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 to 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’s 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’s 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.
ned 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.”
Over the years, OCCA has trained over 400 students from 50 countries who have gone on to carry the gospel in many arenas across the world. Some have continued to follow an explicit calling as evangelists and apologists in Christian settings, and many others have gone on to take up roles in each of the spheres of influence Zacharias always dreamed of reaching: the arts, academia, business, media and politics. In 2017, another apologetics training facility, the Zacharias Institute, was established at the ministry’s headquarters in Atlanta, to continue the work of equipping all who desire to effectively share the gospel and answer the common objections to Christianity with gentleness and respect. In 2014, the same heart lay behind the creation of the RZIM Academy, an online apologetics training curriculum. Across 140 countries, the Academy’s courses have been accessed by thousands in multiple languages.
In the same year OCCA was founded, Zacharias launched Wellspring International, the humanitarian division of the ministry. Wellspring International was shaped by the memory of his mother’s heart to work with the destitute and is led by his daughter Naomi. Founded on the principle that love is the most powerful apologetic, it exists to come alongside local partners that meet critical needs of vulnerable women and children around the world.
Zacharias’s appearance at the U.N. in 2004 was the second of four that he made in the 21st century and represented his increasing impact in the arena of global leadership. He had first made his mark as the Cold War was coming to an end. His internationalist outlook and ease among his fellow man, whether Soviet military leader or precocious Ivy League undergraduate, opened doors that had been closed for many years. One such military leader was General Yuri Kirshin, who in 1992 paved the way for Zacharias to speak at the Lenin Military Academy in Moscow. Zacharias saw the cost of enforced atheism in the Soviet Union; the abandonment of religion had created the illusion of power and the reality of self-destruction.
A year later, Zacharias travelled to Colombia, where he spoke to members of the judiciary on the necessity of a moral framework to make sense of the incoherent worldview that had taken hold in the South American nation. Zacharias’s standing on the world stage spanned the continents and the decades. In January 2020, as part of his final foreign trip, he was invited by eight division world champion boxer and Philippines Senator Manny Pacquiao to speak at the National Bible Day Prayer Breakfast in Manila. It was an invitation that followed Zacharias’s November 2019 appearance at The National Theatre in Abu Dhabi as part the United Arab Emirates’ Year of Tolerance.
In 1992, Zacharias’s apologetics ministry expanded from the political arena to academia with the launching of the first ever Veritas Forum, hosted on the campus of Harvard University. Zacharias was asked to be the keynote speaker at the inaugural event. The lectures Zacharias delivered that weekend would form the basis of the best-selling book, Can Man Live Without God?, and would open up opportunities to speak at university campuses across the world. The invitations that followed exposed Zacharias to the intense longing of young people for meaning and identity. Twenty-eight years after that first Veritas Forum event, in what would prove to be his last speaking engagement, Zacharias spoke to a crowd of over 7,000 at the University of Miami’s Watsco Center on the subject of “Does God Exist?”
It is a question also asked behind the walls of Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola Prison, the largest maximum-security prison in the United States. Zacharias had prayed with prisoners of war all those years ago in Vietnam but walking through Death Row left an even deeper impression. Zacharias believed the gospel shined with grace and power, especially in the darkest places, and praying with those on Death Row “makes it impossible to block the tears.” It was his third visit to Angola and, such is his deep connection, the inmates have made Zacharias the coffin in which he will be buried. As he writes in Seeing Jesus from the East, “These prisoners know that this world is not their home and that no coffin could ever be their final destination. Jesus assured us of that.”