Christian Karma?

‘…Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied …’ 

These lines, found in the popular song, “In Christ Alone,” often strike me in an unpleasant way as I listen. The idea that God’s wrath must be satisfied is as revolting as it is unbiblical. Let’s keep it real here: the theology of Penal Substitutionary Atonement, that God must make people pay for sin, is really in my mind just a form of Christian Karma.

Side note-In the NASB, nowhere do the words “wrath”, “satisfied” or “appeased” appear together – The NASB is the most literal Bible Translation.

The book of Job tells an ancient story that captures perhaps the most common and deeply rooted religious assumptions of humanity about the basic posture of God or the gods toward humans. When evil and misfortune fall upon Job, his friends tell him that he must have sinned for these kinds of things to be happening to him. Suffering is punishment for sin. However at the beginning of Job, in the prologue, God declares that no one on earth is as righteous as Job.

All the most ancient religions seem to have similar beliefs that God/gods/or the transcendent forces of the universe reward creatures for good and punish creatures for evil. Essentially, bad things happen to bad people and good things happen to good people, and this is how the universe or the gods exact “justice.”

In the book of Job, all the main characters (Job and his three friends) share this same sentiment, that God must punish evil in order for justice to be served. By the end of the book of Job, God himself states that none of the people have spoken rightly about him, calling into question the notion that God is somehow required to punish evil in order to remain just or good.

Though we don’t know when Job actually lived, it was most likely between the time of Abraham and Moses, which was around the time that Vedism began to emerge and spread to India (around 1750 BCE) before later evolving into Hinduism.

Aside from the faith relationship that the Old Testament patriarchs had with God as recorded in the Hebrew Bible, and the various forms of primitive polytheistic beliefs that can be traced as far back as recorded history, Hinduism was the first major organized religious tradition to emerge in the Ancient World.

The earliest, most primitive religions and ideas of the sacred were all polytheistic and not organized into a religious system. All shared the idea that humans needed to placate or appease the gods in order to get blessings or avoid misfortune. If they didn’t do that, bad things would happen.

So the universally accepted picture of God or the gods was that they were reluctant to bless, but quick to punish, that all human acts of wrongdoing simply had to be punished tit-for-tat. This basic assumption that every bad deed had to be punished or paid for is essentially what the Hindu concept of “karma” is all about.

There’s a clear illustration of this widespread notion that all evil must be punished by the gods, and that all suffering is punishment from the gods, in the book of Acts. In chapter 28, Paul has just survived a shipwreck off the coast of Malta. While gathered around a fire with the locals, Paul is bitten by a poisonous snake. The locals, who were adherents of Greek religion, exhibit this karmic mentality when they say, “Undoubtedly this man is a murderer, and though he has been saved from the sea, justice has not allowed him to live” (NASB). In the Greek, the word ‘justice’ used here is the word, δίκη (Dike), which was the name of the goddess of justice in Greek religion. Dike was the daughter of Zeus, and according to scholar Ben Witherington, she “kept watch over injustices on the earth and reported them to her father, who dispensed final justice” (Commentary on Acts, pp. 778-79).  Witherington points out that the ancient Phoenicians also had an equivalent deity who functioned in the same manner.  This story clearly illustrates how entrenched the idea of justice as the punishment of evil by the gods was in many, if not all, ancient cultures, apart from that of the Hebrews. The Hebrews appear to be the one exception to this in that their concept of justice was not punitive but restorative.

The fundamental premise of Hinduism, is that there are many gods that inhabit both the intermediary realms between the world and the ultimate force behind everything, called Dharma. Hinduism states that Dharma must punish wrong-doing, and that the punishment occurs through karma, which is the explanation for all the bad things that happen on earth or to people.  Put simply, karma is the required punishment that the justice of dharma requires for all wrong doing.

The concept of dharma in Hinduism, translates this primitive idea into a more sophisticated idea, but the essence of it is still that the universe itself must and will punish all wrongdoing, therefore all bad things that happen are punishments for wrongdoing. People must pay in some form for justice to be served and the universe to be balanced. This is precisely what Karma is. Just punishment for wrongdoing.

The other major eastern religions all share this same basic belief.  And so apparently did Job’s friends, but as we have shown above, God himself rejects this theology.

Many Christians hold this assumption about God and what justice means in the Christian tradition. But is this an accurate theological understanding of the Bible and Yahweh? Does this correlate with the traditional understanding of atonement and Jesus’ death on the cross?

