Salvation and eternal life in world religions
by Ernest Valea
Salvation and eternal life in Hinduism
The Upanishads and Vedanta philosophy
Samkhya and Yoga
Tantrism and Hatha Yoga
Salvation and eternal life in Buddhism
Salvation in Mahayana Buddhism. The devotional way.
Salvation in Mahayana Buddhism. The way of intuitive knowledge.
Liberation and eternal life in Taoism
Salvation in the monotheistic religions
The remission of sins in the Old Testament vs. other religious patterns
Jesus Christ, the perfect solution for our sins
The meaning of salvation in Christianity
Salvation in Islam
One of the few elements that world religions share is the assertion that humans don’t live in harmony with the Ultimate Reality. In other words, humanity does not manifest its purpose of existence. Life is a far cry from the ideal claimed by religion, so that humanity needs salvation from its present condition.
In assessing the meaning of salvation in world religions we must analyze three important aspects: The resources needed for attaining salvation, the actual way of getting saved and the meaning of being saved. Concerning the first two aspects, some religions claim that salvation can be attained by using only inner human resources. They demand the use of meditation, accumulation of wisdom, asceticism, rituals, good deeds, etc. Other religions state that humans can be saved only through the grace granted by an external personal agent. This agent can be God, a bodhisattva, an avatar, etc. One’s duty is to recognize the impossibility of being saved by one's own efforts, and therefore accept grace unconditionally. There are also combinations of these two ways.
Concerning the meaning of salvation from an eternal perspective, here too are important distinctions to mention. As emphasized in the previous article, the monotheistic religions state that the barrier between humans and God is sin. Salvation means removing this moral barrier and restoring a personal communion with God, which will endure forever. Pantheistic religions consider the human self to be one with the impersonal Ultimate Reality, and therefore humanity’s problem is epistemological. Salvation means liberation from ignorance and the fusion of the impersonal self with the Absolute, of knower and known. Other Eastern religions, such as Buddhism and Taoism, take salvation as an illumination, meaning the discovery of and conformity of oneself with an eternal law that governs existence. Dualistic religions, which state that two opposed forces of good and evil rule our world, see salvation as a return to an initial angelic state, from which humans have fallen into a physical body.
In this article we will analyze more closely these alternatives, trying to understand to what extent they can still be compatible with each other.
Salvation and eternal life in Hinduism
According to the hymns of the Rig Veda, humans are personal beings dependent on the gods, and their destiny is eternal life in a celestial world. Here is how the worshippers of Indra express their longing for personal immortality:
where movement is accordant to wish,
In the third region, the third heaven of heavens,
where the worlds are resplendent.
For Indra, flow you on, Indu! (Rig Veda 9,113,8-9)
Yama, the god of death, is sovereign over the souls of the dead and is at the same time the one who receives the offerings of the family for the benefit of the departed. He casts the wicked into an eternal dark prison from which they can never escape (Rig Veda 7,104,3; 17). However, the Upanishads have replaced completely this early view of salvation and eternal life with their pantheistic view.
The Upanishads and Vedanta philosophy
According to the Upanishads, the self is one with Brahman, but illusion prevents humans from grasping it. The liberation of atman from the chain of reincarnation can be attained only during a human existence, so we are in a privileged stage of spiritual evolution. We have a better position than even gods do. They are in a stage of reaping one’s positive merits during a lifetime, as animals are the opposite, the stage of reaping bad merits. This is the reason why devotion to a god is not seen as a valid way toward liberation. It is not only useless, but it fuels ignorance and the gods encourage it:
Atman's liberation from samsara is called moksha and represents its return to Brahman. This kind of liberation is actually an impersonal fusion of atman with Brahman, resembling the fusion of a drop of rain with the ocean, thus becoming one with it:
At this point any element of personhood is annihilated and the process of reincarnation ceases. The proper means to attain it is intuitive knowledge (jnana, vidya). The vicious cycle avidya-karma-samsara can be broken only by knowing and destroying its primary cause, which is desire. One has to pass through three states of consciousness, categorized as the wakeful state, the state of sleep with dreams and the dreamless sleep (Brihadaranyaka Up. 4,3,9-19). The first state of consciousness, the wakeful state (jagrat), represents the normal human state, in which the phenomenal world is completely involved in one’s psycho-mental activity. In the stage corresponding to sleep with dreams (svapna) the psycho-mental is detached from the objective world and engaged in a virtual world, a mere projection of the real one. Participation in the phenomenal world stops only in the dreamless state (susupti), when the world’s illusion ceases to manifest itself (Brihadaranyaka Up. 4,3,32). Some later developments concluded that in this stage atman is only temporarily united with Brahman, and reaching a fourth state (turiya) is needed, when the unity of atman-Brahman is perfectly attained.
The actual methods for attaining liberation are not yet fully developed in the Upanishads. Two important meditation formulas (mantras) are Aham Brahma asmi ("I am Brahman" - in the Brihadaranyaka Up. 1,4,10) and Tat tvam asi ("You are that" - in the Chandogya Up. 6,8-15). Also to be noted is the importance of the sacred syllable OM (AUM), which is said to exert a powerful influence on the one who knows how to use it and understands its metaphysical importance. The Mandukya Upanishad establishes a correspondence between the three letters that compose it (A, U, and M) and the three states of consciousness mentioned above. The Mundaka Upanishad (2,2,4) states: "The syllable aum is the bow; one’s self, indeed, is the arrow. Brahman is spoken of as the target of that. It is to be hit without making a mistake. Thus one becomes united with it as the arrow [becomes one with the target]."
The same finality is stated in Shankara’s Vedanta. The liberation of atman is attained through intuitive knowledge. There are four requirements prescribed for the one who follows this path: 1) discrimination of the eternal from the non-eternal; 2) no attachment to the things belonging to this or any other world; 3) possession of six virtues: calmness, equanimity, turning away from sense-objects, forbearance, concentration and faith in the doctrine; and 4) longing for release.
