Though we mourn the loss of the man who blazed a trail in Christian apologetics in our time, we can be grateful that we will still get to learn from his gentle demeanour and precise words that will live on beyond our generation.
Ravi Zacharias, founder of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM), passed away yesterday at the age of 74 after battling cancer.
For many years, I’d look him up on YouTube whenever I grappled with a particularly difficult question, as I always wondered what he would have said on the topic. I’ve spent many hours listening to his answers to questions from around the world.
Some years back, I also attended a RZIM talk at my church where he and Oxford professor John Lennox spoke together. The amount of intelligence in the auditorium that day was off the charts, but their gentleness shone brighter.
Frankly, I don’t remember the questions asked that night, but I remember listening to them speak with love and humility.
The Chennai-born apologist, known for both his wit and warmth, had been a seminary professor and an itinerant evangelist, but was most well-known for his work as an apologist.
In August of 1984, at age 38, Zacharias started RZIM after he began to “seriously consider the critical need of apologetics to remove the intellectual and existential barriers that kept many skeptics from considering the truth claims of Christ”.
Zacharias himself has shared his coming-to-Christ story on several occasions, and it was one that took him many years to open up about.
Recounting his attempted suicide at age 17, Zacharias said: “The doctor didn’t give me much hope. He wasn’t sure if I would make it. He felt that I did a lot of damage to my organs.”
And when his mother got to his hospital bed where he was in critical condition, she found a local Christian worker singing “There is a Balm in Gilead”.
That was the same song Zacharias heard just a few months earlier, at a Youth For Christ rally where he was the only person who walked forward to receive Christ.
“I chuckled and made fun of my decision… However, I knew that something was spiritually happening. I felt a strong presence of sin in my life,” said Zacharias.
At the hospital, the Christian worker wanted to give young Zacharias a Bible, opened it up to John chapter 14 and asked Mrs Zacharias to read it to her son.
Hearing the words of Jesus for the first time, it lit a fire in his heart.
“Because I live, you shall also live (John 14:19),” Zacharias recalled, thinking that this could be his only hope.
“…When you’re desperate, when you’re lying like that, words become very important to you,” he said an interview.
“I latched on the word live. I said, I don’t know what this really means. But if God has a different definition of this than I have, I want to know what that is.
His next prayer perhaps held the key to a purpose that would go on to define his life’s calling: “Please get me out of this hospital bed, and I promise to leave no stone unturned in my pursuit of truth.”
“God clearly called me into the preaching and teaching ministry, principally in hostile arenas. An odd call for a shy individual, I would think! But God does it his way,” Zacharias wrote in his book The Grand Weaver.
He was persuaded that God – The Grand Weaver, as Zacharias called Him – knits the details of our lives with “varied strands of life to reveal His grand design”.
Looking at his ancestry, the preacher and father of three recognised that his life is “so involved in words” that he couldn’t help but think that God had put it in his DNA right from the beginning.
Coming from a line of linguists belonging to the highest-ranking Brahmin caste (Nambudiri), his great-grandfather and grandfather translated the first Malayalam-English dictionary, one of the most difficult languages in the world. Zacharias’ great-grandfather also translated the works of Shakespeare and Arabian Nights.
Considering his work to be a calling, Zacharias explained: “There is something in your heart that God seals, and when I look at the way it has happened, the steps one after another, I could never have engineered anything like this. I wouldn’t have wanted to or had the capacity to.”
“It’s the calling of God that prepares your heart and prepares the place for your heart. No doubt, I am 100 per cent sure in my heart that God’s calling is on my life to do this work of a Christian apologist.”
In 2019, political commentator and YouTube personality Dave Rubin asked Zacharias about his title as an apologist on his talk show, The Rubin Report.
“It sounds a little strange to me – Christian apologist – as if to do what you do, you have to either apologise for something, or feel guilty about it…” Rubin had said.
Zacharias explained that the word “apologetics” (apologia in Greek, meaning “to give an answer”) was part of the curriculum in theological training and “has a rich history when it goes back to the likes of Justin Martyr and Augustine and so on”.
He also referred to 1 Peter 3:15.
“But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…”
“This is an ordinary fisherman talking about how to answer people with gentleness and respect,” he said. “I think it has two senses: making your truth claims clear and giving the answer to the legitimate questioner.”
They later settled on “Christian thinker” as a more accessible way of describing Zacharias’ work, in pursuit of the truth and his commendation of the Christian faith, believing that the truth of Jesus Christ can endure the toughest critiques and philosophical attacks.
Reminding people that it is ultimately the Gospel that saves, Zacharias said: “Apologetics does not dominate our message; it undergirds our message. Argument doesn’t save people, but it certainly clears the obstacles so they can take a direct look at the cross.”
After all, Zacharias had once said: “I tell my colleagues: we’re not answering a question; we’re answering a questioner. And we remind ourselves that when you’re answering a person, you’re literally and figuratively putting your arms around them.
“The Bible commands us to love even those with whom we disagree, and our responsibility as the Church is never to hate the individual. Our privilege is to love, and only God can change the heart of a person and God is the ultimate judge.”
Recounting one of his first meetings with Zacharias, American pastor Francis Chan said last year: “…We were both (going to) speak in an event and he just comes up to me and just hugs me and tells me how much he loves me and thanks God (for me)…
“I think he just started praying, ‘God, it is such an honour to share the stage with this man Francis. I’m so honoured to be on the same stage…’”
“Do you know what that does for a person who’s already feeling insecure … It was so foreign to me to be loved by a scholar … and valued by one.”
That only goes to confirm why the silver-haired apologist was well-loved by many: He delivered truth without compromising on love and was civil without compromising on his convictions.
Though we have lost a great apologist on this side of earth, we’re reminded that he is, in the words of his daughter Sarah Davis, “more alive than he has ever been” because he had passed from death into life when he surrendered his life to Jesus Christ.
“How wonderful to know that when Jesus Christ speaks to you and to me, he enables you to understand yourself, to die to that self because of the cross, and brings the real you to birth.” – Ravi Zacharias
In essence, Zacharias was echoing what Jesus was telling Nicodemus (John 3:3) – that we cannot change on our own. We have to be reborn.
In his interview with Rubin, Zacharias said Jesus had not only changed what he did, but changed what he wanted to do.
As we look back at Zacharias’ life, we see what’s like for a man to find Christ and then treasure Him with one’s whole heart, soul, mind and strength.
Thank you Ravi for this lesson.