Is There a Place for Karma in Christian Theology?
When people do evil and reap the reward, many amongst us call it Karma. Recently, a friend asked me if karma is actually real. Someone had described Laban deceiving Jacob as the latter’s karma for deceiving his father. But what about all the other deceits in this world that go unpunished? And is Karma even a biblical concept to begin with?
The easy answer is that karma as a theological concept is a product of Hinduism/Buddhism. In essence, the good or evil that people do in this life will determine how and the circumstances in which they will be reincarnated in their next lives. In that thought-world, karma is inseparable from reincarnation, a concept that is definitely unbiblical.
Nevertheless, many people have stripped the concept of karma from the theology of reincarnation and both religious and non-religious people appeal to this stripped-down version of Karma to describe the presence or absence of justice in the world as we know it.
The idea that good is rewarded with good and evil with evil is partially biblical. Take Proverbs 1:32-33 as an example: “For the waywardness of the simple will kill them, and the complacency of fools will destroy them, but whoever listens to me will live in safety and be at ease without fear of harm.” This passage teaches that the way of the fool (foolishness and wickedness are synonyms in Proverbs) will lead to death and destruction while the way of the righteous (wisdom and righteousness are synonyms in Proverbs) will lead to safety.
This idea is ubiquitous in Proverbs. Consider Proverbs 26:27: “whoever digs a pit will fall into it; if someone rolls a stone, it will roll back on them;” and 22:8: “whoever sows injustice reaps calamity, and the rod they wield in fury will be broken.”
We find the same idea in the Psalms: “the trouble they cause recoils on them; their violence comes down on their own heads” (Psalms 7:16).
This is not an OT idea for James also said that “peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness” (James 3:18) and Jesus affirmed that “all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). Paul also believed that “a man reaps what he sows” for good or ill.
Nevertheless, this idea of sowing and reaping or “karma” cannot be stripped from the overall theology of the Bible. In what follows, we consider the Bible’s theology of justice and how it’s different from the concept of karma.
God as personal judge
The first thing to note is that in the scriptures, justice is not a depersonalised idea, a cosmic force that ensures that people get what they deserve. Over and over again, the scriptures declare that God is the personal judge that ensures justice in the world he created and sustains.
Asaph declared in the Psalms that “It is God who judges: he brings one down, he exalts another” (Psalms 75:7) and that the heavens “proclaim his righteousness, for he is a God of justice” (Psalms 50:6). Also, “from heaven you pronounced judgment, and the land feared and was quiet – when you, God, rose up to judge, to save all the afflicted of the land” (Psalms 76:9).
Before Asaph, Abraham had described God as the “judge of all the earth” who will “do right” (Genesis 18:25). James summarised it this way: “There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy” (James 4:12).
According to Leon Morris, God is “active in bringing his purposes to pass, whether they are purposes of blessing on his people or of judgment on the sins of men.”
Again, “It is true that in the Old Testament disaster is seen as the inevitable consequence of sin. But that is not because some impersonal process is at work; it is because a moral God will not allow man to sin with impunity … God is personally at work in the execution of his anger, just as he is in the showing of his mercy“
Manifestations of God’s judgments
We see manifestations of God as judge across the whole canon of scriptures. When Adam and Eve sinned against him, he judged both of them and the serpent that deceived them (Genesis 3:14-23). When the whole world went haywire and wickedness engulfed God’s creatures, he judged the antediluvian world with a flood (Genesis 6:5-8).
When Pharaoh refused to free Israel from slavery, God sent plagues as punishment (Exodus 4-12). And when Israel was finally free, he used them to punish the Canaanites (Genesis 15:6, Deuteronomy 9:5) and gave them the land of Canaan.
In Isaiah 13-29, we see God pronouncing judgments against the various nations of the world, including Israel and Judah, his chosen people.
