Last year, a world-famous Christian apologist died. He had been diagnosed with cancer just a few months prior and deteriorated quickly. I was saddened by the news of both his diagnosis and his death. This was a man that I discovered in recent years and developed a great deal of respect for. To my eyes, he looked very much like a model Christian: humble, gentle, compassionate, and wise, steadfast in his commitment to God. He seemed almost grandfatherly to many of us, yet not without the ability to speak to people of all ages and walks of life.
Ravi Zacharias spent years – decades, in fact – traveling the world to tell others of Jesus. He spoke to atheists, world leaders, and massive auditoriums. He was the founder and chairman of an organization that bore his name, RZIM (Ravi Zacharias International Ministries). After his death, Vice President Mike Pence and White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany both issued public statements to honor him, with the latter comparing his death to the recent passing of Billy Graham by calling them the “great evangelist” and the “great apologist” of our time.
This year, news broke of sexual allegations against the late, “great” apologist. It wasn’t the first time: he had settled out of court with a previous accuser just a few short years ago. But that story had been brushed aside as nothing more than slander; its only notable supporter was an Internet atheist who could be reasonably dismissed as a cynical troublemaker looking for scandals where none exist. But after Ravi’s death, new allegations urged the leaders of RZIM to hire a private investigation firm that could hopefully clear up the controversy. It was a wise and honest move, but the outcome proved devastating.
What the investigators found wasn’t proof of Ravi’s innocence, but conclusive evidence of “sexual misconduct” – a blanket term which evidently understates the gravity of what really happened. I won’t repeat the details here, as the actual report is publicly available. But it’s safe to say that Ravi Zacharias lived a secret life; his public persona was an act. Whether driven by some mad delusion of his own innocence or total indifference to the truths he professed, he deceived everyone in order to conceal and gratify his own debauchery.
To call this troubling is an understatement of its own kind. It feels contradictory to everything we saw in the man, yet I can think of no rational way to discredit the report, no justifiable way to deny what the investigation uncovered. It’s a stark but sad reminder of how little we can know of other people, especially public figures with whom we never interact. As I said, Ravi seemed to personify that rare kind of Christ-like personality that so few possess. Now, we have to accept that he was not only a fraud, but a sexual predator.
That sounds harsh, but it’s apparently true. I would’ve been ashamed to utter such words about the man I thought he was; but in light of what we now know, it seems appropriate. My heart goes out to his family and friends, as well as all those who were blessed by his ministry. I myself am deeply disturbed and disappointed, but denying the truth does more harm than good. We risk our own credibility – not to mention the credibility of the church and the Gospel itself, in the eyes of the world – if we go on defending someone whose actions are no longer defensible. All we end up doing is perpetuating the lie he told for so long.
But it’s worth pausing here to make an important point: we shouldn’t let our faith in the Gospel be determined by the actions of men. If we believe in who Christ is, we should know that our hope is in him and not in the people who lead us and inspire us to become Christians in the first place. I understand why it’s hurtful and shocking when our heroes and leaders fail us. (In this case, it’s even worse than failure; it’s a total perversion of everything he claimed to believe in.) But despite the faith we place in some people, our ultimate faith should rest in Christ. He will not fail us, and he is the one we should look to for hope and inspiration.
What this man did is horrible – for his victims, his family, his friends and colleagues, and especially for the sake of the Gospel he preached. Christians should acknowledge that. That doesn’t mean turning on anyone who is accused, but accepting the truth when it comes out, so that we can take measures to prevent any further transgressions. It means holding ourselves and our leaders accountable – before, during, and after such scandals could ever occur. Doing so would not only help to prevent these things from happening, but it would enable ministries to lead with more confidence and integrity. After all, the church should be helping people heal, not apologizing for their implicit role in the harm done. They should never be put to shame by a sinful world for their ignorance and inaction.
None of this means that we should be less forgiving, less accepting, or less believing of God’s grace toward even the worst of sinners. Ravi Zacharias is no longer with us, and he now has to answer for his sins; but there are plenty of similar characters whom we struggle to regard with the love and forgiveness of Christ. And I freely admit that if I and my loved ones were personally impacted by something like this, I would have a hard time taking my own advice. But that doesn’t make it any less true or fitting of those who call themselves Christians.
Still, my purpose for writing this was not to create sympathy for the deceased or others like him. It was to acknowledge that imposters can be found in all walks of life, even and perhaps especially in the church. Christianity has often been and still remains a hot spot for phonies and liars, because a minister of Christ is one of the most innocent disguises for a con man to hide behind. But that sad fact still tells us something: that even counterfeits recognize a purity in the Gospel that they can exploit.
For those who allow hypocrites to influence their opinion of Christianity, let me offer a couple of final reminders: 1. If you think that hypocrisy is a shameful abuse of religion, there is a famous preacher who would agree with you. His name is Jesus, and he came down harder on hypocrisy – in terms of meaningful rebuke – than anyone else who ever lived. 2. Christians don’t find salvation through the example of other Christians. They find it through Christ. We don’t offer them sinless examples; we offer them one sinless example, Jesus himself. We’re not followers of Ravi Zacharias, Billy Graham, the Pope, or even the Apostles. We’re followers of Christ, and we should keep our eyes on him.
Maybe that’s why I didn’t lose any sleep over this story. It probably would’ve bothered me a lot more a few years ago; and perhaps I’ve simply grown callous to such things, but I like to think my faith is strong enough now to withstand the shock. It certainly bothered me, but I already knew that human beings were capable of such disgrace. That’s why my faith is no longer shaken when someone like Ravi Zacharias is thrown from his pedestal. It’s why I don’t have to defend my faith against medieval tragedies or political embarrassments: because my beliefs are rooted in the teachings and person of Christ, not in the actions of those who claim to follow him. Other religions may need to justify the life of their founder; I don’t, because the author and finisher of my faith is blameless.
As a Christian, I believe that we can all be changed by the Spirit of God, but I don’t expect perfection from anyone like myself. As the Psalmist said, we should never put our trust in man, but in the Lord.