The report revealing the sexual misconduct of apologist and evangelist Ravi Zacharias is heart-breaking. In this episode, Sean and Scott reflect on lessons we can learn from this scandal and what it might mean for ministries moving forward.
Scott Rae: Welcome to Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture, a podcast from Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. I'm your host, Scott Rae, Dean of Faculty and Professor of Christian Ethics.
Sean McDowell: And I'm your co-host, Sean McDowell, Professor of Apologetics.
Scott Rae: We have a topic that we want to talk about just between Sean and me today. We don't do this very often. Normally we have guests, as you know, but every once in a while, there's a topic that is a little more challenging to have a guest about. We felt like this one today is one that we just wanted to talk about between the two of us. You may be familiar with the events surrounding the allegations against Ravi Zacharias that came out shortly ... Sort of the dam burst shortly after his death. Some of the allegations began in 2018. I think it's probably fair to say that there was a, Sean, as you put it, a lack of curiosity on behalf of the RZIM board and leadership to fully investigate these things while Ravi was still alive. To their credit, the organization initiated a full-on investigation of this with a very reputable law firm whose report just recently came out.
Scott Rae: Well, maybe the best first place to start, Sean, you do a lot of the same kind of traveling and speaking, widespread apologist, evangelists that Ravi has done. I know Ravi's had a big impact on you, both personally and professionally. What did you feel when you heard about this and read the report?
Sean McDowell: Yeah, I appreciate you asking that. For me, it was just, it was a range of different emotions I felt over different times. First, of course, it was just incredulous. Like, “No, there must be something wrong. There must be something else that's going on here. Somebody of just his stature and influence, someone's framing him.” That's the initial thought. But then as some of the research started to come out and realize, oh my goodness, there's no way to cover this up. It was really just a series of heartbreak. Talking to my wife a number of times in tears and reading some of the reports of the people who were victimized by him and you just see the intentional abuse and really spiritual manipulation, that reading that was like, “Oh my goodness.” I can't tell you how many times I was in tears because I know people who work there. I know it affected his family. Just the Body of Christ.
Sean McDowell: And then to be honest with you, over time, there was really feelings of anger too, that he really deceived people. He had been confronted about this. I actually only met Ravi, I think once 25 years ago in 1996. So I didn't know him personally, which is kind of interesting in its own regard that I interact with a lot of apologists and evangelists, but never actually met him personally over the past quarter century. There was really just some anger of the ways that he, I think is bringing hurt to the Body of Christ and hurt to people. And it didn't have to be this way. So yeah, that's all I can say. Tell me about your kind of initial response to this.
Scott Rae: Well, initially I was incredulous that this could happen to somebody who had basically a pretty sterling record of integrity. I know there have been some questions about some of his academic credentials in ...
Sean McDowell: Sure.
Scott Rae: ... in the more distant past, but nobody had ever breathed the word of anything like this. The sexual misconduct, the manipulation, the conflicts of interest and the way people were spiritually manipulated and how, you know. I think one of the main things that shocked me out of it is the capacity for self-deception that we all have, and the capacity for using spiritual language to justify things that are just overt sin and egregious sin. And like you, Sean, I was deeply saddened by this because we've had a number of a number of our graduates from our philosophy program here at Talbot have gone on to be evangelists and apologists for RZIM in different parts of the world.
Sean McDowell: Yeah.
Scott Rae: We've had a partnership with RZIM to give that standing to some of their staff, to come study with us. We've always had a good relationship. The one thing that stood out to me is we've had Ravi on our campus numerous occasions. He spoke, I think most recently at a commencement. Being one of the deans, I get invited to the commencement dinner that is in between the morning and evening commencement ceremonies. I actually sat, I sat next to him at dinner for like an hour and a half. I mean, it was an incredible opportunity just to ask questions of this man. And I thought, “What a privilege to be able to sit next to him and just to glean his wisdom and from his years of experience.” I never, in my wildest dreams, envision that someone of his stature and someone of his character, at least what I thought to be his character, could fall this hard.
