Karma vs. Christianity

Proverbs 11:

24 One person is generous and yet grows more wealthy, but another withholds more than he should and comes to poverty.

25 A generous person will be enriched, and the one who provides water for others will himself be satisfied.

(NET Bible®)

Karma: what an appealing concept! Regardless of the flaws of the legal and economic systems, Justice will win out in the end. God, the gods, the Universe, your subconscious Mind, or quantum cartoon waves emanating from your head will see to it that good deeds are eventually rewarded, and bad deeds eventually punished. Even the Objectivist teachings of Ayn Rand imply a form of karma. Exercise “irrational” self-interest through criminal acts or mooching from the government, and the metaphysical contradiction will eat away at your mind causing it to melt down like a computer on Star Trek, albeit more slowly. What is there not to like about Karma?

Plenty, actually.

Believe in karma and complacency or outright callousness readily follow. See those Untouchables condemned to a miserable life? They are paying for their sins in a past life. As for those inspired to do good deeds: Is it altruism? Or is it simply metaphysical self-interest? Love and karma are oft at odds.

Nonetheless, the Bible does teach a doctrine of Divine Providence which resembles karma in many ways. The Bible is littered with promises and examples of earthly rewards for righteous behavior. But Divine Providence differs subtly from karma. The nuances can mean the difference between true love and charity, or a hard heart.

Perhaps the Pharisees of New Testament times mistook Divine Providence for mere karma. Perhaps this is why Jesus attacked the rich and praised the poor – despite the many promises of earthly rewards found in Scripture. If so, then the successful Christian capitalist can hope, at least as long as earthly success is buffered with sufficient humility and charity.

If so.

Let us dig deeper to see if this hypothesis has merit.

Promises of Divine Providence

Malachi 3:

10 "Bring the entire tithe into the storehouse so that there may be food in my temple. Test me in this matter," says the LORD who rules over all, "to see if I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you a blessing until there is no room for it all.

11 Then I will stop the plague from ruining your crops, and the vine will not lose its fruit before harvest," says the LORD who rules over all.

12 "All nations will call you happy, for you indeed will live in a delightful land," says the LORD who rules over all.

(NET Bible®)

Proverbs 3:

9 Honor the LORD from your wealth and from the first fruits of all your crops;

10 then your barns will be filled completely, and your vats will overflow with new wine.

(NET Bible®)

Let there be no doubt: the Bible promises material prosperity in return for following God’s laws. Behold the quotes above. They are not about the afterlife. Reread the quote at the beginning of this page; the resemblance to karma is striking. Be good to others and good things happen to you. Moses preached extensively on the matter in the final chapters of Deuteronomy. Here is a sample:

Deuteronomy 28:

1 "If you indeed obey the LORD your God and are careful to observe all his commandments I am giving you today, the LORD your God will elevate you above all the nations of the earth.

2 All these blessings will come to you in abundance if you obey the LORD your God:

3 You will be blessed in the city and blessed in the field.

4 Your children will be blessed, as well as the produce of your soil, the offspring of your livestock, the calves of your herds, and the lambs of your flocks.

5 Your basket and your mixing bowl will be blessed.

6 You will be blessed when you come in and blessed when you go out.

7 The LORD will cause your enemies who attack you to be struck down before you; they will attack you from one direction but flee from you in seven different directions.

8 The LORD will decree blessing for you with respect to your barns and in everything you do — yes, he will bless you in the land he is giving you.

9 The LORD will designate you as his holy people just as he promised you, if you keep his commandments and obey him.

10 Then all the peoples of the earth will see that you belong to the LORD, and they will respect you.

11 The LORD will greatly multiply your children, the offspring of your livestock, and the produce of your soil in the land which he promised your ancestors he would give you.

12 The LORD will open for you his good treasure house, the heavens, to give you rain for the land in its season and to bless all you do; you will lend to many nations but you will not borrow from any.

13 The LORD will make you the head and not the tail, and you will always end up at the top and not at the bottom, if you obey his commandments which I am urging you today to be careful to do.

