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Rewards and Punishment

This one is a little different, as the question is longer than the answer, but I thought it would be good to print the whole thing, as there is quite a lot of good information:


It came up in a conversation that the majority of religions are based on a ‘reward’ system. By this, I mean if we perform good will towards man, we will be granted eternal happiness. For those that falter throughout life, continuously acting upon transgressions, they are sent back on the continuous wheel of life known as rebirth or sent to the flames of Hell.

Muslims follow the Koran, which provides vivid descriptions of both Heaven and Hell. Heaven is viewed upon as “Worldly Delights”. Whereas torments of Hell are explained in lurid detail. On Judgment Day, Allah will rise and determine ones destiny. Also being described as, “passing over Hell on a narrow bridge in order to enter ‘Paradise’, or Heaven. Those who fall, weighted by their bad deeds, will remain in Hell forever.”

Hinduism states that in order to be freed from the endless rounds of birth, death, and rebirth, one must follow a life completely devoted to the Brahman. Their afterlives continue in many forms, and in many different worlds depending on how one lived his/her life on earth. Good for good, bad for bad, etc. In fact, neither life nor after-life are permanent unless the soul is liberated. Liberation is defined as “freedom from the individual soul from the cycle of births and deaths, from the sense of duality and separation, and union with Brahman, the supreme soul.”

In the Jewish religion, they await the coming of the Messiah, where he will hand out the eternal judgment and reward to all. One large belief in Judaism is that their entire Jewish race and the whole of creation will be judged, as opposed to individual men. Again, it comes down to good for the good, bad for the bad, etc.

Christianity is a strong representation of this view. Those that follow God, abiding by his will, will be rewarded upon death with eternal happiness, and into the gates of Heaven. Those that turn their face from God, performing a life of everlasting sin, will be doomed to the gates of Hell. “He who overcomes shall inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be My son. But for the cowardly and unbelieving…their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.” Revelation 21:8.

And finally, with Buddhism, the doctrine is summed up in the Four Noble Truths: Life is suffering; The origin of suffering is attachment; The cessation of suffering is attainable; The path to the cessation of suffering, The way down that path is known as the Noble Eightfold Path. As well as the FNT, we have to factor in Karma. In Buddhism, from what I’ve learned, it is basically the result of our own past actions and our own present doings. In other words, we are responsible for our own happiness and misery, “the architects of our own fate.”

And finally my question: Why is it that Religions have to be so black and white regarding eternal happiness. Shouldn’t Religion and Spirituality be celebrated as Love? If God is Love, or the God of your understanding, then why would such a world be created in which suffering and pain is inevitable. Thus creating opportunities and “excuses” for sin. Creating anger and hatred, revenge and spite, good and evil. Shouldn’t everyone be granted eternal happiness? Not forced into the cycle of rebirth, in the sense of “try try again? Shouldn’t all men and woman be accepted for who they are, and not judged by their actions? Which, by the way, are all a result of ones family life, and how their father treated their mother, grandfather to grandmother, so on and so forth. Our minds exploited by the information and beliefs of our elders. We are all products of societies influence, generation after generation. And are a direct result of our environment. Love should be rewarded with love, as should pain, suffering, anger, hatred and the like.

What is your take on all of this, from a Buddhist’s standpoint?


I’m going to turn off “Buddhist-teacher mode” for this one and put on my old Comparative Religions hat for this one to look at it from the outside. This answer has a lot to it, so if I offend anyone, I apologize in advance. Take issue with it in the comment section if you want, better yet, add your ideas!

Whether or not there is a God behind any of it, all religions seek to explain the world around us and also answer the big questions, such as what happens when we die? How they answer these questions lies partially in the cultures and regions from which they came. Those in the East involve reincarnation, while those in the West involve some higher power that sits in judgment.

The last line of your own question, “Love should be rewarded with love, as should pain, suffering, anger, hatred and the like,” explains the rest. Humans have an innate need for fairness and justice. If I spend my life helping others, being generous and compassionate, etc. and my neighbor is a greedy, cheating, liar, then what’s fair about that? The afterlife, in most religions, is there to balance the scales. That nasty old neighbor will get what’s coming to him later when I enjoy my rewards! Pain should be rewarded with pain, hatred with hatred, and so forth; you reap what you sow; karma; it’s all a form of eternal justice to make up for the inequities of this life.

The source of the idea that “God is love,” is 1 John 4:8, yet beyond that one line, there isn’t much evidence of that. The line has been blown way out of proportion in my opinion. According to everything else in the Bible, God is a person or being with desires, plans, and wishes of his own; he’s not a generic entity such as Love. You asked, “Should religions and spirituality be interpreted as love?” Why? Religions are there to explain the world, and if the people in a certain area don’t see love as the highest ideal, then that’s not going to be reflected in their religion.

Much of your question is also based around an old theological trap called “The Problem of Evil.” You may have heard it before, but here it is. It’s from Christian theology, but it applies to Islam and most other god-centric religions:

1. God is all-knowing and all-powerful.
2. God is perfectly good, wanting only the best for us.
3. There is evil and suffering in the world.