Sean McDowell: Well, I'm with you on that. There's been tons of blogs and responses written, and I saw one comment that said, “Let us not confuse just ability and gifting with character.” And I thought, “Wow! That is a really good insight.” I mean, I don't think there's anybody over the past 50 years who is more articulate than Ravi. There's some other people you could argue are as articulate as him possibly. But in terms of when a question is asked humanizing the person with grace, with honor in relationships, but getting to the truth, telling stories, I mean, that gifting is unsurpassed, but we can't confuse gifting with character. That was a huge takeaway for me. Because we can rest on those kinds of things, but if we do and it's all said and done, it's just not going to end well if we approach it that way.
Scott Rae: Sean, this is something that I intend to talk to the Lord about when I get the glory. This is one of the things that really puzzles me about so many Christian leaders who have big gifts and huge impact, but they also have big baggage that they're carrying with them. It seems like we've just seen so many instances of people who have risen to great heights, had tons of success, they've lost whatever teachability they had and had no accountability, and then they fell really hard. Given our understanding of sin, we shouldn't be particularly surprised when those things happen. And we shouldn't be surprised that people put their gifting out front and keep their character hidden.
Sean McDowell: Yeah.
Scott Rae: There's a lot of self-interest involved in that. For me, one of the big takeaways is it just caused me to reflect on the kind of people that God uses. Sometimes God uses people in spite of themselves and not because of themselves.
Sean McDowell: Sure, sure.
Scott Rae: But I'm just curious to think a little harder about how is it that God invest such gifts in people who are so flawed and have such significant baggage. I don't quite get that. Then you think about how many of the great men and women of scripture were these terribly flawed characters.
Sean McDowell: Right.
Scott Rae: I mean, there's a whole litany of them. Noah, the man God chooses to start the human race all over again is drunk and naked in his tent afterwards, which is a euphemism for something sexually shameful that had gone on. Abraham twice tried to sell ... I think basically to sell his wife as a sister. Moses had the blood of innocent people on his hands. David was a man after God's own heart. Certainly not because his upright character and righteousness. Ask Bathsheba and Uriah, not to mention his own children about that. Paul had the blood of innocent believers on his hands, I'm convinced. It seems that God just continually uses these flawed people throughout the scripture. It made me think about the times when we, in our churches, we have these sermons on these great heroes of faith. And what we forget is that the great hero of faith, ultimately the hero of the story in almost all of those sermons is God, not the character. In fact, most of those cases, God works in spite of the biblical character, not because of him or her.
Scott Rae: That's my big takeaway from this is that be grateful that God worked in spite of us. And don't think that God's working to advance his kingdom because of us.
Sean McDowell: That's it.
Scott Rae: And then ultimately, we're called to be faithful. It's God's job to produce the success. It's God's job to impact the culture. It's God's job to bring people to faith. It's our job to be faithful ...
Sean McDowell: Amen.
Scott Rae: ... in what he's calling us to do.
Sean McDowell: Well, I think you're right. When you look in the Old Testament, it's pretty much one flawed person after the other that God uses. We see it seep into the New Testament. One difference though, in this story is even Samson, as flawed as he was, he went out sacrificing his life doing what was right. You see David, a man who's a murderer and an adulterer, man after God's own heart who owns it when he is confronted. You know, the famous story of Nathan who says, “You are that man.” Well, there was a letter that had surfaced from Lori Anne Thompson, the couple who first talked about him, really grooming her and inviting her to send sexual images. When she finally kind of confronted him and said, “This is not right, you've been taking advantage of me.” Wrote this letter and described all the things that he had done to her. And at the end, using the words of the Prophet Nathan said, “You are that man.”.
Sean McDowell: I mean, powerful, powerful words. Well, there's no evidence that I'm aware of that he ever repented and came out about this. In fact, I understand even towards the latter part of his life, there were pictures that were sent that were inappropriate and it just seemed to continue. Now, only God knows the state of somebody's heart. The good news is we don't ultimately have to make those assessments because we humanly can't do that.
