Are All Religions the Same?
About the Guest
On the broadcast today, Dennis Rainey talks with Tim Muehlhoff and J.P. Moreland, both professors at Biola University, about how to answer questions non-believers ask about God. Today, Tim and J.P. clarify the differences between Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam, explaining why all religious views are not created equal.
Tim MuehlhoffTim Muehlhoff (PhD, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) is a professor of communication at Biola University in La Mirada, California, where he teaches classes in family communication, interpersonal communication, persuasion, and gender. He is the author of I Beg to Differ and Marriage Forecasting, and the coauthor of The God Conversation, Authentic Communication, and Winsome Persuasion, which received a 2018 Christianity Today...more
On the broadcast today, Dennis Rainey talks with Tim Muehlhoff and J.P. Moreland, both professors at Biola University, about how to answer questions non-believers ask about God.
Are All Religions the Same?
J.P.: I was speaking at a fraternity years ago at the University of Massachusetts, and a gentleman raised this very problem – "All religions are the same, we shouldn't judge other people's as wrong," and I said to him, "Tell me what my mother looks like?" I asked three guys, "What does my mother look like?" They all gave different answers.
And I responded by saying, "Now, you can't all be right. She can't weight 100 pounds, 120 pounds, 140 pounds all at the same time." And, similarly, all the different religions can't be true because they contradict one another.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, June 26th. Our host is the president of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. There are some tough questions that can get thrown our way when we're having a conversation with others about God. But there are answers for those questions. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today, thanks for joining us. Where did God come from?
Dennis: Where did that question come from?
Dennis: We've been starting radio, now, Bob, coming up on 16 years.
Dennis: Thank you for asking that question.
Bob: Well, I'm just sitting here trying to say …
Dennis: He has no beginning, Bob, He is eternal. You know that.
Bob: I know that, but I'm just trying to think of the questions that get introduced into conversation when you're having conversations about God.
Dennis: Let's ask our guests.
Bob: That's a good idea.
Dennis: Our guests are professors and a well-known Christian university, and if anybody knows where He came from, J.P. Moreland or Tim Muehlhoff do. Okay, Tim?
Tim: Uh, J.P.?
J.P.: Here is the simple answer – "Johnny, God didn't come from anywhere because He's always been here."
Dennis: It's Bobby not Johnny.
J.P.: Yes, I know that. I was talking to little Johnny, but little Bobby would work, too. But there is another way to answer this, actually, that may be interesting. Suppose that I went to you and said, "Could I borrow a typewriter?" And you said, "Absolutely. I don't own one, but let me borrow one, and I'll give it to you." So you go to someone and say, "I'd like to loan a typewriter to my friend. Could I borrow one from you?" And the person says, "Absolutely. Unfortunately, I don't own a typewriter. Let me go get one."
Well, if you keep doing that, then no one is going to get a typewriter, because everyone is a borrowing lender that has to get a typewriter first. Eventually, you're going to have to stop with somebody who just has a typewriter who doesn't have to borrow it first.
Now, the same thing is true for existing. If I have to be given existence by something before I can give existence to my children, whatever gave existence to me – if it had to get existence from something else, you eventually have to stop with something that just has a typewriter – that just exists and doesn't come from anywhere.
Bob: Now, that is a great illustration, and I think we ought to explain to our listeners why I started the program by asking where God came from.
Dennis: Well, we're talking about how to have a conversation about matters of faith with a friend, a neighbor, maybe another young person at school, collegian talking to another college student, sharing their faith in Jesus Christ in a non-offensive way but yet in a bold way, in an aggressive way, and how to get into the conversation.
Bob: And I asked the question I did because oftentimes, when you're having a conversation with a skeptic, or with somebody who is not particularly religious, there are a handful of questions, Tim, that re-emerge every time, and some Christians feel like, "Well, if I don't have a typewriter answer for that question, then I'm going to be shut out, the conversation is over, and I effectively have lost the debate.
Tim: That's right. And you know what's funny, Bob, is we have this conversation in our mind before we ever have it with a real person. In our mind, we think, "Oh, what if they say this? Oh, what if they ask this question? I have no idea." So I'm not going to have the conversation.