14 But you must not turn away from all the commandments I am giving you today, to either the right or left, nor pursue other gods and worship them.

(NET Bible®)

If prosperity is the fruit of wickedness, how do you account for passages such as these? These passages state that material prosperity is the fruit of righteous behavior. (The passages which follow are curses to the nation of Israel should it worship false gods or otherwise break the Law.)

Granted, the Deuteronomy promises above apply to a nation as a whole, vs. individuals. The same can be said for the promises in Malachi. Believers in the Prosperity Gospel should take this into account. Many of the prosperity promises are group promises.

But the promises in Proverbs cited above apply to individuals. Moses also included individual curses for those who failed to obey the Law:

Deuteronomy 29:

19 When such a person hears the words of this oath he secretly blesses himself and says, "I will have peace though I continue to walk with a stubborn spirit." This will destroy the watered ground with the parched.

20 The LORD will be unwilling to forgive him, and his intense anger will rage against that man; all the curses written in this scroll will fall upon him and the LORD will obliterate his name from memory.

21 The LORD will single him out for judgment from all the tribes of Israel according to all the curses of the covenant written in this scroll of the law.

(NET Bible®)

Interestingly, Jesus himself made at least one promise of prosperity in this life, which is not a national claim:

Mark 10:

25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God."

26 They were even more astonished and said to one another, "Then who can be saved?"

27 Jesus looked at them and replied, "This is impossible for mere humans, but not for God; all things are possible for God."

28 Peter began to speak to him, "Look, we have left everything to follow you!"

29 Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, there is no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for my sake and for the sake of the gospel

30 who will not receive in this age a hundred times as much — homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, fields, all with persecutions — and in the age to come, eternal life.

(NET Bible®)

In the very same passage where Jesus said it is incredibly difficult for a rich person to enter the Kingdom, Jesus promises a hundredfold return on investment in this life. Maybe there is a misprint here. Maybe what got translated as “in this age” meant something else. But to translate verse 30 to pertain only to the afterlife requires an afterlife that involves new family members and fields This is possible; most afterlife promises refer to the resurrection upon this planet, not life up in Heaven, popular notions notwithstanding.

But persecutions? That doesn’t fit any other picture of the afterlife – at least not for the righteous.

While not a national promise, this may or may not be a group promise. The early churches did create their own economies, and functioned as a family, so maybe Jesus was referring to this future more than making individual promises. Or maybe he was doing both…

Evidence of Divine Providence

Job 1:

1 There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. And that man was pure and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.

2 Seven sons and three daughters were born to him.

3 His possessions included 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen, and 500 female donkeys; in addition he had a very great household. Thus he was the greatest of all the people in the east.

(NET Bible®)

What do Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, David, Solomon, Josiah, Job, and Daniel have in common?

They were rich.

Abraham had so many servants, that he could field an army. Joseph became governor of Egypt. Daniel became governor of the Babylonian empire. It is safe to assume that these were high paying positions. Solomon lived a life of sexual pleasure rivaled only by the likes of Hugh Hefner.

The faithful kings of Judah have enjoyed fates such as these:

1 Chronicles 29:

26 Thus David the son of Jesse reigned over all Israel.

27 And the time that he reigned over Israel was forty years; seven years reigned he in Hebron, and thirty and three years reigned he in Jerusalem.

28 And he died in a good old age, full of days, riches, and honour: and Solomon his son reigned in his stead.

(King James Version)

2 Chronicles 9:

22 And king Solomon passed all the kings of the earth in riches and wisdom.

23 And all the kings of the earth sought the presence of Solomon, to hear his wisdom, that God had put in his heart.

(King James Version)

2 Chronicles 18:

1 Now Jehoshaphat had riches and honour in abundance, and joined affinity with Ahab.

(King James Version)

2 Chronicles 32:

26 Notwithstanding Hezekiah humbled himself for the pride of his heart, both he and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the wrath of the LORD came not upon them in the days of Hezekiah.

