by Dr. John Ankerberg and Dr. John Weldon
In an era pregnant with tolerance for everything, some Christians have embraced Buddhism while numerous attempts have been made to "unify" Buddhism and Christianity by ecumenically minded members of both faiths. Friendly Buddhist and Christian encounters are the vogue on some university campuses. Through no fault of its own, however, "Christianity" is frequently the loser in such encounters. Thus, mainline Christians, who have no real comprehension of biblical Christianity but are fascinated by the alluring or mystical nature of Buddhist metaphysics, may leave their "faith" and become Buddhists. Or, they may maintain a rather odd mixture of both religions, one that is ultimately unfaithful to both. On the other hand, Buddhists who "accept" Christianity merely redefine it into their own Buddhism. Professor of Buddhism and Japanese Studies at Tokyo and Harvard Universities respectively, Masaharu Anesaki illustrates this by his assimilation of Jesus with the Buddha:
In short, we Buddhists are ready to accept Christianity; nay, more, our faith in Buddha is faith in Christ. We see Christ because we see Buddha.... We can hope not in vain for the second advent of Christ [that is] the appearance of the [prophesied] future Buddha Metteya.
Nevertheless, rather than seeking a "unity" among these religions, the truth is much closer to the gut feeling of Zen Buddhist D.T. Suzuki, who states, as he undoubtedly reflects upon the Buddhist concept of suffering: "Whenever I see a crucified figure of Christ, I cannot help thinking of the gap that lies deep between Christianity and Buddhism."
The truth is that purported similarities between Buddhism and Christianity are only apparent or surface. For example, many have claimed a similarity between Jesus Christ’s saving role in Christianity and the Bodhisattva’s savior role as given in later Buddhism. But these roles are entirely contradictory. In Christianity, "Christ died for our sins" (1 Cor. 15:3). This means He saves us from the penalty of our sins by taking God’s judgment of sin in His own Person. Jesus paid the penalty of sin (death) for sinners by dying in their place. Thus, He offers a free gift of salvation to anyone simply for believing and accepting what He has done on their behalf (Jn. 3:16). The central ideas involved in Christ’s saving role—God’s holiness, propitiatory atonement, forgiveness of sin, salvation as a free gift of God’s grace through faith in Christ, etc., are all foreign to Buddhism.
The Bodhisattva’s role of savior
is thus entirely different than that of Christ’s.
The Bodhisattva has no concern with sin in an
ultimate sense, only with the end of suffering. He
has no concept of God’s wrath against sin or the
need for a propitiatory atonement. He has no belief
in an infinite personal God who created men and
women in His image. He has no belief in a loving God
who freely forgives sinners. His only sacrifice is
his postponement of entering nirvana so that he can
help others find Buddhist enlightenment. Having
achieved self-perfection, the Bodhisattva could freely
enter nirvana at death. Instead, he chooses to
reincarnate again to help others attain their own
self-perfection and nirvana more quickly.
Thus, those who argue there is an
essential similarity between Buddhist and Christian
concepts of savior are wrong. In fact, at their
core, Buddhism and Christianity are irreconcilable,
as far removed as the East and West. Indeed,
virtually every major Christian doctrine is denied
in Buddhism and vice versa. We would therefore
suggest that a merging of the two traditions results
in a disservice to both.
For their part, Buddhists have
long recognized the differences between the two
faiths. The knowledgeable Buddhist is aware that the
doctrines and teachings of biblical Christianity are
an enemy rather than a friend, for Christian faith
openly teaches those things which Buddhists
reject as mere ignorance and/or as spiritual
hindrances; further Christianity openly opposes
those things which Buddhism endorses an essential
for genuine enlightenment.
For example, Christianity is
interwoven with the monotheistic grandeur of an
infinite, personal God (Jn. 17:3; Isa. 43:10-11,
44:6); Buddhism is agnostic and practically
speaking, atheistic (or in later form,
In Christianity, its central
teaching involves the absolute necessity for belief
in Jesus Christ as personal Savior from sin (Jn.
