Ravi Zacharias (1946-2020)

Once Ravi Zacharias found the truth of the Christian gospel, his passion for sharing it burned bright until the very end. Photo courtesey of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries.

By Matthew Fearon-

When Ravi Zacharias was a cricket-loving boy on the streets of India, his mother called him in to meet the local sari-seller-turned-palm reader. “Looking at your future, Ravi Baba, you will not travel far or very much in your life,” he declared. “That’s what the lines on your hand tell me. There is no future for you abroad.”

By the time a 37-year-old Zacharias preached, at the invitation of Billy Graham, to the inaugural International Conference for Itinerant Evangelists in Amsterdam in 1983, he was on his way to becoming one of the foremost defenders of Christianity’s intellectual credibility. A year later, he founded Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM), with the mission of “helping the thinker believe and the believer think.”

Ravi Zacharias died of cancer on May 19, 2020, at age 74.

In the time between the sari seller’s prediction and the founding of RZIM, Zacharias had immigrated to Canada, taken the gospel across North America, prayed with military prisoners in Vietnam, and ministered to students in a Cambodia on the brink of collapse. He had also undertaken a global preaching trip as a newly licensed minister with The Christian and Missionary Alliance, along with his wife, Margie, and eldest daughter, Sarah. This trip started in England, worked eastwards through Europe and the Middle East and finished on the Pacific Rim; all-in-all that year, Zacharias preached nearly 600 times in over a dozen countries.

It was the culmination of a remarkable transformation set in motion when Zacharias, recovering in a Delhi hospital from a suicide attempt at age 17, was read the words of Jesus recorded in the Bible by the apostle John: “Because I live, you will also live.” In response, Zacharias surrendered his life to Christ and offered up a prayer that if he emerged from the hospital, he would leave no stone unturned in his pursuit of truth. Once Zacharias found the truth of the gospel, his passion for sharing it burned bright until the very end. Even as he returned home from the hospital in Texas, where he had been undergoing chemotherapy, Zacharias was sharing the hope of Jesus to the three nurses who tucked him into his transport.

Frederick Antony Ravi Kumar Zacharias was born in Madras, now Chennai, in 1946, in the shadow of the resting place of the apostle Thomas, known to the world as the “Doubter” but to Zacharias as the “Great Questioner.” Zacharias’s affinity with Thomas meant he was always more interested in the questioner than the question itself.

Thirty-six years since RZIM was established, there are now nearly 100 gifted speakers who on any given night can be found sharing the gospel at events across the globe. The ministry has a presence in 17 countries on five continents.

Zacharias’s passion and urgency to take the gospel to all nations was forged in Vietnam in 1971. Zacharias had immigrated to Canada in 1966, a year after winning a preaching award at a Youth for Christ congress in Hyderabad. It was there, in Toronto, that Ruth Jeffrey, the veteran missionary to Vietnam, heard him preach. She invited him to her adopted land. That summer, Zacharias – only just 25 – found himself flown across the country by helicopter gunship to preach at military bases, in hospitals, and in prisons to the Vietcong. Most nights Zacharias and his translator Hien Pham would fall asleep to the sound of gunfire.

On one trip across remote land, Zacharias and his travel companions’ car broke down. The lone jeep that passed ignored their roadside waves. They finally cranked the engine to life and set off, only to come across the same jeep a few miles on, overturned and riddled with bullets, all four passengers dead. He later said of this moment, “God will stop our steps when it is not our time, and He will lead us when it is.” Days later, Zacharias and his translator stood at the graves of six missionaries, killed unarmed when the Vietcong stormed their compound. Zacharias knew some of their children. It was that level of trust in God, and the desire to stand beside those who minister in areas of great risk, that is a hallmark of RZIM.

In 1983, Billy Graham invited Zacharias to speak at his inaugural International Conference for Itinerant Evangelists in Amsterdam. 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.”

That talk changed Zacharias’s future and arguably the future of apologetics, dealing with the hard questions of origin, meaning, morality, and destiny that every worldview must answer. As one colleague has expressed, “He saw the objections and questions of others not as something to be rebuffed, but as a cry of the heart that had to be answered. People weren’t logical problems waiting to be solved; they were people who needed the person of Christ.”

Meeting the thinker face-to-face was an intrinsic part of Zacharias’s ministry, with post-event Q&A sessions often lasting long into the night. Not to be quelled in the sharing of the gospel, Zacharias also took to the airwaves in the 1980s. Many people, not just in the U.S. but across the world, came to hear the message of Christ for the first time through Zacharias’s radio program, Let My People Think. In weekly half-hour slots, Zacharias explored issues such as the credibility of the Christian message and the Bible, the weakness of modern intellectual movements, and the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. Today, Let My People Think is syndicated to over 2,000 stations in 32 countries and has also been downloaded 15.6 million times as a podcast over the last year.

He is the author of 28 books, including A Shattered Visage: The Real Face of Atheism, The Logic of God, Can Man Live Without God?,  Jesus Among Other Gods, The Grand Weaver, and Seeing Jesus from the East, co-authored with colleague Abdu Murray. Zacharias’s books have sold millions of copies worldwide and have been translated into over a dozen languages.

Zacharias had prayed with prisoners of war all those years ago in Vietnam, but walking through the Angola Prison Death Row in Louisiana, the largest maximum-security prison in the United States, left an even deeper impression. Zacharias believed the gospel shined with grace and power, especially in the darkest places, and praying with those on Death Row “makes it impossible to block the tears.” It was his third visit to Angola and, such is his deep connection, the inmates have made Zacharias the coffin in which he will be buried. As he writes in Seeing Jesus from the East, “These prisoners know that this world is not their home and that no coffin could ever be their final destination. Jesus assured us of that.”

This obituary is adapted from the one published by RZIM. Matthew Fearon is RZIM U.K. content manager and former journalist with The Sunday Times of London.

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