Heaven vs nirvana
Published: 23 September 2017 (GMT+10)
In today’s feedback, Ryan B. from the United States asks whether Christianity could’ve gotten its idea of Heaven (i.e. the New Heavens and Earth) from the Buddhist notion of nirvana.
Hi CMI. I was reading the article Buddha, science and Jesus and the author stated ““But according to Buddha, love is one of the nine fetters which hinder enlightenment. Love produces desire and attachment which lead to karma which leads to suffering.” However, I heard from another Buddhist that it’s not desire that causes bad karma but “cravings” or bad desires I guess you can say. Also I read the article Buddhism by Dr Carl Wieland and he states that Nirvana is a state of total oblivion. However, I think it was a commenter A.M on the bottom who pointed out a few inconsistencies in the article and the oblivion definition.
I looked into the Buddhist definition of nirvana and most Buddhists said it was a state of blissfulness or no desire/cravings, which brings me to my next question. Is it possible that the idea of heaven could have been taken from Buddhism since Buddhism formed before Christianity? I am a Christian btw but I have been struggling with the competing religions lately. Regards Ryan.
CMI’s Shaun Doyle responds:
It would be ill-conceived to identify Buddhist notions of ‘craving’ with the biblical notion of ‘evil desires’. ‘Cravings’ in the Buddhist tradition are fetters to be released from, not sins that people deserve to be punished for. Karma is an impersonal principle, and is nothing more than ‘the law of cause and effect’—it ultimately has nothing to do with moral praise and blame. Compare this to Genesis 3. The Curse was not a mere effect of the Fall; it was judgment for the Fall into sin. God was not bound by some impersonal law of cause and effect to enact the specific punishments on Adam and Eve that He did. While no doubt the punishment had to fit the crime, God had freedom to choose from a range of suitable punishments He could’ve enacted. It was an issue of command and moral consequence, not a mere issue of cause and effect.
The problem with Christian love for Buddhists is that entails attachment to the really existing persons we experience. Christian love is not a detached beneficence seeking release from our experience. It is right to be attached to our spouses, children, families, friends, churches, etc. because all people reflect the dignity of our Maker, however obscured that dignity may be by sin. It is right to crave kinship. It is right to mourn the dead, and anticipate reuniting with our Christian family. And most importantly, it’s right to crave God (Psalm 42:1).
Ultimately, why are these sorts of cravings right? God says so. God is the ultimate good, and reveals His character to us though His commands (e.g. Mark 12:29–31) and His mighty acts. This is the power of the all-good God who creates everything purely by His powerful Word, as Genesis 1 teaches. (See Physicists: The universe had a beginning and Process theism and creatio ex nihilo.) God is real, and He graciously grounds the reality of everything distinct from Himself, including the spacetime world we experience. God thereby grants creation an eternal significance that even the transitoriness and frustrations of ‘life under the sun’ cannot destroy. Buddhism (like other forms of eastern mysticism) rejects this because it denies the reality and fundamental goodness of creation. (See Did God create time?, What’s wrong with Hindu pantheism? and Mission not impossible!)
On the depiction of nirvana in The Dalai Lama, the Templeton Prize and Buddhism, “total oblivion” was an approximate description of nirvana, and perhaps an assessment of it from a Christian perspective, not a definition: “According to Buddhist authorities, this is not a heaven or paradise, but more like total oblivion [emphasis added].” In the comments of that article, A.M. goes on to describe nirvana as “pure awareness—unconditioned state”. However, nirvana is not our awareness, since “it refers to the absolute extinction of individual existence” (a quote used in the article from a Buddhist authority that A.M. affirmed).
The fundamental point of Buddhism is that everything we perceive, including our own self-consciousness, arises from a multiplicity of interdependent causes (called Pratītyasamutpāda). This web of interdependent causality is what binds and blinds ‘us’ to the truth of nirvana. The result of this interdependent web of causality is the never-ending cycle of suffering and rebirth called Saṃsāra (often termed ‘the wheel of Saṃsāra’). As such, the goal in Buddhism is to realize that this web/cycle of interdependent causality, which includes even our very selves, is nothing but mere perception/illusion. This realization usually takes place by targeting the ‘weakest link’ in the chain of interdependent causes binding us to the wheel of Saṃsāra. What are these? The first three of the Four Noble Truths supposedly tell us. They are, roughly:
- All of life is eventually sorrowful
- Craving causes sorrow
- If craving is stopped, sorrow is stopped.
Stopping the craving stops the whole wheel of Saṃsāra, breaking the cycle of suffering and rebirth to achieve nirvana—pure awareness. Different strands of Buddhism have different solutions to this basic ‘blindness’ problem, such as strict adherence to the Buddha’s teaching (i.e. the fourth of the Four Noble Truths, which is the Eightfold Path), or faith in bodhisattvas (people who can attain nirvana but ‘stay behind’ to help free others from their suffering) who can vicariously resolve one’s karma.
It should also be pretty plain why nirvana is nothing like the Christian conception of Heaven and Hell, and why it’s impossible that Christians took the notion of Heaven from Buddhism. In Heaven and Hell, people continue to exist as individuals, and they do in relation to others and to God (positive in Heaven, negative in Hell). Moreover, even the body will persist for eternity—we believe in the resurrection of the body (Romans 8:11, 1 Corinthians 15:20) (see Will the New Heavens and Earth be physical?). The key aspect preserved in Heaven and Hell that is denied in nirvana is the notion of eternal personal relations. And it presupposes that we can know that these persons really exist, whereas in Buddhism these are all illusions.
For more information, I highly recommend our book Christianity for Skeptics, which addresses the issue of competing religions, including Buddhism, in greater detail.