Sean McDowell: David in first 1 Samuel 17. Samuel was like, man judges the outside, but God judges the heart. We can't assess that, but there is a significant difference between somebody who is profoundly flawed that God uses and owns those flaws and someone who never ever does. That's why I wish he was alive when some of these things had really come forward and he could have brought some clarity for that. So that's a hard part about this that I think a lot of people are wanting more than what we have. So that's one to ... Go ahead.
Scott Rae: One of the other things I wonder about on this is, he's been instrumental in thousands and thousands of people coming to faith. What should we say to those people who came to faith through his ministry and are now looking, I think understandably, a bit disillusioned by somebody who had such a big impact on their lives?
Sean McDowell: That's a great question. That's one that I've wrestled with. I think the first thing we just say is, I am so sorry you're hearing about this. Because I think some people who come to Christ are probably going to have a range of different responses to this. I think some might be able to say, “Wow! God used a flawed person, brought me to Christ.” A good friend of mine, whom you know, is brought to Christ through a fake former satanic leader in the ‘80s, comes out. It was a complete charade, but it brought him to faith and he was able to say to me, he goes, “You know what? It's crazy that God used such a flawed person who is a deceiver to bring me to faith.” And he was able to make that separation. But I think for a lot of people, it's just harder emotionally too for different reasons.
Sean McDowell: The first thing I would say is I would say, “Gosh, I am just heartbroken. And I understand why this would make you question certain things about your faith. Like, I get it. I'm not going to pretend there's a simple answer for this.” But I also would bring back and I'd say, “Does this follow that the things that he taught are not true? Does this change what was spoken about Jesus? Does it change that it's the Holy spirit who saves us not human beings?” And I think I would just try to graciously and lovingly make that distinction in somebody's mind because. When it's all said and done, I actually think ... I mean, some of his books are profound and deep and true, but just such a broken vessel to deliver that. So I think I would try to make that distinction to people's minds. Would you add anything to that? You think I missed anything in that regard?
Scott Rae: No, I think the gospel is still true, regardless of who delivers it. And I would encourage the person to sort of look at the fruits of the gospel in your life. You've seen, the gospel's born fruit, you've become more like Christ. Your heart has been changed. That's all real, even though the messenger was flawed. I wouldn't necessarily conflate the message and the messenger in this regard, although ...
Sean McDowell: Yeah.
Scott Rae: Ravi set himself up as a model and I think intentionally so and understandably so. That's the part that I think we want to be careful with. And we'll get to more of that in just a minute. I'm curious about how you feel about his books and videos.
Sean McDowell: Yeah.
Scott Rae: I mean, we have a ton of his stuff on our YouTube channel. We've got his books in our bookstore. I suspect you have a lot of his stuff on your shelf. I didn't get mine. I suspect you probably promote some of his stuff or have promoted some of his stuff on your site.
Sean McDowell: Sure.
Scott Rae: What happens to all that?
Sean McDowell: I can only tell you the conclusions that I've come to at this stage and if I'm missing something, I am happy to change and amend this. But I think some of the content, for example, a book that he co-wrote, which I actually endorsed was called, Seeing Jesus from the East.
Scott Rae: Yeah, we had Abdu Murray on our show.
Sean McDowell: That's right. We had actually co-author Abdu talking about that very book. And that is one of the best books that I read in 2020. I mean, it was a game changer for me, some of the stories and examples that Abdu talked about in reading that. If somebody asked me, “Give me one book that would help me strip away my Western eyes and see scriptures in the audience it was intended for.” There's some other great books out there, but I don't know one that's better than that. Would I recommend that? I think my answer now is that I would only recommend it to somebody in person, not publicly, who I know has the discernment to separate the flawed character that he was from the message. So I don't think I'd recommend it to a student. I wouldn't recommend it to a new Christian. I think it just brings more potential risk and damage than necessary. And if I did send it to somebody, I would be very, very careful to qualify it.
Scott Rae: Lots of caveats.
Sean McDowell: Yeah, I think that's how I've made sense of this. Tell me your thoughts on that.
Scott Rae: Well, let me ask you one other thing before I do that.
