Ravi Zacharias and the Greatness of Our Hope

We shouldn’t put our leaders on pedestals. Our faith and hope is in God, and God alone.

The buzz in the Christian world over the scandalous details that were reported and corroborated about Ravi Zacharias have subsided a bit, but they will linger in our collective memories. It seems he led a double life for years before his death from cancer in 2020.

The stories that have emerged expose a man who was driven by lust and sexual sin to groom woman for his own personal pleasure. Because he was such a beloved defender of the faith, the news came like shock waves. We have recoiled in horror and tried to process the fact that he turned out to be so different than his public persona.

He was a gifted orator, intelligent, winsome, personable and commanding in his presence and ability to respond to the most difficult challenges skeptics and hostile audiences threw at the Christian worldview. He was a champion defender of the faith. He went boldly into the world’s top academic institutions and unashamedly proclaimed the gospel in the most intellectually rigorous environments in the world with aplomb, tact and grace.

I found connection with him, perhaps, because his approach was filled with a command of literary style and nuance that really spoke to me, a college English Literature major. Thus, the sordid details of a very seamy private life hidden largely to the world until after his death have hit very hard. I, personally, can’t stop thinking about it.

I have watched people wrestle through explanations. People have grappled with “what went wrong”. People have advanced lists of solutions to the perceived problems in the Christian world that allowed this duplicity to go on so long unnoticed and unaddressed (even when allegations came to light).

Disappointment from Christian leaders in my life have rocked, previously, when. I have made the mistake of putting too much trust and personal capital in them (and not enough in God. Himself). So, I am not completely dismayed. Though every man be a liar, still God is true!

Many people have done a good job at dissecting what went wrong and how to avoid similar scandals in the future. I don’t think I would add value to provide my own list of things we should do or not do…. Not that there is a magic pill for the Church to take because it’s messy… People are messy!

I have just been trying to find perspective.

Perspective requires taking a step (or many steps) back. This is hard to do in the immediate wake of such a scandal. It’s hard to do when it hits “close to home”. It’s hard to do when we are personally invested in some way.

Before the facts were known, the natural tendency was to brush off the rumors and give a favorite son the benefit of the doubt. I did that. After the facts of such a scandal are known, we tend to want to wring our hands, wipe our hands from it, and condemn it and the man behind it.

I have taken down most of my references to Ravi Zacharias in this blog, though not all of them. Truth is truth, even if spoken by a duplicitous person. If I can find a reference from someone else, though, for the same proposition, I will use it before referencing Ravi Zacharias. The value of using his voice has been diminished to practically nil.

At the same time, I think we need to dig a little deeper and confront this scandal a bit more squarely in the face. Not that RZIM (the organization Zacharias founded) has not done that with the investigation and disclosure of the news, but I think we can gloss over some sober truth in the process of wringing and washing our hands of the scandal.

Stepping back from the immediate shock and disappointment some thoughts occur to me that (I think) should be discussed. Too soon? I don’t know.

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Ravi Zacharias: The Poison of the Allure of Greatness and the Antidote of Self-Giving Service

Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

I continue to consider and process the Ravi Zacharias scandal. The major issue with Ravi Zacharias, as I understand and perceive it, is that he thought too highly of himself. This is a serious danger for all great men, especially for men of God, because the poison of thinking too highly of ourselves can taint and distort our own thinking to our ruin and to the damage of those around us.

My determination that Ravi Zacharias thought too highly of himself comes from one of the stories told by one of his victims. He warned her after exerting his influence over her in a sexual encounter that she must not tell anyone because disclosure of their tryst would endanger millions of souls – as if their salvation rested on him.

Yes, Ravi Zacharias may have planted or watered the seeds of the gospel in many people, but salvation is the gift of God. People are saved by responding to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, however that prompting comes. We may plant and water, but God does the real work, and God causes the increase.

No man is indispensable to God. Though every man be a liar, God’s is true. His word goes out and does not come back void. We dare not think God’s work depends on us to such a degree that we must hide our own sin and manipulate other people in the process.

In light of the Ravi Zacharias scandal, my thinking, reading and meditating has led me to consider the dangers gifted people face due to their “greatness”. These were the same dangers the disciples faced as Jesus mentored them to be his representatives to the world.

The close relationship of the disciples to Jesus and the importance of their roles in God’s plan must have been intoxicating. It led them to argue between them who would be considered the greatest. These arguments broke out multiple times over the course of the disciples’ time with Jesus, and they tell us something about the dangers of greatness and our appropriate response to the temptation to desire greatness.