Dennis: You talk yourself out of the conversation.
Tim: Completely. You never even have it, and I love what you said to a person who asked you a question – you just said, "I don't know, I really don't know the answer to that," and it's because some of our listeners are saying, "I have no idea what I would say if somebody asked where did God come from, and I think I understand J.P.'s illustration, but not enough to share it," so then I'm just not going to have the conversation for fear of that one question.
Tim: Today, when we teach communication, authenticity, honestly, if you have every answer to every question, it actually kind of works against you, because the person starts to think, "You can't know every single answer to every question." Then they try to stump you with bogus questions, but when you look at a person and just say to them, "Listen, honestly, I just – I don't know." And I think we could say to a person, "Let me get back to you. If you'd like to continue this conversation, I would love to, and I need to do a little bit of homework."
Dennis: Both of you gentlemen are professors. J.P., you teach at Talbot Seminary. Tim, you teach at Biola University, and you've teamed up for this book, "The God Conversation," which is using stories and illustrations to explain your faith, and one of the things you talk about here, just in terms of beginning the conversation, is the importance of understanding what really communicates, sticks, and stays in a person's mind.
Tim: Well, when you teach communication, it can be really depressing, because you come across facts that just, as a teacher, as a speaker, one of them is after a conversation, or you listen to your pastor give a sermon …
Dennis: Are you talking like this broadcast? After this broadcast is over.
Tim: Yes, after this broadcast, people will immediately forget half of everything that was said.
Dennis: Not what Bob says, though.
Tim: No, not what Bob says. That's probably …
Dennis: I better remember that question that he opened the broadcast for a long time.
J.P.: And he's going to get letters asking to borrow a typewriter, too, I'll tell you.
Tim: Well, some of our listeners are saying, "What's a typewriter? I have no idea." So immediately when something is finished, a conversation, a talk sermon, you forget half, then eight hours later it's down to 20 percent. Now, people who study communication have been very interested, what's the 20 percent that people really do retain? And the answer is stories, illustrations, examples, are what people really remember. We start the book with an illustration that I heard 25 years ago, and it's about two elderly ladies in West Virginia.
An adult bookstore opened in this fairly small community, and these ladies were incensed. So they go to the owner of the bookstore, and they say, "Would you consider closing down and just moving on?" And the speaker said the response was not favorable. So they decided to stand out in front of this adult bookstore with cameras and every time somebody came out of the bookstore, they would snap a picture of these – can you imagine that? "Mr. Johnson, lovely tie," chk, chk.
Well, they did this for three and a half months. At the end of three and a half months, the guy closes down the bookstore, and the woman confesses at the very end, "I have to tell you, we didn't even have film in the cameras."
Well, I heard that 25 years ago, and I remember the illustration and the point the guy was making, which was about community activism, everybody can make a difference in their community, here are two elderly ladies. Twenty-five years later, I remember that.
And that's the principle of the book.
J.P.: Well, and the important thing about this principle is we are concerned to empower people to have more courage and have more enthusiasm about talking about spiritual matters with their friends. We want people to overcome the barriers that hinder them from having the confidence to share these things with their friends, and we also want them to be more effective.
And so we wrote "The God Conversation," by and large, to give people hands-on tools, hands-on illustrations, usable stories, that they could use that would give them a sense of courage about sharing their faith and make them more effective in leading something with a person they'd remember.
Bob: Let me raise one of those questions that comes up often in presidential election years. It's the idea that, really, all religious views are the same; that as long as someone is sincere in what they believe, that sincerity is somehow pleasing to God, and you should not criticize or critique anyone's personal convictions. Now, that's dominant in the culture today, isn't it?
J.P.: Yes, it is. Now, let me tell you an illustration that answers that, and then, Tim, I'd like you to share one about the maze that we have in the book. I was speaking at a fraternity years ago at the University of Massachusetts, and a gentleman raised this very problem – "All religions are the same, we shouldn't judge other people's as wrong," and I said to him, "Tell me what my mother looks like?" He said, "I have no idea what she looks like. I've never met you before." I said, "Give it your best shot." So he said, "Oh, she's five feet tall, probably weighs 100 pounds and has blond hair. I asked another gentleman, "What does my mother look like?" "Five-two, 110 pounds, gray hair." I asked three guys, "What does my mother look like?" They all gave different answers.
