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. 

A Revolution

Here is a revolutionary activity: listen to people who experience suffering beyond your reach. Do not try to put their experience in your categories. Stifle any cliché responses. Rather, listen; then, listen again.

Try to walk in their limping shoes. Try to live in their imprisoned body. Then, be quiet, and listen. Ask questions. Do not try to repair anything right away. Thousands of others have already tried and failed. They are sick of hearing pat answers.

Then, commiserate. Do not say, “It isn’t so bad.” How do you know? How can you know? You are a stranger to their misery and anguish. But you can be a compassionate companion along life’s way. Do not even say, “I understand.” You probably do not.

But, you can be the one in a hundred who dares to suffer well with others, to enter into their misery with no game plan, with no sure path to healing, and with no agenda apart from love.