Can we live multiple lives? Do our actions in this life affect what we come back as in the next life? Douglas Groothuis discusses the doctrine of reincarnation versus the
Christian doctrine of eternal life.
Karma and Its “Justice”: The Claim
People have always wondered what — if anything — lies beyond the grave. Is death the end of existence, an entry into eternity, or an intermission between earthly lives? Some Eastern religions — such as Hinduism and Buddhism — teach that the soul reincarnates in many different bodies, and a significant percentage of Americans now believe it. Why are so many people drawn to the doctrine of reincarnation?
Reincarnation offers hope for many who would otherwise fear their own demise. If we don’t “get it right” in this life, we will have another chance the next time around — and the next and the next as well. Some worried souls even consult therapists in the hope of learning the details of their past lives, which, they believe, may help them solve their present problems.
Reincarnation also claims to insure justice on a cosmic scale. We each get what we deserve in every life. In Eastern religions, reincarnation is connected with the law of karma, which teaches that our good and bad deeds produce good and bad results from lifetime to lifetime.
The law of karma is an unbending and impersonal rule of the universe. By “working off” one’s bad karma over many lifetimes, a person can finally escape the process of rebirth and attain enlightenment in a realm beyond this life. But can reincarnation realistically offer hope and a sense of justice to a troubled world? Can it answer the nagging and perennial problems of death and injustice?
Karma and Its “Justice”: The Letdown
Even those who believe in reincarnation admit that the vast majority of humans do not remember their supposedly previous lives. But how can we learn from our past mistakes if we cannot remember them? We seem to make the same mistakes over and over again.
While world history reveals the development of science and new technologies, humans do not seem to be progressing morally, all things considered. War, racial prejudice, hatred, rape, child abuse, prostitution, and even slavery refuse to go away in our blood-soaked and tear-stained world. Given the moral failure rate of human history, do we any have reason to hope that we will get it right in a future lifetime — or in any number of them? But there are more intellectual problems with the teachings of reincarnation.
According to reincarnation, the innocent do not really suffer. Suffering is real, of course, but all suffering is deserved on the basis of bad karma. The baby born without legs deserved it, as did the woman who was raped and the man who is enslaved in the Sudan. There is no injustice — and there is no forgiveness. None are innocent, and there is no divine grace available for restoration.
This is not good news for humanity.
Moreover, this claim should rub our conscience the wrong way. The innocent do indeed suffer around the world and in horrible ways throughout human history. It is nothing less than cruel to claim that children who are abused by parents “had it coming” somehow.
Where Mercy Is Found: Karma vs. Forgiveness
The law of karma is unmerciful. The message of Jesus Christ is quite different. He taught that no one can keep the moral law that is written on the heart (see Romans 2:14-15). By nature, we know the basics of morality, as C.S. Lewis argued and illustrated so powerfully in The Abolition of Man. Yet our response to what we know is something else again. The human heart (the core of the person) is impure because of wrong attitudes and actions. Thus it is no surprise that human beings have struggled with guilt through all time and in every place. Jesus saw to the heart of the matter.
For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean’ (Mark 7:21-23, NIV).
This inner and outer wrongdoing is an offense against a loving and absolutely good and holy God (see Isaiah 6:1-8), and no self-help program will undo its effects. Jesus warned, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). He informed the most devoted religious leaders of His day that “not one of you keeps the [moral] law” (John 7:19). Yet Jesus never spoke of reincarnation as a way out of this prison. Rather, Jesus affirmed that people would receive either eternal reward or eternal punishment according to how they responded to Him during their one lifetime on earth (Matthew 25:31-46; see also Hebrews 9:27). Reincarnation is ruled out. But Jesus has offered Himself as the way of escape.
Jesus proclaimed that He came into the world “to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:10). Through His ministry of teaching, preaching, healing, and casting out demons, He demonstrated a sinless and perfect life, as well as the power over death itself by raising the dead (see John 11). He said that He “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). The Apostle John declares that in Jesus Christ, God himself entered space-time history. He did not leave us to determine our own fate.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. … The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us (John 1:1-5, 14)
Defeating Death, Not Repeating Life
Jesus offered eternal life to all who would accept Him on His terms. As John goes on to say, “To all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God — children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (John 1:12-13).
Jesus showed his forgiving love even on his own blood-stained cross. A thief on the cross next to Jesus confessed his sin and asked Jesus to remember him. Jesus responded, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Only a contrite faith in Jesus was required for paradise, not lifetime after lifetime of working off bad karma and building up good karma so that one could be released from this “wheel of suffering,” as the Eastern writings put it.
Jesus defeated sin and death through His death on the cross and His miraculous and historical resurrection from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:1-4). Nothing less could secure our deliverance from the graveyard of our “transgressions and sins” (Ephesians 2:1).
God’s plan for rescuing erring mortals has nothing to do with their own efforts — in this life or from lifetime to lifetime. On the contrary, Jesus affirmed: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
That, indeed, is good news — for this life and for eternity.