Karma, Reincarnation, and Damnation

Some years ago, I met a man whom I’ll call by his initials, SR. At the time we spoke, he was a pastor at an evangelical Anabaptist congregation in Vancouver, BC. The story of how he came to embrace the Christian faith has fascinated me, and prompted a few pretty significant questions.

SR was born in India. His family was Hindu, of the priestly Brahmin class, and quite privileged. In keeping with family tradition, SR became a Hindu priest and a well-respected member of society. However, he eventually encountered a serious religious dilemma. As a Hindu, he believed in karmic reincarnation – that is, the balance of the good and bad things he did in this life would determine whether he was reincarnated in a higher or lower form. However, he was convinced that he was amassing negative karma in his present life, and was moving away from the goal of existence, which was unity with Brahman, or God. So he began to ask other people he knew if they were amassing positive karma in their present lives, and if so, how they were doing it.

He was very surprised to discover that everyone he spoke with admitted to precisely the same problem (except people who had well-deserved reputations in the community as scoundrels – an example of the Dunning-Kruger effect). Nobody was amassing positive karma! For SR, this brought on a full-blown crisis of faith. If everybody was amassing negative karma, nobody was going to achieve salvation, and everyone was doomed to live progressively worse and worse lives without any chance of escape.

So SR began looking at other religions, since he could find no hope in Hinduism. He considered the other major religions present in India. Though he was relatively favourably disposed towards Buddhism and Sikhism, they also held to karmic reincarnation, and were thus no solution to his problem. He told me he did not even consider Islam because of its violent history in India. This left him considering Christianity. He embraced it because it did not require him to earn his own salvation by the impossible task of being a good person. The sovereign grace of God, manifested in the generous sacrifice and life-giving resurrection of Jesus, allowed him to escape his own bad karma and attain salvation.

What intrigued me about SR’s story was that people readily admitted that they were amassing negative karma. In the West (and presumably the Middle East because Islam and Christianity are quite similar in this regard), the most common religious understandings assume that life is a one-shot chance followed by one of two dramatically different outcomes. It is incredibly rare for people shaped by such beliefs to openly admit that they expect that their evil deeds outweigh their good ones, and that they consequently expect to be damned to hell. But in Hinduism, where the possible outcomes of one’s living are more numerous, generally less severe, and allow the postponement of the attainment of salvation into a subsequent life, people can afford to be much more candid about their own shortcomings, and readily admit that  they aren’t actually “good people.”

The problem is that if SR’s observation that everyone is amassing negative karma holds, then nobody actually gets saved, and everyone is moving progressively further and further away from union with God.  When translated into Christian terms, this means that everyone is going to hell.

The Christian doctrine of hell thus offers the same destiny as karmic reincarnation, except you skip all the lives you would have lived between your present one and your life of alienation from God. In fact, in conceptions of hell in which the damned are eternally retreating and pulling away from God in this life and the next (for one example, see The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis), there is effectively no difference between damnation and karmic reincarnation at all. Karma justifies hell. Still, many Westerners seem to have little trouble believing that the justice of karmic reincarnation is perhaps a desirable way of experiencing life after death. But if it’s true that everyone is amassing negative karma, reincarnation offers a grimmer fate than even the least generous Christian theologies.

But I’d be in big trouble if Karma was going to finally be my judge. I’d be in deep shit. It doesn’t excuse my mistakes, but I’m holding out for grace. (Bono)

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