According to the dual doctrines of karma and reincarnation, salvation comes by human effort. Karma Yoga focuses on ridding oneself from all negative karma by achieving perfection in thoughts, words and deeds. When the seeker for ‘liberation’ attains this goal (through ascetic practices, good deeds, righteous actions, ceremonies, sacrifices, pilgrimages and contemplation), he then begins to sow only positive karma into his future. Once such a character cleansing is consistent, uninterrupted by error, release from the cycle of rebirths is inevitable.
This foundational concept is common to Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and sometimes in Sikhism (though in this religion there is a strong teaching against asceticism and a strong belief in the grace of God). Other esoteric sects and New Age groups embrace reincarnation as the true journey of the soul, such as ECKANKAR, Kabbalism and Theosophy, as well as numerous swamis, gurus, and mystics. These, and almost all other religious expressions in this world—including the Mideastern religions that teach just one earthly existence—place the burden of attaining ‘salvation’ upon the weary shoulders of human beings.
There is no greater example of this ‘salvation by works’ perspective than the foundational doctrines of Buddhism. When Buddha was ‘enlightened’ under the Bodhi tree, he claimed to receive the following insights that became the main foundation stones of his worldview:
“The Four Noble Truths”
(1) Life is filled with suffering and pain (dukkha, also said to mean “imperfection, emptiness and impermanence”).
(2) The cause of suffering is desire (tanha, craving, thirst) for things such as existence, prosperity, achievement, and pleasure.
(3) The only way to overcome suffering (nirodha) is to overcome desire.
(4) This is accomplished by following the Eightfold Path (magga), enumerated below:
“The Eightfold Path”
(1) Right Knowledge
(2) Right Thought
(3) Right Speech
(4) Right Conduct
(5) Right Livelihood
(6) Right Effort
(7) Right Mindfulness
(8) Right Meditation.
By doing everything ‘right’ the sojourner through time can finally experience release from maya (the delusion of this realm), from karma (in Buddhism kamma—the law of cause and effect), and from samsara (the cycle of rebirths). Followers of this path are striving to overcome “the four basic evils—sensuality, the desire to perpetuate one’s own existence, wrong belief and ignorance.” The disciple who so perfects his character, lifestyle, and mindset is a candidate for Nirvana (cessation of desire and release from self). For most Buddhists, Nirvana is not interpreted as annihilation, for Buddhists do not believe there is a personal self to annihilate. It is instead, the end of individuality and separateness. One writer explains, “Denial of identity does not imply denial of continuity.”
This sought-after peak on the mountain of spirituality is similar in some respects to what other religious groups have called Samadhi, Christ Consciousness, or Ultimate Bliss. However, it is slightly different. Most Hindus believe the self will ultimately be absorbed into Brahman, like a drop of water falling into the ocean. The traditional Buddhist believes that there is no enduring ‘self, ’so the end result would be more like that same drop of water evaporating infinitely. Pursuing the “Eightfold Path” and doing everything right is certainly a commendable goal in life (and I respect Gautama Buddha and all his followers for their passionate pursuit of this objective). However, it should be noted that the interpretation of right knowledge, thought, speech, conduct, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and meditation can be radically different within a Christian context as opposed to a Buddhist one–for one word can represent completely incompatible and contradictory ideas in the two worldviews. Undoubtedly, though, this whole process of the “eightfold path” is simply “salvation by works”–trying to climb a mountain that cannot be scaled by human effort.
One writer explains, “Man’s position, according to Buddhism, is supreme. Man is his own master, and there is no higher being or power that sits in judgment over his destiny.” In contrast, the Bible teaches that we are to trust God for our salvation: “The salvation of the righteous is of the Lord: he is their strength in the time of trouble. And the Lord shall help them, and deliver them…and save them, because they trust in him.” (Psalm 37:39–40 KJV) We are required to come to him with contrition (godly sorrow): “The Lord is near to those who have a broken heart, and saves such as have a contrite spirit.” (Psalm 34:18) Finally, we are expected to exercise simple faith in his promises: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
Once repentant persons receive Jesus into their hearts, their sins are forgiven, and they have the promise of access into the presence of God and access into heaven at the moment of death (if they have been authentically “born again”) (Ephesians 2:18). One scripture says to be “absent from the body” is to be “present with the Lord.” (2 Corinthians 5:8) No wonder Paul concluded: “And you he made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins…For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” (Ephesians 2:1, 8, 9)
Not only did Paul believe in salvation by grace (unmerited favor from God), he had a personal experience of the power of this promise. Prior to his conversion experience, he was a persecutor of Christians and even caused the deaths of some believers. According to the doctrine of karma, Paul should have suffered severe retribution for his violent acts. According to his own testimony, he instead obtained mercy. (See 1 Timothy 1:13–14.) He was forgiven of God. Immediate upon salvation, he became an heir to eternal life, and later on, one of the greatest apostles to bear the message of the Gospel. What a radical proof of the power of the cross—especially to those who feel lost in a maze of their own failures!
Of course, salvation is not an absolute cure-all for all of life’s woes. Those who are saved may still suffer. They may still go through painful situations, some of them quite extreme. Failures may come, sometimes followed by grievous consequences. There is no guarantee of anything different as long as we are in this world. Even though Jesus, the Son of God, walked in perfect oneness with the Father, he still suffered because of the temptations he faced (Hebrews 2:18) and the persecution he endured (1 Peter 1:11). He also warned his disciples, “In the world you will have tribulation,” but he followed that admonition with the command, “Be of good cheer!” (John 16:33)
One of the most glorious Bible promises foretells that “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18, See 2 Corinthians 4:17.) Suffering will finally cease for the children of God. Once eternity dawns for us, our inheritance of ultimate peace and joy will be “to the praise of the glory of His grace” by which God has brought us into a relationship with himself. (Ephesians 1:6) Yes, in the end, it will rebound to God’s credit, not ours.
I have said it many times, and I will say it again, “Religion is man’s effort to reach God (or ultimate reality), but Jesus was God’s effort to reach man.” Once you discover the truth in that statement, your whole life will change.
 David J. Kaluapahana, Buddhist Philosophy: A Historical Analysis (Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1976); quoted in Norman L. Geisler & J. Yutaka Amano, The Reincarnation Sensation (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1986) p. 174, footnote #13.
 Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught (New York: Grove Press, 1974) p. 1; quoted in J. Isamu Yamamoto, Buddhism, Taoism & Other Far Eastern Religions (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998) p. 45.
Copyright © 2003 Mike Shreve