14:6; Acts 4:12; I Tim. 2:5-6); Buddhism has no
Savior from sin and even in the Mahayana tradition,
as we have seen, the savior concepts are quite
Christianity stresses salvation by
grace through faith alone (Jn. 3:16; Eph. 2:8-9);
Buddhism stresses enlightenment by works through
meditative practices that seek the alleviation of
"ignorance" and desire.
Christianity promises forgiveness
of all sin now (Col. 2:13; Eph. 1:7) and the
eventual elimination of sin and suffering for all
eternity (Rev. 21:3-4). On the other hand, Buddhism,
since it holds there is no God to offend, promises
not the forgiveness and eradication of sin, but
rather the elimination of suffering (eventually) and
the ultimate eradication of the individual.
Wherever we look philosophically,
we see the contrasts between these faiths.
Christianity stresses salvation from sin, not from
life itself (1 Jn. 2:2). Christianity exalts
personal existence as innately good, since man was
created in God’s image, and promises eternal life
and fellowship with a personal God (Gen. 1:26, 31;
Rev. 21:3-4). Christianity has a distinctly defined
teaching in the afterlife (heaven or hell, e.g., Mt.
25:46; Rev. 20:10-15). It promises eternal
immortality for man as man—but perfected in every
way (Rev. 21:3-4).
On the other hand, Buddhism
teaches reincarnation, and has only a mercurial
nirvana wherein man no longer remains man or, where,
in Mahayana, there exists temporary heavens or hells
and the final "deification" of
"man" through a merging with the ultimate
pantheistic-cosmic Buddha nature. But Christianity
denies that reincarnation is a valid belief, based
on the fact of Christ’s propitiatory atonement for
sin. In other words, if Christ died to forgive all
sin, there is no reason for a person to pay the
penalty for their own sin ("karma") over
many lifetimes (Col. 2:13; Heb. 9:27; 10:10, 14;
Consider further contrasts.
Biblical Christianity rejects pagan mysticism and
all occultism (e.g., Deut. 18:9-12); Buddhism
accepts or actively endorses them.
In Christianity life itself is
good and given honor and meaning; in Buddhism one
finds it difficult to deny that life is ultimately
not worth living—for life and suffering are
inseparable. Thus, in Christianity, Jesus Christ
came that men "might have life and have it more
abundantly" (Jn. 10:10); in Buddhism, Buddha
came that men might simply rid themselves of
In Christianity, God will either
glorify or punish the spirit of man (Jn. 5:28-29);
in Buddhism no spirit exists to be glorified or
punished. In Christianity, absolute morality is a
central theme (Eph. 1:4), in Buddhism it is
secondary or peripheral.
Buddhism is essentially
humanistic, stressing man’s self-achievement.
Christianity is essentially theistic, stressing God’s
self-revelation and gracious initiative on behalf of
man’s helpless moral and spiritual condition.
Thus, in Buddhism man alone is the author of
salvation; Christianity sees this as an absolute
impossibility because innately, man has no power to
save himself (Eph. 2:8-9; Titus 3:5).
We could go on, but suffice it to
say the form of romantic humanism that inspires
liberal religionists to see basic
similarities in the two faiths is no more than
wishful thinking. It is not utterly surprising,
however, that Western religious humanists would
promote Buddhism, for in both systems man is the
measure of all things (a god of sorts), even if in
the latter the end result is a form of personal
self-annihilation. But to the extent both are
humanistic, they compass the antithesis of
Christianity, whose goal is to glorify God and not
man (Jer. 17:5; Jude 24-25).
As far as knowing and glorifying
God is concerned, this is unimportant and irrelevant
to Buddhists. But biblically, to the extent God is
ignored or opposed, to that extent man must
correspondingly suffer. Here we see the ultimate
irony of Buddhism: in ignoring God, Buddhists feel
they can escape suffering; in fact this will only
perpetuate it forever. This is the real tragedy of
Buddhism, especially of so-called Christian
Buddhism. The very means to escape suffering (true
faith in the biblical Christ) is rejected in favor
of a self-salvation which can only result in eternal
suffering (Mt. 25:46; Rev. 20:10-15).