Apologetics After the Two Deaths of Ravi Zacharias

Apologetics After the Two Deaths of Ravi Zacharias

Douglas Groothuis, Professor of Philosophy, Denver Seminary

I am a Christian philosopher who has defended the Christian worldview for nearly forty-five years. I have a compelling interest in the well-being of my fellow apologists and their ministries. I lead a master’s degree in apologetics and ethics that has trained many young philosophers and apologists in the last thirty years. When Christian apologists and apologetics thrive, I rejoice. I have seen my students get doctorates, secure academic and ministry positions, become colleagues, and publish articles and books. I exult in their achievements and in those of my seniors and peers. I regularly pray for apologists, well-known and otherwise (Ephesians 6:19). When apologists fail, either through bad arguments or bad living, I mourn. But the moral failures are harder to take and more damaging. Ravi’s shameful downfall raises many questions I cannot answer here. I address what I know best: apologetics. 

The Two Deaths of Ravi Zacharias

Ravi Zacharias and I never met or interacted. I had esteemed him as our preeminent itinerant apologist-evangelist. Others, such as settled academics, could go deeper intellectually, but Ravi presented solid arguments in winsome ways and around the world for decades. He consistently published credible books and built the largest apologetics organization in the world, which, at its height, employed one hundred apologists worldwide. 

Then Ravi was diagnosed with aggressive cancer and died shortly after in May of 2020. Millions mourned but thanked God for his life and for the ministry that would live on. Although allegations of sexual impropriety (and the inflating of his academic credentials) had surfaced before, further accusations of sexual abuse were made shortly after his death. They ended up being true, and Ravi died again. This is not the place to catalogue the extent and heinousness of his sins. You can find it all online in the official report released by RZIM. Suffice to say that Ravi was guilty of using his position to manipulate and abuse dozens if not hundreds of women over many years, leaving a long trail of heartbreak and betrayal—even before it was revealed to the general public. And he used ministry funds to pay for his pleasures. So, after the death of the man came the death of his reputation. Even The New York Times aired it for all to see. But, what of his ministry and what of apologetics after the two deaths of Ravi Zacharias—that savvy, successful, suave, and intelligent man we took to be an exemplary apologist?

Apologetics after Ravi Zacharias

I will not speculate about the fate of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM), which, even with the highest ideals and deepest contrition, may face an impossible task of preserving a once-flourishing ministry which was so associated with a man now twice-dead. Some of the publishers of Ravi’s books have withdrawn his books from print. Lee Strobel will remove his interview with Ravi featured in his book, The Case for Faith. Ravi’s videos, audio recordings, and other writings will be removed from official platforms. His once-secret life lives after him and threatens to undermine everything he stood for. If someone this good at apologetics turns out to be this bad morally, what good is left for apologetics?

To answer, let us start by considering the three essential elements of rhetoric (or the art of persuasion), according to Aristotle: ethos, pathos, and logosEthos concerns the credibility of the speaker or writer. Ravi had, we thought, a strong ethos. He was articulate, humble, and presentable. We trusted him and deemed him worth listening to. Now we know of a dark and sinister side of the man that, had it been known during his lifetime, would have disqualified him for ministry and destroyed his ethos. Pathos is the ability of a speaker or writer to rouse an audience’s affections, to make them care about the subject. Ravi excelled at pathos, illustrating his points from poetry, literature, and personal stories. Yet he did not manipulate his audience and seemed to care for them. He also applied rational force (logos) as well as pathos.

Logos addresses the rational arguments or logic presented. Ravi’s basic method in apologetics was sound and he did not accentuate ethos or pathos at the expense of logos. Ravi’s apologetic method is called “The 3.4.5 Grid.”  In a nutshell, this grid tests a worldview logically (Is it consistent?), factually (Is it empirically adequate?), and existentially (Is it livable and meaningful for life and death?). This agrees with my apologetic method I articulate in Christian Apologetics. Ravi used the 3.4.5 grid to great and global effect. But where does that leave us?

