“Nothing is as important as the truth.”
—Ravi Zacharias in The Real Face of Atheism
It was the summer of 2015 and, as is sometimes my practice, I was searching the Internet for smart Christian apologists who might ruffle my atheist paradigm. I found a video lecture by a Cambridge and Oxford scholar whose credentials included several doctorate degrees and a stint at Cambridge studying quantum physics. This man demonstrated convincingly that in the 6th century B.C.E. the prophet Daniel predicted with stunning precision the rise and fall of Alexander the Great two centuries later.
Dr. Ravi Zacharias is famous for his ability to pull off arguments like this. The late evangelist and lawyer Chuck Colson called him “the great apologist of our time.”[i] His weekly radio show plays on over 2,000 outlets worldwide, he has written over 25 books, many of them bestsellers. He gets millions of YouTube hits, packs auditoriums, and has a growing portfolio of self-named ministries with offices around the world. His CitizenAudit entry shows his ministry bringing in $25 million yearly.[ii]
Dr. Zacharias presents his impeccable academic credentials in a way that starkly differentiates him from ordinary circuit-riding preachers, and he makes sure we know that he’s got the resumé to go with the suit, littering his lectures, writings and publicity materials with references to famous universities with which he claims to be professionally connected. And the strategy works. Christians worldwide hail him as God’s answer to the secularist cancer that has infested the academy. Atheist scholars beware!
I vividly recall seeing Dr. Zacharias waving his arms and talking about the Seleucids and the Ptolemaics as he stood before that University of Illinois student audience. “Centuries before to be so specific in prophecy” could only be evidence of “the supernatural” in the Book of Daniel, he thundered.[iii] The argument was compelling in large part because it came from a man whose academic credentials were as good as anybody’s. Would Ravi Zacharias force me to adjust my atheist worldview?
Silly me. I should know by now that, for every 30 seconds it takes a Christian apologist to make a “fulfilled prophecy” claim, it takes a few hours of tedious research to see that it is probably bogus. That’s just the way extravagant prophetic claims work. The Hal Lindseys of the world cash their checks before anybody has the time to scrutinize their theories. In this case, the overwhelming scholarly consensus is that Daniel was written after Alexander’s time.[iv] Daniel had “predicted” something that had already happened. How predictable.
Dr. Zacharias himself had known full well that the dating of Daniel was controversial. He admits as much in his memoirs.[v] It made me wonder what else Dr. Zacharias had been dishonest about. I began to dig. I struck gold. Ravi Zacharias, it turned out, has been less than honest about a great many things. And what surfaced is far worse than the usual sex or money scandals that embarrass so many professional men of God. Not that Ravi Zacharias is squeaky clean in the boy/girl department. On July 31 of 2017 he filed a federal lawsuit against a married Canadian woman with whom he recently had an online relationship. Dr. Zacharias admits receiving nude and sexually suggestive photographs from Lori Anne Thompson and not reporting their relationship to his Governance Council until things went sour and she threatened legal action. Most explosively, in his court filing he does not deny the allegation that he threatened suicide in an email so as to persuade Ms. Thompson not to tell her husband about the relationship.
But Indiscretions of that sort can quickly be damage-controlled by a tearful confession or, at worst, a little jail time. Dr. Zacharias has a much bigger problem. For nearly four decades, he has systematically deceived his followers, his donors, his publishers, and the world about the very matter that makes him so special, his scholarly qualifications.