When we come to the New Testament, we see Jesus proclaiming judgments against Israel’s religious leaders (Matthew 23). We also see God judging Annanias and Saphira with immediate death (Acts 5:1-11). Some chapters later, we see him judging the pride of Herod with a disease that killed him (Acts 12:20-25).
God’s personal wrath
Many Bible writers use the concept of God’s wrath to describe his justice. His wrath is the manifestation of his holiness towards sin.
In Romans 1:18 we see that God’s wrath is being revealed against all godlessness and wickedness. Evil men are storing up wrath for the day of God’s wrath when he will repay each person according to what they have done (Romans 2:5). And both Jews and Gentiles are guilty (Romans 2:17-3:20).
In John 3, we read that whosoever does not believe in Jesus is condemned and that God’s wrath remains on whosoever rejects Christ (John 3:36). By nature, everyone is a child of wrath (Ephesians 2:3) since “God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient” (Ephesians 5:6).
The point to note here is that justice is not a depersonalised cosmic force that ensures that people get what they deserve. If people reap what they sow, it is because God gives them the reward for what they have sown. If the evil man falls into the pit he digs, it is because God makes him fall into it. If the one who sows injustice reaps calamity, it’s because there is a just God of the universe who repays injustice with calamity. If the complacency of wicked men destroys them, it is because God has so ordained it.
According to Steve Jeffery, Mike Ovey, and Andrew Sach, the wrath of God is “his active, retributive response to sin, a judicial penalty, imposed in accordance with his personal righteous hostility to everything that is evil.”
Any idea of justice that removes the personal action of the God who sustains the universe is sub-biblical. Justice is not a thing that somehow exists somewhere and pervades the universe; rather, justice is the manifestation of God’s holiness.
This is why the Psalmists do not appeal to a cosmic force when they are crying for justice; instead, they call on the righteous God to judge rightly (Psalms 28:3-4).
Leon Morris, responding to C.H Dodd, who saw God’s wrath as an impersonal process of cause and effect, said: “The prophets did not think of an absentee God, benevolently allowing the universe to go on its way with all kinds of impersonal mechanism in operation. They emphasized the sovereignty of God. They saw him as active in the affairs of men. Specifically, they were sure that the punishment of sin was due to God himself.”
The means of God’s judgments
Nevertheless, God uses different means to manifest his judgments. In Romans 13, we see that God has appointed civil government as a punisher of evil and rewarder of good. In Isaiah 10, we see how God raised up Assyria to punish Israel.
God also uses nature to punish. We see a catalog of this in Deuteronomy 27. The plagues that he sent to Egypt are examples. The flood that destroyed the antediluvian world is another example. God has used diseases, drought, and famine, among others as instruments of his righteous judgments.
God’s angels have also been called to his service of wrath and justice (2 Chronicles 32:21, Acts 12:20-25).
In Romans 1:24-32, we see that God also judges people by giving them over to the sins they love so they can bear in their bodies the consequences of those sins.
Whatever the means, one thing is constant: God is the judge.
God and evil
Having established that God is the personal judge of the universe, let’s spend some time explicating his relation to evil and evildoers.
The cosmic punishment of evil
When Adam and Eve sinned, God judged the world through a series of curses. For women, childbirth would be painful (Genesis 3:16); for men, work will be laborious and toilsome (Genesis 3:17-19); and for everyone, death (spiritual and physical) will be a lingering reality (Genesis 2:17, Romans 6:23, Ephesians 2:1-3).
Though Adam and Eve were the direct recipients of these curses, all humans suffer them as their children (Romans 5:12-21).
According to Paul, the whole creation is under the bondage to decay, groaning as in the pains of childbirth (Romans 8:18-25). But creation is not under this bondage and pain naturally; rather, it is by “the will of the one who subjected it.” As Richard Gaffin puts it, “Death is God’s judicial reaction to sin, which is to say, death is penal. It is his active punitive response to sin ‘from the outside’ so to speak, not simply his allowing death as the self-generating result of sin … Death, including those conditions now present in the creation that tends toward death, is God’s calculated response to sin, his retributive curse on sin”
Agreeing with Gaffin, Jeffery, Ovey, and Sach commented: “The pain, toil, conflict, and death of Genesis 3:14-19 do not come about mechanically or impersonally; rather, God acts to bring them about. It is impossible to avoid seeing these verses as a judicial sentence, a punishment imposed by a judge.”