27 And Hezekiah had exceeding much riches and honour: and he made himself treasuries for silver, and for gold, and for precious stones, and for spices, and for shields, and for all manner of pleasant jewels;

28 Storehouses also for the increase of corn, and wine, and oil; and stalls for all manner of beasts, and cotes for flocks.

29 Moreover he provided him cities, and possessions of flocks and herds in abundance: for God had given him substance very much.

(King James Version)

Conversely, the faithless kings of Israel suffered less pleasant fates:

1 Kings 15:

25 And Nadab the son of Jeroboam began to reign over Israel in the second year of Asa king of Judah, and reigned over Israel two years.

26 And he did evil in the sight of the LORD, and walked in the way of his father, and in his sin wherewith he made Israel to sin.

27 And Baasha the son of Ahijah, of the house of Issachar, conspired against him; and Baasha smote him at Gibbethon, which belonged to the Philistines; for Nadab and all Israel laid siege to Gibbethon.

28 Even in the third year of Asa king of Judah did Baasha slay him, and reigned in his stead.

(King James Version)

1 Kings 16:

3 Behold, I will take away the posterity of Baasha, and the posterity of his house; and will make thy house like the house of Jeroboam the son of Nebat.

4 Him that dieth of Baasha in the city shall the dogs eat; and him that dieth of his in the fields shall the fowls of the air eat.

(King James Version)

1 Kings 16:

8 In the twenty and sixth year of Asa king of Judah began Elah the son of Baasha to reign over Israel in Tirzah, two years.

9 And his servant Zimri, captain of half his chariots, conspired against him, as he was in Tirzah, drinking himself drunk in the house of Arza steward of his house in Tirzah.

10 And Zimri went in and smote him, and killed him, in the twenty and seventh year of Asa king of Judah, and reigned in his stead.

11 And it came to pass, when he began to reign, as soon as he sat on his throne, that he slew all the house of Baasha: he left him not one that pisseth against a wall, neither of his kinsfolks, nor of his friends.

12 Thus did Zimri destroy all the house of Baasha, according to the word of the LORD, which he spake against Baasha by Jehu the prophet,

(King James Version)

Faithfulness to God and his laws paid quite well back in the day. So how is that rich men cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven?

With examples like these it is easy to conclude that poverty is the result of sin, and thus the poor, the sick and unlucky should be despised.

Perhaps this was the big mistake of the Pharisees, and why Jesus attacked the rich. Maybe Jesus was emphasizing that riches were not a sure sign of divine favor, and that poverty was not a sure sign divine disfavor. Jesus used hyperbole to make a point elsewhere. This is generally acknowledged; few Christians today cut off offending body parts. So maybe there is hope for Christian capitalists after all.

But still, when Jesus uses hyperbole, we should pay attention. It was his way of shouting across the centuries, past translation errors and writing which lacked modern punctuation.

Differences between Karma and Divine Providence

Let us step away from the Bible just a little bit and indulge in a bit of speculative theology. Imagine you are The Creator, and you really enjoy creating worlds. But as the worlds add up, administering your creation gets to be a distraction. You would like to delegate some tasks. You create some angels for the task and run into problems. The angels with built-in obedience are too robotic, and cannot handle all situations without supervision. The angels given more free will sometimes get uppity and set themselves up as gods, causing all sorts of mischief.

So, how do you get administrators who have free will and do a decent job of running things without much supervision? The qualities you want are:

  1. Willingness to obey orders even when not watched.
  2. Benevolence towards those they supervise.
  3. Leadership and administrative skills.

So, how about creating a few billion mortal beings with free will and selecting those who freely display these qualities?

In order to test their willingness to obey orders, you need to give them orders, but then go into hiding to see who follows through without evidence of supervision.

Job 1:

8 So the LORD said to Satan, "Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a pure and upright man, one who fears God and turns away from evil."

9 Then Satan answered the LORD, "Is it for nothing that Job fears God?

10 Have you not made a hedge around him and his household and all that he has on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his livestock have increased in the land.