Sean McDowell: Okay.
Scott Rae: Do you think this is an example? I mean, we've heard lots of organizations that have completely divested themselves of all of his stuff, all of his resources, they just kind of ... We wash our hands of him and we don't want anything to do with him anymore. Is that an example of what we widely cry today as the cancel culture in effect?
Sean McDowell: I think it's a little bit different because it's one thing when somebody makes a statement that goes against this left leaning progressive narrative. So people get canceled today for just like Gina Khurana, I believe it was, sending out a tweet that I'm not sure I would have worded it and written the way that she did. Divisiveness and a dehumanization of people, the way it happened in Nazi Germany, but she's free to do it. I understand the point she was making. She was fired from Disney for simply stating a conservative position. There's a difference from “canceling” somebody because you want to silence their free speech and take away their right to say something you disagree with and saying, “Here's a person who spoke primarily into the issue of suffering and evil and the Christian faith, and was living a radical double life that caused an immense amount of suffering.
Sean McDowell: So I don't think this is an example of cancel culture. Now I did see some people that really knew him and his family making comments. I mean, I just ... Having a dad who's been in such a public ministry, I put myself in the shoes like, “Whoa! What if this was my family?” Like, I don't even know I can begin to understand the grief that they're going through. And there were a couple of statements that were made, like people are just erasing my dad. And I heard that, I'm like, oh, God, my heart just breaks because they almost certainly had no idea about this. This is their hero. They are grieving this image of their entire lives that they had seen and seen their father be erased in the sense, my heart goes out to that and it hurts for them. But on the flip side, I also see the damage and want to give that voice to the victims and make sure they are heard and they are valued. And we own the ways that we allowed this to happen as a church and as an organization.
Scott Rae: Yeah. I think you can make a good argument that they, as you put it, we're not curious enough at the beginning when this came out. I hope that one of the side effects of the Me Too culture is that we now believe women when they bring these accusations forward, because it is so hard and so costly for women to do that. The idea that somebody would bring a false accusation, I think is very, very rare because it takes such courage and there's such costs for women to come forward with these accusations. I think the burden of proof I think, needs to be on believing the woman. And then, in one sense, it's sort of you have to prove your innocence because ... And I think that's a fair thing to ask in this particular case.
Scott Rae: We're not in a legal setting, so the presumption of innocence doesn't apply like it does in a legal setting, but I think the default position is that we should believe women who bring these allegations forward. I think for the organization, I understand that, you know, this is my family, this is my father, this is what we've invested our lives in. Please, Lord, may this not be true.
Sean McDowell: Right.
Scott Rae: And being unwilling to really look into it adequately right at the very beginning. I think you're right that a lot of pain could have been avoided and it would have given Ravi a chance to own this before he passed away. One other-
Sean McDowell: Can I comment on that real fast?
Scott Rae: Yeah, go ahead. You bet.
Sean McDowell: I think some of this report is just coming out and it's going to be weeks and months and maybe even years that we fully discover, if we ever really fully do learn the depths of what happened. I mean, even this report was like he spent days overseas alone, had his own apartment, had 200 masseuses in his phone alone. There's a ton of victims who have come forward anonymously and are probably thinking, “Hey, the message is out, damage is done. I don't even need to say anything.” So I'm not sure we'll understand the depths of this, but I do think we are learning some structural issues. Like if you have just a board and the people around you are immediately in your family, I mean, there's just a built-in, as much as you want to love truth, there's a built-in loyalties that take place there.
Sean McDowell: And so I think out of this, we have to take a serious look at these kinds of public ministries and churches who's making this call. And you know what? When the case came out about Lori Anne Thompson, I called some folks at RZIM and they kind of gave me the narrative that Ravi had given them. I mean, he looked them in the eyes and lied to them, and this is somebody that they trusted. So I get it. They pass that narrative onto me. I'm like, “Okay, these are people that I trust.” But what's fascinating, it actually was an atheist who started a blog and was like, “I don't trust him.” And it was the atheist who was more curious. It was the atheist who is demanding an answer.