Arguments have rational power or lack rational power irrespective of the arguer’s ethosor pathos. We test logos by stating the argument in premise-conclusion form and then assessing its cogency. Are the premises well supported? Do the premises lead to the conclusion through some inductively, deductively, or abductively valid manner? If so, it is a good argument and should be believed. It matters not who gives that argument, even Ravi Zacharias. So, the first point is that Ravi’s moral catastrophe do not, in themselves, affect any of the rational arguments he gives, since his logos and his pathos remain credible. Those Christians who discovered apologetics through Ravi—and I know many of them—need not repent of their discovery. Those who found Christ as Lord and Savior through the Holy Spirit’s use of Ravi’s apologetics need not question their conversion or the worth of apologetics. Moreover, all of Ravi’s best argument can be found in the work of other apologists whose reputations have not been sullied by sin. 

Another problem still hounds us, though—and it was a question that Ravi often took up in his apologetics; it is the problem of evil. Why does an all-good and all-powerful God allow so much evil in his world? Why did God allow Ravi Zacharias success as a speaker and writer given his long record of sexual abuse? Why did the God allow so many of us to respect and be grateful for Ravi when he did not deserve it? The Apostle Paul gave part of the answer two thousand years ago when he said that he rejoiced whenever the gospel was preached, even when preached by those with bad motives (Philippians 1:15-18). This is because the gospel possesses an intrinsic power irrespective of the character of those who explain or commend it (Romans 1:16-17). But, since God is not a utilitarian, this in no way justifies immorality on the part of the messenger.

But tough questions remain. Given the character and power of God, why did he not bring Ravi to repentance? Why did he allow him to sin so badly in the first place? Why did God allow Ravi to bring so much misery into the lives of so many through his secret sexual sins? I ache as I think of what his family, friends, co-workers, and many victims, must be feeling. 

Although the apologetic case for Christianity is strong and stronger than any other worldview, it is unrealistic to expect finite and fallible mortals to be able to read the mind of God in everything. Mysteries remain, as much as we hate it. The Apostle Paul has another word for us.

 Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
    How unsearchable his judgments,
    and his paths beyond tracing out!
   “Who has known the mind of the Lord?
    Or who has been his counselor?” 
   “Who has ever given to God,
    that God should repay them?” 
   For from him and through him and for him are all things.
    To him be the glory forever! Amen

Romans 11:33-36; see also Deuteronomy 29:29

Ravi Zacharias is accountable to God for his life. God is accountable only to himself. We are accountable to live within the circle of what we can know, given God’s revelation and the use of our God-given powers to know what matters (Hebrews 5:11-14). Nonetheless, we should also be good stewards of our ineluctable ignorance, and part of that ignorance involves God’s ways with Ravi Zacharias (Ecclesiastes 5:18-20).

Why Do Leaders Fall?

Those with external ministry success coupled with secret lives of sin may deceive themselves by thinking that they need not repent since God is still blessing their ministry. They may feel God’s power as they teach or preach, and see objective results. God must be overlooking their sins, they think. Or, as Kierkegaard wrote, these ministers may put off coming to terms with God since they tell themselves that “there is an eternity in which to repent.” On the contrary, today is the day of repentance and salvation (2 Corinthians 6:2; Hebrews 3:7-19). Tomorrow may be too late. We have no evidence that Ravi repented.

I will not venture to fathom what lead Ravi into such egregious sin for so long. However, I think it had much to do with pain. Ravi had chronic back pain which was exacerbated by constant travel. (He should not have traveled so much, but I’ll leave that aside for this essay.) Pain, whether physical or emotional, offers us a dramatic choice. If God will not take away the pain, we can choose to identify more deeply with the sufferings of Christ and to seek his grace. That grace is sufficient, as the suffering Paul well knew (2 Corinthians 12:9). Or we can alleviate or ameliorate the pain through the pleasures of the sinful flesh. The Devil always has many options at hand, which is why we must resist him always (1 Peter 5:8). Ravi may have needed physical therapy for his back, but that turned into something more and something terrible, as has been revealed. 