(NET Bible®)

True benevolence is a tricky one. You can start by giving your mortals the experience of being ruled, but this by itself is not enough. The persecuted can become the persecuters. You want those who behave benevolently towards others without a direct payment for those benevolent actions. You want altruism in the original sense of the word: benevolence from the heart.

Finally, those who demonstrate these qualities need some practice in leadership. This entails allowing them wealth and/or governmental authority – or maybe owning a farm, with stewardship over a bunch of animals (and maybe some farmhands). Or it could entail being part of a commune as was the case of the early New Testament churches.

Does any of this sound familiar?

I won’t claim that this theological picture is correct; it certainly violates some of the omni-this-that-and-the-other assumptions of many theologians. See the Homework Assignment for another alternative.

But it does fit the data rather nicely. It fits with having a Supreme Being and an Adversary without devolving into dualism. It fits with the picture of the Afterlife given in the New Testament, of the righteous Believers given offices and kingdoms. It fits with how the Bible seems to oscillate between an emphasis on by-the-letter obedience vs. benevolence. It fits with how Divine Providence seems to work, and why it is a very dangerous assumption to assume that someone’s bad fortune is the result of sin.

Rewards are Often Delayed

Jacob spent a couple decades in exile dealing with his crafty father-in-law. Joseph was a slave and a prisoner before he was made governor of Egypt. David spent time in exile dodging the wrath of Saul before taking the throne. Daniel was a slave (and probably a eunuch) before being given high office in Babylon.

These men experienced plentiful persecution before being elevated to positions of power. Cultivating divine favor is not the quick path to riches. There are faster, easier ways.

Actually, it’s worse than that.

Rewards are Often Posthumous

Hebrews 11:

13 These all died in faith without receiving the things promised, but they saw them in the distance and welcomed them and acknowledged that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth.

14 For those who speak in such a way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.

(NET Bible®)

Many a Christian martyr was done away with long before receiving any farms or other rewards as per Mark 10:30. The same is true for many Old Testament saints. Most of the prophets lived rough lives.

Or consider Moses. He went from living in the household of Egyptian royalty to being a herdsman and then leader of a mob wandering in the desert for 40 years living on a boring diet of manna.

The Book of Hebrews goes into the matter in great depth. Sometimes there are earthly rewards for righteousness; sometimes all the rewards come later.

But it gets worse.

God Reproves Those He Loves

Proverbs 3:

11 My child, do not despise discipline from the LORD,

and do not loathe his rebuke.

12 For the LORD disciplines those he loves,

just as a father disciplines the son in whom he delights.

(NET Bible®)

Divine love is not described as motherly. Christianity and Judaism are not cuddly New Age religions suitable for the self-indulgent – despite the lyrics of some modern praise and worship music. The Bible describes God as a demanding father figure who is preparing you for greatness. Or consider an Eastern sensei. He levels his harshest criticism at his promising students.

The closer you get to God, the more nit-picky He becomes. Note how quickly divine punishment arrived during the Exodus. Complaining could get you killed. Note how Ananias and Sapphira dropped dead from lying in order to withhold a donation [Acts 5].

Bad luck can be a sign of partial divine favor. Those who are beyond hope are simply given a pass for their transgressions in this life. St. Paul discusses the principle extensively in the first chapters of Romans. Here is a small sample:

Romans 2:

5 But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath for yourselves in the day of wrath, when God's righteous judgment is revealed!

6 He will reward each one according to his works:

7 eternal life to those who by perseverance in good works seek glory and honor and immortality,

8 but wrath and anger to those who live in selfish ambition and do not obey the truth but follow unrighteousness.

9 There will be affliction and distress on everyone who does evil, on the Jew first and also the Greek,

10 but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, for the Jew first and also the Greek.

11 For there is no partiality with God.

(NET Bible®)

The Jews get both the rewards and the wrath first, according to Paul.

But similar trials are in order for all who follow Jesus. Recall that He said:

Luke 14:

26 "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother, and wife and children, and brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.

