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Reincarnation, Karma, and Life after Death

Do you have a choice regarding what happens after you die? Is reincarnation real? Is there life after death? What about karma?

By Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D.

Reincarnation and Karma - Life after DeathPeople 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 teach that the soul reincarnates in many different bodies, and approximately 25 percent of Americans believe it. Why are so many people drawn to reincarnation?

Reincarnation and Karma

Reincarnation offers hope to many. If we don't get it right in this life, we have another chance the next time around. Yet, even those who believe in reincarnation admit that the vast majority of humans do not remember their previous lives. How can we learn from our past mistakes if we cannot remember them? We seem to make the same mistakes over and over again. Given the moral failure rate of human history, do we have any reason to hope that we will get it right in a future lifetime?

Reincarnation also claims to insure justice. According to the law of karma (an unbending and impersonal rule of the universe), we get what we deserve in every life. Our good and bad deeds produce good and bad results from lifetime to lifetime. With karma, there is supposedly no unjust suffering, because no one is innocent. All suffering is deserved on the basis of bad karma. The baby born without legs deserved it, as did the woman who was raped. We all carry our karma into each life. There is no grace, no forgiveness, no mercy. Not only is this is not good news for those burdened down with the weight of a troubled conscience, but karma also conflicts with our moral sense that some suffering is undeserved and deserves our pity and our actions to alleviate it.

The Limitations of Reincarnation

Can reincarnation realistically offer hope and a sense of justice to a troubled world? And what comfort does it offer regarding the nagging problem of death? The law of karma is unmerciful. Yet the message of Jesus Christ is different. Jesus did not deny there is unjust suffering. He offered forgiveness for those who inflict it and comfort for those that experience it.

Jesus taught that no one can keep the moral law. The human heart is impure, given to wrong attitudes and actions which are offenses against a loving and absolutely good God. Jesus said he offers us forgiveness as our savior, himself paying for our offenses against God. Jesus spoke of people receiving either eternal reward or eternal punishment according to whether they accept his forgiveness during their ONE lifetime on earth (Matthew 25:31-46; see also Hebrews 9:27). Jesus explained that he came into the world "to seek and to save the lost" (Luke 19:10). 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).

Jesus showed his forgiving love even while being executed on a cross. A thief on a 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 faith in Jesus was required for paradise, not lifetime after lifetime of working off bad karma and building up good karma. As Jesus announced: "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 beyond.

To investigate further the life and teachings of Jesus, read the section called "Matthew" in the New Testament, or check out the feature Beyond Blind Faith. For more discussion on reincarnation check out the Q & A Forum.

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Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. teaches philosophy at Denver Seminary and is the author of Jesus in an Age of Controversy.

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