Heaven and Nirvana

Are heaven and nirvana the same, or at least similar? In this post we look closely at this question. First, there are a number of ways that heaven, as it is described in the Bible, is similar to the nirvana that the Buddha described:

  • In each there is no suffering or death.
  • Both heaven and nirvana are luminous throughout.
  • Those who attain either transcendent state do so forever. There is perfect peace of mind. Upon approaching its entry there is a feeling of relief from a prior state of bondage.
  • Sadly, regarding both, many people exist outside of these permanent states of bliss.

STRIKING DIFFERENCES

Yet, there are very striking differences.[1]  Nirvana is purely a mental state, with no physical existence. In contrast, heaven as described in the Bible is a physical place as well as a mental and spiritual reality.

To enter heaven, one must leave the earth. In contrast, nirvana, as a state of mind, can be attained while still living on earth. The Buddha was in such a state during the 45 years after his enlightenment until his death at age 80.

In Buddhism, it is not proper to speculate on one’s status in nirvana. On the other hand, Christians are exhorted to “set your mind on things above.”[2]

Nirvana is outside of all conceivable experience. In contrast, the Bible provides many concrete, down-to-earth details about heaven. We are, however, informed that “no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.”[3]

Those who attain nirvana are said to attain a state of omniscience. There is no evidence in the Bible that people in heaven attain that level of knowledge. ­­

There is no mention of being in the presence of God or of other people while in nirvana. In contrast, God dwells physically with the inhabitants of heaven, who can see the face of God. We are also told that the inhabitants of heaven are the “bride of Christ,”[4] implying close, frequent interaction.

Another major contrast is that the number of people who have reached nirvana may well be just a few hundred. The distinct impression the Bible makes regarding the number of inhabitants of heaven is that it is on the order of tens if not hundreds of millions.[5]

Going back to the first major difference, while nirvana does not exist physically, the Bible provides many detailed descriptions of the physical characteristics of heaven. It is a city that is 1,500 miles wide, 1,500 miles deep and 1,500 miles high.[6] This city has 12 gates, with three on each side,[7] like the current Jerusalem. In it fountains of the water of life are given freely to all who thirst.[8] There is no sun or moon, yet there is no light, because the glory of God illuminates everything.[9] Finally, it has streets of gold and gates of jewels.[10]

How far is 1,500 miles? That is about the distance from Seattle to Des Moines, or from Denver to Washington DC, or from LA to Kansas City, KS, or from London to Athens. Such a vast cube would contain 3,375,000,000 cubic miles. So, if every person alive today were to go to heaven, each would have about half a cubic mile of space to occupy. That is not to say that everyone in heaven would be that spread out, but rather that there would plenty of room for national parks and other natural wonders.

Given all the above differences, a reasonable conclusion is that heaven and nirvana are not the same.


[1] “Nirvana,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nirvana, retrieved February 19, 2013. Information from this extensive article on Nirvana has been referenced throughout this blog.

[2] Colossians 3:2, NKJV.

[3] 1 Corinthians 2:9, NIV.

[4] Revelation 21:9.

[5] Revelation 21:24.

[6] Revelation 21:16.

[7] Revelation 21:12-13.

[8] Revelation 21:6.

[9] Revelation 21:23.

[10] Revelation 21:21.