And I responded by saying, "Now, you can't all be right. My mom can't be five-two, five feet tall, and five-four at the same time; she can't weight 100 pounds, 120 pounds, 140 pounds all at the same time." "Now," I said, "Sir, you think my mom is five feet tall and has blond hair. You can believe that all you want, in fact, you could raise money, you could send missionaries to all corners of the world and persuade half a billion people to believe that my mom is 100 pounds and has blond hair, but that's not going to change anything if she's five-four.
So I said "All these different views of my mother can't be correct, because they contradict one another and, similarly, all the different religions can't be true because they contradict one another." One religion says there is no God. Another religion says there are 330 million gods. Another says there's one God, and Jesus was His Son. Another says that there is one God, and if you think Jesus was His Son, you are an infidel.
So these religions can't all be right anymore than these contradictory descriptions of a person's mother could all be right, because they can't be fitted together.
Dennis: And another way that you talk about it in your book is around the illustration of roads leading to the top of the mountain – some get there quicker than others, but we all arrive at the same place, at least that's what people believe.
Tim: Well, we talked about defeater beliefs, and I think this is one of the most powerful defeater beliefs people have, and that's exactly what you said, Dennis. It doesn't matter what religion, you just have to be sincere. And people – the more we learn about religions, the more we understand that religions have a history; that they have sacred books; that they have people within their religions that are pretty remarkable people. The mistake I think we make is, "Well, let me go after your religion, and here are five things I have a problem with Hinduism," or "Five things I have a problem with Islam." I think that's just a huge mistake.
Dennis: Back to what J.P. was talking about – the height of his mother – the point of this is that your mother is what she is. There is a standard. She is, what, how tall?
J.P.: She's five-four.
Bob: Well, and you can produce her to demonstrate that. I mean, you could have said to that group, "All right, I asked the question, here from behind the curtain is my mother, and we're going to see who is right and who is wrong." The challenge in the coffee shop when somebody says, "Well, this is what I believe about God," and somebody else says, "This is what I believe about God," is we can't say, "Well, God, come out and show us what you're like."
J.P.: You know, Bob, I'm not quite so sure we have to produce her, because if you compare me, for example, with the other three men in that conversation, I was the only one that had the credentials that gave me the right to speak about my mother. And I think what we've done in the book is to say Jesus has demonstrated that He has the credentials to speak about His Father in a way that others don't, because He performed miracles, and He rose from the dead. So that if He really rose from the dead, and if I really am my mother's son, then I and Jesus have the credentials to speak about God even if we don't produce Him.
Now, there are other ways to address it, but that's one response to that problem. And I think, Tim, in the book, has woven into "The God Conversation," some very interesting things about this mountaintop problem that Dennis raised just a few minutes ago.
Tim: We suggest with the mountain path analogy, one of the biggest problems is take what different people are saying on different paths, and just compare them with each other. For instance, let's ask a very simple question – who is at the top of the mountain? If we're all on a mountain trying to get to God, when you finally get to the mountain, who is at the top? Well, Buddhism would say no one is at the top. Buddhism does not believe in a personal god. Hindus would say there's 1,000 gods at the top of the mountain. Muslims would say there is one god, and his name is Allah, and any suggestion that there is somebody else other than Allah is really blasphemy to a Muslim. Christians would want to say, Jesus Christ alone is at the top of the mountain.
So – you ask the question – is there no god, 1,000 gods, or one god? They all just can't be true, and that just doesn't make sense for them all to be true. So the mountain path analogy, which I think is the working definition people have of religion today is deeply flawed. It just doesn't make sense that all of these paths wildly contradict each other.
We offer a different analogy. We call it the "maze" analogy. Let's imagine that it's not all paths leading up a mountain, let's imagine that it's a maze. They actually talk about the Hampton Court maze in England, where you go in, it's all shrubbery that I think is 10 feet tall, and you go, and you get wonderfully all mixed up. When you walk into the maze, immediately, you have to make a decision. Do I take this route or do I go a different route?
