Why Jesus Instead of the Buddha?

Written by Harold Netland

In considering a Christian response to challenges from Eastern religions, two questions are especially significant: Does God exist? Who is Jesus Christ? Although we cannot pursue either question here, we will proceed by pointing out several respects in which Jesus is different from the Buddha.

1. The relation between Jesus and history in Christianity is different from the relation between history and Gautama in Buddhism. In 1960 the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich visited Japan, and in conversation with Buddhist scholars in Kyoto, he asked the following question: “If some historian should make it probable that a man of the name Gautama never lived, what would be the consequence for Buddhism?” The Buddhist scholars responded by saying that the question of the historicity of Gautama Buddha had never been an issue for Buddhism. “According to the doctrine of Buddhism, the dharma kaya [the body of truth] is eternal, and so it does not depend upon the historicity of Gautama.”{1} Whether Gautama actually said and did what is ascribed to him does not affect the truth of Buddhist teaching, which transcends historical events.

The same cannot be said about Jesus Christ. Christian faith is inextricably rooted in the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth. The apostle Paul unambiguously states that if in fact Jesus was not raised from the dead, then our faith is futile and useless, and we are still in our sins (1 Cor 15:14–19). Christianity is not merely a collection of religious teachings. At the center of Christian faith is God’s active intervention in history, revealing His purposes for the redemption of sinful humanity and then the provision of the means for our redemption through the incarnation in Jesus of Nazareth. What Jesus did on the cross and through the resurrection, and not simply what He taught, makes reconciliation with God possible.

Moreover, we have much greater access to the historical Jesus and the early Christian community than we do to Gautama and the early Buddhist community. Although we cannot treat here the issue of the historical Jesus, we should note that the gap in time between the death of Jesus and the earliest New Testament writings is much smaller than the time between the death of Gautama and the earliest written Buddhist texts.{2} Jesus was crucified in either AD 30 or 33. The earliest New Testament writings were written about AD 50 or 51, leaving a gap of only seventeen to twenty-one years from the time of His death to the first writings. Furthermore, we can be confident that the text of the New Testament today is the same text the early Christians accepted. New Testament scholar Paul Barnett states, “There still exist more than five thousand early manuscript copies of part or all of the New Testament in Greek. In addition, there are numerous early translations into Coptic, Latin, Syriac, Armenian, Georgian, etc.”{3}

By contrast, although there is little question that Gautama actually existed, there is considerable uncertainty about his life. Scholars are not certain even about the century in which he lived. The dates for his life are given as either 566–486 BC or 448–368 BC. The earliest Buddhist scriptures, which were primarily concerned with monastic practice, were not put into writing until sometime near the end of the first century BC.{4} Extant versions of the life of the Buddha did not appear until much later; the influential Buddhacarita (The Acts of the Buddha) was written around the second century AD. So, depending on the dates of Gautama’s death, there is a gap of roughly three or four hundred years between the Buddha’s death and the first Buddhist scriptures being written, with the versions of the Buddha’s life coming even later.

2. Jesus and the Buddha disagree on the question of God’s existence. The teaching of the Buddha is usually understood as ruling out the possibility of God’s existence. The Buddhist scholar Jayatilleke observes that if by “God” we mean a Supreme Being and Creator, then “the Buddha is an atheist and Buddhism in both its Theravada and Mahayana forms is atheistic. . . . In denying that the universe is a product of a Personal God, who creates it in time and plans a consummation at the end of time, Buddhism is a form of atheism.”{5} The Buddha made no claim to special inspiration or revelation from any divine source. If he was concerned about the question of the existence of God, this was a matter on which the Buddha remained silent.

By contrast, Jesus Christ was a strict monotheist who accepted the Old Testament understanding of Yahweh as the one eternal God, Creator of all that exists. Not only that, but Jesus identified Himself in a unique manner with the one eternal Creator God, resulting in the Christian understanding of the divine incarnation.{6}

3. Jesus and the Buddha disagree on what is the root problem plaguing humankind. The Buddha diagnosed the root problem as ignorance—ignorance about the true nature of reality and the impermanence of all things, which results in craving and attachment and thus the suffering of rebirth. Although he has much to say about the importance of doing what is right and avoiding evil, nothing in his teaching resembles the biblical understanding of sin. Nor is this surprising. For sin, according to Christian Scripture, is always an offense against a holy and righteous God, something conspicuously absent in Buddhism.

The difference here with Jesus is striking. According to Jesus our root problem is not ignorance but rather sin, the deliberate rejection of God’s righteous ways (Mark 7:1–22). Furthermore, although Jesus consistently called others to repentance, He never repented for any sin. He challenged others to point out any sin in His own life and claimed to have the authority to forgive sin (John 8:46; Mark 2:1–12).