Pain, whether physical or emotional, offers us a dramatic choice. If God will not take away the pain, we can choose to identify more deeply with the sufferings of Christ and to seek his grace.

Ravi’s second death further underscores our need for a theology of suffering and pain that instructs to lament and suffer well before God and others. We need to pray the psalms of lament (22, 39, 88, 90, etc.); we need to own the depths of our suffering; and we need to seek healing in godly places. And we need to cultivate the habit of eschatological hope. In the end, all things will be well for the redeemed, come what may in the here and now (Revelation 21-22).

Living Above Reproach and Before God

If we abhor the sins of Ravi Zacharias, we should abhor our own sins even more and seek to repent of them. True doctrine and godly living are equally necessary for ministry and all of life. As Paul wrote Timothy, “Watch your life and doctrine closely” (1 Timothy 4:16). Paul stipulated that an overseer must be “above reproach” (Titus 1:6-7, ESV). That applies to all Christian leaders. 

Those with high callings need high standards, lest the messenger discredit the message and the messenger lose integrity. Christians continue to sin, but no Christian should be controlled by sin (1 John 1:8-10; 3:6). High profile leaders fall hard when they fall and often drag down many others with them. “Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12, KJV). 

Since we are all vulnerable to immorality, we should heed Jesus’ words: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3, NIV). Paul paid close attention to his own integrity. “I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize” (1 Corinthians 9:27, NIV). Christian ministers should fear being disqualified and take radical measures to defend themselves against it. We do so by guarding our hearts and being accountable to wise friends, counselors, and leaders (Proverbs 1:7; 4:23-27; 27:17; Matthew 5:27-32). We must regularly have fellowship, worship, and partake of the sacraments (Hebrews 10:25). If one’s ministry travel schedule forbids it, then that schedule should be forbidden.

Ravi Zacharias and his good name are dead. This double-death is tragic. We should grieve and consider our own lives before “the audit of Eternity” (Kierkegaard). But apologetics lives on. We should rejoice and keep our hand to the plow, our hearts pure, and our eyes on the Lord. 

The Reality Czar Speaks

I have appointed myself as Reality Czar. Remember, reality stands independent of your whims, wishes, loves, hates, and apathy. Here are my first fourteen imperatives for straight thinking and reality apprehension. 

1. The laws of logic are unbending. They are necessary for thought and communication. You can break them, but they will break you. Learn what the law of noncontradiction is and abide by it.

2. You need rational arguments that appeal to logic and evidence to make a point count as knowledge.

3. To know something means you have a justified and true belief about it.

4. For a statement to be true, it must correspond to objective reality. You do not make a belief true by your own opinion, skin color, gender(s), passion, politics, power, or anything else. 

5. Learn the basic logical fallacies, such as false dichotomy, ad hominem, straw man, begging the question, and others, and avoid them. Expose them wherever you find them. 

6. Learn the basic means of argumentation: deduction, induction, and appeal to the best explanation. 

7. Read more than you watch.

8. Listen more than you talk.

9. Think more than you speak.

10. Pray for knowledge and wisdom.

11. Beware of clichés, factoids, and talking points.

12. If you hold to a position on religion, politics, or whatever, as yourself what the strongest objection to your position might be, Then try to refute it.

13. In discussions and writing, try to define and illustrate important terms in order to avoid ambiguity.

14. For any of your beliefs, determine how strongly you hold that belief and whether or not you have good reason to hold it in that manner. We may strongly hold some beliefs, not because of reason or evidence, but on the basis of feelings, tradition, or ego.

It’s All About Sex

The leading secular account of the world in the West denies any normative or sacred order. Freedom is found, not in following a divine design, but in indulging the unfettered self. Self-restraint, especially erotic self-restraint, is repressive and must be eliminated. Pleasure of the strongest kind is what matters most, since we need not fear God or conform ourselves to some alien pattern of behavior written in a heaven of ideas.