Samkhya and Yoga
Liberation in the Samkhya and Yoga darshanas represents detaching purusha from any manifestation of prakriti. The way of attaining it, in Samkhya, is metaphysical knowledge, i.e. analyzing and understanding the external and internal structures of nature and psycho-mental activity. This means that liberation is attained neither through sacrifices (Samkhya Sutra 1,84), nor by doing good deeds (1,56) nor by the help of Vedas (3,25-26), but only through getting spiritual knowledge. It involves abandoning all common values that are created by our mind and thus belong to prakriti. By knowing the absolute state of purusha, the confusion generated by the physical and mental world ceases, they are absorbed into prakriti and the self finds liberation (Samkhya Sutra 3,69). This is the way humans understand the liberation of the self, but as thinking itself belongs to prakriti, Samkhya holds that liberation is a mere acquaintance with purusha’s eternal freedom, unable to be normally perceived because of ignorance.
The moment when discrimination (viveka) between the two categories has been fully realized, prakriti with all its manifestations departs from purusha, "like a dancer who leaves after satisfying her master’s wish" (Samkhya Karika 59). The self escapes from the illusory relationship with prakriti and has nothing to do with it anymore. From that moment on the liberated purusha contemplates only itself and has no concern about the relationship of other purushas with prakriti. The finality is a world of free and totally isolated purushas, between which no relationship can exist.
The Yoga darshana of Patanjali adds two elements: 1) Ishvara, an entity improperly called God; and 2) the fact that liberation cannot be attained by spiritual knowledge alone, but that a specific ascetic technique is needed. Ishvara is not a personal god, but rather a macro-purusha that has never been involved with psycho-mental activity or with karma. Having no personal status, Ishvara cannot have a personal relationship with humans. It is rather a metaphysical sympathy, resembling that existing between a compass and the magnetic field of the earth. Ishvara can help the Yogi towards liberation only as he is chosen as the object of meditation. The instinctual relationship between purusha and Ishvara is possible only because of the similarity of their structures, so that in the Yoga darshana of Patanjali Ishvara is considered to be a functional god, available to Yogis alone.
The liberation of purusha has the same meaning as in Samkhya. It remains isolated forever, contemplating itself, without any relationship with other purushas or with Ishvara. For more information on the Yoga technique as described by Patanjali see our special article on this topic. There is also available a special article aimed at analyzing some potential difficulties of the Samkhya and Yoga metaphysics.
Tantrism and Hatha Yoga
Both schools are pantheistic, viewing liberation as the return of the self to the impersonal Ultimate Reality represented by Shiva. It is a process similar to the fusion of atman with Brahman, as stated in the Upanishads and Vedanta. (For a short survey of the actual techniques used by these two schools, including an evaluation of the experiences they produce click here.)
The self, represented by the kundalini energy, has to be awakened through complicated physical exercises (in Hatha Yoga) and also sexual practices (in Tantrism), joined with respiratory techniques. Then it passes through a spiritual channel of the subtle body, which corresponds physically to the spine, and the moment it reaches the top of the head it unites with Shiva, the Ultimate Reality of the universe. This goal cannot be attained just by spiritual knowledge, as in Vedanta or Samkhya. The help of a teacher (guru) in assisting the practitioner is absolutely necessary, as the awakening and rising of kundalini is full of potential dangers for the Yogi.
Although both schools are pantheistic, they hold an interesting view on the role of the human body. While the Upanishads and Vedanta despise the body, considering it the primary source of illusion that holds atman captive in the reincarnation cycle, Tantrism and Hatha Yoga take the body as the main instrument in attaining liberation. However, the attention granted to the body has a single purpose: to make it fit for getting control over the mind and thus liberating the self. Despite the fact that it is sometimes believed that Hatha Yoga is only a kind of harmless physical training, the most important writing of this school, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, clearly states that Hatha Yoga has to be taught in order to reach the Raja Yoga level (1,2), which means "the integration of mind in a state where the subject-object duality does not exist" (4,77), or in other words, merging with the impersonal Ultimate Reality.
The liberation of self (atman or purusha) through metaphysical knowledge (jnana, vidya) or asceticism (tapas) cannot be an open option for the average Hindu. For this reason most people adopt a certain devotional practice (bhakti) in order to transcend the world of suffering. The most important gods that are worshiped today are Vishnu and his avatars (especially Rama and Krishna), Shiva and the goddess Shakti (also in her forms as Kali or Durga). Consequently, Hindu theism has three main branches: Vaishnavism, Shaivism and Shaktism. They have the following defining characteristics: 1) acceptance of a personal god as Ultimate Reality, 2) performance of a certain ritual to worship him, 3) invocation of his help to attain salvation and 4) understanding salvation as uniting with god or attaining a perfect and eternal relationship with him.
We will not discuss here salvation according to the most famous writing of Hindu theism, the Bhagavad Gita. There is available a special article on this topic. Out of the many schools of theistic Hinduism existing today, we will limit this brief presentation to the Vaishnava schools grounded by the great thinkers Ramanuja and Madhva and mention a few elements of their understanding of salvation and eternal life. They stated the most coherent forms of Hindu theism known today as opposed to the traditional pantheistic schools, especially to the Advaita Vedanta of Shankara.
According to Madhva (AD 1238 - 1317), liberation can be attained only by the grace of Vishnu. He uses reincarnation to punish one's evil deeds and also to help the soul discover its true spiritual nature. The way of attaining liberation requires devotion, moral perfection and knowledge of Vishnu. The more he is known, the more he is loved, the more he is loved, he is known, so these are two inseparable aspects. The moment the soul attains liberation, it does not lose its individuality in order to become one with Vishnu (as in Vedanta), but becomes perfect and shares an eternal communion and harmony with him.
