When Heroes Are Frauds: Responding to the Ravi Zacharias Scandal

by Andrew Stroud | 9 min read
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The hint of shadow lurked over Ravi Zacharias the last few years of his life but few of us noticed. In 2017, an allegation of sexual misconduct was made against him, but he denied it forcefully and sued his accuser for extortion. The matter was quickly settled out of court and non-disclosure agreements were signed. The allegation seemed to come from nowhere but was dealt with swiftly and soon faded from public consciousness.

In May of 2020, Ravi died of cancer. His funeral was livestreamed around the world and was a celebration of his life spent in faithful service to God.

Then in August new allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced. A month later, an article was published by Christianity Today with claims by three women who said Zacharias had repeatedly sexually harassed them. The board of RZIM (Ravi’s ministry organization) expressed confidence in their late founder but commissioned an outside firm to conduct a thorough investigation and report the findings.

Last week those findings were made public and they are devastatingly conclusive: Ravi Zacharias was a sexual predator.

How can this be? A hero to so many, a man who spent decades in the public eye, a man famous for defending the Christian faith, a powerful voice who spoke on behalf of Christ and his teachings to millions around the world. It’s no exaggeration to say that on an international level, Ravi was the chief spokesman for Christianity over the past 50 years. This man was a fraud.

Not surprisingly, this week Christians around the world are struggling to process the news and its implications. And we should struggle with this news.

Some might want to ignore the story or excuse Ravi’s actions as the unfortunate failings of a flawed man. But we cannot ignore or downplay what has come to light. What the investigation uncovered were the systematic actions of a predator and fraud who used his power and platform to create a hidden harem of sex workers for his personal use. And he got away with it for years and years.

We have to wrestle with the questions this raises. How could this happen? What does it mean for us who have faith in Christ? What are the lessons we must learn? How should we respond?

This last question especially is what prompted me to write this article. As I’ve watched Christians responding publicly over the past few days, I’ve felt concerns. I hope what follows can help us respond appropriately to this shocking news and its fallout.

In my own reflection this past week, four responses stand out as being especially relevant and appropriate for us as believers. I believe the order of these responses is important. We need to respond in all four ways, but the fourth should not occupy our attention before we’ve dealt with the first, second, and third.

 

Weep With Those Who Weep

Romans 12.15 tells us to weep with those who weep—and this should be our first response to the story that’s come to light.

Ravi left behind a trail of victims when he died. It’s clear now that scores of women were abused by him. And this is just what we know from an investigation that was limited to the United States and whose sole purpose was to determine if sexual misconduct had taken place, not the full extent of that misconduct.

Ravi groomed his victims. He used his reputation to win their trust. He paid them with funds donated to RZIM to create dependency and gain leverage over them. Then he used manipulation to keep them quiet. His abuse was sexual, psychological, and spiritual. The women abused by him deserve our highest sympathy, care, and concern. We should weep with these women.

But the victims don’t stop there. The people who trusted him and gave money to his ministry are also victims, as are the people who came to work with his organization, RZIM, because of their belief in Ravi and the mission.

And of course his victims include millions around the world who looked up to him. People like my son-in-law. He and I were texting after the report was released this week. He messaged:

“It’s so upsetting. He was a good influence on me and now it just is unbelievable. His deceit was so slimy. I’ve watched videos of his debates and his Q&A with students and listened to a few of his books. It’s just a shame. Gutted to be honest.”

Our sin comes at a terrible cost, not only for us, but for others affected by it. King David suffered greatly for his sin. But so did many others. In fact, at least four people died because of David’s sin: Uriah (who David murdered) and three of David’s own sons. One of these sons was completely innocent: “Because by this deed you have utterly scorned the LORD, the child who is born to you shall die.” (2 Samuel 12.14)

Before we do anything else—before we try to understand how this could happen, before we try to defend God—we should remember the victims.

And we should weep with them.

 

Recognize This Is an Occasion to Blaspheme

As I’ve thought about this scandal, I’ve been reminded of the story of King David’s fall. In itself, David’s sin was terrible. Adultery and murder are grievous sins. But who David was and when he committed these sins greatly increased the damage caused by them.

David was God’s anointed and he proudly identified as God’s servant. He was known as a man after God’s own heart. And for years, God powerfully used David to accomplish his purposes and to win victories for his people. It was this favored, successful representative of God who committed adultery and murder.

When God confronted David with his sin, he said:

“I gave you your master’s house and his wives and the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. And if that had not been enough, I would have given you much, much more. Why, then, have you despised the word of the Lord and done this horrible deed?” 1

David had won mighty victories, but he had also made many enemies along the way. People who hated David and the God he represented. Watching the golden child, God’s anointed, debase himself by sneaking around committing adultery and murder gave these enemies exactly what they wanted: a reason to speak against the God David represented.

God told David, “You have given occasion to the enemies of the LORD to blaspheme.” (2 Samuel 12.14)

We may not want to hear it but the second response we should have is to acknowledge that Ravi Zacharias has given the enemies of the Lord an occasion to blaspheme.

