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Buddhism and Christianity: Buddhist and Bible Teaching Compared

Buddhism and ChristianityHow does Buddhism compare to Christianity and the gospel of Jesus Christ? How does the Buddhist concept of gods compare to the God of the Bible? Should people use images (idolatry) in worship? 

What about Buddhist doctrine regarding reincarnation, karma, and nirvana? How does the teaching of Buddha about suffering compare to Christian doctrine? Should a Christian accept or oppose Buddhism?


Our purpose is to examine the doctrines of Buddhism and compare them to the Bible.

The History of Buddhism

Buddhism is an offspring of Hinduism, similar to Hinduism in many ways. It began in India in about the 6th century B.C., and from there it spread throughout Asia. Today it is found mainly in Japan, China, and the Far East. Relatively few people in India itself are Buddhists today.

The system was begun by Gautama Buddha (the title "Buddha" means "one who is enlightened"). He was born about 563 B.C., and raised in a very wealthy family where he was protected from problems and suffering. Later he was exposed to suffering and became concerned with the cause of it. At age 29 he left his wife and son to seek a solution.

He tried and rejected both Hinduism and extreme self-deprival (asceticism). After 6 years of seeking, he arrived at the system that became Buddhism. Eventually he spent his life as a wandering religious teacher.

Major divisions of Buddhism

Buddhists have tried to adapt their religion to the views of people converted from other religions. The result was that people could believe almost anything and be Buddhist. The differences within Buddhism can be likened, not to the differences between Catholics and Protestants, but to those between Christians, Jews, and Muslims. [WR 169]

We will examine two major branches of Buddhism:

* Theravada is the older, conservative wing that follows the original teachings of Gautama. These Buddhists are found mainly in Southern Asia - Thailand, Burma, etc.

* Mahayana is the newer, liberal wing of Buddhism. Those of this view refer to conservatives as the "little vehicle" and themselves as the "great vehicle" because they believe their views are more practical for most people. They are found mainly in central and northern Asia - Japan, China, Korea, etc.

Scriptures of Buddhism

* Conservative Buddhists (Theravada) have three groups of writings called "3 baskets" - the Tripitaka. It is eleven times the size of the Bible and is supposed to contain the sermons and doctrines of Gautama, but it was written centuries after he died. So, it is not an eyewitness account of his life or teachings. There is no such eyewitness account. All we have are traditions. [WR-170f; EB-IV-325f; BR-5,6,38]

* Liberal Buddhists (Mahayana) follow much more than the Tripitaka. Their Scriptures contain over 5000 volumes. Each sect emphasizes their favorite portions. Teachings of various parts of their Scriptures contradict one another. [WR-181]

(Note: Buddhism is similar on a number of points to Hinduism. As a result, this study often refers to our study on Hinduism. You can find that study online by referring to the links at the end of this study.)

Please consider the Buddhist teaching as compared to the Bible teaching regarding the following subjects:

I. God

A. Buddhist Teaching about God

"Some Buddhist schools have many Gods, others have none. ... The Buddha said it was more important to take steps to end your suffering than to follow endless discussions on the 'true' nature of God (and other such unanswerable questions)." -

The Conservative View [WR-177]

Gautama refused even to deny or affirm God's existence. He definitely denied that he himself was divine. Instead his teachings were designed to obtain relief from suffering. Original Buddhism involves neither faith nor worship, neither prayer nor praise nor forgiveness of sins. In that sense, conservative Buddhism is not really a religion but a moral philosophy designed to overcome suffering.

The Liberal View

Liberal Buddhists may not emphasize the concept of deity, as such, yet they do homage to Gautama Buddha, other Buddhist teachers, ancestors, and various deities that are equivalent to Hindu deities. They use images in their devotions, bow before those images, make offerings to them, and pray and chant to them. Whereas early Buddhism denied that Buddha was omniscient, many Buddhists now attribute omniscience to Buddha and other teachers.

The dictionary definition of "god" includes: "A being of supernatural powers or attributes, believed in and worshiped by a people... An image of a supernatural being: idol..." So the effect of Liberal Buddhism, regardless of terminology, is idolatry and polytheism.

[See WR-181f; EB-XIV-675; IV-326; and]

B. The Bible Teaching about God

God exists.

Whereas Buddhism originally affirmed nothing about God, not even His existence, the Bible says that the very existence of the universe demonstrates God's existence.

