I have to admit, it’s satisfying to see titans of the religious right exposed as corrupt frauds and hypocrites. In the past, I’ve taken particular pleasure at the downfall of Jerry Falwell Jr. and Roy Moore, to name two.
But the latest clay-footed preacher may even top these.
Way back in 2008, I wrote about Christian hypocrites and how they undermine the claim that Christianity is uniquely effective at transforming people for the better. In that post, I quoted an apologist named Ravi Zacharias:
Addressing 10,000 itinerant preachers and evangelists in Amsterdam in the summer of 2000, Dr. Zacharias then went on to challenge his listeners with these words: “Why is it that a community that talks so much about supernatural transformation shows so little of that transformation?”
Zacharias was a giant in the field of Christian apologetics. He evangelized across the world in a career that spanned decades. The organization he founded, Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, put on conferences, sponsored a global speakers’ network, and established the “Zacharias Institute” to train would-be evangelists. Christianity Today described RZIM as “the largest apologetics organization in the world”.
He also wrote many books, including A Shattered Visage: The Real Face of Atheism. He argued, in passages like these, that only the fear of God can make people moral; that atheists have no basis for right and wrong, and that widespread atheism will plunge society into chaos and barbarism:
The logic of chance origins has driven our society into rewriting the rules, so that utility has replaced duty, self-expression has unseated authority, and being good has become feeling good. [p.50]
The universal solvent “the death of God” has effectively dissolved the life-sustaining crucible of morality. But like all universal solvents, the problem of how and where to contain it becomes paramount. Atheistic philosophers cannot provide an answer. [p.66]
The lesson is obvious: To be an intellectual is a great privilege, but to be an intellectual without God is dangerous. [p.64]
Zacharias died in May 2020, and his funeral was attended by a who’s who of religious conservatives. Mike Pence delivered the eulogy, calling him “the greatest Christian apologist of this century”.
But after he was buried, the ugly truth about his life was unearthed.
In 2017, a woman named Lori Anne Thompson accused Zacharias of grooming and sexual harassment and threatened to sue him. He aggressively denied the allegation, countersuing Thompson under RICO and accusing her of extortion. In the end, he withdrew the suit in exchange for her signing an NDA:
After Zacharias settled with the Thompsons in 2017, he issued a statement saying his only error was engaging in an “ongoing communication” with a woman who was not his wife. He said he had not in 45 years of marriage “engaged in any inappropriate behavior of any kind” and reiterated that he had long “made it my practice not to be alone with a woman other than Margie and our daughters — not in a car, a restaurant, or anywhere else.” (source)
In September 2020, after Zacharias’ death, three women who worked at spas he owned came forward to say that he had sexually assaulted them. In response, Ravi Zacharias International Ministries commissioned an outside investigation. And according to a a story in Christianity Today, it unearthed an avalanche of damning evidence.
A 12-page report released Thursday by Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) confirms abuse by Zacharias at day spas he owned in Atlanta and uncovers five additional victims in the US, as well as evidence of sexual abuse in Thailand, India, and Malaysia.
Even a limited review of Zacharias’s old devices revealed contacts for more than 200 massage therapists in the US and Asia and hundreds of images of young women, including some that showed the women naked. Zacharias solicited and received photos until a few months before his death in May 2020 at age 74.
The spa workers’ testimony paints a portrait of Ravi Zacharias as a vicious, remorseless predator. According to them, he would expose himself and masturbate in front of them, grope them and pressure them to touch his genitals. He did this to one woman as many as 50 times. He also arranged for his ministry to provide financial support to one woman and then forced her to have sex with him; she described this as rape.
Many of the women Zacharias assaulted were Christians. One of them said he used Christianity as both an excuse for his vile behavior and a tool of blackmail to force her into silence:
She said Zacharias “made her pray with him to thank God for the ‘opportunity’ they both received” and, as with other victims, “called her his ‘reward’ for living a life of service to God,” the report says. Zacharias warned the woman — a fellow believer — if she ever spoke out against him, she would be responsible for millions of souls lost when his reputation was damaged.
After his settlement with Lori Anne Thompson, the only thing that changed is that he worked harder to cover his tracks:
After the Thompson case, the investigators noticed that Zacharias did a better job of deleting his messages in ways that could not be detected or uncovered.
…He also maintained multiple phones at all times, kept them on a different wireless plan than RZIM, and never used the wireless network at the office. Zacharias said this was for security, but it ensured his communication could not be monitored.
Needless to say, Ravi Zacharias International Ministries is reeling. It’s planning massive layoffs, and many of its local branches have split from the parent organization and are planning to rename themselves. If it survives, it will be as a shadow of its former self.
The question that should always be asked when a scandal of this magnitude breaks open is who told the truth all along. Lori Anne Thompson was one. Another was an atheist, Steve Baughman, whose site RaviWatch exposed Zacharias’ misdeeds since 2015.
Baughman argued for the plausibility of Thompson’s allegations when they were raised. He also pointed out that Zacharias was a serial liar when it came to his resume. He claimed to be “a professor at Oxford, a visiting lecturer at Oxford and a visiting scholar at Cambridge” – none of which were true – and claimed to possess “three doctoral degrees” without disclosing that they were only honorary. These lies were easily disproven, but during Zacharias’ life, his fellow Christians were only too happy to sweep them under the rug.
So, what conclusions do we draw from this?
Since the fear of a vengeful God obviously didn’t restrain Ravi Zacharias, should we conclude he never believed any of it? Was he always a liar and a grifter, cynically exploiting faith for his own power and sexual gratification?
This is technically possible, but I think it’s too easy. It lets evangelical Christianity off too lightly to say that its theology had nothing to do with Ravi Zacharias’ crimes.
There’s an alternative possibility: that Zacharias did believe what he taught, and that’s why he acted as he did. It may well be that because his ministry was successful, he began to see himself as God’s chosen, possessing divine favor, and therefore entitled to do as he wished.
According to the women’s testimony, he said so himself: he thought of them as his “reward” for saving souls. He may not even have seen a contradiction in preaching chastity and sanctity to the public while indulging his own sinister desires with nonconsenting victims. If so, he’d only be the latest in a long line of pious predators who believed God granted them a special exemption from the moral laws imposed on everyone else.
This is the answer to the argument Ravi Zacharias made in his books about the supposed necessity of religion as a basis for morality. The reality is that belief in God has never guaranteed a person will act honestly or ethically – because God doesn’t exist, and so can’t speak or act on his own behalf. Instead, God is a conveniently plastic excuse that can be exploited by anyone to justify anything they want to do.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons