Seven Words: A Personal Tribute to Ravi Zacharias
By Shiv Muthukumar | May 21, 2020
“Because I live, you also shall live.” These seven words saved Ravi Zacharias’s life from suicide, despair, and eternal damnation. “We can make you live again by getting this poison out, but we cannot make you want to live,” said the doctor. Seventeen-year-old Ravi wanted to end it all when these words from the Bible (John 14:19) were read to him on that hospital bed in Delhi.
“These words hit me like a ton of bricks,” recounts Zacharias in his autobiography Walking from East to West. “Live?” “Who is that speaking?” “This may be my only hope.” “A new way of living. Life as defined by the author of life.” In that moment, Ravi prayed to God, “Please get me out of this hospital bed and I will leave no stone unturned in my pursuit of truth”—a resolve that he scarcely believed he could keep. But Ravi went on not only to pursue truth, but also to become a worldwide ambassador of the one who said, “I am the Truth,” Jesus Christ. Listen to Ravi share his testimony at the end of this post.
Ravi’s Impact on My Life
Ravi Zacharias was born in a Tamil family in Chennai, so was I. He grew up in the Hindi-speaking capital of Delhi, so did I. He moved to North America as a young man, so did I. On the very night I was led to the Lord Jesus by an Indian man on the Penn campus, he also introduced me to Ravi Zacharias. Needless to say, I immediately identified with Ravi. Not only because of our similar backgrounds, but because I myself walked with unspeakable despair. Like Ravi, I had everything going for me. I came from a good family in India and had left a well-paying software job to study at an Ivy League university in the United States. But it was not enough. I was still empty. My desire to live was fleeting; my passions in life were fleeing. I lacked a sure hope, a solid foundation upon which to build my life. I turned to Christ, not only to stay sane, but to stay alive.
In the first week of my conversion, I listened to Ravi exclusively, and then predominantly in the first few months till I exhausted all that I could find. I read his autobiography a year later during a vacation. I laughed, I cried and leapt for joy, sometimes at 3 a.m. in the morning. Listening to Ravi planted me deeper into Christ, plucking out the weeds of pagan and secular ideas swirling in my heart and mind.
In addition to Ravi’s teaching, it was his example that helped me overcome my fears and anxieties about following Christ. Am I deluded to leave my Hindu upbringing and follow Christ? Am I becoming an American? Could this be a mistake? What about my friends and family who disapprove of my decision? Ravi, by his life, demonstrated that Christ was absolutely worthy of our trust, regardless of the cost and the sacrifice involved. He helped me move on from a stage of testing Christ, to trusting Christ.
But there is more. Ravi also influenced me greatly to embrace my call to Christian ministry. Soon after my conversion, I moved to Seattle to work as a software engineer. I also became an active volunteer in a local campus ministry. The power of Christ was so transformative in my life that I could hardly keep the good news to myself. After all, how could I remain silent when I knew the hope that everyone is looking for is found nowhere else but in Christ alone? Soon I began to feel a strong calling to a life dedicated to making Christ known. But again, I experienced doubt. Do I have to be in ministry? Can I not be just an ordinary Christian, work as a software engineer, and bear witness for Christ? Ravi’s testimony relieved my fears yet again. If Ravi Zacharias did not hesitate to devote his life to building Christ’s kingdom, then I, too, can do that! Within three years of my conversion, I decided to leave my job and go to seminary—where else but Trinity, where Ravi also studied.
There are times when people say to me, “You remind me of Ravi Zacharias,” or something similar. I am flattered, sometimes embarrassed by such a lofty comparison to a man who became my inspiration, my hero. To be honest, I long considered a ministry like that of Ravi—an itinerant Christian apologist traveling around the world, speaking to thousands, answering their questions and leading them to Christ. But something seemed amiss. It felt more like a personal ambition to me than a calling, which it clearly was for Ravi.