Psalm 19:1 - The heavens declare the glory of God; the firmament shows His handiwork.

Romans 1:20 - God's power and divinity can be seen through the things that are made.

Every effect must have an adequate cause. The only adequate explanation for the universe is that it was made by a Supreme Being, far wiser and more powerful than we are.

So, where Buddhism says nothing about God as Creator, the Bible uses creation - along with miracles, fulfilled prophecy, and Jesus' resurrection - as fundamental evidence for the true God.

(Note: For further discussion about the evidence for the Bible teaching about Jesus, see the links at the end of this lesson for our study lesson on Judaism.)

The goal of religion is for man to receive a right relationship with God.

Whereas Buddhism originally had nothing to do with God, the Bible says that serving God and having a proper relationship with Him is the whole point of true religion.

Ecclesiastes 12:13 - The whole duty of man is to fear God and keep his commands.

Ephesians 1:7-9 - The will and purpose of God was to redeem man by the forgiveness of sins through the blood of Jesus.

So, religion without God is as meaningless as an ocean without water or a meal without food.

There is only one supreme and true God.

(1) Whereas liberal Buddhism worships many beings, the Bible teaches there is one God, the God of the Bible.

Deuteronomy 6:4 - "The Lord our God is one Lord" (KJV).

Matthew 4:10 - "You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve." We must not worship many gods, nor any god except Jehovah. [2 Cor. 6:18; Col. 1:19-22]

(2) In particular, the use of images is forbidden.

Isaiah 42:8 - God refuses to allow anyone else to receive the glory which is due to Him. He refuses to allow His praise to go to graven images.

(3) Furthermore, man cannot be divine and cannot become God.

Ezekiel 28:2,6-10 - God brings a curse on any man who claims to be God.

So, the Bible contradicts both Conservative and Liberal Buddhism. The Bible teaches that God exists and that the purpose of religion is to please God; but there is only one God, graven images are forbidden, and man is not divine.

(Note: For more information about the multiple gods and the use of images in worship, see the links at the end of this lesson for the study on Hinduism.)

II. The Destiny of Man

A. Buddhist Teaching about Man's Destiny

"Buddhism teaches that ... all actions have consequences (karma). The consequences of acts undertaken in this and earlier lifetimes will be felt in a next one, in a process known as reincarnation. It is a Buddhist aim to educate oneself and meditate in order to escape from this cycle of rebirth, to enter Nirvana." - -

Rebirth (reincarnation)

So, Buddhists believe that, when a man dies, he will return to live as another person, animal, or god, etc. Conservatives believe that man has no spirit or inner part that lives after death, so only the consequences of past deeds (karma) continue from life to life. Liberals believe man's consciousness continues from life to life.

Karma (action)

Everything (good or bad) that happens to a man is the result of his conduct in previous lives. What happens in future lives is determined by his actions now. Nothing really results from environment, the acts of others, or the work of God. All is payment for what the person himself did.

Nirvana (release)

Conservative Buddhists believe that man's ultimate goal is to be released from the cycle of rebirth and suffering. This is a state of rest with no earthly desires. They take no position as to whether this state is conscious or not. Liberal Buddhists do believe in conscious bliss.

[WR-174-176,181; EB-XIV-675; EB-IV-326; BR-12-20]

B. The Bible Teaching about Man's Destiny

Man lives and dies (physically) only once.

Hebrews 9:27 - It is appointed to man once to die. [Ecclesiastes 12:7]

At Jesus' return comes resurrection: each spirit reunited with its own body.

James 2:26 - The body without the spirit is dead. Death is separation of the spirit from the body.

1 Corinthians 15:22,23 - All die as a result of Adam's sin; but as a result of Jesus, all live again. Resurrection is the opposite of death, so the spirit is reunited with the body.

We are resurrected as ourselves, not as another person, animal, etc. This resurrection occurs only once for each person, and all will be raised at the same time, when Jesus comes again.

Then comes judgment and eternal rewards.

Hebrews 9:27 - Man lives one life then dies. At Jesus' return, the spirit is reunited with the body and man is judged for his life. He never receives another life on earth nor another chance to please God after this life. We must obey in this life to have hope. [2 Corinthians 5:10]

Matthew 25:31-46 - At Judgment, the wicked go to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. So, we must serve God faithfully to receive His forgiveness and hope of eternal life.

