Evil, Logic, and Reincarnation (Groothuis and Zacharias)

The below is an extended example of the weakness of the pantheistic religions in describing reality and supporting THEIR OWN claims:


  • Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), 620-625.

4. The nonexistence of evil. One way to dispense with the problem of evil is to dispense with evil itself. This route is taken by various forms of pantheism, such as Advaita Vedanta Hinduism, Zen Buddhism, assorted New Age worldviews and mind-science churches such as Christian Sci­ence, Religious Science and Unity. Since all is ultimately divine, evil is unreal; it is only a problem of perception, and not a problem of objective reality. Pantheists hold that God “is beyond good and evil.” The difference between good and evil is apparent and not real.17 The more a person ap­proximates the divine Mind, the more these distinctions drop out of view. A sixth-century Zen poem puts it this way:

If you want to get to the plain truth
Be not concerned with right and wrong.
The conflict between right and wrong
Is the sickness of the mind.18

But consider this poem. It advocates “the plain truth,” which must be taken as objectively good. Otherwise, there is no reason to “get the plain truth.” The poem then offers an imperative: “Be not concerned with right and wrong,” because “the conflict of right and wrong is the sickness of the mind.” The imperative is a moral one, an injunction to “get the plain truth” by being unconcerned with the sick idea of moral conflict. The poem re­duces to this:

  1. There is no right and wrong that are in conflict with each other.
  2. One should not be concerned with right and wrong, since to be con­cerned with right and wrong is a “sickness,” which must be taken as wrong.

But statements 1 and 2 contradict each other and yield:

  1. If statement 2 is true, then statement 1 is false.
  2. If statement 1 is false, then there is a conflict between good and evil.

Despite its insistence that good and evil are illusions, pantheism still issues moral judgments and makes moral commands. As such, it is logi­cally and existentially inconsistent. These considerations should lead us to reject the idea that no objective evil exists.

5. Karma and reincarnation. Many believe that karma and reincarna­tion answer the problem of evil. The evils of this life cannot be justified if we have only one life to live. However, if we have lived before and will live again (reincarnation), the scales will balance out because karma (a law of moral assessment and administration) assigns rewards and punishments from lifetime to lifetime.19 Nevertheless, multiple problems dog this at­tempted response.

First, most forms of Buddhism and Hinduism, the two leading reli­gions that advocate karma and reincarnation, deny the existence of a substantial and personal soul (an individual, spiritual substance that en­dures through time, whether of a human or nonhuman being). Bud­dhism has many different schools, but all claim that the individual self does not exist (see chap. 23). The self is nothing but a name for a collec­tion of separable parts (skandas)—like a chariot that has no essence. There is no substance that binds the parts together in an essence. At death, the parts—which combined to form the illusion of a self—sepa-rate. If so, no personal self is available to be reincarnated, since there was no self to begin with. But if there is no personal being who exists from lifetime to lifetime, then there is no way for that being to experi­ence either good karma or bad karma, since the karma has nothing to work on.20

Hinduism displays a dizzying diversity of schools, but the form most popular in the West (Advaita Vedanta) also denies the existence of an in­dividual self.21 The one reality is Brahman, or the Absolute Self. Finite, individual selves are illusions of the unenlightened mind. Therefore—although its metaphysics of the self differs from that of Buddhism—Hinduism faces the same problem concerning reincarnation. Because it claims that Brahman is the sole reality, there are no individual selves avail­able to endure from lifetime to lifetime on which karma might attach with its various outcomes.

For there to be reincarnated subjects of karma, there must be indi­vidual, personal selves that endure and continue as themselves from life­time to lifetime. But Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta Hinduism do not affirm the existence of individual, personal selves. Therefore, these reli­gions cannot logically support the existence of selves that endure from lifetime to lifetime or which are subjects of karma. Therefore, these Eastern religions cannot logically support reincarnation. If this argu­ment succeeds, it not only demonstrates that they cannot solve the prob­lem of evil, it further shows that both religions propose essential truth claims that contradiction each other: (1) there is no self, and (2) reincar­nation and karma. Thus, both religions fail the test of internal logical consistency and are necessarily false.

Second, Buddhism and Hinduism cannot explain the system of karmic evaluation and administration. Both religions affirm that karma is a uni­versal system that evaluates the moral conduct of human beings and ad­ministers rewards and punishments appropriately. Even those versions of Buddhism and Hinduism that grant a personal deity do not claim that this deity administers the karmic system, which is deemed a brute fact. The system is thoroughly impersonal.

