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.”
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 with 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. His mother, Isabella, was a teacher. His father, Oscar, who was studying labor relations at the University of Nottingham in England when Zacharias was born, rose through the ranks of the Indian civil service throughout Zacharias’ adolescence.
An unremarkable student, Zacharias was more interested in cricket than books, until his encounter with the gospel in that hospital bed. Nevertheless, a bold, radical faith ran in his genes. In the Indian state of Kerala, his paternal great-grandfather and grandfather produced the 20th century’s first Malayalam-English dictionary. This dictionary served as the cornerstone of the first Malayalam translation of the Bible.
Further back, Zacharias’ great-great-great-grandmother shocked her Nambudiri family, the highest caste of the Hindu priesthood, by converting to Christianity. With conversion came a new surname, Zacharias, and a new path that started her descendants on a road to the Christian faith.
Zacharias saw the Lord’s hand at work in his family’s tapestry and he infused RZIM with the same transgenerational and transcultural heart for the gospel. He created a ministry that transcended his personality, where every speaker, whatever their background, presented the truth in the context of the contemporary. Zacharias believed if you achieved that, your message would always be necessary.
Thirty-six years since its establishment, the ministry still bears the name chosen for Zacharias’ ancestor. However, where once there was a single speaker, now there are nearly 100 gifted speakers who on any given night can be found sharing the gospel at events across the globe; where once it was run from Zacharias’ home, now the ministry has a presence in 15 countries on five continents.
Zacharias’s passion and urgency to take the gospel to all nations was forged in Vietnam, throughout the summer of ’71. 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.
After this formative trip, Zacharias and his new bride, Margie, moved to Deerfield, Illinois to study for a Master of Divinity at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Here the young couple lived two doors down from Zacharias’s classmate and friend William Lane Craig. After graduating, Zacharias taught at the Alliance Theological Seminary in New York and continued to travel the country preaching on weekends.
Full-time teaching combined with his extensive travel and itinerant preaching led Zacharias to describe these three years as the toughest in his 48-year marriage to Margie.
It was at that point that Graham invited Zacharias to speak at his inaugural International Conference for Itinerant Evangelists in Amsterdam in 1983. Zacharias didn’t realize Graham even knew who he was, let alone knew about his preaching. 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.
Flying back to the U.S., Zacharias shared his thoughts with Margie. 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.”
Ravi Zacharias, who died of cancer on May 19, 2020, at age 74, is survived by Margie, his wife of 48 years; his three children Sarah, global CEO of RZIM, Naomi, director of Wellspring International, and Nathan, RZIM’s creative director for media; and five grandchildren.
The author is RZIM U.K. content manager and former journalist with The Sunday Times of London.
Founded in 1984 by Ravi Zacharias, Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) brings the gospel of Jesus Christ to millions around the world. RZIM focuses on evangelism, apologetics, spiritual disciplines, training and humanitarian support. The organization’s goal is to touch both the heart and the intellect of the thinkers and influencers in society by tackling some of the toughest questions about faith and providing thoughtful answers. For more information, visit RZIM.org.—CONTRIBUTED