Thus, any viewpoint that opposes the totally free expression of sexuality must be silenced–not refuted, silenced. On this view, free speech is not a right; in fact, it can be ruse for the repressive ones (Christians or those believe in any sacred ordering of life). Any view that denies the erotic urgencies has no right to be heard. Herbert Marcuse advocated this in 1965 in his essay on “repressive tolerance.”

Thus, it all comes down to sex. Anyone who opposes abortion in any way wants to hinder women’s sexual freedom, since abortion allows for sex without the moral responsibility to bring a child to term. The expressive self is all that matters. Killing a viable fetus at nine months is fine, since women’s sexual freedom must be upheld at all costs.

Further, it is not enough to be tolerant of people who act in non-heterosexual ways. Legalizing same sex marriage is not enough either. Rather, everyone must endorse every sexual identity, because that is the more important thing about people–their erotic orientation and the pleasure therein. If a Christian baker will not decorate a cake for a gay wedding, he must be punished by force of law, since he is refuting to endorse two gay men’s sexual identity. How dare he?

The untrammeled will, fired by uninhibited eroticism, has the final say and shouts with a loud voice. You are not allowed to disagree with this power from below, this meaning-making faculty. Eros must be let loose in a world without design or constraint.

Along the way, Rousseau, Blake, Wadsworth, Shelley, Marx, Darwin, Freud, Nietzsche, Marcuse, Reich, Simone De Beauvoir, and others play their part to make a world safe for pansexuality.

For more on these themes, see Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self (Crossway, 2020).

Virtuous Ignorance

Being charged with being an ignoramus is no compliment. However, some ignorance is virtuous. One should cultivate being an ignoramus in a few areas.

First, curiosity is often a sin. For example, you do not need to see the person lying on the side of the road being attended to by first responders. It is none of your business. Use the golden rule: Would you want people staring at you if you were in that condition? You can look away, but be sure to pray.

Second, you should be ignorant about what is in the realm of others’ privacy. There is no need to know, so you should not know. “Thou shalt not covet anything of thy neighbor’s (that you don’t need to know).” One’s medical history should not be public knowledge. Only God can know everything virtuously since he is perfect.

Third, it is not virtuous to know or make known unflattering, but irrelevant, matters about others. That is gossip, a serious sin in the New Testament. Think of how much of American popular culture feeds on and starves without gossip. What dysfunctional, idiotic, or criminal things have this or that celebrity done now? You should not want to know. You may know too much. Try to forget in order to make more room for virtuous knowledge.

I give the Apostle Paul the last word: “I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil” (Romans 16:19). Amen.

Presidential Prayer

Rev. Dr. Silvester Beaman gave the homily and closing prayer at Joseph Biden’s presidential inauguration on January 20, 20121. He closed the prayer with this:

To your glory, majesty, dominion, and power, forever. Hallelujah! Glory! Hallelujah! In the strong name of our collective faith, Amen.”

Rev. Dr. Silvester Beaman, Presidential Inauguration Prayer

Just when we had stopped reeling from “Amen and A-woman,” we are greeted with something even worse—prayer not in the name of God, but “in the strong name of our collective faith.” What a reversal that is! Our faith in God is what causes us to pray in the name of God—more specifically, in the name of Jesus Christ if we are Christians. The name of our collective faith means nothing, since our collective faith does not rule the universe. God does. Faith is only as good as its object. Moreover, what we need is not collective or generic faith, but saving faith in the name of Jesus Christ, the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world, the name that is above every name.

The priest who gave the opening prayer did not mention Jesus’ name, let alone pray in that name. This is what happens when biblical religion is diluted and distorted by the desire to not offend anyone and to please everyone. Well, it fails, since those of us who pray in Jesus’ name and who attribute our salvation to Jesus alone, are offended and not pleased by these kinds of prayers. But no matter, many of us will continue to pray in Jesus’ name, knowing that he is the one Mediator between God and humans and the one who will return to judge the living and the dead.