4. Early Buddhism teaches that we are each responsible for attaining our own liberation, whereas the New Testament teaches that we cannot save ourselves. There is within the early teachings attributed to the Buddha a strong sense of the human individual being responsible for his or her own liberation. The Buddha proclaimed the dharma (true teaching) which results in liberation, and in this way he can be said to assist all sentient beings. But it is up to the individual to grasp the truth, to appropriate it, and thereby attain nirvana. Although later Buddhism did develop the idea of the bodhisattva who assists others on the way to nirvana, the Buddha himself seems to have regarded each person as responsible for his own destiny. The Buddhist scholar Walpola Rahula puts it this way: “If the Buddha is to be called a ‘saviour’ at all, it is only in the sense that he discovered and showed the Path to Liberation, Nirvana. But we must tread the Path ourselves.”{7}

The difference here with Jesus is unmistakable. According to the Bible, human beings cannot save themselves; we are utterly helpless and hopeless apart from the grace of God and the atoning work of Jesus Christ on the cross for us. What we cannot do for ourselves, God in Christ has done for us (Eph 2:1–10). Jesus thus called on others to believe in Him and to find salvation only in Him. Jesus does not merely teach the way; He claims to be the way (John 14:6). It is not simply that Jesus has discovered the way and the truth and that if we follow His teachings we too can find the way for ourselves. The Buddha, in effect, says, “Follow me and my teachings, and you too can experience the way leading to enlightenment.” But Jesus says more than that He has discovered the way to the Father and that if we follow Him and His teachings we too can find the way. Jesus makes the much stronger claim that in Himself He embodies the way, the truth, and the life. The truth of Jesus’ teachings cannot be separated from the grounding of this truth in the person of Christ as the incarnate Word of God. It is because of who He is and what He has done for us on the cross that He is Himself the way, the one Savior for all people in all cultures.

5. The Buddha, like Jesus and other great religious leaders, died, but there is no reliable historical record of any others—apart from Jesus—being resurrected after death. With the resurrection we come to the foundation of the Christian faith. Death—the ultimate symbol of sin, evil, and suffering—has been conquered through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Because of Christ’s resurrection, “death has been swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor 15:54 NIV). Both Jesus and Gautama were concerned with the causes of suffering. Gautama pointed to eliminating the causes of suffering by breaking the causal chain resulting in rebirth through eliminating desire (tanha). Jesus, by contrast, accepted upon Himself the causes of suffering, namely the effects and penalty of sin, in His death on the cross on behalf of sinful humanity. And in His victorious resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ broke the power of sin and death, providing hope for our own resurrection (1 Cor 15:20–22). While Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is central to Christian faith, it is not something that is to be blindly accepted apart from corroborating evidence. Significantly, the apostle Paul reminded King Agrippa that Jesus’ death and resurrection was publicly accessible, for “it was not done in a corner” (Acts 26:26 NIV). A recurring theme in early Christian preaching is the fact that the apostles and other Christians were witnesses to Christ’s being raised from the dead (cf. Acts 2:22–24,32; 1 Cor 15:3–8). The resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth sets Jesus Christ apart from Gautama and puts the Christian faith in a different category from Eastern religions.

Many have sought to emphasize the similarities between Jesus and Buddha in an attempt to affirm all religions as equally true. But in contrasting the actual teaching of Jesus and Buddha about the nature of God and reality, the root problem of humanity and its solution, and their own personal identities, the gulf is as wide as the east is from the west.

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1. See “Tillich Encounters Japan,” ed. Robert W. Wood, Japanese Religions 2 (May 1961): 48–71.

2. There is much discussion over questions about the historical Jesus. Helpful introductions to the issues can be found in Ben Witherington III, The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1997); C. Stephen Evans, The Historical Christ and the Jesus of Faith: The Incarnational Narrative as History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996); Paul Barnett, Is the New Testament Reliable? 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2003). On historical issues concerning Gautama the Buddha, see Donald W. Mitchell, Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002); Hajime Nakamura, Gotama Buddha: A Biography Based on the Most Reliable Texts, vol. 1, trans. Gaynor Sekimori (Tokyo: Kosei, 2000); and David Edward Shaner, “Biographies of the Buddha,” Philosophy East and West 37 (1987): 306–22.

3. Paul Barnett, Is The New Testament Reliable? 44.

4. See Donald Mitchell, Buddhism, 65.

5. K. N. Jayatilleke, The Message of the Buddha, ed. Ninian Smart (New York: Free Press, 1974), 105. On Buddhist critiques of the idea of God, see Paul Williams, “Aquinas Meets the Buddhists,” in Aquinas in Dialogue: Thomas for the Twenty-first Century, ed. Jim Fodor and Frederick Christian Bauerschmidt (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), 87–117.

6. On the New Testament understanding of Jesus and Jesus’ own self-understanding, see James R. Edwards, Is Jesus the Only Savior? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005).

7. Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, 2nd ed. (New York: Grove, 1974), 1–2.

© 2008 LifeWay Christian Resources

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