Although Madhva’s theism is genuine, the rule of karma undermines it. On the one hand it is stated that nothing can happen in the world or to souls without Vishnu’s will and initiative. Humans can attain liberation only by Vishnu’s grace. On the other hand, souls are subject to karma, and Vishnu reveals himself only to the ones who deserve it. But if all souls are entirely dependent on Vishnu for their life and he is the one who creates, sustains and dissolutes the world, this implies that any spiritual progress of the soul is nothing but his work. If Vishnu’s will is responsible for both bondage by karma and for liberation, how is it possible that some souls deserve liberation, while others do not? In other words, how can a just balance work between Vishnu’s grace and karma? The solution offered by Madhva to this dilemma is that souls have a certain inner spiritual inclination, according to an innate nature. There are three kinds of souls according to these inner inclinations: those of noble inclination (sattvika), those of mixed inclination (rajasa) and those with base inclination (tamasa). Only those of the first category will reach liberation by Vishnu’s grace, the others being left to themselves. To avoid total predestination, Madhva stated that they are granted a small amount of free will (dattasvatantrya) and therefore can perform a small improvement of their nature from one existence to another. But by giving this solution, Vishnu is no longer the one who determines the souls’ actions, and his total control over them is abolished. This contradiction arises out of the impossibility to reconcile the role of karma with the grace of an omnipotent god.
According to Ramanuja (AD 1017 - 1137), humans are responsible for their acts and are capable of choosing between good and evil. What we experience now as evil in the world is the result of our past ignorant deeds against Vishnu. Liberation from the bondage of ignorance can be attained only by devotion. Once liberated, the soul is not dissolved in the Ultimate Reality, but becomes perfect through its integration into the functionality of Vishnu. Using a proper illustration, liberation is not the union of the raindrop with the ocean (as in Vedanta), but the adding of a new cell to a living body, without losing its individuality and conscious existence. Through this kind of liberation neither the transcendental supremacy of Vishnu is lost, nor the identity of the soul.
There are basically two classical viewpoints on grace in theistic Hinduism, well-illustrated by two famous analogies, that of the monkey and that of the cat. The first view (the markata school) states that humans have to cling to Vishnu like a monkey clings to its mother, thus having an important contribution in attaining salvation. Specific requirements include: discrimination of food, freedom from passions, longing for Vishnu and continuous meditation on him, doing good to others, having good intentions and truthfulness, integrity, cheerfulness and hope. So it is not only about stimulating positive feelings, but also about using the intellect and will in order to love Vishnu with both heart and mind.
Starting from this point, where humans play a certain role in their liberation (through the rituals and moral obligations they have to fulfill), Ramanuja grounded an even more radical way towards liberation, called prapatti, where there is no room left for personal merit. This is the second view on grace (the marjara school), stating that the devotee must be like a young kitten, totally dependent on its mother’s will, allowing itself to be picked up by her and carried here and there. Therefore humans have to give up the control of their life to Vishnu and leave to him all responsibility for salvation. Two important notions here are the transfer of merits (bhara-samarpana) from Vishnu to humans and the need of taking refuge under his feet (sharanagati). The one engaged in prapatti acknowledges that he is not good enough to deserve liberation by performing rituals and moral obligations. He asks Vishnu to undertake the control of his life and use him as an instrument in the world, so that the whole merit for attaining liberation belongs to him. There is no doubt that from the laborious techniques of other Hindu schools, which stressed the attainment of liberation through personal effort, to the prapatti alternative, where one is humble and helpless before Vishnu, Hindu spirituality went through radical transformations. In a few words, the whole prapatti philosophy can be summarized in a single verse, written by Vedanta Deshika, a 14th-century follower of Ramanuja:
According to the Buddha, escaping from suffering is possible for the one who accepts and follows the four noble truths:
1) The nature of existence is suffering.
2) Suffering is caused by desire, or thirst (tanha) to experience existence.
3) The complete cessation of desire leads to the cessation of suffering.
4) In order to escape suffering and attain enlightenment, one has to follow the Noble Eightfold Path, consisting of the eight practices of self-training. They can be classified in three categories: morality (sila), meditation (samadhi) and wisdom (panna). Morality means right speech, action and livelihood. It has to generate a perfect state of self-control and contentment. Meditation requires perfection in effort (right attitude of the mind), mindfulness (awareness of mental and physical processes), and concentration (introversion and cessation of empirical consciousness). Wisdom requires perfection in view (through understanding the impermanent nature of the world) and intention (cultivating desirelessness, friendliness and compassion).
There are two complementary types of Buddhist meditation: calm meditation (samatha) and insight meditation (vipassana). The first is aimed at producing deep concentration (samadhi) by developing a capacity of the mind to rest undisturbed on a single object of perception. The second aims at understanding the true nature of things, which is characterized by impermanence, suffering and no-self. In other words, calm meditation is about controlling the defilements of the mind, while insight meditation is about letting them go completely as a result of understanding the nature of the world.
It is important to mention here that the one who engages in this path has to rely exclusively on his own inner strength. The Buddha taught:
There is no grace available from a personal god, because personal existence belongs to the domain of illusion:
Having attained nirvana, one becomes an arhat ("living enlightened one"). Karma is burned out and at the time of death personal existence ceases. Therefore, nirvana is neither a re-absorption into an eternal Ultimate Reality, because such a thing doesn’t exist, nor an annihilation of a self, because there is no self to annihilate. It is rather an annihilation of the illusion of an existing self. The proper image to describe it is the flame of the candle that is blown out. This represents the end of suffering but at the same time the end of any aspect that may define personal existence. (For further comments on the way Theravada Buddhism defines its fundamental doctrines, including nirvana, see the special article on this topic.)
Salvation in Mahayana Buddhism. The devotional way.
The first significant difference between Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism is a new goal to be pursued in life. Instead of seeking nirvana just for oneself in order to become an arhat, the disciple of Mahayana Buddhism aims to become a bodhisattva, a celestial being that postpones his own entrance into parinirvana (final extinction) in order to help other humans attain it. He swears not to enter nirvana until he fulfills this noble mission. Here is a part of a bodhisattva’s vow:
"I vow to protect all sentient beings and never abandon them. What I say is sincerely true, without falsehood. Why? Because I have set my mind on enlightenment in order to liberate all sentient beings; I do not seek the unexcelled Way for my own sake (Garland Sutra 23).
