Is reincarnation fair?

As I was talking with a Spiritist at a recent event, he shared his beliefs about reincarnation with me.

(In another post, I started a discussion on the question, Does Jesus Teach Reincarnation?).

One aspect of reincarnation that I have struggled to understand is how it changes our attitude toward those who suffer.

So I gently asked him, do you think that poor people or disabled people are getting what they deserve?

He became very animated and said, 'Yes, absolutely. If you do not have a hand, it is because you misused it in a previous life! The poor are suffering because they were very selfish and greedy with their money in an earlier life. Now they get what they deserve!"

I wasn’t sure what else to ask at this point, so I said, “Can you explain more?”

I’m glad I did because he then explained how reincarnation motivates living ethically.

For instance, if you are convinced that using your hands for evil could mean that you are reborn without hands, it provides a very strong incentive not to misuse your hands!

One commonality I note between his point of view and mine is that we are both trying to answer the questions: Why is there suffering? and Why be good?

I happened to discuss this conversation with @alison, and she pointed out how it can feel better to have a clear answer to those questions, even if it is harsh, than to live in the mystery of not knowing why there is suffering or how being good works out.

When I was talking with the Spiritist, I shared with him that I believed God was far more merciful than the punitive approach of reincarnation. I said that I believed God made every person in his image, and he cared for us in our suffering. Rather than blaming us for our troubles, Jesus came to rescue us - both our sin, of course, but also our suffering.

I said that from my perspective, Christianity motivates me to be good because this is how I become whole and complete as a follower of Christ, and this includes relieving suffering.

However, one story from Jesus’ life that I wish I’d had in mind for this conversation is from John 9:1-5. We read,

As Jesus was passing by, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

"Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” Jesus answered. “This came about so that God’s works might be displayed in him. We must do the works of him who sent me while it is day. Night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

It’s revealing that the disciples also wonder who to blame for the man’s blindness: do they blame the blind man or his parents?

But Jesus is quite authoritative - and gripping - as he totally denies this interpretation.

J. Ramsey Michaels explains,

The blindness of this man, Jesus says, is not the result of someone’s sin but the occasion for God’s work in his life to be displayed. Like the person mentioned in 3:21 who “comes into the light,” the man born blind will demonstrate in his experience that he is God’s child. In coming (literally) from darkness to light, he is born again. His story is the case history of a Christian convert. At the beginning he is a beggar and an outcast in the old community of Judaism, and at the end he is a worshiper of Jesus (v. 38).

How remarkable! Jesus is so unusual. Where others see a blind man deserving condemnation, Jesus sees someone to heal and befriend.

I’m curious: How do you evaluate the “justice” of reincarnation? In what ways does believing in reincarnation ‘help’ people? And in what ways is it a flawed understanding?

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I’m interested by this person’s honesty regarding his beliefs in the moral payback in reincarnation. It won’t be an easy belief to explain to a lot of people. Reincarnation is essentially teaching that you pay for previous sins through suffering in the current life, or are rewarded for previous deeds of kindness.

A little observation that I just found in Jesus the Seer: The Progress of Prophecy by Ben Witherington III, was of how this idea of previous sin leading to suffering is not just one of Hinduism, New Age, or errant Judeo-Christian beliefs as in the examples of the Spiritist, or the disciples in John 9, but “the connection between virtue and health was widely assumed in the ancient Near East…the converse was also assumed.” This belief of the need for moral payment is probably inherent to all humanity at some level. Perhaps this is in its truest essence correct, and it is only Christianity that teaches that moral payment was covered by Jesus on our behalf.

It seems though, that the God of the Bible had always refuted this idea, even before the Gospel was clearly understood.

Witherington gives the example of the story of Elijah raising the widow’s dead son back to life in 1 Kings 17:17-24 where she grieves, saying,

Man of God, why are you here? Have you come to call attention to my iniquity so that my son is put to death?

About this, Witherington writes,

Another telling portion of this story is the refutation of the theology of cause and effect, which suggests that sickness and death are necessarily a punishment from God for some sin that has been committed…
The widow, then, becomes witness of the results of a mighty miracle of God that at once both refutes her theology of the nexus between sin and sickness and confirms that Elijah is indeed a man or prophet of a mighty God, one who speaks the truth about Yahweh. Ch 3 Courting the Prophets, 84-85

In answer to your question, I think the Bible highlights that on the one hand, sin demands justice, but on the other hand, humanity could never afford the payment. God works to deny the theology of cause and effect through scripture, pointing to the only true and just payment made by Jesus.

In reincarnation, person A who was born without hands as a consequence for committing sin in a previous life is not justice for person B whom they wronged. Person B who was sinned against in the previous life would not see any vindication or justice for their suffering. The only way I can see round this is to say that that person B was sinned against as a punishment for their sin against person C in their previous life too. And so the cycle goes on. Arbitrary suffering but no justice, no righting of wrongs, and no hope for escape or resolution.

I think that it’s significant that both the OT and the NT work hard to dispel this teaching, as you’re right, it’s not fair.

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Appreciate the perspectives shared. I agree with you and @alison that the response that poor and disabled get exactly what they deserve because of their own sin is a very dissatisfying answer to those living in that situation.

First, there is no correlation between spiritual maturity and material blessings. Suffering for something we dont even remember or understand is unhelpful in growing spiritually.

Second, a karmic explanation that links moral failures with a physical disability adds to emotional burden of the disabled and promotes social stigma that many disabled can experience in society.

Third, reincarnation poses philosophical challenges to adequately define injustice or empower one against injustice as described in this article. According to karma, negative events experienced by an individual that we perceive as unjust are actually consequences of prior actions. This view seems to undermine the very essence of injustice—it denies that something unfair has even occurred! We could risk overlooking systemic injustices and taking collective action.

Some may argue that to avoid accumulating bad karma, a reincarnationist could address injustice. This however raises another problem that it would contradict the reincarnationist premise of justice for sins being met through rebirth.

As for me, I think the cross of Christ takes care of these challenges in a beautiful way and provides answers for justice, human dignity and love. Justice is met through Christ who paid for all our sins. I don’t yet fully grasp it, but it is amazing how in forgiveness we find love. I love Jesus’s words in Luke 7:47. When we truly receive the forgiveness and grace of God for our sins, we are more likely to love and appreciate others in a profound way.

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