But how can an impersonal (meaning unconscious and nonagentive) system morally evaluate the worth of actions by human persons? Karma is a law akin to a natural law of science. G. R. Malkani, a Hindu, claims that karma “automatically produces the appropriate results like any other law in the natural domain. Nobody can cheat the law. It is as inexorable as any natural law.”22 But this law is nothing like any law of nature described by science. The law of gravity, for example, explains the regular behavior of physical objects. It has nothing to say about objective moral values; rather, it predicts the automatic reactions of material entities. But moral states are very different from material states because they are nonphysical and re­lated to human agents, who are not reducible to the physical realm, as ar­gued in chapter seventeen. When considering the moral value of an act (or attitude), we necessarily think of judgment or evaluation. Moral judgments require an evaluator, as argued in a chapter fifteen. However, the idea of karma does not include a moral evaluator of any kind. Therefore, the no­tion of karma is logically unsupportable. In addition, this problem ration­ally disqualifies the worldviews of Hinduism and Buddhism in toto, since both affirm reincarnation and karma as essential religious doctrines that turn out to be irrational and thus false.

But problems continue to mount because reincarnation and karma also require moral administration. The impersonal karmic system must meet out rewards and punishments universally and for all time to all sentient beings—a fantastically complex process of cosmic government. But it is government without a governor—a vast system of karmic coordination and implementation, but all without the benefit of a mind to plan the ad ministration or a will to implement it. Yet surely a personal and moral agent would be required for such a grand scheme of administration.

The Hindu and Buddhist doctrine of karma and reincarnation cannot solve the problem of evil, nor is their central teaching rationally warranted. Therefore, these religions are disqualified as rational worldviews.

Third, the doctrines of reincarnation and karma do not solve the problem of evil because they cannot explain the reality of evil. One of the engines of the problem of evil is innocent suffering. This is a vexing conundrum for any worldview, but karma does nothing to solve or allevi­ate it. According to karma, there is no unjust suffering. Everyone gets what he or she deserves, even supposedly innocent children. This should strike us as counterintuitive. As Paul Edwards points out, it would hardly be consoling to a mother grieving over a severely deformed child to be told by a reincarnationist minister that this death was morally deserved because of an evil committed in a previous life.23 Edwards suggests that if he were the mother and a baseball bat were available, he would clunk the person over the head and say, “You deserve your pain not because of a sin in a previous life but because you are a monster right now. You see that justice has prevailed.”24

Fourth, karma and reincarnation are not adequate responses to the problem of evil because they cannot insure that good wins out over evil in the end. The goal in Hinduism and Buddhism is to escape the realm of karma and reincarnation (samsara) and to attain enlightenment in an inef­fable realm beyond personality, individuality, morality and history (nir­vana for Buddhism; moksha for Hinduism). There is no final vindication of the cosmos and its beleaguered pilgrims. The cosmos and humanity it­self must be left behind because both are trapped in an endless cycle of futility. Life will not be redeemed; it must be obliterated. The contrast with the new heavens and new earth promised to Christians could not be more striking (see Revelation 21-22).

In conclusion, the Eastern systems of karma and reincarnation do noth­ing to solve the problem of evil. We must look elsewhere.

Thus far, I have eliminated five alternative strategies for explaining the problem of evil: atheism, a finite god, a morally impaired god, a world without evil and karma/reincarnation. We now explore ways to approach the problem from a Christian worldview.


(17) See Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 36.

(18) Quoted in Alan Watts, The Way of Zen (New York: Vintage Books, 1957), p. 115. See also pp. 107, 147 on the Zen’s denial of objective morality. Given my argument for objective morality in chap. 15, this fact alone is enough to disqualify Zen Buddhism as a true and rational world-view. See Harold Netland, Dissonant Voices (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), pp. 189-92.

(19) However, the goal of religions that hold to karma is not a world of perfect justice sometime in the future but the escape from the world of space and time and personality entirely.

(20) ‘See Paul Griffiths, “Apologetics in Action: Buddhists and Christians on Selves,” in An Apolo­getic for Apologetics (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1991).

(21) On the various schools, see R. C. Zaehner, Hinduism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983).

(22) G. R. Malkani, Philosophical Quarterly (1965): 43, quoted in Paul Edwards, Reincarnation: An Examination (New York: Prometheus, 1996), p. 39. This reference is to an Indian publication, not the more well-known Scottish journal of the same name.

(23) Edwards, Reincarnation, p. 45. Ibid.

Facebook Comments
Show Buttons
Hide Buttons