27 Whoever does not carry his own cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

28 For which of you, wanting to build a tower, doesn't sit down first and compute the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it?

29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish the tower, all who see it will begin to make fun of him.

30 They will say, 'This man began to build and was not able to finish!'

(NET Bible®)

Do not confuse Divine Providence with The Law of Attraction.

Altruistic Rewards

James 5:

16 So confess your sins to one another and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great effectiveness.

(NET Bible®)

1 Kings 11:

11 So the LORD said to Solomon, "Because you insist on doing these things and have not kept the covenantal rules I gave you, I will surely tear the kingdom away from you and give it to your servant.

12 However, for your father David's sake I will not do this while you are alive. I will tear it away from your son's hand instead.

13 But I will not tear away the entire kingdom; I will leave your son one tribe for my servant David's sake and for the sake of my chosen city Jerusalem."

(NET Bible®)

1 Kings 15:

1 In the eighteenth year of the reign of Jeroboam son of Nebat, Abijah became king over Judah.

2 He ruled for three years in Jerusalem. His mother was Maacah, the daughter of Abishalom.

3 He followed all the sinful practices of his father before him. He was not wholeheartedly devoted to the LORD his God, as his ancestor David had been.

4 Nevertheless for David's sake the LORD his God maintained his dynasty in Jerusalem by giving him a son to succeed him and by protecting Jerusalem.

5 He did this because David had done what he approved and had not disregarded any of his commandments his entire lifetime, except for the incident involving Uriah the Hittite.

(NET Bible®)

[See also 2 Kings 8:16-19]

Solomon asked for good judgment to judge the people of Israel, and was rewarded with riches beyond belief. But he was offered a wish in the first place because of the faithfulness of his father David. The first is a selfish reward for altruistic behavior; the latter is an altruistic reward for obedient behavior.

There are other examples in the Bible. The blessings of the Jews and Israelites come from Abraham’s faith. Sodom and Gomorrah could have been spared the price of great sin had there been a few righteous people in town. There is one incident where God threatens to destroy the Israelites en masse, but for the intercession of Moses. (I’ll leave you to look that one up for a homework assignment.)

Such altruistic rewards reward benevolence without tainting motives.

The Mistake of the Pharisees?

The Bible does indeed promise rewards for righteousness. But such is not the express path to riches. Tests and delays generally come first.

And I speculate (with much scripture to back it) that the rewards are not exactly payments for services rendered, but tests of responsibility which follow evidence of becoming the sort of being that should have power.

Now consider the attitude of one who expects Divine Providence to be a more fast-acting phenomenon, with payments in accordance to deeds done. Would this not inspire scorn to the unfortunate? And would it also not inspire deference to the rich and powerful – at least those who showed outward signs of proper religious practice?

Now consider Jesus’ criticisms of the Pharisees. Are they not a correction of this bad attitude?

If so, there is hope for the prosperous Christian. Just keep ever in mind that lack of prosperity need not be a sign of divine disfavor. And be very wary of Prosperity Gospel teachings.

Homework Assignment

  1. So, you don’t like the idea of limiting the Creator’s omniscience and omnipotence? Try this. Imagine a Creator who wants company; i.e, children. This would mean beings of similar power along with free will. Consider the dangers of a bad child granted such power. Now contemplate the tests/lesson of obedience, benevolence, and administrative competence while still mortal in this framework.
  2. Note that even the above scenario runs afoul of assumptions of omniscience and omnipotence. Two omnipotent beings is a contradiction. Then again, the inability of an omnipotent being to create another is also a contradiction. We have a strange loop.
  3. Run either theological scenario against Jesus’ parables.

Further Reading

  1. The Lonely God for some expounding on the speculative theology of Assignment 1.
  2. Godel, Escher, Bach – An Eternal Golden Braid for a discussion of strange loops.
  3. I meditate deeper on the subjects of omnipotence and omniscience in my chapter on Free Will – part of the Narrow Gate series.