The Concept of Suffering Compared and Contrasted in Buddhism and Christianity

What causes pain and suffering in the world? Buddhism (ca. 500 B.C.) and Christianity have the same answer: human desire. However, while it may seem that a nickel held up to the moon with one eye squinted shows a similarity in size, the differences between the two things is literally worlds apart. So it is between Buddhism and Christianity.

The main purpose and reason for the existence of Buddhism is to provide an explanation and a solution to the problem of pain and suffering. At the age of 29, the sheltered Siddhartha Guatama (or the “Buddha”) was for the first time exposed to physical aging, suffering, and death in the world. This traumatic experience led him through years of personal searching and striving for enlightenment. Allegedly, while sitting under “the Bodhi tree” he allegedly became enlightened and discovered the reason and solution to suffering.

In “The Four Noble Truths” of Buddha, the first noble truth says that life is suffering. That is, life is uncertain and unsatisfactory. Nothing is permanent. If you are happy today, you will not be at some other time. The second “noble truth” is that suffering is caused by desire (or tanha, “thirst”). We all want things. We want material things, we want emotional or moral things, and we all want some things to be different. We can get some things, but even these after time will change and we lose them. Buddhism says this causes suffering. Desire and suffering cause one another (the doctrine of “Dependent Co-Arising”).

Buddha’s answer to this (which led to his “enlightenment”) was to end all desire. This was Buddha’s third noble truth. If you do not desire things or do not desire reality to be a certain way, then you cannot be disappointed by it. One should learn to just accept reality as it is. The fourth “noble point” is to give up all desire, and one does this by following the “Eight Fold Path,” essentially eight principles for “right” thinking and conduct. The end goal of this is to arrive at “enlightenment,” or Nirvana. There is a very important “truth” to recognize in order to achieve Nirvana.

The key to arriving at Nirvana is to recognize the truth that there is no such thing as a ‘self’ or ‘soul’ (the doctrine of “Anatta”: no self). “You” are nothing but a collection of elements, together now, but soon will just fall apart (a huge inconsistency with the Buddhist teaching of reincarnation). This idea of “no self” is central to Buddhist teaching. The way to free one’s self is to give up all desires, hopes, and ideas (or opinions). You must realize that “you” are of no real importance; “you” have no real meaning, purpose, or future after death. Thus recognizing your ultimate unreality is the key to achieving Nirvana (unconditioned reality or nothingness).


Here I want to offer what I consider the Bible’s answer to the cause of suffering and also with that offer a contrast and critique of the Buddhist concept. Buddhism is so riddled with internal inconsistencies and contradictions that space here prohibits me from pointing them out. It is essentially an unintelligible religion, serving as irreversible evidence of its man-made, man-imagined, philosophy, which is nothing other than pure idolatry. The same is true of Hinduism, the parent religion from which Buddhism came.

The first Noble Truth of Buddhism said that life is suffering. The Bible says that God originally created life to be enjoyed and cherished. It is not a negative as it is in Buddhism. The second Noble Truth said that suffering is caused by desire, or want for things. The Bible teaches that suffering is also caused by desire, but in a radically different way. But to show this, consider the following: “Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members? You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain” (James 4:1-2). The Greek word for ‘desires’ here is where our English word ‘hedonism’ comes from. Paul said that before we were saved, we were “sons of disobedience, among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others” (Eph. 2:3). Unbelievers are described as “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Tim. 3:4; cf. also Jude 18). Thus the Bible also teaches that suffering comes through desire. But the titanic difference between Buddhism and Christianity is one thing—God. Buddhism thus has the exact same problem unbelievers have in trying to develop a system of morality or rules for living. They can’t. Oh they develop systems all right, but the key is that they have no foundation to justify why we should or should not do anything. God alone makes all the difference. And not just any old god or Supreme Being, the distinct nature and attributes of the biblical God—the true and living God—is what we need to have ethics; or they are the necessary conditions for a sufficient morality. Apart from the true God, there is no right or wrong, good or evil…there is no “sin.”