Groothuis Reading Guide to Political and Cultural Discernment

Deep reading is required for wise thinking and courageous action, even action against the odds. Political authoritarianism cannot work itself out in a well-educated, intellectually alert, and spiritually energized people. One line of defense against the jack boot crushing the face of humanity forever (Orwell) is the knowledge of what matters most, for time and eternity. The world was changed for Christ forever when St. Augustine heard a little child sing, “Take up and read. Take up and read.” He took up the Bible, read it, converted, and proceeded, through his life and writings, to do more to convert a pagan world into a Christian one than any one of his age.

“Take up and read.” What should we read today? I offer a short—and it is hard to keep it short—list of works that will spark the intellect, quicken the nerves, and expand the understanding for our times. Deep reading requires asesis (əˈskēsəs), at least for those whose habits are not literary. Jesus requirement for Kingdom service apply to reading as well as to everything else, “Deny yourself. Take up your cross daily, and follow me.”  I divide my reading list into spiritual reality, intellectual engagement, cultural development, and political judgment. Of course, these categories overlap. I assume a regular and deep reading and study of the Bible. As C. S. Lewis said, the Bible is an education in itself.

Spiritual Reality

  1. St. Augustine, The Confessions
  2. J. P. Moreland, Kingdom Triangle
  3. Francis Schaeffer, True Spirituality

Intellectual Development

  1. J. P. Moreland, Love Your God with All Your Mind.
  2. John Stott, Your Mind Matters
  3. Os Guinness, Fit Bodies, Fat Minds

Cultural Discernment

  1. Os Guinness, Renaissance
  2. Douglas Groothuis, Truth Decay: Defending Christianity Against the Challenges of Postmodernism.
  3. Francis Schaeffer, Death in the City
  4. Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death

Political Judgment

  1. Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451.
  2. Rod Dreher, Live Not by Lies
  3. Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
  4. Francis Schaeffer, A Christian Manifesto
  5. George Orwell, 1984 and Animal Farm
  6. George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language.”
  7. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, A World Split Apart: Commencement Address Delivered at Harvard University, June 8, 1978.

Take up and read. The fate of your soul and the fate of your world depends on it.

Jesus and Logic

In On Jesus (Wadsworth, 2003), I argue that Jesus was not an irrational mystic, but was a kind of philosopher who valued reason and who had an well thought out worldview. Moreover, he engaged in rational arguments with his interlocutors. Here is a section of that book from chapter five, “Jesus’ Epistemology.” May it encourage us to highly value truth and rationality.

Noncontradiction as a Test for Truth

Jesus reasons from the Scriptures and he reasons against his critics. When presented with an apparently irresolvable dilemma concerning the resurrected state or political allegiance (Matthew 22:15-22), he finds a tertium quid that avoids either horn of the dilemma. In this, and in all his other use of argument, Jesus implicitly endorses the law of noncontradiction as a necessary test for truth. A statement and its negation cannot both be true in the same way at the same time. Jesus never accepts a proposition and its negation as both true; nor does he revel in irreconcilable paradoxes as a way to disarm rational thought and make room for faith. Jesus at no time invokes an irresolvable paradox when pressed into a logical corner—although he will often employ a paradox to give a memorable ending to a pertinent teaching. When accused of holding contradictory teachings or of opposing the Hebrew Scriptures, Jesus argues in order to resolve the apparent contradiction and vindicate his teaching.