For its selfish way of seeking nirvana, the Theravada school is considered by Mahayanists an inferior spiritual path, valid only for those who cannot accept the idea of becoming a bodhisattva (Saddharmapundarika, 2). From here derives the name given to the two branches of Buddhism: Mahayana means "the larger/superior path" (that of becoming a bodhisattva), while Hinayana (Theravada) is the "narrow/inferior path", that reduces its goal in becoming an arhat. The Theravada view of nirvana is considered only an intermediary step of becoming, a kind of incentive toward a higher becoming. The true enlightenment is the becoming of a bodhisattva being (Saddharmapundarika, 3). Thanks to the help granted by the bodhisattvas, it is said that all beings will eventually attain perfection:
Causes the several worlds universally to attain perfection,
By gradual practice all obtain the Fruit of the Way. (Saddharmapundarika Sutra 5)
The bodhisattva beings help humans to work out their liberation. This new development was interpreted as a penetration of the Hindu bhakti tradition in Buddhism. The pattern of devotion works here the same way as in Hinduism. This trend will become the religious path for lay Buddhists, for whom liberation through intuitive knowledge is not a practical option.
The most famous bodhisattva of Tibet is Avalokiteshvara, who is said to be able to help anybody, even if one only hears his name and memorizes it. In his great compassion he assumes as many forms as necessary in order to save all beings (including people and demons in hell), if they simply accept the doctrine he preaches to them. Today it is considered that the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists, is a reincarnation of this bodhisattva. The mantra used for his invocation is Om manipadme hum.
In Japan was founded a very influential form of devotional Buddhism known as Pure Land Buddhism. It is centered on Amida, "the Buddha of Infinite Light", who is said to be able to save even the most despised sinner by his grace (tariki). In his vow, he promised to save all sentient beings that would only repeat his name ten times:
The reward for invoking Amida with sincere devotion is rebirth in his Western Paradise, Sukhavati (known also as his Pure Land or Pure Realm). It is not possible to get there by using other means such as meditation or good deeds, but only by his grace.
In Tibetan Buddhism it is stated that the help of the bodhisattvas is available even after death. According to the Tibetan Book of the Dead (8th century AD) the five bodhisattvas of Tibetan Buddhism (the Dhyani-Buddhas, or mental Buddhas) help the dead to avoid a bad reincarnation, trying to lead them toward happier lives in which they will be able to attain nirvana more easily.
Salvation in Mahayana Buddhism. The way of intuitive knowledge.
New doctrinal developments on the theme of no-self were the basis for founding a new doctrine, known as the doctrine of the void (shunyata). It was first stated in the Prajnaparamita Sutra (1st century BC) and then developed by Nagarjuna (2nd century AD).
The Abhidharma tradition ("the third basket" of the Pali Canon) had already stated that the five aggregates can further be broken down into smaller units called dharmas. According to the Theravada school all physical and mental events have as ultimate building blocks 82 such dharmas. The Madhyamaka school of Nagarjuna emphasized that these dharmas themselves must be seen as impermanent and empty of a self. They cannot have any inherent nature of their own, or else the principle of impermanence would be violated. As a result, the constituents of physical and mental phenomena are to be considered like a dream or a magical illusion. Their nature is emptiness, which means that the whole world is just a web of interdependent baseless phenomena. Although the resemblance to Advaita Vedanta may be striking, emptiness is not a substance (as Brahman) which composes the dharmas, but rather an adjectival quality of the dharmas. It is neither a thing, nor nothingness, but just a way of referring to reality as being incapable of being pinned down in concepts. Nirvana means realizing that emptiness (shunya) is the true nature of reality (the Buddha nature, or dharmakaya).
Liberation and eternal life in Taoism
Given the human condition in Taoism, the solution for attaining perfection is not following Confucian morality or rituals, but controlling the inner universe by practicing the principle of non-acting (wu-wei), a similar concept to the demand of Krishna presented in the Bhagavad Gita (3,19). It does not mean to literally do nothing, but to follow the natural order of things, to be spontaneous in all actions, understand them and not strive against nature:
And returns to the places that people have forgotten (childhood). (Tao-te Ching 64)
In order to attain harmony with Tao one can use a combination of the following things: physical and spiritual exercises (Thai Chi), diet, breath control (tai-yin), sexual techniques (fang-shong shu) similar to the Tantric ones, psychedelic drugs, meditation, etc. These methods are considered to revitalize the vital fluid of the body and assure long life. However, regarding what life after death consists of, Lao Tse taught neither physical immortality nor personal survival. There are no clues in the Tao-te Ching indicating such things, so they have to be later additions to Taoism.
The seeking of physical immortality seems to have been added to Taoism at the time when it became mixed with alchemy (the search for an "elixir of life") and religious rituals. It is foreign to the initial spirit of Taoism, which taught indifference to life and death as a condition for one’s integration in the flow of nature. Wang Ch’ung, an important Taoist thinker of the 1st century AD, had to correct the superstitions that invaded his religion, stating clearly that there is no involvement of deities in people's lives and that humans do not become ghosts at death.
The only true spiritual knowledge is the mystical one, attained when any duality is surpassed, when the disciple understands that life and death are only two aspects of the same Ultimate Reality. A famous parable of Chuang Tzu says:
One does not know what reality is: the state as a human or as a butterfly. The great awakening is a return to the primordial state of non-being, where all transformations cease and personal existence is annihilated:
Salvation in the monotheistic religions
Unlike the pantheistic religions of the East, the three monotheistic religions of the world - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - do not regard salvation as an impersonal merging with the Absolute, but as liberation from the bondage of sin and re-establishing a personal communion with the creator. However, there are some basic differences between them on how sin is to be overcome by humans, on the identity of Jesus Christ, the role he plays in salvation and what our attitude should be towards him.
The remission of sins in the Old Testament vs. other religious patterns
The account of human restoration begins already in Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament. God called a man named Abraham to leave his father's household in Mesopotamia and follow him to an unknown land, promising that he would become the ancestor of a blessed nation. Abraham trusted God against all odds, and this attitude, called faith, determined that God would declare him righteous and the beneficiary of an overwhelming promise:
The nation born out of Abraham was Israel. Through this nation God intended to make himself known in the world and correct wrong patterns in addressing him. Although all nations had priests, offerings and temples, all ritualism was labeled as wrong and in need of correction.