The sufferings and pains that are part of life in this world are the results of sin not because of impersonal karma but because God, the righteous and holy judge, subjected the whole world to frustration.
This leads me to an important point: everyone born into this world will experience the consequences of God’s curse on the earth. Natural evil and moral evil will occur that are part of God’s general curse on the earth rather than a specific judgment against specific sin.
Godly people will get sick, die, suffer betrayals, lose their jobs, start unsuccessful businesses, and be the target of the envy and greed of evil men. All of these natural and moral evils are part of this fallen universe.
Even Jesus, the spotless God-man, was betrayed by his disciples. The religious hierarchy of his days hated and plotted against him. He was caught up in a storm and tempted by the devil. He was beaten and then crucified even though he only went about doing good.
The point is that not all sufferings are direct punishments for specific sins. As long as we live in this fallen world, we will all suffer from God’s cosmic punishment of evil; he has subjected the world to frustration.
The temporal punishment of evil
However, in addition to his cosmic punishment of evil, God also sends specific righteous judgments as a result of specific sins. As Jeffery, Ovey, and Sach put it, “Although all must die in the end, the Bible also portrays God judging individuals or groups of people for their sin by bringing upon them an untimely death.”
We have seen him bringing plagues against Egypt, Israel against the Canaanite nations, and Assyria against Israel. We have also seen how he judged Annanias and Saphira as well as King Herod.
The scriptures are full of such temporal punishments (punishments in the here and now) against specific sins. Again, though God uses different means to accomplish his justice, he is the one who judges through them all. Justice is a manifestation of God’s holiness.
“All ‘natural’ consequences, whether physical or moral, take place because God continues to will the existence of the universe and the causal relationships that occur within it,” said Jeffery, et al. “Since the moral consequences of sin are willed in this way, they have the character of divine punishment.”
Of course, this does not mean that evil people only receive temporal punishments. They also receive temporal goods from the God who causes his sun to shine on the good and the evil (Matthew 5:43-48) but they do so as part of God’s general benevolence towards his creation, what theologians call common grace.
When evil people prosper
When my friend complained about karma, it was because of all the manifold evils that go unpunished in this life. But he was not the first to identify this problem.
Asaph, the Psalmist, was frustrated by the prosperity of the wicked and how that prosperity gives them the confidence to carry out more evil schemes (Psalms 73:1-12). The Israelites also voiced this complaint to God (Malachi 3:14-15). For Qoheleth, the prosperity of wicked men is evidence of the meaninglessness of life (Ecclesiastes 7:15).
The prosperity of the wicked is an obstacle to every depersonalisation of justice. If justice depends on a cosmic force somewhere, we have to ask why millions of people have done evil and prospered while doing it. Why do many people live and die without receiving the just rewards of their evil?
Hinduism deals with this problem with the theological concept of reincarnation, where evil people come back to life in worse circumstances than their previous lives as suffering for the evil they did.
The final punishment of evil
For Jews and Christians, the scriptures deal with this problem through the concept of a final judgment.
After voicing his frustration about the prosperity of the wicked, Asaph went to the temple of God and there he realised that God will still judge the wicked and that destruction is their final destiny (Psalms 73:17-28).
When God heard the complaints of the Israelites in Malachi 3, he assured them that there will be a day of judgment when the distinction between those who serve God and those who don’t will be evident to all (verse 18).
In Psalms 92 we see that “though the wicked spring up like grass and all evildoers flourish, they will be destroyed forever” (verse 7). Solomon also assures us in Proverbs that “the evildoer has no future hope, and the lamp of the wicked will be snuffed out” (Proverbs 24:19-20).
