Ravi Zacharias was 17 when he decided to poison himself. It seems inconceivable now that he should have felt such intense shame over less-than-stellar academic achievement that suicide would present itself as an uncomplicated, even honorable way to avoid embarrassment and not bring shame on the family. To quietly exit life. But there, in his hospital room in India, an encounter with Jesus through John’s Gospel set in motion a series of events that now, 50 years later, has led him to be one of the world’s foremost champions of thoughtful, intellectually rigorous faith. And to do so, he echoes the apostle Peter, with gentleness and respect.
“The Bible tells us to worship him in the beauty of holiness,” Zacharias says. “But when we present the gospel in an ugly way we disrespect and violate the very core of what it is we are trying to present. So with gentleness and respect we speak and present the coherence of all the answers of the gospel.”
For decades you have been in a position to influence the faith of many. What was it about faith that was first compelling to you?
The most important thing—the compelling aspect of my coming to Christ—in a sense is so different from my present call and ministry. But what happened prior to my coming to Christ is probably more reflective of why I’m in this kind of ministry. I had lots of questions. I had a lot of struggles. I was immersed in religion on every side. My ancestors came from the highest caste of the Hindu priesthood, but somewhere a few generations ago a conversion took place, and so we were nominally Christian. I would attend an Anglican church with my parents in Delhi, but I never felt any impact of any one of these religious worldviews in my life. It was just a culturally accepted thing. So I had so many questions and was probably more a skeptic deep inside than anything else.
But at the age of 17, when I tried to take my own life, on a bed of suicide, someone came into my hospital room with a Bible and opened it to John chapter 14. He had my mother read it to me, because he was not allowed to stay. I was in such critical condition.
To hear the words of Jesus in the 14th chapter of John talking to Thomas, not just saying, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life,” but going on to say, “Because I live you also shall live”—to me, the idea of what living actually meant was what I needed to come to terms with. And I found that in Christ.
As I look back upon it, the fact that the Lord cared enough about me in my total state of desperation to have a person bring a Bible into my room, and then finding Christ as my savior—in hindsight, I think that was the most compelling thing. When all else failed me, he was there like the Hound of Heaven. At that time as a man desperate, I wanted life and he offered it.
As life unfolded and you faced questions, struggles, challenges, what kept you convinced?
What kept me going? Two things: The transformation within every member of my family, especially my father who was so hostile toward my initial response of the gospel and was very hard on my mother and the family. He was a man the transformation in whom was indisputable.
My wife said to me one day, “Looking at his photographs I can tell you when the change came in your dad’s life.” That’s how dramatic it was.
And I saw the impact of my own testimony upon all of my friends—Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs. Prior to my coming to Christ I don’t know if I knew a single person who had ever shared the gospel with me. But I did not have a Christian friend. They were all from other faiths. To see the impact that my transformation had upon them showed me how they themselves were searching, they themselves were hungry for the truth.
And then following it up with a disciplined life of reading some of the great authors—I would say that was probably the most important thing. I was a voracious reader of biographies—the life of William Carey, C.T. Studd, David Livingstone, Adoniram Judson, Amy Carmichael, Annie Johnson Flint. And fire begets fire.