Nevertheless, some interpreters attempt to make Jesus into a Jewish Zen-Master or guru by claiming that he employed mind-stopping contradictions. They compare several paradoxical sayings of Jesus to Zen koans. A koan is a riddle having to do with a logical impossibility; it is given to a Zen student in order to induce the student to transcend normal logical analysis and rational processes. Zen epistemology involves transcending all dualities and antitheses through various practices, such as contemplating koans and sat-zen (meditating on a blank wall for hours) in order to attain the state of “no-mind.” A famous Zen koan is, “What is the sound of one hand [clapping]?” This question has no resolution, because one hand cannot clap (in any standard sense of clapping). 

Jesus utters statements that are prima facie similar to koans, such as, “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first (Matthew 19:30). But Jesus’ use of paradox is pedagogical, not illogical. It has nothing to do with Zen or any other kind of mystical practice that abandons rational categories as a means to enlightenment. Jesus’ paradoxes are given not as epigrams, but as memorable conclusions to his teachings. They have an intellectual context and communicate propositional knowledge. The statement, “Many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first” is not affirming that “first equals last” (a contradiction), as would a Zen koan. Rather,  Jesus is speaking of the final reward of those who give up much in this life to follow him. This reward more than compensates for the losses they experience. Therefore, many who are “first” (or fortunate in this life) will be “last” (or unfortunate in the next), and vice versa. Jesus’ phrasing is paradoxical, and, therefore, pedagogically provocative; but it has a determinative and intelligible meaning (see Matthew 19:16-30).

Please Don’t Say or Think This: “Let’s Take Back America”

While watching a political documentary I shall not name, one Christian said that if enough evangelicals would register and vote, we could “take back the nation.” I started expostulating so loudly to my wife that my dog Sunny went over to her and climbed into her lap. He was even shaking. 

Now, I wasn’t angry at my wife or at my dog. I was angry with the rank idiocy of this statement. Here’s why:

First, evangelicals are not in agreement on the significance of issues or on who best represents their views. For example, black, Hispanic, and white evangelicals tend to vote differently. 

Second, this is America, not a theocracy. If you are a Christian and a citizen of the United States, you have the religious liberty (for now) to organize, contribute, and vote your conscience under God and before man. But so do other religious believers and those of no religious beliefs. So, we don’t “take back” the country from anyone. We never had it to begin with, despite the Christian influence on the country. If we mean that we want Judeo-Christian values to have more influence, then good. But skip the “take back” language, please. 

Third, the language of “taking back America” may concern non-Christians who think that Christians who get their way politically will put others in jeopardy in one way or another. But if we support the Constitution and the rule of law, that will not happen.

Fourth, there is a lot more to reforming and renewing America than winning political battles. In many races, both major candidates are debauched and it turns out (again) to be the lesser of two evils, which is also the evil of two lessers. Further, even good laws only go so far to improve society. Much must be done in the pre-political or non-political realms. As a Washington insider once told me, “There are a lot of dead bodies floating downstream by the time they get to Washington, DC.” He meant elected officials!

There is nothing wrong with educating and mobilizing Christians in politics. There is plenty wrong with “taking back America.”

Tom Gilson, Too Good to be False?

I asked Tom Gilson, author and editor at The Stream, to answer several questions about his intriguing book, Too Good to be False (DeWard Publishing, 2020) which takes a unique approach to the character and teachings of Jesus. I have found the book to be insightful and apologetically helpful. It has been endorsed by Lee Strobel and J. P. Moreland.

Click here can purchase Tom Gilson’s Too Good to Be False?

1. What is the central thesis of Too Good to be False?

It’s a two-part thesis with a coda. The first part stands alone, and occupies about the first half of the book: Jesus is greater than you knew. I’m hearing from many Christian readers, from everyday bloggers to seminary professors, that this portion of the book has genuinely surprised them with new insights into Jesus’ extraordinary character.

The second part builds on the first: Jesus’ character as portrayed in the accounts, is too unique, too consistent, too unexpected, and too good to have been produced the way skeptics think the story was developed, through legendary processes.