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Ravi Zacharias: The Isolation, Insulation and Danger of Greatness

The tendency to put gifted people with strong and charismatic personalities on a pedestal is a weakness in the church.

Anyone who pays any attention to apologetics has probably heard of Ravi Zacharias. Before his death last year, he traveled the world for decades as an evangelist and apologist. He spoke at secular universities and challenged non-Christian thinkers and leaders to consider Christian claims and the gospel worldview.

He was a winsome and charming speaker, erudite and polished. He toured the greatest institutions of higher learned on multiple continents and engaged people of all religions and atheists alike in deep conversations on the truth of the Gospel.

His organization, RZIM, boasted top notch Christian thinkers who contributed to the worldwide apologetics ministry. Sam Allberry, Amy Orr-Ewing, Abdu Murray, Nabeel Qureshi, and others were a formidable group of Christian apologists. Ravi Zacharias was greatly loved and much admired for his debonair, sharp-witted oratory and ability to answer people who challenged Christian thinking in public arenas.

I listened to him often and enjoyed his approach and insight. Thus, when a scandal erupted about the credentials on which he identified himself as “doctor”, I was quick to dismiss it. The accusation came from Steve Baughman, an atheist, charging Ravi Zacharias with falsely using the title, “Dr.”, and embellishing his connections to Oxford and Cambridge universities.[i]

Baughman seemed to “have it out” for Ravi Zacharias. He created a website, Ravi Watch[ii], in which he doggedly investigated the apologist and purported to document a number of false claims made by Ravi Zacharias. He was an atheist, so it was easy for Christians to dismiss his claims. Ravi Zacharias did have three honorary degrees, so the confusion about whether he earned a Ph.D seemed overblown.

Around the same time, though, some other allegations were emerging. A woman in Canada, who was a large donor to RZIM, went public with accusations that Ravi Zacharias developed a long-distance relationship with her, requesting nude photos from her and “sexting” with her. Ravi Zacharias strongly denied the claims, but he settled a lawsuit with the accuser for which the parties signed a non-disclosure agreement.[iii]

Most of the Christian world, including me, believed that Ravi Zacharias was being unfairly targeted by people who opposed his worldview and had an axe to grind. The allegations seemed out of character to the man we “knew” from his public ministry. The charges seemed wholly incongruent.

The charges, however, were true.

Sometime after his death on May 19, 2020, additional allegations began to emerge. They came from other sources, other women.

To its credit, RZIM hired an independent firm to investigate the charges. On February 9, 2021, a 12-page report was released from the investigation by RZIM.[iv]

The investigation confirmed allegations and disclosed many more. The report ends with these words:

“Our investigation was limited to Mr. Zacharias’s sexual misconduct, and even as to that issue it was not exhaustive. We acknowledge that we have not spoken to all individuals who may have relevant information to provide. We strived to balance the need for completeness with the need for expediency, and we are confident that we uncovered sufficient evidence to conclude that Mr. Zacharias engaged in sexual misconduct.” (emphasis added)

The release of the report was followed by an apology from the leaders at RZIM and shock from the rest of the Christian world.[v]

In the weeks that followed, the world of Christian apologists and the church have been wrestling with these disclosures. Everyone is talking about it. People are asking: How did it happen? What can we learn about it? What can we do to prevent this from happening again?

Like most shocking events or discoveries, the furor will die down, and we will go back to our daily lives after we have exhausted our initial angst.

We won’t really know the longstanding effects of this scandal for years. Even then, the ripples of this scandal in the Christian world will largely merge into the ether of all the happenings in the world, good and bad, that affect the way people see things and respond to them.  

It will be remembered by many as a reason why they no longer believe, or never believed in the first place. The hopes and faith of many people have been affected. Some will find a way to move on, but others will be dogged by it and a million other doubts.  Many will be tempted to categorize it as an aberration, and for many nothing will change.

I didn’t plan on writing about the Ravi Zacharias scandal. I wasn’t sure I had anything to add to what has already been said. I am skeptical of the real, long-term benefits of the hand-wringing exercises we do when these things occur. We go through the exercises, but we go back to our regular routines as quickly as we are done, and the change we think we are accomplishing isn’t realized.

Not that I have the answers. I have a hard enough time with long-term change in myself from the besetting sins of my youth that haunt me in middle age, and I am in no place of influence.

Yet, we must try. The Christian life is nothing if not a continual posture of repentance, turning to God to receive forgiveness, and desiring to do better. We would truly be doomed if not for a God who forgives us more than seventy times seven. So, we must turn to the Author and Perfecter of our faith – again, and again – for our answers.

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