Buddhism has no God; it atheistic. Like many pagan religions and philosophies, Buddhism says that our problem is simply that we are human: all desires are harmful. The Bible says that our problems began in the Garden of Eden. God gave Eve (as with us all) the world to enjoy. Desires in general were not evil, but good and encouraged. However, God gave one prohibition not to eat of one particular tree (Gen. 2:16-17). We all know the story; she was deceived and disobeyed God. Eve desired the wrong thing. Genesis says that the serpent cast doubt on God’s word to Eve and lead her to want what God forbid. James says, “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (1:14-15). The key word for our study here in this last verse is “sin.” Sin is lawlessness or transgression against the commands and words of God, the moral arbitrator of reality. “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate” (3:6). They fell, and we too went down with them (cf. Rom. 5). We are all born now with perverted natures that desire sin.

Thus the Bible condemns, not all desire, but evil desires that want what God forbids, or forbids what God commends. For example, Colossians 3:5 says, “Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” Notice in this passage that “evil desire” is sandwiched between sexual immoralities and covetousness, indicating that evil desire here is not just dealing with sexual immorality, but anything that runs contrary to the revealed will of God. This is what the Bible condemns and says we are to shun.

What is the solution for evil desire? Well, there are many and in some future installments we will explore them. But the basic answer the Bible gives is found back in the verse we just looked at: “Therefore put to death [mortify, KJV] your members which are on the earth.”

Buddhism is against desire in general; Christianity is against some desires. Buddhism says wanting things is wrong or more accurately, harmful to others and to our achieving Nirvana. Christianity says wanting some things is wrong and wanting some things is right. The key to living life is not to kill desire in general, but to kill the right (or wrong) desires. In its quest to kill desire, Buddhism essentially kills our humanness. Buddhism is profoundly anti-human. It is the result of man trying to self-purify himself of the guilt of his conscious and the consequences of sin. It is self-styled salvation. I saw a photograph one time of the Dalai Lama (I think posing with Richard Gere), and he had circled burn marks all over his arms. Buddhism markets itself as a harmonious and enlightening religion, but in reality it is little more than fallen man’s self attempt to expiate himself or herself from the guilt and consequences of sin. Buddhism says that the problem of man is not sin, but a lack of knowledge. This is nothing new, and might be the primary characteristic of the majority of pagan religions and philosophies even up to our own day with social liberalism and secular humanism.

Buddhism is intensely self-centered. The goal of enlightenment (their version of “salvation”) Buddhism is passive; it does not seek to change the nature of things because there is no point to anything because there is no underlying reality and no archetype design and purpose for reality. Thus Buddhism usually is of little value to actually getting out and helping overcome the social ills and evils. Much more could be said about this, but the purpose here prohibits this.

There is no purpose to suffering in Buddhism, there are many in Christianity, but the overall reason for all is the glory of God. Further, suffering has no real purpose or design in Buddhism. But in Christianity suffering is part of the overall will of God (see Eph. 1:11). Peter says, “Therefore let those who suffer according to the will of God commit their souls to Him in doing good, as to a faithful Creator” (1 Pet. 4:19). There is a purpose even we don’t always understand or like it.

In our next installment we will examine very carefully the nature and cause of temptation, which the Bible says happens when we are led away from God by our evil desires. For personal application on mortifying the flesh you might want to read John Owens’s famous work, The Mortification of Sin, available free at monergism.com.


R.J. Welch said...


I'm a Christian and your view on Buddhism, suffering and desire is highly simplistic and completely misinformed. Actually...it's wrong.

Nickname unavailable said...

I have to second this above opinion, it appears as though you have not really studied anything about Buddhism other than a brief entry in a dictionary. It comes off as you are just very attached to the assumptions of your own tradition, as 'reasons' that somehow refute positions you don't actually understand, more of like an emotional reaction than rational analysis. There is much more similarity than you think, and the differences are bigger as well.