(Note: Again, there is more detail about these concepts in the online article about Hinduism.)

III. Suffering

A. Buddhist Teaching about Suffering

"...the purpose of life may be said to end ... suffering" -

The Buddhist teaching regarding suffering is based on the "Four truths," which are:

1. Suffering is an essential part of life. Troubles are basic and inherent to life.

2. The cause of suffering is human desire.

Man suffers because he desires personal enjoyment and possessions, but especially because he desires to continue to exist as an individual, separate and distinct from others.

The highest destiny of man, according to Buddhism, is to cease existing as a distinct individual, and enter the state of Nirvana. Earthly life is an illusion, but man continues to desire it because of ignorance. This desire causes rebirth to other lives; and since life involves suffering, we continue to suffer.

3. The solution to suffering is to eliminate earthly desires, especially the desire to exist as an individual.

When desires are renounced and destroyed, rebirth will cease.

4. The steps to defeat these desires are the "Eightfold Path" (see under "salvation" below).

[WR-172ff; BR-24]

B. The Bible Teaching about Suffering

It is true that suffering is a part of life.

Job 14:1 - "Man, that is born of woman, is of few days, and full of trouble."

Job 5:7 - "But man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward."

This basically agrees with the first "truth" of Buddhism.

Our suffering may or may not result from our own wrong desires.

Genesis 3:16-19 - Death, suffering, pain of childbirth, and hardship in work all came into the world because man sinned. Sin is disobedience to God. [Cf. James 1:13-15; 1 John 2:15-17]

1 Peter 4:14-16 - Not all suffering results from our own sins. Sometimes we suffer because other people sin. Examples:

* 1 Peter 2:19-22 - Jesus suffered, though he was guilty of no sin.

* God's people are often persecuted by wicked people (Hebrews 11:32-38; 2 Corinthians 11).

Job 1,2 - The Devil causes some suffering as temptation to try to get good people to commit sin.

Whether physical desires are good or bad depends on how we fulfill the desires.

Where Buddhism says to eliminate natural desires, the Bible says that every natural desire has a good and proper way to be fulfilled.

Example: Hebrews 13:4 - Let marriage be held in honor by all. The natural desire for sexual fulfillment may be satisfied properly within marriage. But the Bible also warns that human desires can be perverted and lead to sin: Fornicators and adulterers, God will judge.

To illustrate, lead has good purposes. But when we put it in a gun and shoot someone, then we have perverted its purpose. It is the same with the body's natural desires. The proper goal of man is, not to eliminate all desires, but to learn God's will and control the desires accordingly.

[1 Timothy 4:1-4]

Individual existence is not bad but is an act of God's creation.

God Himself possesses distinct characteristics of personality: God loves, speaks, knows, wills, etc. [See again the article on Hinduism.]

Genesis 1:26-28 - People, male and female, exist as individuals on the earth because God so created us. He told us to multiply, thereby making more individuals.

Genesis 2:7 - God formed man and made him a living soul. Man's existence as a physical individual is not an illusion resulting from ignorance. In fact, we will always exist as conscious individuals, even when we have been raised from the dead (Luke 16:19-31).

To claim that it is bad to desire to be an individual is to blaspheme the work of God.

The way to overcome suffering is to trust God and serve Him.

By serving God properly we can endure suffering in this life.

Psalm 46:1 - "God is our refuge and strength. A very present help in trouble."

Psalm 34:19 - God delivers the righteous out of troubles. This does not mean He eliminates all our troubles, but He helps us to endure troubles and still serve Him faithfully.

Philippians 4:13 - "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me."

If we remain faithful, we will receive an eternal reward without suffering.

Revelation 21:3,4 - God rewards the faithful with eternal life with no pain sorrow, or death.

Ultimately, only God's word, not Buddhism, has the real solution to suffering.

[James 1:12; 2 Corinthians 4:16f; Matthew 5:10ff]

IV. Salvation (How to Reach the Ultimate Destiny)

A. Buddhist Teaching about Reaching Man's Ultimate Destiny 

"It's Up To Ourselves ... We are responsible for creating our own suffering, and it is solely up to us to create the circumstances for our release. ... A key belief in all Buddhist groups is the importance of meditation. ... Many Buddhists use meditation, mantras, and prayers alongside medicines to help heal themselves." -

Conservative Buddhists follow the "Eightfold Path" [WR-172,174,179; BR-24,27]

One must discipline himself to a way of life consisting of eight steps till earthly desires are eliminated. The idea is to avoid two extremes: avoid indulging in luxury and pleasures, but also avoid self-torture or depriving oneself of necessities.

