On Tuesday this week—19 May 2020—the great Christian apologist and evangelist Ravi Zacharias went Home to Christ. The obituary on his ministry’s website details the story of his radical conversion to Christianity in a hospital bed in India, where he heard the Gospel while recovering from a suicide attempt, and then on through his remarkable ministry.
Ravi Zacharias brought intellectual heft to Evangelical Protestantism; even his radio program was called Let My People Think. Zacharias recognized that emotional appeals alone would not always win people to Christ; there had to be compelling reasons for what made Christianity True, not just one religion among many. The knee-jerk response among Evangelicals (one I have been guilty of many times) is not the bold, intellectual defense of the faith, but denunciations of other faiths in a sort of Truth-by-elimination, something Zacharias warned against in an address in 1983. From the obituary:
In front of 3,800 evangelists from 133 countries, Zacharias opened with the line, “My message is a very difficult one….” He went on to tell them that religions, 20th-century cultures and philosophies had formed “vast chasms between the message of Christ and the mind of man.” Even more difficult was his message, which received a mid-talk ovation, about his fear that, “in certain strands of evangelicalism, we sometimes think it is necessary to so humiliate someone of a different worldview that we think unless we destroy everything he holds valuable, we cannot preach to him the gospel of Christ…what I am saying is this, when you are trying to reach someone, please be sensitive to what he holds valuable.”
Zacharias profoundly shaped my own walk with Christ. I am very thankful for my Pentecostal upbringing, which bathed me from the time I was a child in God’s Word. But Southern Pentecostalism in the 1990s tended to be extremely emotive—I would say, at times, even performative. The emphasis of the (often agonizingly) long church services of my youth were more about creating an atmosphere of worship—at worst, attempts to tempt the Holy Spirit to move, at best sincere responses to the Moving of the Holy Spirit—than about digging into the hard Truths of the Gospels.
At least, that sometimes seemed the case to my thirteen-year old self, who often wondered what my problem was when I wasn’t getting caught up in everything the way the rest of the congregation was. But then one of my aunts—probably my Aunt Marilyn, though it could have been my Aunt Cheryl, the best one-eyed piano player in Aiken County—introduced us to Ravi Zacharias in Sunday School. We did a study using the youth version of Zacharias’s Jesus Among Other Gods, a masterpiece of Christian apologia.
Suddenly, here was a man who debated Ivy League philosophers—and got the better of them! For a bookish teenager who didn’t always respond to the emotive side of faith, Zacharias was a powerful role model. Here was a man who thought critically about faith, and who used his intellect to defend ours. The fact that he came to Christ out of a totally alien culture and religion further demonstrated the power of the Holy Spirit to reach anyone.
I should note that, while the church services were often heavy on emotion, our Sunday School classes were where the deep digging occurred; we didn’t just shut off our brains. Southern Pentecostalism—probably as a result of its strong Scotch-Irish roots—is inherently skeptical of all worldly claims. The default position towards the world’s wisdom is critically analytic. There’s also a scrappy outsider mentality, which, at its best, serves to embolden our tenacity, even if it makes us wary of potential faith allies. In other words, it wasn’t all just pew-hopping and thirty-minute altar calls: that plucky skepticism of worldliness is one of the best qualities of my religious upbringing.
But I digress. Zacharias drew others to a deeper understanding of their faith in Christ. White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany—talk about a spunky Scotch-Irish fighter!—gave a tearful interview to CBN News in which she detailed Zacharias’s influence:
When asked where the tears were coming from, she explained further. It goes back to her days developing her faith at Oxford University in England of all places.
“To have someone from an academic place, as an apologist could equip you with those arguments where you didn’t have to check your brain at the door when you became a Christian where there is the intellectual foundation for everything we believe,” McEnany explained. “There’s prophecy. There’s the human cell. There’s the amazing creation of the human body and all of its complexity and the planet, the universe.”
“And he put a philosophical and academic rationale for the heart that I had for Christ, but gave me the ability to go to Oxford, where there are renowned atheist scholars who try to say there’s no intellectual undergirding for Christianity,” she continued. “Ravi Zacharias, who happened to have an office at Oxford was the person who provided the counter to that, the intelligence behind why we believe what we believe.”
Amen. Ravi Zacharias’s influence will reverberate through the lives he won for Christ, and his bold, intellectual defense of Christianity will continue to win souls.
Rest in Peace.