“Lord, I know you have called me to ministry but what do you want me to do? What about apologetics?” I remember once listening to a recording of Ravi while taking a walk. I heard him say these words: “Apologetics is the seasoning. The gospel is the main course. You do not want too much seasoning, or it will make the main course insipid…An argument may remove the doubt, it is only the Holy Spirit who can convict of truth.” Ravi put apologetics in its right place and freed me yet again! My calling, as best as I could discern, was to be a pastor in a local church. Thanks, in part, to Ravi, I am now a pastor!
Ravi labored all his life to make Christ known in a world where western secularism is the baseline cultural narrative, both in the West and even in the East. This secularism comes under the guise of reasoning and rationalism. The problem with it, however, is that naked reason became its starting point. Just as Enlightenment philosopher Descartes said, “I think therefore I am.” The “thinking thing” became the broker of truth leading to a relativism in which truth itself is banished. Like Pilate, we walked away from Jesus, the Truth, shaking our heads saying, “What is truth?” but never pausing to hear a response—as Ravi often said.
Ravi Zacharias became one of the pioneers of our time in reconnecting the gospel of Jesus Christ with the life of the mind. “Let My People Think” was indeed a fitting name for his radio program. In a world of intellectualism in which faith is belittled and believers in Christ tended toward anti-intellectualism, Ravi Zacharias’s ministry powerfully bridged the chasm. To “help the thinker believe and the believer think” was its motto and mission. Unlike Descartes, Ravi’s starting point was not the “thinking;” rather, it was faith in Christ, which saved him and gave him hope.
In my view, Ravi showed that it is the believer in Christ who has the privilege of truly enlightened thought, enlightened by the truth of Christ. So that thinking was no longer just a mental exercise, or worse, a vehicle to propagate an ideology. Instead, true thinking is a spiritual endeavor meant to explore the riches of Christ, the beauty of his creation, and expose the vanity of unbelief that so quickly spirals into abject despair, depravity and ultimately, dehumanization. Ravi repeatedly pointed out the atrocities of atheistic philosophy that often led to colossal displays of death at the hands of the dictatorial regimes, such as in Germany and Soviet Russia.
Highlighting the human capacity for wickedness, Ravi unfailingly took his hearers to the cross of Jesus Christ, where, according to Ravi, love and justice meet. The love of God for a sinner and the justice of God’s law against sin flow mingled down from the cross on which Jesus died, taking upon himself the sin but forgiving the sinner. Ravi’s apologetics put reason where it rightly belonged—under the umbrella of the cross. He showed that the Christian faith is the most reasonable faith; thus, giving hope to the believer who is bombarded with questions by unbelievers, while respectfully calling the unbelievers to question their premises and thoughtfully consider the hope that we have in Christ.
Ravi became an imitable embodiment of this verse from which we get the word “apologetics,” from the Greek apologia, translated “reason”: “But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). As much as the man Ravi Zacharias was powerful and attractive, his message was more powerful still—of Christ. Ravi Zacharias embodied Christ in such a way that you could look through the man and see his Lord.
Satisfying the Questioner
As I write this, I realize it is no coincidence that Ravi’s life was saved by half a Bible verse, which begins with the word “because,” the clause of reason. “Because I live, you also shall live.” Ravi Zacharias gave reasoned answers to many questions. But he knew that it is not just the question that needs to be satisfied, but the questioner, as Sam Allberry points out in his tribute to Ravi. And the questioner is never satisfied by an answer, but by an Answerer, the Lord Jesus Christ, who doesn’t just give an answer, but becomes the Answer to all our deepest questions. Just as he did for Ravi.
I’ve shed my tears at the passing of this giant saint who impacted me more than I realize. I grieve his loss; I grieve that I never got to meet him. Yet, not as ones who do not have hope. “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thess. 4:14). And then I shall meet Ravi!
“Because I live, you also shall live.” These words will be etched on his gravestone, a stone that Jesus Christ will not leave unturned when he comes again. He will raise up Ravi Zacharias and everyone who believed in his message. Because Jesus lives, Ravi also lives. Not just in our memories, nor merely through his legacy, but truly he is now alive with his Savior Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.