Sean McDowell: And I got to tell you, when I saw that, I was like, “You know what? I should have been a lot more curious about this. I should have pressed more.” I feel bad about that. And there's a huge lesson that needs to be learned based on what you said about believing victims. Now, obviously we don't want to go as far as some of the Kavanaugh hearings and some of the narrative goes the opposite direction, but I think that's an exception in a special place in the vast majority of cases. I think when this came out, had people just said, “Okay, Ravi, just give us your phone. Just give us certain emails.” And if he was innocent, it seems like if somebody said that to me, I'd be like, “Great. Let me just clear myself.” I'm going to go out of the way, take my phone, take all of this stuff. That would have been the easy thing to do. And the fact that that didn't happen should have been a red flag.
Scott Rae: Yeah, the fact that he refused to turn that over should have been a warning to the board that something's amiss here. One other thing that I'm curious about. I need to get your take on this. As you know, I teach in the business school and we talk a lot about the dichotomy in business often between someone's public life and their private life. It's very common in the business ethics literature to say that you've got to have one set of rules for business and another set of rules for your private life. And if there's overlap, so much the better. And we tell our students, we say, “Look, you know, that's not ... Not only is that a violation of the lordship of Christ over all of life. It's certainly not desirable and it's really not even possible to live that kind of sharp dichotomy for a long period of time.” I think this episode with Ravi has challenged my thinking on that.
Sean McDowell: Oh, wow!
Scott Rae: I'm not so sure that people can't sustain that dichotomy for an awfully long time, which I think goes to, again, goes to our innate inclination to be self deceptive and to be able to justify virtually anything we want to based on our desires. So, yeah, I think you probably can have a dichotomy between your private and public life, maybe for a really long time.
Sean McDowell: Yeah, that's a really interesting way to approach it. I think the piece with Ravi, it's one thing to have a public and a private life. It's another thing to have a world-famous public ministry built around your name that you know.
Scott Rae: And around your character.
Sean McDowell: And exactly, your character, not just a business, you're right. It's a Christian character. This is a challenge that some pastors will face like, “Oh, I'm a pastor, who do I admit some of my faults and weaknesses to?” Well, if you're Ravi, it's like, who are even my peers that would understand that wouldn't, you know, shipwreck, what ultimately became a $40 million industry, 100 speakers worldwide, one of the most famous Christians in the world. That's an added component to this that I think raises some very fair questions about some of the celebrity Christian culture and how that happens.
Sean McDowell: I mean, if you had asked almost any speaker, evangelist, apologist, “Who do you want to be like? Who would you mimic your ministry after over the past quarter century?” One of the top answers would always be Ravi. Gosh, he sold a ton of books. He speaks and thousands of people come. He meets really important people. He's got a ministry based on his name, so he gets to speak what he thinks is true. He gets invited to these big universities. Like all these things that we tend to associate with success and a meaningful life. One of my big takeaways was like, “Wow! You can have all of that and not have a fulfilled life that ultimately is going to cause more damage and pain.”.
Sean McDowell: So I think you're right, that he was, in some way, he had to be living this double life and he was smart enough to know and just covered up and covered up and I think justified it to himself. One of the women that he took advantage of, he's like, “Hey, we're going to pray to God and thank God that because of my ministry he rewards me with you.” Which is a spiritual abuse on such a high level. It sickens me, but it also tells me that there was this division within him and it probably started small and he just never had the space in his life to process this and be a human being. And so that double life was easier than coming clean on some of the sin and struggles in his life.
Scott Rae: Well, and I think the sort of the message to young apologist, evangelist is that be careful of being utilitarian about your character because from utilitarian perspective, it's not hard to justify keeping these character things quiet and under wraps so that the greater good, the success of the ministry can continue going forward. Unfortunately, for those who think that way, God is not a utilitarian when it comes to our character. God is a full-on virtue theorist when it comes to those things. I think ultimately this is where sort of the celebrity Christian culture, I think really gets this backwards is that God is not particularly interested in our being successful, because ultimately that's his responsibility. God's interested in us being faithful.
