Ravi Zacharias, popular evangelical defender of the Christian faith, dies at 74

Ravi Zacharias (Photo: Ravi Zacharias International Ministries – rzim.org)

Ravi Zacharias, an Indian-born preacher who rose to prominence in a predominantly white evangelical subculture and who wrote popular books and lectured widely at colleges to make an intellectual defense of the Christian faith, died May 19 at his home in Atlanta. He was 74.

The cause was complications from an aggressive form of bone cancer, according to a statement from Zacharias International Ministries, the evangelical organization he founded in 1984 and is based in the Atlanta suburbs.

Zacharias published and edited more than 25 books, and he was a frequent presence in university lecture halls. His international travels as well as his radio and television show “Let My People Think” extended his reach globally.

He did not get involved in political campaigns but befriended leaders in politics, particularly conservative Republicans. He mentored the son of Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and ambassador to the United Nations. Before his death, President Donald Trump’s press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, lauded him for reinforcing her faith. He also was close to baseball player Tim Tebow.

“His fan base included leaders in many in high-profile places, yes, but he’s one of those rare evangelical leaders from his generation who is actually known for being an evangelical who evangelized, rather than an evangelical who did politics,” said Michael Wear, who worked in faith outreach for President Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns.

Zacharias, ordained by the Christian and Missionary Alliance in 1980, came to wide attention three year later, at age 37, when he preached at the invitation of evangelist Billy Graham at a conference in Amsterdam.

He soon became one of the most sought-after evangelists to promote apologetics, or the defense of Christianity, and began building a ministry based what he called intellectual arguments for evangelical belief rather than direct appeals to faith.

“Much of the evangelistic preaching at the time was being done to the person whose life was already collapsing,” he later told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “But the reasonableness of the Christian faith was not being presented to those whose lives seemed to be self-sufficient, who seemed not to need God.”

He said he began building a ministry “to carry the Gospel message to the skeptic – honest skeptics [of Christianity] and those who were hostile and adversarial to the message.”

Drawing on philosophy, poetry, science and other areas of academia, he spent most of his life trying to show how Christianity gives answers to life’s most pressing existential questions.

“The cross [of Jesus] stands as a mystery because it is foreign to everything we exalt – self over principle, power over meekness, the quick fix over the long haul, cover-up over confession, escapism over confrontation, comfort over sacrifice, feeling over commitment, legality over justice, the body over the spirit, anger over forgiveness, man over God,” he wrote in his 1994 book “Can Man Live Without God.”

Zacharias sometimes went beyond focusing on a defense of the Christian faith by promoting conservative views on culture war questions around abortion, transgenderism and homosexuality, which occasionally drew controversy before he would speak on campuses.

He often engaged in a tense question-and-answer format with students who did not share his views of a society in need of a Bible-based morality. One of his exchanges, at the University of Pennsylvania in 2014, received 2 million views on YouTube.

“Why are you so afraid of subjective moral reasoning?” a student asked. “Do you think we all are just going to start raping and pillaging just because we don’t have a book telling us what to do? Are you afraid of that? I’m not, because that’s not what we are going to do. Yes, Nazis were bad, but there were Christian Nazis and atheist Nazis. So I don’t see . . . what are you so afraid of?”

Zacharias responded, “Do you lock your doors at night?”

The audience erupted in laughter.

John G. Stackhouse Jr., an apologist and a historian of evangelicalism at Crandall University in Canada, said Zacharias knew how to boost the confidence of evangelicals, but he was not considered by academics to be a scholarly arguer. Instead he was seen as gifted evangelist who could encourage Christians to step up their faith and ministry.

Frederick Antony Ravi Kumar Zacharias was born March 26, 1946, in Chennai (sometimes called Madras), and grew up in New Delhi. His mother was a teacher. His father worked in the Indian civil service. They had a Hindu background and celebrated the Hindu festivals, but on Christmas and Easter they attended an Anglican Church.

In interviews, he considered himself “a skeptic” of faith in his youth and attempted suicide at 17 by swallowing poison after being seized by feelings of academic failure in a family with expectations of academic excellence.

He said a hospital worker gave him a Bible, and he kept asking his mother to read him passages about Jesus’ words to Thomas: “Because I live, you will live also.”

“I read the very strident claim of Christ: ‘I am the way, the truth and the life,’ ” he told the Journal-Constitution. “He spoke these words to the apostle Thomas. Thomas was the one who went to India and was martyred.”

He sensed an immediate personal connection to the Bible and committed himself to Christianity.

His family immigrated to Canada in 1966, and Zacharias spent a few years as a banquet manager for a hotel. He graduated in 1972 from Ontario Bible College (now Tyndale University) and received a master of divinity degree in 1976 from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. He was a professor of evangelism at Alliance Theological Seminary in Nyack, New York, from 1980 to 1984.

He then grew his ministry to more than 250 employees and 15 locations around the world. The ministry listed revenue of $25 million in 2015, according to its most recent public filings. His daughter Sarah Zacharias Davis serves as its chief executive.

In 1972, he married Margaret “Margie” Reynolds. In addition to his wife and daughter, survivors include two other children, Naomi Zacharias and Nathan Zacharias; and five grandchildren.

In recent years, Rev. Zacharias came under scrutiny for inflating his credentials; he had long insisted on being called “Dr.” when he only held honorary doctorates from Christian institutions.

He also publicly apologized for his previous false claims that he had been enrolled at Oxford or Cambridge universities in England and for using titles in the past suggesting he was a professor at Oxford. He had a guided study in 1990 at Ridley Hall, an independent theological college affiliated with Cambridge, and was an honorary senior research fellow at Wycliffe Hall, a private hall of the University of Oxford, from 2007 to 2015.

In 2017, he settled a lawsuit involving sexually explicit communications with a married Canadian woman he met at a conference. Both parties agreed to a nondisclosure agreement.

To his followers, he will be remembered for how he sparred with skeptics of faith. The Atlanta paper captured one such episode with a student:

Zacharias: “I will define reality as what is.”

Student: “Reality is whatever you believe in . . .”

Zacharias: “No, reality is not whatever you believe . . .”

Student: “That’s what you believe . . .”

Zacharias: “What’s your definition of faith?”

Student: “I can’t actually define faith . . . I have faith that you exist.”

Zacharias: “So you’re not even sure I exist?”

Student: “I’m not absolutely sure.”

Zacharias: “When you’re absolutely sure, you can ask a question.”



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