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Feedback archiveFeedback 2017

Heaven vs nirvana

Published: 23 September 2017 (GMT+10)
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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:

  1. All of life is eventually sorrowful
  2. Craving causes sorrow
  3. 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.

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Readers’ comments
gabriel S., South Africa, 27 September 2017

The article as well as comments make for interesting reading!

Regarding heaven, the point, as stressed by Shaun is the issue of ‘relational’.

Everybody stands in a relationship to Christ, it is an eternal relationship; either you are in Him [‘in Christ’ – a much used term by Paul] or outside Him. This eternal relationship is of God’s choosing – see John chapter 17, and we cannot earn or in any way contribute to this, which does not mean we have no obligations as soon as we are aware that we are chosen.

But back to relationship. As soon as your relationship to Christ manifests in the fact that He has saved you from the consequences of sin and now you are in a righteous relationship with the Triune God, this relationship becomes an ever intensifying reality, so much so that Paul states : “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain” [Philippians 1:21], culminating in being one with God, John 17:21 “That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.”

This ‘oneness’ with God is something every Christian should strive for, it is the perfect culmination of the Christian’s relation with his Creator; something we see here in Psalm 17:15 “As for me, I will continue beholding Your face in righteousness (rightness, justice, and right standing with You); I shall be fully satisfied, when I awake [to find myself] beholding Your form [and having sweet communion with You].” AMP. My native tongue, Afrikaans translates the state of opening your eyes in the presence of God as being ‘versadig’ or totally and comfortably filled – like after a good meal – with His image.

David B., Canada, 24 September 2017

On a side note, why do we even call it Heaven? I have recently started studying Greek and it is called οὐρανὸν (Ouranon) in Greek. The shocking part is that, until I read it in the Greek, I had never heard the word uttered.

My question is, why has the church, and all the preachers I have ever heard, expunged this word from the lexicon? Most of them can read Greek and I assume they study for their sermons in Greek, yet they never use this word even as a trivial reference

Shaun Doyle responds

'Heaven' is the best English rendering of the Greek ouranos, which can refer to the sky, or the place of God's special presence (which is why we have extended the use of 'heaven' to the eternal state, since God will be specially present there). At any rate, I prefer to call the eternal state of the righteous 'the New Earth', 'The New Heavens and Earth', 'the eternal state', or even 'the resurrection age', since 'Heaven' tends to connote a disembodied final state for us, which is false (see The New Earth and Will the New Heavens and Earth be physical?). But, the commenter used 'Heaven', and it's a convenient one-word contrast to 'nirvana', which is why I used it.

Barbara A., United States, 23 September 2017

As a “Christian” I believe that the entire Bible is God’s story – from Genesis to Revelation. I believe that the one true God has always existed; placing him outside of time, before the creation of the heavens and the earth.

As we read in the first book of the Old Testament exactly who created the heavens:

GENESIS 1:1 “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”

And again we read:

GENESIS 2:4 This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.

And, then, in the New Testament, the Apostle John, writes in John 1:1-4 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.

The Word (God) became flesh (Jesus Christ).

Jesus, the Christ, our Savior. was with God in the beginning and all things were made through him. Nothing preceded Jesus. The heavens were created by the one true God long before the birth of The Buddha (born as Prince Siddhartha).

We who call ourselves Christian, true believers, are challenged to continually study and understand God’s word and to examine everything else in light of what the Scripture tells us.

Laurie S., New Zealand, 23 September 2017

The book "I once was a Buddhist Nun" by Esther Baker is an amazing story of how this former Nun realised there was no way anyone could empty themsleves of everything so this Nirvana objective was impossible to reach. Simply a man-made idea. Consciousness still exists no matter how hard one tries.

One day she saw a perfect cross shadow against her 'cell' wall and this awakened her desire to find out about Jesus Christ. The result was that book. Buddha was only ever a man. He is not God, never was (he himself apparently said so), therefore he can do nothing - because - he is dead! - and was never born again.

It is a great book and well worth a read. It has support from Jackie Pullinger also.

Dan B., United Kingdom, 23 September 2017

Good response; Shaun could also have addressed the assumption that Buddhism is older than Christianity. Another feedback correspondent some time ago said something similar about Hinduism and the respondent (I think Lita Cosner?) pointed out that in terms of ultimate origins Hinduism isn't older after all. Since Buddhism derives from a general Hindu milieu, the same point applies.

Shaun Doyle responds

Thank you for your encouragement. And Miss Cosner has commented on this in relation to Hinduism: Hinduism and other religions. Of course, in an important sense, Buddhism is older than Christianity, since Siddhartha Gautama lived 400-500 years before Christ. But biblical religion/faith goes back to Day 6 of Creation Week, and we have messianic hope right from Genesis 3:15. So, ultimately, faith in the one true God is older than any other religion.

However, these facts are only mildly relevant to the question at hand. Since nirvana and Heaven are such different (and practically unrelatable!) concepts, they almost certainly arose independently of each other, regardless of their origins. In other words, it's as hard to derive nirvana from Heaven as it is to derive Heaven from nirvana.

Philip M., Australia, 22 September 2017

No doubt all would agree that the thrust of the article, in demonstrating the contrast between christianity and buddhism and that nothing in the former derives from the latter, is a good one. But I do think exception needs to be taken with the statement: “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.”

All would no doubt agree that the punishment must fit the crime, but the gravity of the crime was such that no other choice existed for God. God’s pronouncement of death upon man in the garden had in view His judicial ending of the first man forever, in the death of Christ on the cross.

The first man has been totally superseded by the second Man, which could only occur by way of death of the first (and which occurred judicially at the cross). God had no choice. To make way for the establishment of second Man, the first man must end in death. There is no other way to end him.

Shaun Doyle responds

While death was definitely a suitable punishment for the Fall (and the best I can think of), I'm not confident enough in my understanding of what God could've done in this scenario to say God had to use death. At any rate, if you disagree, that's fine; nothing really hinges on this point.

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