Do each of those statements look true to you? They should.But taken as a whole they contradict each other. If God is good and wants the best for us, then how can Evil exist? Either God cannot cannot defeat evil or he won’t for some reason. If he cannot, then #1 is wrong. If he will not, then #2 is wrong.

Buddhism, as in many other things, is a bit different than all this. Whether or not you believe in the more religious flavors of Buddhism, they all place an emphasis on this world. You are supposed to do your best to follow Buddha’s Path now, not after death. By doing so, we build a better world right here. This is one reason Buddhism is so vague on Nirvana or “Heaven,” no one knows what it really is, and we’re not that attached to getting there (if you think of it as a place at all). It’s not the goal that really matters, it’s the life and the practice that matter.

Right Now.

12 comments to Rewards and Punishment

  • Jeffrey Smith

    In my studies of religions, I’ve seen most talk of acting good. Good, however, depends most on the actions that those in charge find best for their public to be ruled by. Mean, some preach death to those who oppose, the quick path to their Nirvana/Heaven.
    Best route, I see, to be a loose leaf. Go where the wind takes you. Offer refreshing breeze to those you pass. Take rain, sleet, snow, shine, as they do arrive, accepting it is out of your control. All the while, picking up what can be absorbed by your thoughts to bring aid in reaching enlightenment.
    Jeffrey R. Smith

  • Let’s toss out the afterlife concepts altogether. Let’s practice what the Daoists simply refer to as a complete abandonment of judgment and focus on the here in now regardless of our religious viewpoint. Does that provide human beings with too much power over their existence here? It should. Yet, we can still arrive at the goodness and love that many religions offer BEYOND what they simply describe in their sacred texts.

    1. Practice the golden or silver rule: Do unto others. Love your neighbor as yourself. Or, as the Dalai Lama suggests, place your thoughts fully into the conditions of your enemy so as to understand their position, too.

    2. Be mindful of the Four Noble Truths and the 8-fold Path.

    3. Ignore the concept of creed, which supposedly gives salvation, but does not always give present salvation to others within this here and now presence. If I am illuminated here or I illuminated somebody else now, then they have achieved present salvation. I cannot control the corpse soul and all the other predetermined creeds we should say to raise that corpse soul. The corpse soul is on its own because I know not it in this life.

    4. Reduce hierarchy. If you are the president of a company, do not be afraid of talking to the janitor about ideas. A janitor will illuminate you as much as the managers of your company.

    I could go on, but these four principles in one form or another are more important than an afterlife we cannot know. That is certainly why the Buddhists take a non-theistic approach to reality. We can invent rules and regulations that determine the future-self, but nobody really knows what that future self will become since there truly is not a permanent, fixed identity to measure it by.


  • Natural law may provide an intuitive sense of right and wrong. But natural law must do so along side a dialectacal form of reasoning.

    A blind person does not know what it is like to ‘see’. Born in darkness, the blind person does not really ontologically experience ‘blindness’, unless she once could ‘see’. Dig deeper, the poor do not know the concept of poverty, unless they were once wealthy.

    So, justice can only be appreciated by its opposite, ‘injustice’. Without injustice, a dim sense of justices remains, which really isn’t justice at all. Good must exist because Evil exists. Within metaphysical claims, a symbolism of truth must evolve a poetic language to explain this intuitive enigma. Naturally, the symbols choosen are different religiously and philosophically.
    We remain in Plato’s caves andt without Evil in the world the shadows of justice, of truth, of God, of Nirvana, would flicker no longer. We remember Adam and Eve having no concept of Good and Evil until after the Fall. Like a kabalist or Sufi, a Buddhist will sense a koan here and in answering it, we may realise the reasons for a God and the reasons for the existence of evil.

  • Alicia

    If you look at ancient religions(especially ancient Egypt) you see that most cultures are obsessed with the afterlife and the concept of good and evil and justice. I think this is because as humans, we are fundamentally concerned with ourselves and what will happen to us when we die. I also think that we look to the future, especially if we don’t like the present. The idea that doing something “good” now will be rewarded, even if you don’t like what you’re doing. I feel that, from personal experience, Christianity is very concerned with appearances and looking good to others. To me this undercuts some of the good you do, because it’s not self-sacrafice, since you believe you will eventually be rewarded in one way or another. What you said at the end, about the life and practice being the things that matter now, is one of the reasons I really appreciate Buddhism.

  • Shanti

    I agree with your statement, “if people don’t see love at it’s highest ideal then it’s not going to be reflected in their religion”. It’s easy for one to get carried away by the story rather than their own application of just being.