The premise that God must punish humans, or that Jesus’ death on the cross was a required payment to God to satisfy justice is a common assumption, but I argue, as many others do, that it is wholly unbiblical and not theologically honest. It is essentially “Christian Karma.”

There are many problems with this traditional belief (which by the way was not held by the Early Church). In fact the great author C.S. Lewis rejected the idea of penal substitutionary atonement in Mere Christianity, arguing that this view, known as Anselmic theory in its earliest development, is mistaken.

“According to that theory God wanted to punish men for having deserted and joined the Great Rebel, but Christ volunteered to be punished instead, and so God let us off. Now I admit that even this theory does not seem quite so immoral and silly as it used to; but that is not the point I want to make. What I came to see later on was that neither this theory nor any other is Christianity. The central belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start.” -C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity 

C.S. Lewis parallels Jesus’ death on the cross and shows how it is not about satisfying God’s wrath, but rather expressing the nature of God’s love, which is about defeating sin and freeing us from sin but not making someone pay for our sin (Theologian and author Brad Jersak summarizes the beauty and symbolism of the atonement in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. See article here ).

Many assume that God must punish and cannot forgive unless someone pays for the wrong … but this goes against the logic of forgiveness itself, which means precisely that a debtor is released from their debt without having to pay … BECAUSE the one wronged assumes the debt, which means he himself “pays it” by simply accepting and absorbing the loss himself.

The idea that God must make someone pay also goes against the teaching and example of Jesus on forgiveness, in which he repeatedly makes it clear that forgiveness is not something extended only if or after some payment is made, but something offered without any required payment.  Here are just a few examples:

Luke 23:34 – Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.  Jesus asks God to forgive those who were crucifying him, with no requirement of repentance on their part, and this is before his death was completed on the cross.

Mathew 18:21-22 – Then Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus *said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.  Jesus instructs his disciples to offer unqualified forgiveness on an unlimited basis to all others.

Matthew 18:27 – And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt.  Jesus tells a parable of a slave being forgiven a huge debt by the king, simply based upon the king feeling compassion.

John 8:10-11 – Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.”  A woman caught in adultery was about to be stoned for her sin, being made to pay the price for her wrongdoing.  Jesus extends unconditional forgiveness to the woman with no reference whatsoever to wrath or penalty needing payment.

So, why do so many insist that God can only forgive humans if a sin-payment is made, in spite of the fact that this goes against the logic / meaning of forgiveness as well as the teaching and example of Jesus?

Again, it reveals the deep-seated assumption of “karma” – that “justice” is a balancing of the scales of the universe where all wrongs are accounted for in the heavenly ledgers.  This is a misunderstanding of biblical “justice” … what if scale-balancing is not the heart of justice, but instead grace, mercy, and shalom are?

What if the scales are balanced another way, not by “two wrongs making a right” – i.e., I do something bad so something bad must be done to me … but instead by every wrong being countered by an equally weighty “right” or good … of which self-sacrifice, forgiveness, compassion and the like are the good?

What if justice and scale-balancing are about “overcoming evil with good”?

Christ’s death on the cross is certainly atoning … in ways we may never understand, it removes sin and guilt and frees us and reconciles us to God.

And it is certainly substitutionary … Christ fulfills the covenant for us, living our covenant life and dying our covenant breaking death in our place and representing us to God as our covenant representative.

But it is not in my view “penal substitution” … God making Jesus pay for our sin so that he can forgive us.  Forgiveness is the choice to NOT make someone pay a debt owed … it needs no prerequisite to “make it possible”, it is a free gift.  Karma is the age-old, mistaken idea that forgiveness cannot be offered for free and that all wrongs must be paid for and all guilt must be punished.  This is neither an Old Testament nor a New Testament idea but rather an ancient deception by God’s adversary to malign God’s character and to keep God’s people in fear and alienation from him.

It is my deeply held conviction that the theology of Job’s friends is detrimental to the true gospel of Jesus. I don’t believe God punishes us for sin and I believe the Bible rejects this theology, both in the Old Testament and in the full revelation of God through Jesus. These notions of God are condemned by God himself as a misrepresentation of his nature by the end of the book of Job, calling into question the fundamental assumption that God must punish evil and wrong-doing in order to be God. God’s justice setting all things right and making all things new. He restores, not punishes, his mercy triumphs over judgement. God desires our wellbeing, just like a father desires the wellbeing of his children.

We must to reject ‘Christian Karma.’ 

Jesus did not take a bullet from God, but from us. We killed Jesus.