As I wrote above, Ravi could be regarded as the chief spokesman for Christianity over the past 50 years. A man who spoke so eloquently about the Christian faith and its virtues, now exposed as a morally bankrupt hypocrite? What could give God’s enemies greater reason to celebrate?

But there’s more. Ravi’s abuse was widespread and egregious, and it took place over many years. How could the church not know about or put a stop to it? Doesn’t that reveal something deeply wrong about the way we operate and how we treat our leaders?

This is something I’ll address more below. For now, we simply need to acknowledge that this scandal damages our Christian witness and gives the enemies of the Lord an occasion to gloat and blaspheme. Another reason to weep.

 

Take Heed Lest You Fall

“These things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.” (1 Corinthians 10.11-12)

The Bible is filled with stories of men and women who went against God and paid the price. History outside the Bible is also filled with these examples, and the story of Ravi Zacharias is now one of them.

Ravi’s life was a lie and now everyone knows it. His legacy is shame. His family is suffering.

We have every reason to believe Ravi will stand condemned before God. Unlike David, whose sin of adultery and murder was a one-time event and who openly repented, Ravi’s sin was a lifestyle of rebellion. He was a wolf in sheep’s clothing who abused his victims all the way up until the time of his death. There is no indication he ever repented.

There’s a warning for us in this. We should take heed.

David had Nathan—someone strong enough to confront him when he sinned and call him to account. It appears Ravi did not.

But personal accountability is not enough. As Mike Winger puts it, “Accountability only works if I have the integrity to tell you what’s wrong. The minute I’m willing to lie about it, accountability means nothing.” What’s really needed is transparency.

Based on what we now know, it’s clear Ravi used RZIM to create a facade of accountability but had no real oversight. Where it mattered most, he answered to no one.

Case in point: For years he used donations from an RZIM ministry fund called “Touch of Hope” to finance what was essentially his own personal prostitution ring. Without saying anything else about RZIM as an organization, its culture and accountability structures should be closely scrutinized. A charitable Christian organization with annual revenues exceeding 25 million dollars 2 should be held responsible for allowing such a gross misuse of donated funds.

Ravi was a brilliant man. That brilliance was often on display in his public lectures, his debates, and his open mic Q&A events. But he used that same brilliance to create a facade of accountability that gave him cover to commit years of sexual abuse and financial fraud without getting caught.

Ravi’s cult of personality and our culture of celebrity Christianity provided everything he needed to live a double life and abuse his power to take advantage of the naive and vulnerable.

Our third response to this scandal must be building better accountability and transparency into our lives and organizations.

Christian leaders are called to be with and among the people—not above and separate from them.3 When we allow our leaders to live above and separate from the church, it creates hiddenness. And sooner or later that leads to abuse, suffering, and scandal.

If a leader is not willing to be with and among—to be highly transparent and accountable to fellow believers—that leader is not worth following.

 

Let God Be Found True

It’s understandable if you’re shaken by a bright light flaming out so spectacularly. If someone as gifted and seemingly sincere as Ravi could be so twisted and commit such terrible crimes, what hope is there for us mere mortals?

We need to be reminded that God does not choose the wise, the mighty, and the noble of the world. He calls the foolish, the weak, and the lowly.4 This is an indictment of our love affair with celebrity Christianity. Why are our eyes always looking up to superstar Christians when God’s eyes are looking down to the lowly?

It’s also understandable that some will use this scandal as evidence to say God isn’t real. If a Christian leader of such stature is revealed to be a fraud at the end of his life, isn’t that proof it’s all a charade?

But the Bible speaks to this as well: “If some did not believe, their unbelief will not nullify the faithfulness of God, will it? May it never be! Rather, let God be found true, though every man be found a liar.”4

God’s reality and character are not cast in doubt by our failings. God remains faithful and true, even if every man proves to be a liar.

“Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation. Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God.” (Psalm 146.3, 5)

 

How Should We Respond?

Ravi Zacharias had a charismatic personality and a brilliant intellect. He was a powerful speaker and communicator. We now know he was also breathtakingly devious and a master of manipulation. We know that for years he lived a double life, a sexual predator secretly preying on vulnerable women while openly presenting himself to the world as a man of faith and integrity.

The Bible warns us to be on guard against wolves in sheep’s clothing. It tells us that men of depraved minds will infiltrate the church and use it as a means of financial gain. It’s stunning to learn Ravi Zacharias was one of those men.

We must not ignore or downplay this revelation, but give it the honest consideration it deserves. And then seek to respond as God would want us to.

Let’s weep with those who weep.

Let’s acknowledge that harm has been done to our credibility and witness.

Let’s commit to accountability in our personal lives and transparency in our Christian organizations.

And let’s remember that God is still true, despite the failings of man.

 


Sources

 

Founder | Into the Harvest

Andrew has a passion for discipleship and disciple-making and has trained leaders for the kingdom who are operating as missionaries around the world. He loves being outdoors and enjoys reading, writing, and running. He and his family live in San Diego, CA.

  1. 2 Samuel 12.8-9
  2. RZIM’s total revenue for 2015 was $25,742,588 (Source: ProPublica)
  3. See Acts 20.28 and 1 Peter 5.1-4
  4. Romans 3.3-4

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