The shattered face of Ravi Zacharias
After his death, the Evangelical “apologist” leaves a mess
When you grew up a smart Evangelical kid—which I guess was me—you’d be sent to him to learn how to defend the faith. With books like A Shattered Visage: The Real Face of Atheism, Ravi Zacharias was the religion’s intellectual. I had a pile of his books, only later to realize how little I’d actually learned from him.
How to be a scholar? How to think and speak clearly? Not really. Listening to him, you’d get swept up in the rush of his brilliant mind, or something. Watching his speeches now, I’m struck by how rapid, and vapid, it was.
But for thirty years, an Indian guy worked American college campuses and Christian conferences, a revered if odd presence in the land of white Evangelicals. His organization, ‘RZIM’, established itself as a successor to Billy Graham’s organization. With his talk of “rationality” and sexual control, Ravi became the face of Christianity.
This is true even as odd scenes had dribbled out of fake degrees, sexting, ‘online adultery’, and suicide talk? It was weird, distant, and deniable. As Zacharias lay dying last May, he was praising his wife, their marriage and children, and just seemed like another “great man of God” on the fast track to Heaven.
Not to everyone. “I pray for him in these final days, but the allegations of abuse and how it was silenced, are true,” updated Rachael Denhollander, the Christian advocate for victims of sex abuse.
Vice President Mike Pence spoke at the funeral, and mostly, Evangelicals tried to forget about it.
The exception was atheist critic Steve Baughman, who’d undertaken research on Zacharias.
He’d exposed a history of extreme resume inflation. Zacharias said he’d earned six Ph.D.’s. In reality, he had none. His formal education was about the same as the average pastor.
In 2016, Ravi had begun a sexting relationship, which bothered the Christian woman so much she resolved to tell her husband. At that, Zacharias threatened to kill himself.
A possibility came into view: leaders around Zacharias had known he was acting fraudulently, if not immorally, and kept the show going.
Now we learn about—the massage parlors?
Baughman writes: “My first knowledge of the spa abuse came when a person contacted me a few days after Ravi died. She simply hoped to get things off her shoulders.”
Come to find out, Zacharias had run two health spas near his home in Georgia. To Evangelicals, this would be horrifying since the spas featured yoga and Ayurveda treatments, considered religiously offensive by many.
But staff of the spas told Baughman of Zacharias’ use of the facilities for sex. One employee says: “He was a sexual pervert.” Even more troublingly, women seem to have come in and out from Thailand and India to work at the establishment.
Baughman contacted Ravi’s business partner, Anurag Sharma, who asked him not to make it public. “He confirmed, and only later told me Ravi had been sexual.”
Baughman went public with a YouTube video, admitting the problems with the sources, and asking Christian media to follow up — which seemed to me, at the time, rather improbable.
And then came the delugé.
There was the Christianity Today exposé.
But over time, in the small private treatment rooms, Zacharias would make unwanted sexual advances, the three women each said independently. At first, they tried to ignore it, too embarrassed to call out a famous Christian minister. By their accounts, his inappropriate behavior only escalated.
“He would expose himself every time, and he would touch himself every time,” one of the women told CT. “It was where he went to get what he wanted sexually.”
Zacharias masturbated in front of one of the women more than 50 times, according to her recollection. He told her he was burdened by the demands of the ministry, and he needed this “therapy.” He also asked her to have sex with him twice, she said, and requested explicit photos of her.
As Ravi was dying, he was in despair. “He had no friends, and he needed somebody to talk to,” Sharma tells CT. “He was very sad about all his demons, and he said that was the condition of the human heart.”
Then—the World exposé. We learned that Zacharias had pressured a massage therapist for “more than a massage.” The spa manager, Anna Adesanya, went on the record, saying Sharma took it to Zacharias at RZIM.
“He did not admit it — he became defensive,” said Adesanya. “He said, ‘Who is this girl, what is she trying to do to me?’”
After the meeting, Adesanya said, Sharma fired the therapist who had complained. Zacharias continued coming for regular spa appointments. (Sharma did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)
We learned more about the sexting story.
Julie Roys reveals the legal maneuvers to save Zacharias’ reputation. He’d gotten the woman to sign an NDA, then when she was silenced, publicly spoke of her as the ‘predator’.
In an update (Sept. 15th), Roys adds details about how Zacharias pursued the woman to get sexual pictures, then strong-armed her to shut her up — then lied about her when it came out, as she had to be silent.
A third update deals with Ravi’s claims that the sexting led to “extortion,” as seems to have been only his own maneuvering to evade P.R. problems.
What was Zacharias’ story? Maybe about a guy who realized he could just invent himself, over and over.
Early on he’s calling himself the “Billy Graham of India,” as if he was a major revivalist. But his dream role, it seems, was a brilliant scientist who decides to give up everything for Jesus!
He’d spent a few months at an Anglican church training in the town of Cambridge, England and attended some classes at nearby Cambridge University. After that, he refers to himself as ‘Dr. Ravi Zacharias’ of Cambridge, having studied—quantum physics!
Why stop? Before long he was saying he’d attended and taught at Oxford University as well.
Piling up a few honorary degrees he converted them into Ph.D.s, and his resume was soon in genius territory.
I flip through his books, realizing the stories about himself have oddly shifting details. His often-repeated salvation narrative has him waking up from a suicide attempt. In a 2000 book, Jesus Among Other Gods, someone gives him a Bible passage, reading from John 3.
In his 2006 memoir Walking From East to West, his mother is now the Bible reader, and she picks John 14:19, which becomes his life motto!
It was a life being rewritten, in real time.
And somewhere along the way he realized he could just make women do whatever he wanted. And if they didn’t want to—he’d destroy them.
Browsing newspaper archives of his career, I find weird stuff.
In 1978, he’s back from a trip to his homeland. “India does not have the ability to handle democracy; she needs dictatorial leadership, someone with muscle,” he says.
A real biography of his life would be a story, I expect, of a product of colonial India who imagines himself putting on the character of his country’s oppressor. A bizarre chapter of American Evangelicalism as post-colonial studies.
Re-reading Zacharias’ books, it’s unclear to me that he’s Christian.
He speaks like a regular Hindu, just layering on a bit of Bible — and it’s just a bit. There’s hardly any scripture in his work. His idea of God is that one needs a source for the rules.
He often emphasizes the marriage agenda of needing a wife and children to be perceived as good. Zacharias was particularly good as an anti-gay speaker, savagely tearing into “them” over and over.
He told many times a narration of Oscar Wilde’s death, with the “hedonist” regretting his history with boys, and turning back to the church. The scene was made up.
He’d come to believe, at some point, he can just say whatever he wants to be, and whatever he’d wanted to happen—did?
More are saying now they’d thought something was off. From a Facebook discussion: “He never set well with me and, frankly, always struck me as a pseudo-intellectual, the source for the uncritical Evangelical’s self-justification.”
In his many attacks on sexual lechery, I wonder if he was writing his real autobiography?
In his 2002 book Sense and Sensuality, Zacharias imagines a “dialogue” between Jesus and Oscar Wilde. Reading the narrative he presents of Jesus atacking “hedonism,” I wonder:
. . . it is the beginning of a downward spiral. First, a person will victimize himself, then he will victimize others, and then his very own children — until what was meant to be enjoyed in the sacredness of marriage, in an act of maturity, is reduced to purely the sensual.
I think back over the religion of my youth, wondering if, when they were describing the villain, it was really them.