It’s not only that he’s “too good to be false,” though that’s part of it. The skeptics theorize legendary processes as the source of the Jesus story, but I say these processes are inherently story-scramblers, and Jesus’ character is manifestly not scrambled. He is very recognizably the same Jesus from beginning to end, in all four accounts, maintaining a stunning, detailed level consistency in a long list of traits.

The coda? He’s worth following no matter what. That’s part three of the book. I think we’re heading toward a stage in history where Western Christians will have to face the “no matter what” question like never before. But he is extraordinarily good no matter what, his truth is certain no matter what, and we must keep following him no matter what.

2. What most surprised you in your research?

Many things. I took an approach to Jesus that may never have been published before. (If it has, I’d be very happy to hear about it.) Instead of focusing on what Jesus did and said, I looked for what he didn’t do and didn’t say. 

For example, I was astonished to find out there is no reference anywhere in the Bible to Jesus having faith. Silence on a given topic isn’t always significant, but this one is, in my studied opinion. He taught faith even more often than he taught love. His love is mentioned often, but his faith? Never. There has to be an explanation for it. The best I’ve found has been in connection with Jesus’ deity. I won’t go into details on that here, though. 

Even more stunning was the discover Jesus never used his extraordinary power for his own benefit. Satan was right about one thing: Jesus could have turned the stones into bread. The mockers at the cross were right: He could have come down from there. If power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, then by that rule Jesus should have been a tyrant. Instead he was the model of love. I try to imagine being that good, having even an infinitesimal fraction of his power, and I crumble, knowing I could never be that perfectly other-centered. It brings me to my knees in absolute worship.

3. Why do you think some aspects of your argument have not been used in recent decades in apologetics?

I wish I knew. It’s a complete mystery to me. What I do know is that the argument is stronger now than it was when Paley or Schaff used it, because skeptics have hardened into a position that’s more vulnerable to it.

I don’t know exactly what led me to it, though I wonder if it has something to do with not being a specialist in New Testament studies, which may have allowed my mind to wander more freely into new territory. 

For example, I used to do organizational assessment work for a major mission organization. Seeing what’s there in a team’s operations is easy, my partner and I quickly learned. The hard part — the skill we kept working to develop — is seeing what’s not there. It’s possible that might have helped me along in this study. 

4. How does your argument challenge the skeptical view that Jesus never existed?

I take the story seriously as a story. Every story has a backstory, a place, person or group that produces the story within its culture, and related in some way to that culture’s norms, expectations, restrictions, and so on. But the backstory has to fit; that is, if you view the story as the effect and the backstory as the cause, the backstory has to be the kind of cause that could produce that story as an effect. And I don’t think the skeptics’ legend theory is the right kind of cause to produce a story with a main character as unique, consistent, unexpected, and good as Jesus. 

Take away that skeptical backstory, and for now at least it leaves one live option: The Gospel accounts are true. Maybe skeptics will offer a new and better-fitting skeptical backstory. It’s hard to imagine what that would be, though. 

5. What has been the response to your book so far?

I keep hearing words like “surprising,” “refreshing,” “fascinating,” “compelling,” and even (from Gary Habermas) “a fun read.” Many are saying it’s helped them fall in love with Jesus all over again. One reader said she’d been sliding into spiritual apathy, but this view of Jesus, “totally shook me up.” It’s been so gratifying to hear of readers seeing Jesus in a new light through it. I’ll tell you, the same thing happened to me as I was studying for it. 

Meanwhile those who are more familiar with apologetics have expressed similar surprise at the originality of the argument. It’s new to our generation, at least. 

6. Have skeptics responded to it?

Some think they have, but they’re only responding to interviews I’ve done, though. So far I haven’t heard from any who have taken the trouble to read the book. 

From those who’ve tried to respond, the most common response has been, “Jesus isn’t actually that good. Just look how Christians have practiced slavery in his name!” But Jesus completely knocked the legs out from under slavery through his strong version of the Golden Rule, by teaching love for neighbor, and by condemning greed, pride, and self-centeredness. He demonstrated love for all, at every level of society. Christians (self-styled or otherwise) have failed horribly at living up to his example, but the book is about Christ, not about Christians.