So, for starters, Buddhism talks of three kinds of suffering, one is the suffering of change (impermanence), gross suffering (negative, painful experiences), and a subtle type of suffering that is a property of the state of samsara, (i.e. not having attained realization). All three of these have analogues in the Christian tradition. For example, dust to dust, ashes to ashes, etc. The bible makes use of impermanence as a tool to bring about humility, to give up one's own self clinging for the worship of God. Buddhists look at impermanence as the inherent condition of unenligtened mind, and also use it as a way to break down the stronger clinging to the self, as that is what causes suffering. The more clinging to the self, the greater the suffering. Christians think in a very similar way with the idea of "Let go and let God". Most of the stories in the Old Testament seem to be about dropping one's own fixation on happiness to serve God. In that way, it is the same as Buddhism, except they don't postulate the absolute truth to be a being, but rather refuse to conceptualize any kind of entity. To a buddhist, it would be 'idolatry' to conceptualize characteristics of the absolute, since the absolute would necessarily be beyond any kind of limitation. Other traditions tend to misinterpret this as nihilism,when actually it is just a commitment to being free of extremes of nihilistic or eternalist concepts, since both of those are just mental fabrications from a buddhist perspective. In Christian theology, there are logical problems that arise when one asserts characteristics that come along with having a Being as the absolute truth. For example, to have a being that is 1)omniscient, 2) omnipotent, 3) benevolent creates a logical hiccup when the fact of suffering is given. Two of these can easily be met, but it puts a strain on the third premise. If there is suffering, then this being must either 1)not know about it, 2)not be able to stop it, or 3) doesn't actually want to stop it. Otherwise, why does it happen? If the being is benevolent, then surely he wouldn't want there to be suffering. If it isn't his doing, then it is our doing, which begins to sound like Buddhism. But how is it our doing if he is omnipotent? then maybe he isn't fully omnipotent. but then how can he be the Absolute without being omnipotent? Does he divide himself into one part that knows and another part that doesn't (i.e. humanity?). well, that is what some Hindus think. So, you see, the Buddhist approach of not designating a being as the Absolute, but rather, refusing to attach any limitation through conceptulizing the attributes of the absolute, avoids this logical complexity.

Anyway, back to the point of suffering. Karma is the chief force behind the Buddhist cosmological system, each being is responsible for what happens to them, one's own actions determine the experiences one will have. so you are completely wrong to assert that there is no 'ground' for having ethical behavior, because there is even more of impetus than in the Christian tradition where Christ takes up all of one's sin; the Buddhist is not free to have a death bed confession or to be born again after a lifetime of negative actions. He would have to experience the negative consequences of his acts without pardon from Christ. If he killed someone, believing in Christ would not prevent the karma of being born in hell from ripening. But at some point, the action that resulted in hell would have been purfied through experience, and that being would leave the hell realm, to take rebirth again. So it is very different than the Christian system where there is a God that created both the heaven and hell and judges beings for all eternity without end. Of course a materialist would scoff at both of those assertions of heaven and hell, since they are beyond our immediate experiences. So both Christians and Buddhist have to have some kind of faith in the consequences of their relationship with the absolute. Christians have to believe and cultivate some kind of relationship with a being that involves increasing compassion and becoming more like Christ. Buddhists have to believe in the workings of karma and cultivate compassion and ethical behavior to have enough merit (positive karma) to completely awaken from the delusion of samsara. Then the third type of suffering is very similar to the way a Christian on earth has to wait for the 'second coming', or to die and be reborn in heaven to attain full union with God. That kind of halfway point between being in this world with sin and the promise of a perfected heaven in the afterlife is very similar to the subtle suffering of not being enlightened in the buddhist sense.

So there are striking similarities between the traditions despite the vast differences.

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