The book of Exodus (the second book in the Old Testament) tells the story of how God redeemed Israel from Egyptian slavery through his grace (chapters 1-19), presented the law according to which they should live (ch. 20-24) and then indicated the way to solve any trespassing of the law, through the office of the tabernacle (ch. 25-40), which was later replaced by the temple in Jerusalem. This given order redemption-law-temple was not randomly chosen. God instituted the Mosaic Law as a covenant with his people after redeeming the nation from slavery. The redeemed Israelites had to obey God and to live according to the demands of the law in order to have a right relation with him (Exodus 19,5). The tabernacle (and later the temple) was the place where sacrifices were brought in order to atone for the trespassing of the law and to keep in mind their total dependence on God. Obedience to the law was of first importance and the sacrifices in the temple were second, prescribed only as solution for repairing the failures in fulfilling God’s demands.
The other nations of that time had a different view of worship. They were attempting to satisfy their gods and even fulfill their needs through the religious rituals performed in temples. Sacrifices came to be seen as a way of manipulating the gods. More and more substantial offerings would accumulate more and more influence on the gods. In this way the priests reached a point where they were actually manipulating the gods and considered themselves (through the rituals they performed) the keepers of universal order, providers of fertility, wealth, victory over enemies, etc. The tendency to manipulate the gods is obvious in Vedic ritualism and was the cause for its decline. Although human sacrifices (Purushamedha) were very rare in Brahminism, the priests held the ropes of heaven and soon became more important than the gods. After all, it was their sacrifices that kept the universe properly functioning. No wonder that the Shramana tradition appeared as a revolt against this order.
The temple and the sacrifices in the Old Testament had different meanings from those of the other religions of that time. In the Old Testament, the condition for maintaining a proper relation with God was obeying and conforming to his revealed standards, not the performance of religious rituals that would empower him to fulfill his divine attributes. Sacrifices were not necessary for him, but for the sake of sinful people, as the solution for their trespassing of the law. If not absolved, the sins of the people would bring God’s punishment on the nation. Therefore, the sacrifice had to perform its work in humans, not in God. This is why the tabernacle and the sacrificial system was added to the covenant with Israel (in Exodus 20-24), as a further grace. Although Israel also had, as the other nations, a temple, priests and sacrifices, their role was different. God commanded that they would not follow the pagan pattern:
Out of the many sacrifices and religious feasts mentioned in the Old Testament, of greatest importance and significance was the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), described in Leviticus 16. It was performed once a year, only by the high priest and for the benefit of all people. Its purpose was to remove all the sins committed during the year and mark the rededication of the nation to God. First, the high priest had to offer a bull as an atoning sacrifice for his own sins. Only in this way was he considered cleansed of his sins and therefore capable of performing the atonement ritual for the nation. Then he took two goats, one for the Lord and the other as scapegoat. The goat for the Lord was slaughtered and the blood sprinkled on the atonement cover, located in the Most Holy Place of the temple. As the high standards of God had been transgressed by the people, the act of the priest symbolized the covering of the transgressions with blood, as ransom price paid for their remission. Then the high priest had to
This symbolized the fact that the sins were carried away from the people into the realm of Azazel, out of God’s presence. The Israelites thus learned that any trespassing of the Mosaic Law is a sin and any sin demands a sacrifice, in order that God, the giver of the law, could forgive the sinner. The principle at work was that the punishment for sin had to be borne by an innocent animal, as substitute for the sinner. In the Eastern religions this way of dealing with sins is absurd. In the context where karma operates nothing can act as a substitute sacrifice. The sinner must pay for his own sins in this or in further lives. But in Judaism, through the ritual performed by the priest, it was clearly shaped in the mind of any Jew the fact that his sins are forgiven only due to the animal sacrifice, or more specifically, through its blood. The animal became man’s substitute in order to fulfill God’s justice.
At this point Judaism and Christianity part ways, so we'll continue with the Christian account.
Jesus Christ, the perfect solution for our sins
Although God is omnipotent, he is also holy and just, so he could not simply erase all people’s sins by a decree. He could have thrown us all into hell instead, since we are all sinners. However, God is perfect not only in power and justice, but also in his love for us. This is why the solution for the problem of sin could not be a simplistic one. His love would not be perfect if not united with his justice, wisdom and power. His wrath toward sin on the one hand, and his love for humans and desire to bring them back into communion with him on the other, could have been reconciled only by his initiative, by his power and wisdom. He used the most dramatic solution ever stated in world religions: God the Son willingly left his divine glory, took a human body and descended into our world through the virgin birth, limiting himself in space and time in order to be the perfect and unique sacrifice for us. The Apostle Paul states:
This "making himself nothing" (Greek kenosis) does not mean that he gave up divinity, but that he limited his divine prerogatives. He limited himself, yet never ceased to be divine. In Christ, God shows his majesty in humility and thus contradicts what we generally assume of him. Rather than ultimate power and immutability, he is better described as love, action and movement toward us.
The kenosis of Christ was his free will initiative and not a necessity imposed by his nature, as is the case with the periodical incarnations of Vishnu. According to Christianity, Jesus Christ is the only incarnation of God, descended into our world with a unique and non-repeatable mission in history. He is not a mere avatar, a periodical incarnation of a deity, but the unique incarnation of God the Son, become God the Man, perfect in both his divine and human nature. This double nature of Jesus Christ is the key for understanding his mission of reconciling humans with God. In Hindu theism, since the physical body is a mere garment that is put on and off (Bhagavad Gita 2,22), there cannot be any real association of god with a physical body. But Christ came to redeem the whole human person, body and soul, therefore his association with a physical body was real. His physical resurrection emphasizes the same point, which for a Hindu avatar is absurd. In Vaishnava Hinduism Krishna merely plays a human role (nara-lila), and there is no real association of the divine nature with a physical body. Therefore the avatar fits best in the Docetic understanding of Christ (the mere appearance of a physical body), which is considered a classic heresy in Christianity. The double nature of the incarnated Christ, divine and human, is of fundamental importance for his mission. Here is a fragment of the definition of Chalcedon on this topic:
The historical aspects of Christianity will not be discussed here. One can follow several links for a historical assessment of the New Testament:
Dating the Oldest New Testament Manuscripts, by Peter van Minnen;
The Gospels as Historical Sources for Jesus, the Founder of Christianity, by Prof. R. T. France
Neither will Jesus' sayings concerning his divinity get an in-depth analysis, since there is enough information available online on this topic:
Jesus' Claims to be God, by Sue Bohlin;
Beyond Blind Faith; by Paul Little;
The Uniqueness of Jesus, Liar, Lunatic, or Lord?, by Pat Zukeran;
The Deity of Christ, by Don Closson;
A Response to "From Jesus to Christ", by Rick Wade.