Bob: Or go right or left, right?
Tim: Yeah, do I go right or left? You can't do both. And some of those routes actually go very deep into the maze. The goal is to get to the center. Others end very quickly. So people would go into the Hampton Court Maze, and they would get horribly lost when it opened in the 1700s. Well, that problem doesn't exist today because they now have a stand that is above the entire maze, and there's a guide who actually stands above the maze, and he can shout down to you, "Dennis, you're stuck. You need to turn around and go to your right. Bob, yeah, that's going to lead you to a dead end." And so if you're frustrated about being in this maze, and you turn around, and I can get you to the center.
Dennis: I've been in that maze.
Tim: Have you really?
Dennis: And there was nobody on the stand in the middle coaching me. People don't think you could walk in the midst of shrubs and totally be lost. Barbara and I were in this thing and, I'm telling you, we did not know which way to go, but we did need that person in the middle going, "No, left. No, you've already been in that dead end three times."
Tim: And we're arguing in the book that Jesus has the qualifications to be that guide. Now, immediately, somebody is going to say, "Okay, why Jesus and not Buddha? Why not Ghandi?" That is a totally valid question. That's why we dedicate two chapters in the book to the Resurrection of Christ, which we believe is Jesus's – one of His strongest qualifications to be the guide.
Bob: That's the trump card in all of this. Paul says without the Resurrection, our faith is in vain. When it gets right down to it, that's what differentiates Jesus from any other religious figure, right?
J.P.: Well I debated a pretty well-known atheist a few years ago who mentioned, "Why not Buddha? Why not Mohammed?" And my response was, "For one thing, Buddha is in his grave, and he's dead, and his body has rotted. Mohammed is in his grave, and he's dead. Jesus's grave is empty, and He's still alive." And if you have a death problem, that's not a bad thing to know about the man.
So the idea is that if Jesus didn't raise from the dead, then all bets are off. But if he did, and if the New Testament documents are reliable, they provide solid information that we're not dealing with an ordinary man here.
Now, what we want to insist on in "The God Conversation" is that you don't have to be a scholar to be able to answer these questions. There are a few illustrations, there are a small handful of facts you can learn that can help a person have the confidence to share about the Resurrection of Jesus without having to major in New Testament studies.
Tim: For example, when it comes to the Resurrection, really, there's two defeater beliefs, I think, when it comes to the Resurrection.
J.P.: And, remember, a defeater belief is something that blocks a person from believing something.
Bob: It's a presupposition that somebody will have?
J.P.: Yeah, that will keep you from actually believing the Resurrection or something like that.
Bob: All right.
Tim: The two defeater beliefs when it comes to the Resurrection, I think, are, first, the disciples were lying. They were lying about the Resurrection, because a lot of the reasons we believe in the Resurrection is based on eyewitness accounts, and those happened to be the disciples. So people tend to think, "Well, they were lying, they wanted to start a religion.
Second, is that fantasy, legend has crept into the New Testament. If the listeners are familiar with the Jesus Seminar, the Jesus Seminar believes that legend has crept into the New Testament, so Jesus started off as a social activist doing good. And, over the years and centuries, He went from being a good, moral, activist to the Son of God Himself.
Bob: Because people made Him that in their own minds, right?
Tim: As time went on.
Bob: So what do you do with the defeater belief that the eyewitnesses are unreliable?
J.P.: Well, the first thing you show is that gave their lives to hardship, to incredible strain. They got very little out of it. They ended up being executed for what they claimed to have seen, and we actually list a number of those facts about the disciples.
Dennis: Yeah, yeah.
J.P.: Who was martyred and how.
Dennis: Yeah, I've got to read that, because I read this to Barbara earlier today – "James, son of Zebedee was beheaded; Philip was scourged, thrown in prison and crucified; Matthew was slain" – I didn't know this – "with a crude half-axe/half sword weapon called" – what do you call that?
Dennis: A halberd; Andrew, and then he was crucified; Mark was dragged to pieces; Bartholomew was beaten and crucified; Peter was crucified; and, as Barbara said, only John made it with a cush assignment on the Isle of Patmos. So they really did die horrific deaths.