This expectation of a final judgment where God sets everything right by punishing the wicked for their sins pervades the NT as well (2 Corinthians 5:10, Romans 2:1-16, Matthew 25:31-46, 2 Thessalonians 1:1-10, Revelation 19-20).
Evil and evil people will not triumph forever. Though they may prosper and escape decisive temporal punishments for their evil today, they will receive what is due them in the final assize.
This is another important reason why we must ditch talks of karma and emphasise that justice is the work of a personal God. A depersonalised cosmic force cannot ultimately ensure justice for all the evils that have been done in this world.
God and the good
What about the relationship between God and “good” people?
Is anyone good?
The scriptures teach that all men are sinful and just recipients of God’s wrath.
When the rich man called Jesus the good teacher, he responded by saying that no one is good except God (Mark 10:18).
Paul makes the point in Romans 3 that both Jews and Gentiles are sinful and justly under God’s wrath. Why so? It’s because “there is no one righteous … there is no one who seeks God … there is no one who does good” (verses 10-18). Before God’s throne of judgment, every mouth will be silenced (verses 19 and 20).
Of course, this does not mean that there is no distinction between morally upright people and wicked people. However, it means that by God’s standards, no one is good, holy, or righteous. Consequently, no one can merit anything from God.
Common grace and God’s sustenance of the universe
Though God has subjected the world to frustration, he still blesses us with a lot of good things. He sends rain and sunshine on the good and the evil (Matthew 5:43-48). Every good and perfect gift comes from him (James 1:17). He’s the one who shows kindness by giving us rain from heaven and crops in their seasons (Acts 14:17). All of the goodness of his creation is given to us to be received with thanksgiving (1 Timothy 4:3).
Since all of us are sinners, none of us deserves any goodness from God. Even our best deeds are marked by sin. We might not kill or defraud people but all of us rebel against God’s sovereign rule over our lives. Even those we consider morally upright can’t stand before God’s perfect law.
Whatever good any man receives, whether he is a “good” or evil man, is a product of God’s common (universal) grace by which he preserves the world he has made.
The temporal reward of the good
However, God also rewards specific good deeds, in addition to the common grace that everyone – good and evil – enjoys.
Those who give alms with a view to glorifying God alone will receive their reward from God (Matthew 6:1-4). Those who give will receive, good measure, pressed down, and shaken together (Luke 6:38). As Paul told the Corinthians, “whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly” (2 Corinthians 9:6). Those who welcome prophets and righteous people receive rewards (Matthew 10:41), even the one who gives just a cup of cold water will not lose their reward (vs. 42). According to Solomon, the path of the righteous shines brighter till the full light of day (Proverbs 4:18).
One key reward God gives to morally upright people who are being oppressed is vindication/deliverance (Jeremiah 51:10). When God delivers the righteous from their oppression, he vindicates them before their enemies and the onlooking world. This is why we see the Psalmist crying to God for vindication whenever he’s oppressed by his enemies (Psalms 43:1).
Yet, since we are sinners and our good deeds are still marked by intrinsic sinfulness, any temporal reward we receive for our good works are rewards of grace — that is God choosing to reward our good deeds in spite of their imperfections.
When good people suffer
Nevertheless, we live in a world where good people also suffer. Therefore, we cannot conclude that suffering of any kind is always a result of a specific sin. First, we have seen that there is general suffering that we all partake in as descendants of Adam living in a fallen world.
Secondly, God can ordain suffering for the righteous to accomplish his good purposes.
Job was righteous but he suffered (Job 1). His friends, who insisted that God only rewards good with good and evil with evil, charged him with sin. But for those of us reading the metanarrative, we know that Job suffered because God ordained that trial for him and not because of specific sins.
