Death of a Christian apologist

Tributes flow in for Ravi Zacharias, a towering faith figure, who passionately defended God, and has left behind a rich legacy

Ravi Zacharias, a Christian apologist, prolific author and broadcaster, has died of cancer after 48 years in ministry. He was 74.

Mr Zacharias was undergoing back surgery in March when his doctors discovered a malignant tumour on his sacrum, and began treating him for sarcoma. On May 8, his ministry posted an update saying his cancer was deemed untreatable and that he had been sent to his Atlanta home to be with his family.

In a tribute following Zacharias’ death on May 19, Rev Franklin Graham, son of the late evangelist Billy Graham, described him as “one of the great Christian apologists of our time”.

“Don’t feel sorry for Ravi, his fight with cancer is over and he has placed his crowns at the feet of the One who deserves all glory and honour,” Graham wrote. “For those who have put their faith in Jesus Christ, we will see him again on the other side of the river.”

Sports personality Tim Tebow said in a tweeted video: “He is an absolute inspiration, a hero of the faith. He will absolutely be in the hall of faith.” Louie Giglio, founding pastor of Passion City Church in Atlanta, wrote: “I join the thunderous applause of heaven,” while Christian author Jackie Hill Perry praised him for his humility and “naturally inquisitive” spirit.

“We grieve but not without hope. A part of me is so happy for him. He’s spent decades of his life defending the validity, necessity and beauty of Christ and now, face to face, he finally stands before the One he defended,” Perry wrote.

Zacharias was known for his work, which focused on apologetic arguments for the existence of God and the reasonableness of Christianity. He preached in more than 70 countries and authored more than 30 books, teaching Christians to engage with sceptics and arguing that the Christian worldview has robust answers to humanity’s existential questions.

Zacharias grew up in Delhi, India, where his father was a prominent government official. His lacklustre performance in the classroom and on the cricket fields often made him the subject of his father’s physical and verbal abuse.  

As a teenager, he attended a local Youth for Christ (YFC) rally with his siblings and was the only one to respond to an altar call. But a few months later, he spiralled under his father’s scrutiny and attempted suicide by poisoning at age 17.

In the hospital, a YFC minister visited him and gave him a Bible. After reading John 14:19 where Jesus said: “Because I live, you also will live,” Zacharias became a Christian.

He began taking school seriously and attended a local Christian youth group. His newfound purpose caught his father’s attention and he stopped treating him so harshly. Later, he also converted to Christianity. 

Zacharias began sharing the gospel publicly at 19 and even won a preaching contest. When he was 20, he moved with his family to Canada where he obtained theological degrees from Ontario Bible College (now Tyndale University College and Seminary) and Trinity International University. 

After graduating, he travelled the world preaching. He noted a lack of formal Christian apologetics training among Christians and started Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) in 1984 to help address the matter. Today, the organisation employs about 75 Christians who defend the faith and train Christian leaders around the world. Zacharias’ daughter, Sarah Davis, is CEO of the organisation that has its headquarters in Alpharetta, Georgia. 

His love for cricket continued throughout his life and he stayed active by playing racquetball daily until he developed back problems in the 1980s and ’90s. He also loved the culinary arts and once wrote: “My family still thinks that after I retire, I will open a small restaurant somewhere. If I ever did, it would be for great conversations around a great meal.”

Like many other prominent Christian leaders, Zacharias encountered controversy. For instance, he faced criticism for occasionally going by the title “Dr” despite the fact that his many doctorates were honorary. And in 2017, a Canadian woman and her husband accused him of carrying on a sexting relationship with the woman, whom he had met at a conference.

Zacharias maintained that the explicit photos she sent him were unsolicited and unwelcome and he sued the couple, saying they had attempted to extort him. He apologised publicly for not drawing stricter boundaries that would have protected him from the “appearance of impropriety”. 

His best-selling book, Can Man Live Without God?, sold about 500,000 copies in 1995. His most recent, The Logic of God: 52 Christian Essentials for the Heart and Mind, won the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association’s 2020 Christian Book Award in the Bible Study category.

Many will remember Zacharias for his decades of ministry. One notable RZIM speaker and Zacharias acolyte was Nabeel Qureshi, a convert from Islam, whose book, Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, became a New York Times bestseller. Mr Qureshi died in 2017 of stomach cancer.

Ravi is survived by Margaret, his wife of 48 years, three children and several grandchildren.

Sources: World magazine, Christianity Today and Christian Broadcasting Network.