The are also other resources available for evaluating the claims that Jesus was a remarkable man who only became a deity in the minds of his followers.
The sayings of Jesus concerning his divinity must not be interpreted from a pantheistic point of view, as being valid for anyone. He didn’t preach in India in a pantheist background to people who accepted that everything is a manifestation of Brahman and the spiritual masters are special incarnations of the divine. If he had preached there, surely he would not have been sentenced to death. Therefore, when interpreting his sayings, we have to remember that Jesus lived in Israel, in the only monotheistic culture of that time, not in the East. Anyone daring to claim divine attributes was guilty of blasphemy and had to be sentenced to death. This means that the formula "Aham Brahma Asmi" ("I am Brahman") and Jesus’ words "I and the Father are one" (John 10,30) have a different meaning, because they are addressed in a different context. Jesus could not give pantheistic teachings in a monotheistic culture such as the Judaic one. As a result, the claims about his divinity were interpreted as blasphemy by those who refused to see in him the fulfillment of the Old Testament’s messianic prophecies.
Another attempt to find Eastern doctrines in the New Testament uses the prologue of John’s Gospel, where it is stated that "the Word was God" (v. 1) and "through him all things were made" (v. 3). Contrary to some Eastern interpretations however, this "Word" is neither the sacred syllable AUM, nor the manifestation of Brahman as Ishvara (the Hindu Logos), but the person of Jesus Christ, who took the initiative to descend into his own creation as the text itself indicates: "The word became flesh and made his dwelling among us" (John 1,14). Jesus Christ was not the manifestation of an impersonal Ultimate Reality, but the person of God the Son. This and other speculations that try to prove the equivalence of his sayings with those of the East ignore the cultural and religious context in which they were taught. The same is true of the hypothesis that he lived in India from the age of 12 until 30. (Click here for more information on this topic.) He never did teach as a Hindu guru, exhorting people to find their "forgotten divine nature." Because of this, Gnosticism and its writings present a false portrait of Jesus, totally out of his real context. According to the syncretistic trend of our day, Jesus is considered to be one of the great spiritual masters of the world, but not the only Son of God; one to be followed, but not to be worshiped as the ONLY Son of God. Gandhi, the great Indian leader, put it like this: "I cannot ascribe exclusive divinity to Jesus. He is as divine as Krishna or Rama or Mohammad or Zoroaster" (M. Gandhi, Christian Missions, Ahmadabad, 1941, p. 113). Even if there are attempts to find some similarities between his life and that of other important religious leaders, they cover only a few aspects of his life. The most striking differences concern his death. Here we reach the climax of his incarnation: Jesus had to die on the cross for our redemption from sin and reconciliation with God. The Apostle Peter states in his epistle:
Jesus Christ as "the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1,29), is the cornerstone of Christianity and its non-paralleled element. It was toward this fulfillment that the sacrifices of the Old Testament (see Hebrews 9,12-14) and the highlights of prophecies pointed. If humans had the slightest chance to rehabilitate themselves through their own power or wisdom, such an extreme solution would have been absurd. The tragedy of the cross proves the reality and gravity of human sin, the spiritual misery in which we are all stuck and the impossibility of saving ourselves. Mocked and spit upon by the human race, nailed on a cross and forsaken by the Father, Jesus Christ took our place in punishment. The prophet Isaiah wrote about this event seven centuries before it happened:
Although his contemporaries did their best to destroy him, they didn't succeed. On the contrary, the most horrible crime ever committed by mankind - the crucifixion of the incarnated God - was reversed to become the very source of our salvation. Augustine argued that God's providence goes so far that even Judas' betrayal, although it is undoubtedly an evil act, can be reversed to produce good: "Satan is evil, Judas is evil; as the doer, so his instrument. But God used both for our sake. Both tried to destroy us, but God used their effort for our salvation." (Sermon CCCI, ch.4).
Was the suffering of Christ on the cross a mere illusion? Obviously not! His torment and death were so real that none of those who saw it could expect a future victory over death. If you saw Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, you have a visual help in understanding how much suffering it involved. This proves the full incarnation of God the Son. He did not die only in physical appearance, as the Docetist heresy suggests, but as a poor miserable man, experiencing suffering in its fullest sense. His death proves both the seriousness of our sin and the unfathomable love of God, as Jesus once proclaimed:
His death on the cross put an end to the sacrificial system of the Old Testament. Jesus Christ is the perfect fulfillment of the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). He fulfilled both the role of the goat for the Lord, by the fact that he shed his blood for us, and of the scapegoat, as he took our sins away from the presence of God. However, death and hell had no power over him and couldn’t hold him captive, because he had no sin. The gospels do not end with his crucifixion. If so, Christianity would have been a hopeless religion, bound by the impossibility of conquering suffering and injustice. But Christianity holds a unique element: the morning of the resurrection. What use would a special spiritual master have been if he too, as all others, could not defeat death? Without his resurrection, the best way to confront suffering would have been Eastern pessimism. Escape from suffering by the destruction of personhood, by the negation of life, would have been the natural result of man’s failure in his fight against evil and suffering. Christianity is not a pessimistic religion, demanding the abolition of life, but an optimistic one, that affirms life, according to the model represented by Jesus Christ. This is emphasized by the fact that his resurrection was a physical one, in the body, not only in the spirit.