In Hebrews 12, we also see that God chastens, rebukes, and disciplines his children for their holiness and righteousness (verses 4-11). God does use trials and difficulties as means for the sanctification of his people (James 1:2-18).
Thirdly, God’s children will be persecuted by the world. Paul insisted that all who want to live godly lives will suffer persecution (2 Timothy 3:12). Jesus repeatedly warned his disciples about persecution from the ungodly world (Matthew 5:10-12, 10:16-25, John 15:18-21). Evil people oppose and persecute the righteous from time to time and we don’t always receive vindication in this life (Revelation 6:9-10).
Eternal reward and grace
While God rewards the good deeds of men in this world, only those who are in Christ will enjoy God’s eternal reward.
According to John 3:16, only those who believe in Christ will have eternal life. Those who have the righteousness that comes through the law will not attain eternal life; only those who are righteous by their faith in Christ will attain it (Romans 9:30-33).
No one is good or holy or righteous by God’s standards; therefore, anyone who will inherit eternal life will do so by participating in the merits of the only one who is righteous – Jesus Christ, the sinless one (1 Peter 2:22). No man’s good deeds will ever merit eternal life because we are all sinful through and through and our best efforts are tainted by that sinfulness. This is why salvation is by grace.
So, while God may graciously reward the good deeds of “good” people, only those who put their faith in Christ will receive the eternal reward of life with the triune God in the new creation.
Why doesn’t God give good people eternal life and just overlook their evil deeds since he blesses their good deeds temporally?
It’s because salvation is the restoration of communion with God and only one who is perfect can ascend the hill of God (Psalms 24:3-4) and commune with consuming fire (Heb 12:29).
No taint of sin can dwell in God’s presence. And every human being, no matter how many good deeds mark their lives here on earth, is tainted with sin. This is why only the perfect righteousness of God can grant anyone access to God’s presence (Hebrews 4:14-16, 6:19).
And what’s the new heaven and the new earth if not eternal communion and fellowship with God? If sinners can’t stand God’s presence now, they can’t stand it eternally. This is why only those who are perfectly righteous by virtue of their union with Christ can dwell with God in eternal communion and fellowship.
To summarise: No sinner will be able to stand in the presence of God apart from the righteousness of Christ, which is why only those who are in Christ will be in the new heaven and the new earth.
Karma as a theological concept in Hinduism is not biblical. Even when shorn of its theological foundation, it’s unwise for Christians to talk about Karma.
God is the judge of the whole earth, the one who upholds justice and righteousness in the world he has created. To attribute justice to any other thing apart from God is to deny God the glory that is his.
Also, karma cannot deal with why evil men prosper or why good people suffer. Neither can it deal with the fact that eternal life is not for the evil or the “good” but for those who are united with Christ by faith.
Instead of talking about karma, then, we need to reclaim the biblical theology of justice.
Day of judgment! Day of wonders!
Hark! the trumpet’s awful sound,
louder than a thousand thunders,
shakes the vast creation round.
How the summons
will the sinner’s heart confound!
See the Judge, our nature wearing,
clothed in majesty divine;
you who long for his appearing
then shall say, “This God is mine!”
own me in that day as thine.
At his call the dead awaken,
rise to life from earth and sea;
all the pow’rs of nature, shaken
by his looks, prepare to flee.
what will then become of thee?
But to those who have confessed,
loved and served the Lord below,
he will say, “Come near, ye blessed,
see the kingdom I bestow;
shall my love and glory know.”
 Leon Morris, The Atonement: Its meaning and significance (Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1983), 155.
 Ibid, 156.
 Steve Jeffery, Mike Ovey, and Andrew Sach. Pierced for Our Transgressions (Nottingham: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 79-80.
 Morris, The Atonement, 155.
 Richard Gaffin, Atonement in the Pauline Corpus in C.E. Hill and F.A. James III (eds), The Glory of the Atonement (Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 151-152
 Steve Jeffery, et al, Pierced for Our Transgressions, 118.
 Ibid, 122.