a believer feeds the flesh (eg, watches TV all day, hangs around with the wrong crowd, avoids reading the Word, prayer and Christian fellowship, etc.), he will certainly be reaping fleshly outcomes.

That in good measure is what Paul is talking about in the Galatians passage quoted earlier. John Stott nicely explains Paul’s thinking here:

To ‘sow to the flesh’ is to pander to it, to cosset, cuddle and stroke it, instead of crucifying it. The seeds we sow are largely thoughts and deeds. Every time we allow our mind to harbour a grudge, nurse a grievance, entertain an impure fantasy, or wallow in self-pity, we are sowing to the flesh. Every time we linger in bad company whose insidious influence we know we cannot resist, every time we lie in bed when we ought to be up and praying, every time we read pornographic literature, every time we take a risk which strains our self-control, we are sowing, sowing, sowing to the flesh. Some Christians sow to the flesh every day and wonder why they do not reap holiness. Holiness is a harvest; whether we reap it or not depends almost entirely on what and where we sow.

And again: “This is a vitally important and much neglected principle of holiness. We are not the helpless victims of our nature, temperament and environment. On the contrary, what we become depends largely on how we behave; our character is shaped by our conduct. . . . The old adage is true: ‘Sow a thought, reap an act; sow an act, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.’ This is good, biblical teaching.”

Nor are we the helpless victims of karma. But this passage is about how the Christian – who is already saved by grace (justification) – lives the Christian life (sanctification). So it has absolutely nothing to do with the Eastern concept of karma, and how to break free from it.

In Eastern thought we are left to our own devices, and hopelessness is really our default setting. It is basically bad news. In Christianity your hopeless condition is dealt with by God’s Son. Those who avail themselves of the finished work of Christ find forgiveness of sins and peace with a personal, loving God. Now that is good news.

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14 Responses to Karma Versus Christianity

  • Just the other day our yoga instructor sought us out because she saw kindness and love in us. We shared what we believe and she shared what she believed. She had many opinions especially the hypocrisy she sees in Christians. I tried to explain we will see the hypocrisy in all mankind because it is impossible for us to maintain perfection. And how we believe that the Creator of us ALL would need to provide a way for us to reestablish our relationship. She listened and we listened. We parted ways with hugs and hopefully more opportunity. This article was extremely helpful. God bless you. Pam Savant

  • True we reap what we sow but the effects are for this life. So many though sow ungodliness and expect to reap godliness. No farmer sows corn and expects to reap tomatoes!

  • The only reaping after this life I can get from the bible is about laying up for yourself treasures in heaven. Certain sowing you do last up that treasure an I guess you can have some use of it though not sure how that works.

  • Thanks Paul. As mentioned, our salvation (justification) is a free gift, and has nothing to do with sowing and reaping. But in a general sense it does have something to do with our growth as Christians (sanctification). See also my new piece on reincarnation: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2019/12/27/reincarnation-versus-resurrection/

  • One of the interesting things about the differences between Judaeo/Christian thought and Eastern religions is that the Eastern religions hold to the naturalistic idea that everything is essentially as it has always been and there was no beginning and things just naturally cycle and repeat. Most scientists, and even Einstein, essentially held to this idea (obviously without reincarnation), because the concept that matter and time could have started at a point is so counter-intuitive, so when Einstein added his infamous constant to his equations to make the universe behave like that, in his mathematical models, he had to later admit it was his biggest mistake.

    Only Judaeo/Christian religious teaching tells us that there was a beginning and, I think, only Christian teaching tells us that there is an “end” even though Old Testament scriptures such as Daniel 9:27 and 12:13 clearly mention it.

    Rev 21:5 And He sitting on the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And He said to me, Write, for these words are true and faithful.
    Rev 21:6 And He said to me, It is done. I am the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End. To him who thirsts I will give of the fountain of the Water of Life freely.
    Rev 21:7 He who overcomes will inherit all things, and I will be his God, and he will be My son.
    (MKJV)

  • For your readers’ interest, the above two excellent quotations of the late Anglican theologian John Stott (1921-2011), on the great principle of sowing and reaping, are from his book, The Message of Galatians, originally published in 1968 and still in print.

  • Thanks John, Yes quite right, and on pages 169-170 to be precise.

  • Thank you for the John Stott quote. And thank you for explaining so well why we cannot keep hold of our old self pagan beliefs to mix in with The Way.

  • It was not my intention to suggest in my comment salvation had anything to do with reaping and sowing.

    I think some of this crept in when the rebellious boomers come back to Christianity after rejecting it, and everything else connected to their parents, an went after eastern religions. I think some thought they would bring the “best”, and you see I used quotations, parts of the eastern faith and blend them into Christianity. (Maybe thinking if God had known about these religions he would have put these things in his) Or perhaps thinking they would “help God out” by adding these “good things” to the faith.

    “Help God out” – much damage has been done to the faith over the years from Christians using those 3 words. Through adding to scripture, making traditions of man on par with scripture, and far worse include murder and genocide. Look at the church, especially the Catholic church, and the jews, a terrible relationship borne out of helping God out.

    Back to the boomers another problem was I think some were afraid to confront them because they were new converters but you can’t allow error to fester simply because the per is new in Christ. Yes you must be gentle so as not to lose them but not confronting is not an option. Some probably weren’t grounded well to begin with so as long as a new convert makes what he says make sense they will accept it. And lastly some pastors didn’t want to lose the new money that these concerts were bringing in so they let slide things they should have confronted. I fear much heresy enters individual churches this way. The money is too big a draw and becomes where the loyalty of the pastor lies.

    I realize we have to pay bills but I would much rather as church have a sign on the front door that read “closed to maintain integrity” than be deserving of a sign that reads “ICHABOD”!

  • thanks. have you ever written anything on those 3 words “help God out”??? especially the catholic persecution of the jews?? helping god out by being his instrument of punishment on them for rejecting the messiah. even though God never asked them they just thought they would help God out – “do him a favor” if you will.

  • I understand from my past reading of a translation of Bhagavad Gita that karma in Krishna’s discourse to the warrior, Arjuna is inextricably bound to the maintenance of the caste system: The karma of one’s caste is allegedly to live and act according to the guna or defining characteristic of one’s caste – even if that guna include the thirst for wealth and power in the case of the Vaisya and the Kshatriya castes. Karma need not be the performance of exclusively altruistic deeds and thoughts… The doctrine of maya moreover implies that all characteristics and their opposites are ultimately illusions, hiding an alleged ultimate reality where there are no gunas or characteristics.

  • john I recognized that title from Oppenheimer he thought about part of it during the trinity testing of the atomic bomb.

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