According to the Eastern view, the resurrection of the body is absurd. It does not solve anything, and only brings one back to the initial unsolved problem. For this reason the resurrection of Jesus is usually understood either as a physical resuscitation of his body, or as a purely spiritual resurrection, a view which holds that the physically resurrected body was only an illusion. Given the cruelty of the crucifixion method, the hypothesis that Jesus didn't actually die on the cross is out of the question. Concerning the second hypothesis, although the resurrected body was a transformed one, it was not an ethereal form, but one completely liberated from any terrestrial limitation. (Click here for an examination of the Gnostic interpretation of Jesus' mere spiritual and mystical resurrection.) During the 40 days he spent with his disciples after the resurrection, Jesus appeared to "more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time" (1 Corinthians 15,6), so that people could accept the reality of his bodily resurrection. Despite the fact that there are legends in the mythology of other nations telling stories of other "resurrected saviors" - as Osiris, Attis, Mithra, Adonis, Tammuz, etc. - in comparison with the resurrection of Jesus, they are nothing but non-historical legends. One can use the following links for more information about the proofs of Jesus’ resurrection:
Contemporary Scholarship and the Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, The Bodily Resurrection of Jesus, The Historicity of the Empty Tomb of Jesus, The Disciples' Inspection of the Empty Tomb, by Prof. William Lane Craig, Evidence for the Resurrection, by Josh McDowell
In Eastern religions we have the concept of jivan-mukta in Hinduism (the "liberated from rebirth while living in a human body") and the arhat in Buddhism. They are said to have pierced the veil of cosmic illusion and realized their true spiritual nature while still being in a physical body. The difference from the Christian perspective is that the jivan-mukta despises his body and waits to get rid of it at physical death, when he will survive as his true spiritual essence - of atman or purusha. True liberation (moksha) is defined as against any personal existence and must break the bondage of the physical body.
The bodily resurrection of Jesus contradicts the Eastern view on the human body, indicating that created matter has nothing wrong or illusory in itself. The true problem is not involvement in the physical world. It is sin, a personal attitude toward the creator. Likewise, salvation is not deliverance from personal existence, but redemption from sin to a transformed life of eternal communion with God.
Another crucial element of Christianity is the fact that Jesus Christ is not one of the many ways to God, but the only way to God, as he claimed himself:
This statement is very bold, clear and embarrassing for those who try to find other ways to God. However, this does not mean that those who never heard about Christ are damned to spend their eternity in hell, simply because they had no opportunity to hear about him. (On this topic see our article on how can those be saved who never heard about Christ.)
The Eastern religions are not so exclusivist in terms of attaining liberation. They emphasize the role of one's own efforts, by the use of rituals, sacrifices, morality, asceticism, meditation, etc. As most cultivate trust only in the efficiency of one's own resources, they reject any possibility of accepting a savior. The doctrine of karma contributes strongly to this attitude. The idea of finding liberation through the merits of an external savior cannot be reconciled with it. Sins have to be paid for, not forgiven. Therefore the major spiritual paths for attaining liberation in Hinduism are karma yoga (the way of good deeds and fulfillment of social duties), bhakti yoga (the way of devotion toward a personal deity in order to accumulate merits), raja yoga (the way of controlling the mind, as the ascetic technique of Patanjali requires) and jnana yoga (the way of acquiring spiritual knowledge). Excepting some developments in bhakti yoga, all are based on human effort and capacity for attaining liberation. In most Eastern religions, humans do not need forgiveness, because there is no personal God as Ultimate Reality against whom one could sin. Consequently, sin is mere ignorance, so that the "sinner" needs only help to reason the right way and realize that he is responsible for his actions, for which he must pay the consequences in samsara. If there is no need for forgiveness, the need for grace cannot exist either. Although Mahayana Buddhism accepts the help of the bodhisattva beings, it has no equivalent to the Christian idea of grace. The bodhisattvas help people by bringing them to heavenly realms where they have the privilege of hearing the proper doctrine. Only by perseverance in following this doctrine can liberation be attained.
In Christianity, the situation is different: Since one cannot ascend by himself or herself from the misery of sin, God the Son had to descend to our state and lift us up. Without God’s grace, on the basis of one's own efforts, no one can attain salvation. The Apostle Paul wrote:
Unlike the founders of other religions, Jesus Christ didn’t bring us only wisdom and parables, but also his flesh and blood. This is a major difference which cannot be ignored.
The meaning of salvation in Christianity
The Christian perspective on salvation is that no one can merit the grace of God by performing rituals, good deeds, asceticism or meditation, because grace is the result of his initiative. However, this does not mean that humans have no responsibility and are saved whatever their attitude toward the Savior might be. In order to be forgiven and brought back into a personal relationship with God, it is not enough that the grace of God exists as potential solution. It must be claimed personally by the sinful person. Only then can the atoning death of Christ become an actual solution for one’s sins.
The recognition of one’s sinful state, followed by acceptance of the atoning sacrifice of Christ is called repentance. The Apostle Peter used this term in his preaching on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2,38). In that given context, repentance had a wider meaning than simply regretting the mistakes of the past. When the Holy Spirit descended at Pentecost, repentance meant to be sorry for rejecting Jesus Christ as Savior (see Acts 2,22-37), accompanied by a subsequent change of mentality: If until that moment the Jews considered Jesus to be a strange guy who pretended to be equal with God, this was replaced by the belief in him as the savior. The same change of attitude toward Jesus is required today. He is not a mere man, a prophet, a guru or something similar, but the savior of the world, the only "name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4,12).
What humans have to do to be saved is to open their heart and receive the free gift of God through faith and then to live by faith and obedience to God. Faith means complete trust in God's promises, which is the proper human response to God’s initiative, not a mere form of positive thinking. It has as its object the person of God, while positive thinking requires trust in oneself. The reason why this “faith” solution to the human condition seems so absurdly simple is that it contradicts a general tendency of our fallen nature, that of considering ourselves capable of earning anything we need. Although a desire to do something for our own salvation seems to be justified in our competition oriented life, at this point it is worthless and even counterproductive. Both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament we see the same pattern at work: human redemption is the result of God doing everything needed for it, and any human added “improvements” are utterly opposed. Hence accepting God’s free gift in Christ and living by faith in Christ is an acknowledgment of our failure to attain salvation by ourselves. And this means that Christianity isn’t at all an "absurdly simple religion”, as it demands that we abandon the very thing we love most: our pride.
