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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Questions of Greatness and Goodness: The Influence of Jesus on Western Civilization

Jesus wrote no books, created no great art, built no monuments and spent only three years as a public figure two millennia ago.


“The historian’s test of an individual’s greatness is ‘What did he leave to grow? Did he help men think about new ideas with a vigor that persisted after he was gone?’” H.G. Wells

H.G. Wells, the great English writer considered “the father of science fiction”, was a forward thinker, believing in the progression of man in the vein of the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin. He was no friend of orthodox Christianity, nor of any religion. (See Wikipedia) “None of his contemporaries did more to encourage revolt against Christian tenets and accepted codes of behaviour, especially as regards sex….” (See Britannica).

It’s ironic I suppose, then, that I am thinking about Jesus as I read his words.

Wells expressed a hope in his writing “that human society would evolve into higher forms”. He believed from early on in the “doctrine of social progress”. (See Britannica) World War I impacted the idealistic hopes of his youth, but Wells continued to believe that humankind could progress through knowledge and education.

I wonder what Wells would say today?

How much have we progressed?

Wells’s last written work, Mind at the End of its Tether, written at the outbreak of World War II, suggests some further erosion in the hope of his youth. He painted a very bleak picture of the future of mankind in which nature itself rebels against the evils of men.

Would his waning optimism have shriveled altogether if he had lived long enough?

Though H.G. Wells visited with both Lenin and Stalin, he probably didn’t know all the details of the atrocities that Stalin (particularly ) committed. A grim estimate of people killed at Stalin’s direction is 40 million! (See ibtimes)

What would Wells have thought about the progression of mankind if he knew the truth? What if he knew of all the genocides that occurred and would occur in the 20th and 21st centuries alone? (See The worst genocides of the 20th and 21st Centuries)

Should we really measure humankind by their greatness?

What about the goodness of humankind?

An atheist friend of mine challenged me to prove to him that the world is a better place with religion (and Christianity in particular). I don’t recall exactly how I responded to him, but I have thought about his challenge since then.

We can’t deny that bad things have been done by people in the name of religion, including Christianity. I would not deny it. But what of the good?

H.G. Wells poses a question about greatness. My friend poses a question about goodness. What of our goodness?

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The False Promise of Pleasure

Statue of writer and playright Oscar Wilde in Merrion Square in Dublin, Ireland.

“Meaninglessness does not come from weariness with pain. Meaningless comes from weariness with pleasure….  No one is more fed up with life than one who has exhausted pleasure. Some of the loneliest people in the world are those who have lived indulgent lives and emotionally and physically drive themselves to impotence.”

This is a quotation from Ravi Zacharias in a talk he gave titled, the Problem of Pleasure.* If you listen to Ravi Zacharias much, you will note that he returns to this theme often, and he often mentions Oscar Wilde, the famous Irish poet and playwright. Wilde, of course, was a brilliant writer and thinker who was an outspoken atheist and lived a hedonistic lifestyle.

Wilde is described as “the supreme individualist”. His book, The Picture of Dorian Gray, is described as a “novel of vice hidden beneath art” tinged with “self-conscious decadence”. The Importance of Being Earnest, commonly believed to be his best work written at the height of his career, is more subtle and nuanced, but continues the same theme, as do all of the works of Oscar Wilde. (See Wikipedia)

We know much of Wilde’s private life. Many of his secrets were paraded before the world to see in a much publicized court case, ironically, when Oscar Wilde sued the Marquess of Queensberry for libel.

Queensberry’s son, Lord Alfred Douglas, was the person who introduced Wilde to “the Victorian underground of gay prostitution”. Queensberry’s defense to the libel charges was to prove his statements true by hiring private investigators to uncover the “salacious details of Wilde’s private life”. The trial that Wilde brought against Queensberry left him bankrupt and exposed.

Wilde, the “colourful agent provocateur in Victorian society”, spared himself no pleasure. He also wasn’t shy about his lifestyle. He championed licentiousness in his art and in his life.

Like Solomon, though, he retained a sort of wisdom borne of experience. Having been baptized as a child, he often used biblical imagery in his writing, though it’s use would have likely been considered sacrilegious. During a two year prison sentence for homosexual actions, he requested copies of the Bible in multiple, languages, Dante’s Divine Comedy and other works with Christian themes. When he was released from prison, the Catholic Church turned down his request to spend six months at a monastery, and Wilde wept at the news.

As I sit here thinking of these things, I am also thinking of the unfolding story of a friend, a very enthusiastic and committed believer in God. He is a lover of the stage, a former Shakespearean performer. In that sense, he shares something in common with the playwright, Wilde.

My friend is in a hospital ICU as I write, having suffered a series of strokes that could leave him uncommunicative and paralyzed. Even in his desperate physical situation, he and his family have experienced the presence of God sustaining them in faith. They exhibit a transcendent joy and peace in the middle of the difficulties they face.

We are naturally attracted to pleasure and pull back from pain. Sometimes, however, the pleasures we seek cause us pain. We tend to think that pleasure is good and pain is bad, if not in a moral sense, then certainly in an experiential sense. God gives us the ability to experience pleasure and pain. In that sense, God gives us both pleasure and pain.

Neither one is intrinsically good or bad. CS Lewis implies this when he says that God whispers to us in our pleasures, but He shouts to us in our pain. Though pain can be the result of our own reckless indiscretions, it isn’t always so. My friend in the hospital is proof of that.

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