The Doctor with no Doctorates and the Scholar with no Scholarly Work
Since the early 1980’s, Ravi Zacharias has assertively referred to himself as “Dr. Zacharias” and represented himself as holding multiple doctoral degrees.[vi] His major publishers have been fully on board. HarperCollins lists him as “Ravi Zacharias, PhD”[vii] at the contributor’s page of the 2017 The Jesus Bible, and his author bio at Penguin/Random House says “Zacharias holds three doctorate degrees.”[viii] The Christian publisher Wipf & Stock also refers to him as “Ravi Zacharias, PhD.”[ix]
But Ravi Zacharias has never so much as enrolled in a graduate level academic program, much less completed a doctoral program. He has a Bachelor’s degree and a non-academic Master of Divinity degree, both from obscure religious institutions,[x] and has racked up numerous “honorary doctorate degrees” over the years from supportive Christian schools. That’s it. Furthermore, Ravi has routinely failed to disclose that his doctorates are merely honorary and has resisted calls to make his official bio clearer in this regard.[xi]
Ravi’s publisher bios also describe him as a “recognized authority” in philosophy.[xii] However, I have found no peer-reviewed scholarly publications by Ravi Zacharias nor evidence that he has ever presented a paper at a scholarly conference. Ravi, it seems, is a complete academic non-entity masquerading as a polished scholar.
The Cambridge University Gig that Wasn’t
Of course there is more to smarts than degrees and scholarly papers. What about the fact that he had been a “visiting scholar at Cambridge University”? Ravi makes the claim frequently.[xiii] It is perhaps his most impressive claim, and his most brazenly false one.
In 1990 Ravi did a 2-3 month sabbatical at a church ordination academy named Ridley Hall.[xiv] Ridley is in the town of Cambridge, England, and has affiliations with the University of Cambridge, as, say, Babcock College has with Harvard. But it has never been a part of the University. While at Ridley, Ravi attended lectures and classes at the University. He converted this into the impressive claim that he had been invited to be a “visiting scholar at Cambridge University.”
I filed several Freedom of Information requests with Cambridge and learned that attending classes at the University while on sabbatical at Ridley Hall would not make one a Cambridge “visiting scholar.”[xv] Ravi Zacharias, it turns out, had never been a visiting scholar at their university. In the summer of 2015, I sought comment from his ministry about this troubling finding. They ignored me, but quickly removed the bogus claim from his website bio.
Ravi’s Cambridge shenanigans did not stop there. He claims to have studied “quantum physics” at the university and he refers to the Cambridge physicist John Polkinghorne as “my professor in quantum physics.”[xvi] But it turns out that Dr. Polkinghorne had left the science faculty at Cambridge 11 years earlier to become a priest. Polkinghorne returned to the university as a member of the divinity faculty and in 1990, the year of Ravi’s sabbatical at Ridley, Polkinghorne taught a course on the Science/Theology Dialogue and a course on Buddhism.[xvii]
So it appears that Ravi audited[xviii] a class on the theology/science dialogue with Dr. Polkinghorne and made this into the far more impressive claim that the renowned physicist was his “professor in quantum physics” at Cambridge.
Ravi’s Christian publishers have taken the Cambridge ruse a step further. Despite the fact that Ravi’s sabbatical was a mere 2-3 months long and at a place that was not even part of the University of Cambridge, they routinely refer to their author as “Cambridge educated.”[xix]
The Oxford Gig that Wasn’t
Moving on to that other prestigious British university, Ravi says in his memoirs “I am an official lecturer at Oxford now, teaching there once a year.”[xx] The University of Oxford, however, told me it has no record of Ravi having ever been on their payroll. They did, however, confirm that in the past he has rented space from them.[xxi]
Elsewhere, Ravi claims to have been a “senior research fellow at Oxford University,” where he lectures three times a year.[xxii] However, I learned that this was merely an honorary position, and not even at the university itself but at an “affiliated institution” of the university, a religious training school named Wycliffe Hall.[xxiii] This did not stop Ravi from telling a Christian journalist that the “senior research fellow” position (which we now know was merely honorary) is “a credential with which I work in the academy” and at “academic forums,”[xxiv] a clear, if unwitting, admission of deceit by Ravi Zacharias.
As well, Wycliffe Hall informed me that “Ravi Zacharias has spoken at Wycliffe, but has never held any formal teaching position.”[xxv] So both Wycliffe and the university confirm that Ravi has held no formal teaching position with them. Ravi’s “official lecturer at Oxford” claim appears to be bogus. Ravi removed all references to Oxford in his official bio shortly after I informed him that I was investigating his credentials.[xxvi]
Chair of a non-existent Department
There was only one remaining item in Ravi’s now tattered academic pedigree. He claims that he had been the “chairman of the Department of Evangelism and Contemporary Thought at Alliance Theological Seminary,”[xxvii] a prestigious academic position that would have given him authority over other professors at the seminary. But Ravi’s “Department” never existed.