Besides that, a couple of YouTubers have mounted massive takedowns of arguments I don’t make. Sometimes I wonder what’s so entertaining about that. You’d think it would be more interesting to engage with what people actually say instead.

Just today I heard one going on and on about a comment I’d made in an interview about Jesus being perfect from beginning to end in the accounts. “That’s bad literature!” he repeated in a half-dozen different ways. “Perfect characters are the worst characters. They’re boring!” 

It was sad and hilarious, both at the same time. He doesn’t know I made precisely the same point in my book! Except I also noted what this skeptic, too, should have seen: Billions of people in thousands of cultures across thousands of years would tell you Jesus is the single most compelling character they’ve ever encountered, in life or in literature. So if the rule is that perfect characters are boring characters, then Jesus breaks that rule into a billion tiny shreds. 

And that makes his character incredibly extraordinary on that one count alone. Still the skeptics think his kind of story is so easy to write, any old legendary process could have come up with a man like him. Funny thing: It’s never happened anywhere else. Not even close. Not in legend, not even flowing from the pens of the greatest poets, playwrights, or novelists, from Homer to Sophocles, from Shakespeare to Dostoyevsky to Dickens and beyond. Jesus, I say, is just too good to be false.

Your Jesus, My Jesus?

Shock, anger, sadness, and fear came over me as I watched a clip of a group of protesters curse “your Jesus” in unison with the F-word. Has it come to this? And what is this? Who is Jesus?

Jesus of Nazareth does not belong to anyone, so there is no “my Jesus” or “your Jesus,” there is only the genuine Jesus—the Lord of history and eternity, the man who walked the earth in ancient Palestine, who died on a cross and who rose from the dead. Whoever we are, we must not take God’s name in vain or paint the one true Messiah in false colors that represent us more than him.

Jesus was not a man of means and social standing, for he stood outside the religious establishment. He was a traveling teacher, preacher, prophet, and healer, and he had nowhere to lay his head. He was accused of being possessed by demons—this one who cast out demons as no other ever did or will do. He knew what was in the heart of people, and he had no need for their acclaim to fulfill this mission, which was “to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).

Jesus was no nationalist. He warned that his own nation, his own beloved people, would be judged once again for their refusal to recognize their day of visitation, their rejection of the Messiah. He claimed to have authority over every nation, calling them repent and have faith in him (Matthew 28:18-20).

Jesus was no racist. His ministry focused on his Jewish people, but encompassed others; and he commissioned his followers to be his witnesses “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). He spoke with and revealed his identity to a Samaritan women, a racial and social outcast to most Jews (John 4). Jesus is the man for others, all others. 

Jesus was no violent revolutionary (a zealot), otherwise his followers would have taken up the sword and stumped for political power over Rome. He said to render to Caesar what belonged to Caesar and to God what belongs to God (Matthew 22:18-23). The state is not God, and neither are his followers anarchists who want to burn it all down. “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord” (Romans 12:19).

The way of Jesus is the the way of Cross—self-sacrifice, daring hope, and bold love. It does not burn down; it builds up. It does not hate, but makes the necessary sacrifices of love. It is not content with injustice; it works for justice, but justice with knowledge and wisdom. It eschews the irrational reflexes of unreflective rage for fits of rage are the work of the sinful fallen nature. (Galatians 5:20). 

There is no “your Jesus” or “my Jesus.” We must content with the real Jesus—now and at the gateway to Eternity. We can get Jesus wrong, and he warned of those who claimed to follow him who would be exposed as frauds at the Last Day. Listen to Jesus.

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”

Matthew 7:21-23

We can only speak of “my Jesus” when we have made him Lord of our lives, when we have accepted his death on our behalf to forgive our sins and give us a new start on justice, wisdom, and love. Is “my Jesus” the real Jesus? Is “your Jesus” the real Jesus?