  • darren

    this really is a difficult one to answer as its getting into territory that i went into some years ago and did’nt like what i found, i am talking what you would call “organised religions” as in catholicism,church of england,evangelism and so on.
    the idea that if you are good good will happen and if you are bad bad will happen i think is more prevelant within the christian belief system how many times have you heard a minister saying “you’ll burn in hell for your unbelieving”.
    i’m sorry to say but if there is a God i’m damm sure he is not that nasty. trouble is i think some of the meaning of the bible has been blown out of proportion and lost along the way somewhere.
    i don’t believe it was meant to be used as a vitriolic attack on someone elses beliefs but more as a guidance.
    it’s up to us all to define how we act and behave we all know right and wrong it’s just up to us to use a bit of common sense and see things for what they really are.
    if you can say at the end of your life yes i have been a good man/woman then i think thats all that matters a belief in oneself, the rest will follow.


  • Abe Simpson

    I think Brian has done a good job of answering the dogma.

    I would like to focus on; Shouldn’t all men and woman be accepted for who they are, and not judged by their actions? Which, by the way, are all a result of ones family life, and how their father treated their mother, grandfather to grandmother, so on and so forth. Our minds exploited by the information and beliefs of our elders. We are all products of societies influence, generation after generation. And are a direct result of our environment.

    In short, NO! This belief will keep you living deep in Dhuka.

    Your actions are your only true belongings. You cannot escape the consequences of your actions. Your actions are the ground upon which you stand.

    The belief that you are the sum of your fathers sins and your failure to recognize the results of your own actions is in part what conditions your mind. The goal of Buddhist practice is to free yourself from this conditioned mind. The practice of Buddhsim isn’t a practice for the afterlife it is a practice relevant to the now.


  • Adi

    Hey! I’m from Peru! I love love love daily buddhism and think it’s a wonderful way to learn more and more things about buddhism than we would on our normal Western world!
    My opinion on this is that i agree with most of it, except for the part which states that those 3 statements of the “Problem of Evil” contradict each other. I think God does want the best for us, but who ever said Evil was not part of the best for us? Or even suffering was not part of the best for us? For without Evil, suffering or any other “bad” thing, there could not exist Good, pleasure, happiness in this physical World. We could not know good if there were not bad, up if there were no down, light is there were not dark. It’s like the ying and yang and i believe every part of the whole must exist in order for us to experience the whole. We should not condemn it, instead we should praise it, for it gives us the chance to know what’s “good”.
    For more detail on this i suggest reading the series of books “Conversations with GOd”. It’s nothing religious, just an open view on God. Buddhist philosophy fits very much with those books. I strongly recommend it!!!

    And i have a quick question about buddhism. Do buddhism involves believing in such a thing as a God? Or maybe a higher power? Some kind of supreme force, even if it’s just LOVE? The universe? I’m not really sure about this, please help me with this doubt. Thank you so much!!!!

  • Adi;

    Buddhism doesn’t really say for sure about there being a god or supreme being in the universe. Buddha himself said there was no way to know for sure, so it was not a productive question. We can speculate about the existence of God all we want, but there’s no way to really KNOW. It *IS* possible to come to know yourself, so that is a more useful goal.

    Buddhism doesn’t DENY that there is a God, but neither do they claim that there is such a being. This is why many Christians and Jews also practice aspects of Buddhism; it’s not contradictory to those faiths.

  • Timothy Hilgenberg

    Brian – you’re spot on! I’d like to add to this that religion beyond seeking to offer an explanation for how things work in the world also has a political element, it’s about offering “crowd pleasing” promises so that the ruling class can continue to enjoy the trappings of power without the peasants revolting. It’s pure and simple Darwinian theory – survival of the fittest: if I haven’t got the strength or force to subdue my opponent physically, but I have an idea that can do that for me ….
    Like Brian says, Buddhism is different in this aspect, it’s more like many of the more modern day “self-help” approaches: “face the fear and do it anyway” – it’s about looking within you, understanding where your fears/anger/hate (you name it) come from and trying to find the true motivation. Similar thoughts are found in Polynesian ideas of Huna and in modern day Neuro-Linguistic Programming, it’s about seeing reality for what it is.

    Unlike other religions there is no room for hierarchy or power broking in the Tathagata’s approach to life… however that does not mean the adherents always follow his teachings as those teachings were given – Christianity is a good example where the adherents probably largely don’t follow Jesus’ teachings – what most of them follow are aspects of the old testament aimed at ruling and they are essentially homophobic (not the same as love thy neighbour), anti-different (Thou shalt not suffer a witch), misogynistic (Couldn’t have a son so slept with the maid) …

    Open your eye and see yourself, only then you can start seeing others for what they truly are and not for what you see in them.

  • SG

    Just a small contention on what you believe Christianity to teach. You worded it as a ‘works’ oriented religion. It is ‘faith’ based. Accepting or rejecting Christ’s atonement for humanity’s sins.

  • SG;

    Just to make it clear, the original question came from a reader, not me, so those descriptions are not my words. I am fully aware of what Christianity teaches. Either way, the “Faith” vs. “Works” argument has gone on forever. It’s yet another of those pesky “point of view” things. I was brought up in Christianity and was always talk it was both faith AND works. I realize that’s not the only way it’s taught.