The news though expected when it finally came, still caused me to pause and reflect. Notable Christian apologist, philosopher, author and evangelist Ravi Zacharias was gone- having finally succumbed to a rare form of bone cancer, passing on to an eternity with the Lord and Savior he spent most of his lifetime defending, Tuesday, May 19th at the age of 74.
Zacharias, a prolific writer and articulate rhetorician of great skill born in Delhi, India and from a Buddhist background, left behind a massive legacy of a life and ministry dedicated to “helping thinkers believe and believers think,” about God, Jesus Christ and his gospel.
For nearly a generation, ‘Ravi,’ connected Christianity to the life of the mind, proving that the Christian faith was not a blind one, founded upon myth, but rather a real, rationale faith grounded in reason, centered around the God that became a Man.
His impact on my life was both subtle and significant. Having grown up in a fairly nominal Catholic family, my faith up until nearly the age of 30, was largely theistic though agnostic as to the relevance of the gospel in my life. I was pretty sure God existed, Jesus was a historic figure of some importance who may or may not have resurrected and who I cried out to for help, only when needed as push came to shove, backed in various corners of life by my own choosing. Does that sound familiar to any of you?
Without yet understanding the supernatural and sovereign way in which God calls and saves sinners like myself (one of the areas in which I would come to disagree with Ravi theologically), I was somehow lured (John 6 would say “drawn” or better yet compelled by God the Holy Spirit) to investigate the claims of Christianity, after having met my future wife and contemplating my future with her nearly 30 years ago.
Moreover, my brother had come to Christ not long before this compulsion to investigate Christ, and by witnessing his dramatic conversion and testimony, I knew something was up spiritually, and I had a hole in my heart which needed to be filled by someone, leading me to embark on a journey to see whether or not Christianity was true and meaningful. So, I went on a search for God, all the while God was seeking me.
The Ministry of Apologetics
God uses many means and methods in which to draw and save sinners to himself, as Jesus demonstrated in his ministry, as diverse as the approach with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4), to the Roman Centurion (Matt. 8) and with a Pharisee named Nicodemus (John 3).
Some believe in Christ as the result of a dramatic, Pauline like, Damascus Road experience, others as the result of a tragedy and for others like me, an intellectual path of exploring the meaning of life that led to a face to face confrontation with the risen and coming again Christ of the gospels. How?
.. but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15, ESV).
God used Ravi Zacharias. I first became familiar with the idea of apologetics- the ‘defense’ (from the Greek word apologia) of the Christian faith, by observing my brother’s ‘born-again’ life and wanting to know the “reason for the hope” that was in him. Then I began to read classic books he directed me to, such as C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity and Josh McDowell’s More than a Carpenter, which both made tremendous arguments for the validity and credibility of the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus.
However, it was a grid- a systematic presentation of a four-part question and answer paradigm of thinking that mankind has always wrestled with, that I had first heard on Ravi’s Let My People Think radio broadcast, which I found later in his work, Can Man Live Without God (1994) that floored me. I had been asking myself and others- on and off the written page, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” The best seller of the same title of that era, written by a rather liberal Jewish Rabbi, left me wanting but at least piqued my interest. I had to know.
The four big questions I needed big answers to, that Ravi expertly laid out and answered – logically, mind you, were and remain:
- Creation: How did we get here?
I had been indoctrinated already by a public school system and enforced by a culture, that taught that life existed by a random, accidental explosion, leading to an ancient earth, made up of life forms which inexplicably arrived, mutated and became human by an evolutionary process that seemed to defy the laws of evidence and reason in my mind.
As I dug Darwin’s ditch a bit deeper, I found reasons to turn to the Bible as God’s special revelation declaring a unique, unprecedented and literal, supernatural, six-day account that better explained the origin of life than the naturalistic idea that nothing plus time – plus chance – equals everything.
The answer to the creation question seemed to serve as the linchpin that unpacked the answers to the rest of the questions. Ravi Zacharias continued….
2. Meaning – why are we here?
Though I am no scientist or scholar, I figured that if the answer to the above origin question was evolution, my life carried no more of an intrinsic value or meaning than a centipede or speck of dirt. That thought was not very appealing nor would that answer satisfy the millions of minds over the millennia that have searched for meaning as being the most fundamental yearning perhaps that man has ever had – it wasn’t just me.
3. Morals: why are we the way we are?
Ravi Zacharias among other great defenders of the faith, argued that the fall of man in sin, produced a lineage and legacy of hearts that were “deceitful and desperately wicked,” which much better explained the ravages of murder, death, destruction, oppression and evil in the world, rather than just a few societal ideas gone wrong.
Why had the 20th century, filled with the rise of historic industrial, technological and intellectual advances, and largely influenced by the most powerful, atheistic minds and leaders of the age (e.g. Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao) taken more human lives than all of the first nineteen centuries combined?
The answer to that question became obvious to me as Ravi explained the need for a transcendent and objective law-giver to be the author of the moral law by which one could differentiate good from evil, making sense of the problem of pain and suffering in this sin-cursed world.
4. Destiny: where are we going from here?
Essentially the life or death question came down to two possible answers. One, if God does not exist and meaning is irrelevant, then our destiny is, and one should live as selfishly as possible, since everyone’s life expectancy is limited to this material life, which leads to a short-lived existence as little more than being food for maggots, having taken the big dirt-nap on earth.
Again, not an answer I found to be very coherent nor satisfying. The second option was the most plausible one for me, being that if God is true, man fell despite a greater purpose and promise of eternal life with him, and is then in need of redemption with God for having lived a life of sin and rebellion.
What better way to explain that – destiny and the future of man, than the opportunity for redemption or salvation – rescue from the consequences of moral sin, from the God of love, as well as holiness and righteousness found in the Bible, than by virtue of the gospel of Jesus Christ, which provides that freedom and redemption by faith?
It all lined up for me- hand in glove, four questions posed and answered biblically, philosophically and reasonably by this master apologist who subtly influenced if not shaped public opinion and policy, Ravi Zacharias, who connected my mental dots- my mind, curiosity and doubt with the gospel of Christ. That’s what I needed in order to fill the Christ-shaped hole in my heart I discovered so long ago.
I am in debt, and much of my pastoral and preaching ministry is as well, to this man that God used to ‘help this thinker believe’ as he did with tens of thousands of other Christians I’m sure over these many years. Tim Tebow tweeted in a video upon hearing of Ravi’s passing: “He is an absolute inspiration, a hero of the faith. He will absolutely be in the hall of faith.”
Indeed, Ravi is another hero of the faith I’m looking forward to spending some time with in the New Heavens and Earth. How joyous this ‘good and faithful servant’ must be right now, as he awaits a well-deserved crown for living and leaving behind a well earned legacy by God’s grace.