Scott Rae: Paul says, “It's required of a man that he be shown to be faithful.” I think that's true. We don't bring people to faith, God does. We don't change the culture, God does. At the end of the day, we don't ultimately build these organizations that are going to last, God does. And so I just become a lot more careful about taking success or lack of it personally, and thinking that I'm somehow responsible for these things. Because at the end of the day, this is God's kingdom and God's kingdom is going to get along just fine if I live life at a reasonable pace and focus on being faithful. Because that's ultimately what we are called to do and to leave the success part up to God.
Sean McDowell: I think that's well said. And it's also, I think as believers, we have a different metric of success. I mean, Jesus is like, leave the 99 and get the one it's like, “Wait a minute, that makes no financial sense, but the individual matters.” So I think there's a real temptation in ministry. Success is the number of followers on some social media platform, number of books sold. Just numbers, numbers, numbers, and platform. And I do believe that God has made some people that are bigger than life and can speak into those platforms.
Sean McDowell: I mean, Billy Graham is an example of that. He certainly was human and it had his flaws. We had Ruth Graham to talk about it. Sometimes she felt like she was never alone with her dad. And it was all ministry, not family. Like, he was a human being. But obviously from everything we know, was able to stay focused on the gospel and live his life and ministry with integrity. But that's not necessarily the bigger metric in God's eyes. Billy Graham was being the person that God created him to be.
Sean McDowell: I'd grown up with a dad who has been famous in ministry. So many people will put comparisons. I was just speaking last week and two people, one lady goes, “Well, we'll see if you're as good as your dad.” Another guy goes, “Hey, you're almost as good.” Like, there's all these ... We just compare all the time. And one of the freeing things for me was like, “You know what? I just honestly want to be the person that God has designed me to be. He's the one who gives and takes platforms.” And at the end of the day, if we're just faithful to what God has given us, that's success. I don't want to live this comparison game. It's empty. And if we see anything, the person with all the comparisons that so many people wanted had an empty, double, painful life that led a wake of suffering behind him.
Sean McDowell: So I think this should make all of us in ministry, in some capacity, just take a step back and say, what am I chasing? What is my life about? How am I going to gauge success, and what does faithfulness look like?
Scott Rae: Jesus actually had something to say about that. He said, remember in Mark chapter eight, he said, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?”.
Sean McDowell: That's right.
Scott Rae: I don't want that on my tombstone. I think that's the part that saddens me about this.
Sean McDowell: Yeah.
Scott Rae: Again, I think there's just, there's so many cautionary tales here. I mean, if God's gifted you to do terrific things and open doors for you to do them, by all means, do them, but don't think that that's because of you. Because I got news for you, it's not.
Scott Rae: Sean, you're awfully good at what you do. Don't tell your dad this, but I happen to think you're better than him already. But don't think that's because of you.
Sean McDowell: That's right.
Scott Rae: God's gifted. You had a great modeling. Your dad also had people who he had ... Given the freedom to speak hard truth into his life from time to time to keep ... I mean, there are times I'm sure when your dad could have gone off the rails.
Sean McDowell: Sure.
Scott Rae: But he had your mom, for one, who I don't think who's going to put up with any of that nonsense, but he also had people in his life who he trusted and who he gave permission to sort of penetrate that facade that we all ... I mean, we all put up some sort of facade of spirituality, but allowing people to ask hard questions to get behind that I think is just crucial for us to be able to do.
Scott Rae: I think that's the thing that I would want our listeners to take away from this, that be very careful about gaining the whole world and forfeiting your soul.
Sean McDowell:Well, that's a great takeaway and it's hard to top that. I think let's leave with that. What are we chasing and what does it mean to be successful in the eyes of God? I think that can change everything.
Scott Rae: Hear, hear.
Scott Rae: This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. The Think Biblically podcast is brought to you by Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, offering programs in Southern California and online, including our Master's in Christian Apologetics. Now for the first time, offered fully online. Visit biola.edu/talbot in order to learn more about this.
Scott Rae: If you enjoy today's conversation with Sean and me, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.