The eight steps are: right views, right intentions, right speech, right conduct, right mode of livelihood, right effort, right awareness, and right concentration (meditation). Perfecting these steps requires great self-control over many lives. One must pass through four stages overcoming ten hindrances. Later stages require one to be a monk, abandoning family life. Gautama took at least 550 lives to achieve perfection.

This process depends entirely on human effort without divine aid (remember, conservative Buddhism has nothing to do with God).

Liberal Buddhists teach various methods of salvation. [WR-182,185; EB-XIV-675]

A favorite concept among liberal Buddhists involve Bodhisattvas. These are people who earn perfection (as above), but postpone Nirvana in order to provide salvation for others. Other Buddhists can obtain Nirvana by honoring, praying, and repeating the name (mantra) of their favorite Bodishattva. In this way his merit is transferred to them.

Zen Buddhism is much like Transcendental Meditation. [WR-186f]

B. Bible teaching about Reaching Man's Ultimate Destiny

Man cannot save himself without God.

Buddhism says people must achieve salvation themselves without God. The Bible says no man can earn salvation, but God must forgive our sins by His grace.

Ephesians 2:8,9 - This passage is misused by some to teach that man does not need to do anything to be saved. But the real point is that salvation comes by faith in God, not by earning salvation (and so being able to boast).

Romans 6:23 - What our lives earn is death. After that, nothing we could do could save us without God's forgiveness.

[Romans 11:6; 4:1-8; Titus 3:4,5]

Jesus is the only Savior.

Liberal Buddhism says some men can save other men. The Bible says no man can save himself, nor can anyone else save him except Jesus.

Romans 3:23 - All men have sinned. How can another man who sinned die to pay the penalty for my sins? He deserves to die for his own sins. But Jesus was the sinless Divine Son of God who died for our sins (1 Peter 2:21-24).

Acts 4:12 - There is salvation in none other. There is no other name given among men in whom we must be saved.

John 14:6 - Jesus said, "No one comes to the Father except through Me."

[Hebrews 9:28]

Each individual must himself meet the conditions for forgiveness.

No one can be saved by the merits of any one else. All must accept the same conditions.

Acts 10:34,35 - God is no respecter of persons; in every nation, he who fears God and works righteousness will be acceptable. [Romans 2:6-11]

Acts 2:38,39 - Those who repent and are baptized will be forgiven. This promise is for all.

2 Corinthians 5:10 - Each person will be judged for his own life. No one else can meet the conditions for you.

1 Corinthians 9:25-27 - Having been forgiven, we must exercise self-control, and bring our bodies into bondage in order to serve God faithfully. [Acts 3:22,23; Romans 12:1,2]


How can one know Buddhism is valid? 

" hear a teaching that makes sense to you, find through experience that it relates positively with your psychological makeup, get a real taste of it through practice, and adopt it as your spiritual path - Lama Yeshe" - 

No proof is offered. Just try it to see if you like it, then judge it by your own human wisdom.

In contrast, the gospel offers evidence: fulfilled prophecy, miracles, and Jesus' resurrection. It offers the only true sacrifice to forgive sin by the death of the Son of God. To receive this benefit, we must trust Jesus and obey Him in this life.

Sources Cited

[BB] - "Buddhism Beliefs," 

(May 24, 2012)

[BR] - The Buddhist Religion: A Historical Introduction, by Richard H. Robinson and Willard L. Johnson, 3rd edition; Wadsworth Pub. Co., Belmont, CA, 1982

[EB] - Encyclopedia Britannica, articles on "Buddha" and "Mahayana"

[WR] - "Buddhism," by Bentley-Taylor and Offner, an article in The World's Religions, edited by Norman Anderson.

To see the evidence that the Bible and the gospel of Jesus are the true revelation of religion, see our article on that subject on our Bible Instruction web site at /instruct/.

(C) Copyright 2003, 2012,David E. Pratte;
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Topics for further Bible study

Evidences for God, Jesus, & the Bible
Evidence for Jesus' Resurrection
Hinduism vs. Christianity
Judaism and the Gospel of Jesus
The Inspiration of the Bible
The Preservation of the Bible
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