Tim: And here is the illustration to slip in – a very popular movie today is "Catch Me if you Can." It's the true story of Frank Abagnale. Leo DeCaprio plays him, and it's a fascinating movie because he becomes a professional liar. I mean, to the extent that he passes off as a Pan Am pilot; he wrote bogus checks totaling $40,000, which, at that time was a lot of money; he forged a Harvard University Law Diploma; got a job at the Louisiana State Attorney's Office. His most daring fraud was he totally passed himself off as the attending pediatrician at a Georgia hospital where he got away with it because he made all of his residents actually do the procedures.
So you ask the question – why would he lie? Well, the reason Frank Abagnale would lie because it got him fame, money, and everything he wanted. So, Dennis, you ask the question, "Okay, the disciples are lying. They made up this whole thing about Jesus rising from the dead. What did they get out of it?" And they got exactly what you just mentioned – crucified, dragged to pieces, and you're like, "Okay, on three, let's make up a lie and die for it."
Bob: I remember Chuck Colson talking about the Watergate lie and famously saying, "Look, we couldn't keep this under wraps for half a decade," and if the disciples had concocted some kind of a conspiracy, that would have fallen apart pretty quickly under the scrutiny of local eyewitnesses who could have come and said, "Now, wait, that doesn't match up with what you said over here."
Dennis: Yeah, and I've got to say, Bob, I think these two authors, Tim and J.P., I think they have a conspiracy, I really do.
J.P.: You've found us out, Dennis.
Dennis: I did find you out. This is two books. I was reading this, and I was thinking, "Those rascals. They have crafted a book on how to share your faith and done it masterfully to equip singles, moms and dads, people in the marketplace as well as teenagers to know how to share their faith, but also in this book is a great apologetic for why you believe what you believe.
And so what it does, I think, Bob, is it strengthens any follower of Christ in his or her pursuit of Him and gives you all kinds of reasons why it's rational to believe, and it's good to be a follower of Christ. And you know what? Keep on being a follower of Christ.
Bob: Well, and the more you understand the rationality of the Christian faith, the more comfortable you are sitting down with somebody and saying, "Can we have this kind of a conversation? Can we have a God conversation," because you feel confident that if somebody says, "Well, what about this?" You go, "You know, I've thought that through, and there's a rational response for that and here it is."
So you're right. This book really does equip you to have confidence in the rationality of the Christian faith, and then to know how to engage people in that kind of a conversation. The book is called "The God Conversation," and if you'd like to find a copy, we'll make it easy for you. Go to our website, FamilyLife.com, on the right side of the home page, you'll see a box that says "Today's Broadcast," and if you click there, it will take you to an area of the site where there is more information about the book by J.P. Moreland and Tim Muehlhoff called "The God Conversation" and other books that help you understand not only what you believe but why it makes sense to believe it.
Books like "Mere Christianity" by C.S. Lewis, Jerry Bridges' new book called "The Gospel for Real Life." There are other resources available there. Again, go to our home page at FamilyLife.com and click on the right side of the home page where it says "Today's Broadcast," and that will take you to the area of the site where you can get more information about how to receive these resources.
You can order online, if you'd like, or call us at 1-800-FLTODAY. 1-800-358-6329, that's 1-800-F-as-in-family, L-as-in-life, and then the word TODAY, and we can make arrangements to have the resources you need sent to you.
I want to take just a minute, if I can, Dennis, to say thanks to those folks who help support the ministry of FamilyLife Today and help keep us on the air not only in this city but other cities all across the country. You are generous folks, and we appreciate your partnership with us. We appreciate your support of this radio program. It really is an encouragement to know that you believe so strongly in what we're doing that you're willing to help support the ministry.
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If you're donating online, when you come to the keycode box on the donation form, type in the word "Eve," and we'll know to send a copy of the book to you. Or if you call 1-800-FLTODAY to make a donation, you can simply ask for a copy of "The New Eve," and, again, we're happy to send it out to you. We appreciate your partnership with us, and it's always nice to hear from you.
Tomorrow J.P. Moreland and Tim Muehlhoff are going to be back with us, and we're going to continue having a conversation about having a God conversation.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We'll see you tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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