Rejecting karma and reincarnation, the Christian view is that we live only once in this physical world, and then follows the judgment of God (Hebrews 9,27). (For more information on reincarnation and its relationship to Christian theology click here.) After death humans either enter into a close and eternal communion with God, or into a state of total isolation from him. Although the second possibility is frightening (and because of this some people accuse God of being cruel), he doesn’t allow it without first offering us as solution the free gift of salvation through the atoning death of Jesus Christ. Before calling him cruel, we should remember that God the Son was so deeply concerned with mankind that he entered space and time, took a human body and died on a cross as our substitute.
If God did not isolate evil, if he accepted in his eternal presence those who do not want his presence, he wouldn’t be just. If someone persists in rebellion toward him, manifested through indifference or desire for independence, God does not force him to enter into the kingdom of heaven. This would be an abuse against human freedom. Hell is the result of one's choice to be independent from God and reject his offer. There is nothing unfair or cruel in God’s withdrawing any intervention from this alternative existence. The fact that hell is an eternal torment (according to Matthew 25,41,46) cannot be called a cruelty on God’s part. Those who are there will know why, without questioning divine justice (see the parable of Lazarus in Luke 16,19-31). (Click here for some comments of the Early Church Fathers on hell and eternal punishment.)
In conclusion, it has to be emphasized that according to Christianity, eternal life is not the annihilation of soul and personhood, but an embodied existence of perfect and eternal communion with God. Belief in the survival of embodied personhood after death is not an illusion but is consistent with the created status of the human being, with the promises of the Bible and the resurrection of Christ. God does not intend to annihilate our personhood in order that we might discover an impersonal hidden nature, but to annihilate sin and its products which compromise his image in us. Therefore, the highest experience human beings could have is not merging with an impersonal Ultimate Reality but entering into a perfect communion of reciprocal love with God our creator.
Salvation in Islam
Islam teaches that all people are sinners (Quran 16,61) and that salvation can be attained through observing the Five Pillars of Islamic practice:
1) the belief that Allah is the only god and that Muhammad is his messenger;
2) performing the five daily prayers;
3) fasting throughout the month of Ramadan;
4) charity, giving to the poor;
5) the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime, if one can afford it.
By performing these works, a Muslim hopes that at the judgment day the recorded good deeds will exceed the bad ones, and so he or she will reach the paradise of material and sensual delights (56,16-41). Faith in Allah and belief that salvation is by his grace and mercy is also encouraged. Yet, despite all one's deeds, Allah reserves the absolute right to send the deceased to wherever he pleases, paradise or hell. Those who do not conform their lives to the demands of Islam will surely be thrown into hell, a place of extreme physical pain (56,42-45; 94-95).
Christianity is not the only religion that claims to be the only valid way to God. Islam states the same: "Whoever seeks a religion other than Islam, it will never be accepted from him and in the hereafter he will be one of the losers" (3,85). Jews and Christians are misled by their religions (9,30-31), because they have deviated from monotheism. Therefore they should convert, believe in Allah and do good deeds.
Jesus Christ has a different character in the Quran than in the Bible. It is said that he was a special creation of God, like Adam (3,59), and that he was born to a virgin mother, Maryam (19,19-22). Nevertheless, he was not God (5,17-72), but just an apostle of God (4,171), was not crucified (4,157-158) and that he announced the coming of Muhammad (61,6).
There are some useful links one can follow for more information on a comparison between Islam and Christianity:
The Cross in the Gospel and the Qur’an, by Iskander Jadeed
Christ in Islam and Christianity, by John Gilchrist
A Question that Demands an Answer, by Abd al-Masih
The Textual History of the Qur’an and the Bible, by John Gilchrist
Six Muslim Beliefs and a Christian Response, by Jay Smith
The Bible and the Qur’an, An Historical Comparison
After considering all these views on salvation and eternal life, it is hard to believe that they could ever be reconciled. Religions hold irreconcilable positions in the three aspects mentioned in the beginning of this article: the nature of the resources needed for attaining salvation, the actual way of being saved and the meaning of salvation from an eternal perspective.
The resources for attaining salvation belong strictly to our human nature according to most of the Eastern religions, excepting some schools of devotional Hinduism and Buddhism. Humans need only to know the right things in order to be saved, having the ability to pursue the religious path by their own strength. Christianity holds the opposite view, stating that our "true inner nature" is sin and therefore all our efforts aimed at earning God’s favor are useless.
As a result of the resources of human nature, the actual way of getting saved will take two divergent courses. Religions that claim we have all the resources in ourselves stress personal effort, realized as good deeds, devotional rituals, meditation techniques, physical asceticism, accumulating wisdom, etc. The situation in Christianity is again opposite, stating that we cannot do anything to deserve salvation and eternal communion with God, but must only accept his grace revealed in Jesus Christ. By no means can one have God indebted to him or her. Therefore the course of action in salvation works in the opposite direction. It is God who takes the initiative and descends into his own creation in order to save us, not humans accumulating merits and working out their way toward God by their own strength.
Concerning the meaning of salvation from an eternal perspective, the views are again irreconcilable. In the pantheistic religions salvation corresponds to the fusion of the impersonal self with the Absolute, implying dissolution of knower and known. Others, such as Buddhism and Taoism, take salvation as an illumination, meaning a discovery of and conformity of oneself with an eternal law that governs existence. For most Eastern religions liberation equals extinction of personal existence, whether the self remains eternally isolated (according to the Samkhya and Yoga darshanas), merges with the Ultimate Reality (in pantheism), or is itself an illusion that ceases to exist (in Buddhism). Dualistic religions see human salvation as a return to an initial angelic state, from which one has fallen into a physical body.
The monotheistic religions define salvation as entering a state of eternal communion with God, which means that personhood will not be abolished but perfected. However, they differ greatly on the way one can be saved and on the role Jesus Christ has in it. According to Judaism and Islam, salvation is attained by performing good deeds and following the moral law. According to Christianity this is not enough and the role of Jesus Christ as Savior is essential.
Given these facts, it is impossible that the world’s religions could be only aspects of the same true spirituality, as present day syncretism suggests. The contradictions between them are so significant that there can be no way to reconcile them.