Opinionista Patrick Pillay 26 May 2020

Blessed Assurance: Ravi Zacharias — master of modern Christian Apologetics (1946-2020)

No matter which way history may slice the merits of the case made by Ravi Zacharias for the Christian faith, his contribution to the field of Christian Apologetics will be uncontested. Zacharias, who died on 19 May 2020, was the greatest evangelist of our time.

If life is what happens to us when we are not watching, in the past days, Ravi Zacharias happened upon the world with the impact of a fallen star. He died following a struggle with cancer.

Frederick Antony Ravi Kumar Zacharias was born in Chennai (Madras) on 16 March 1946 within a family of Hindus with links to the Anglican Church. His full conversion to the Christian faith came by way of a failed suicide attempt at the age of 17. It was during his recovery in hospital and the reading of the Christian Scriptures that his newfound faith was sealed. Cast in the mould of GK Chesterton, CS Lewis and Billy Graham, the world was given its next great religious evangelist.

In Amsterdam in 1983, at the height of Billy Graham’s world evangelism, Ravi Zacharias had his breakthrough moment at the International Conference for Itinerant Evangelists when he was invited by Billy Graham to speak at the conference. A star in Christian cosmology was born. By then he had moved to Canada (1966) and had earned a Masters in Divinity degree (1973) from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Illinois, US).

If GK Chesterton was the “Prince of Paradox”, Ravi Zacharias industrialised religious allegories and paradoxes into an empire. The field of Christian Apologetics had found its strongest advocate. There was a need he felt, a calling, to develop a fresh approach and a new set of arguments to justify belief in God and the Christian God in particular. Following the establishment of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) in 1984, his enterprise flourished through the emergence of new media and social media through the early new century, making Ravi Zacharias an online superstar who inspired the establishment of countless new churches and fellow apologists. RZIM is now a global organisation based in Atlanta, US.  

It was for the first time in our living years, it would seem, that the Christian faith had someone brave enough to field any question about faith and theology with the cameras running. He was a man at one with the stage and the microphone with his mind on full torque all the time. Notwithstanding the often vacuous explanations, he would offer to complex questions such as the doctrine of the Trinity in the Christian faith, or the idea of the bodily resurrection of the historical Jesus Christ, the man had a commanding presence and manner which appealed to the human desire for complexity and mystery. Christian Apologetics, after all, is said to make mystery where there is need for none.

Not unlike Chesterton, or Lewis, or Graham, his currency was faith; that is the ability to believe something in the absence of evidence, with reason suspended. Besides, what more could be said about justifying doctrinal positions within the Christian faith that hadn’t been said over the past 2000 years, or was his the case of saying the same with just more media-savvy mixed with his captivating style, flowered with the most fabulous storytelling?

For the world of the religious, this is not just a matter of minor intellectual or academic dispute. No. The entire empire of religion depends upon the triumph of faith over reason, even if it meant making faith look reasonable. Come 2005, enter stage left the New Atheists with the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett. Ravi Zacharias was more than up to the battle and his legacy will be marked by the tenacity with which he tackled the opposition in a battle which still rages. His book, The End of Reason: A response to the New Atheists is one of Ravi Zacharias’s prized works, responding to Sam Harris’s (2005) publication Letters to a Christian Nation. This battle with New Atheism became very real and there was blood all over YouTube.

Ravi Zacharias, with the Hillsong group of companies, could be credited with setting in motion the stage-managed Christianity we now see in enterprises such as Elevation Church with lead Pastor Steven Furtick, becoming a case of “go global or go home”. Actually, Steven Furtick went one giant leap of faith further and modelled his entire operation on the Irish Rock band U2, even naming his outfit after the successful U2 record, Elevation.

This model of the franchise spread globally, South Africa not excluded. Outside of the mainline churches, this entire international superstructure of Christianity was in need of a new master-craftsman (or woman, if one really wants to get Pythonesque about this) with a new toolbox, or the appearances of something new. Although the Holy Spirit might wish to claim credit for saving global Christianity, the perfect person for the job was Ravi Zacharias with a revamped take on Christian Apologetics in his toolbox. Ravi Zacharias was heart and centre of the project to “Make Christianity Great Again”.

The real significance of Ravi Zacharias’ global mission and impact is that he, possibly more than anyone else, gave credence to the idea that we were now living in a post-secular society; that humankind could not do without religion.    

Many in South Africa will remember when the RZIM Festival of Thought tour (April, 2008) came to town. The tour saw the RZIM team, including Ravi Zacharias, hold around 100 countrywide presentations within a week, to churches, universities, businesses and political leadership. Christian mission was bumped up “Next Level”. However, what had the appearance of open public engagements were sleek events with multimedia-rich content, but which turned out to be good old-fashioned Christian proselytising dressed up. In recounting the RZIM Festival of Thought tour we are once again reminded that religion is largely political, in that the need to influence public policy and the power dynamics within politics is not inconspicuous. In this sense, Ravi Zacharias was a master diplomat for his cause; the cause for a society run along lines of religious dictates.      

As it turns out, the trouble with being human is that we are wired to do wrong and right, preacher man and regular folk alike. Ravi Zacharias came short a few times. As if sin had a ranking, the lesser lapse of the sex-texting incident revealed that he had received inappropriate messages and sexually explicit pictures on his mobile phone. When the story broke (December 2017) in no lesser publication than Christianity Today and it was reported that the person involved threatened to expose him, Ravi Zacharias was said to have experienced, “the most dark and accursed day of my life”. At the price of $5-million the out-of-court settlement was reached and there the case ended. Done and dusted. Ravi Zacharias apologised for the incident and it was a case of let’s move on from here.

It was the matter of his academic credentials, however, which were seen to be repeated and deliberate acts of deception on his part and could not be easily dismissed. Contrary to his claims in writing and in public presentations he was never on the academic staff at Oxford University, let alone being a professor at Oxford as he had also claimed. The doctorate degrees which he laid claim to were non-academic in that he had never registered for any doctoral programme, but they were honorary degrees conferred on him. The key issue is that the Ravi Zacharias International Ministries was also built upon his repeated public exaggerations of his academic credentials, particularly his claimed studies at Oxford and Cambridge universities, claims which were patently false.    

To reflect upon the life of a colossal international figure such as Ravi Zacharias, and to not account fairly on his life would be irresponsible. The heartbreak is plainly in the reality that his actual achievements proved what he was capable of, far beyond any academic qualification he could have earned. His entire life is a teaching on the power and frailty of the human condition. We fall, we get up, we fall, and then we die.

No matter which way history may slice the merits of the case made by Ravi Zacharias for the Christian faith, his contribution to the field of Christian Apologetics will be uncontested. He was the greatest evangelist of our time. Beyond the body of work he leaves behind, to millions around the world he would be regarded as the figure who made all the difference between simply being Christian or not. For those who followed his work closely he will remain the uncle who always seemed to have the right message for our life’s crisis, the father whose voice of guidance will echo on.

Ravi Zacharias always reminded me of my dear father, actually. Beneath the fluff and clutter of argument there was always love. In death, the last word must be love. DM

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