My private investigator, and two professors who had been at ATS in the 1980s (one was there with Ravi and the other was his immediate successor) confirmed that ATS had no “Departments” at the time. It was too small.
Ravi, it turns out, had been the chair of something called the “Center for Evangelism and Contemporary Thought.” His immediate successor, Dr. Terry Wardle, told me that this was a non-academic position.[xxviii] Then-ATS professor, Dr. Dennis Hollinger, now President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, described the “center” as “not a center in terms of a think tank, more of an opportunity for students to work with Ravi.”[xxix] The ATS librarian told my investigator it was a “lecture series” that brought in outside evangelists to speak[xxx] and an ATS student of Ravi’s said it was an “informal” undertaking.[xxxi]
So there was an informal “center,” but never a “Department of Evangelism and Contemporary Thought” at ATS, nor a chair of that department. Ravi simply invented the department and made himself its chair, and thereby scored for himself a prestigious academic title that he never held.[xxxii]
Addiction to Adulation
Why would a smart man like Ravi Zacharias be so bold with his deceptions? The answer comes straight from his memoirs, Walking from East to West. Ravi seems addicted to adulation and the phony credentials get him his fix.
As a teenager in India, Ravi attempted suicide. He tells us it was not because he was depressed or impulsive, but because success eluded him. “Everyone around me had success, but no matter how deeply I searched my life for a shred of it, all I saw was failure.”[xxxiii] His abusive and violent father, he tells us, “looked me in the eye and said I would never make anything of myself.”[xxxiv] He told the New Indian Express “My brother and sister were too bright. One day, I thought I should die and drank poison.”[xxxv] Fortunately God ensured that he took the “right poison”[xxxvi] and his life was saved.
But it was not the Lord who saved Ravi. It was the stage. He soon discovered the “sheer exhilaration”[xxxvii] of speaking to adoring audiences. He entered a “preaching contest” and tells us that after he preached “my buddies gathered around, wide eyed.”[xxxviii] When he won his “buddies went crazy” and someone said “The Lord had a purpose in this man.”[xxxix]
Ravi then joined a preaching team and the response to his sermons was “overwhelming.”[xl] Ravi had discovered the thrill of stardom. “Each time I finished students and faculty stood to their feet and applauded.”[xli] Preaching, he tells us, turned him “from being a nothing, a nobody, to being listened to by so many in different walks of life.”[xlii] Thus, we may conjecture, Ravi Zacharias needed adulation more than religion. It just so happens that it was religion, not cricket, and certainly not academics, that delivered the goods.
At age 70, Ravi Zacharias maintains an active international speaking schedule. He also continues to expand his empire of self-named ministries. This year he opened the Zacharias Institute in Alpharetta, Georgia, which he immodestly says will be “the leading apologetics center in the world.”[xliii] His first enterprise, Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, was founded over three decades ago. He tells us in his memoirs that he had proposed a different name and was told “No, Ravi, so much has happened with people in ministry having gone astray. If you give this ministry your name, it will stand up behind your integrity, or fall with the lack of it.”[xliv] Fortunately for Ravi, these words seem to have no more prophetic power than those spoken by Daniel in the second century B.C.E.
The Christian Industrial Complex Code of Silence
How have Ravi’s colleagues in the religion business reacted to the revelations of a clear pattern and practice of deception? The “great apologist” who so loudly and for so long trumpeted his Oxford and Cambridge credentials now stands bereft of any academic qualifications outside of a Bachelor’s in theology from a little-known school and an associate professorship in evangelism during the early 1980s at a place called Alliance Theological Seminary.
Do Ravi’s Christian colleagues care enough about his integrity that his Ministry may “fall” from his lack of it? Not likely. It seems to be business as usual at the Christian Industrial Complex.[xlv] Ravi remains a “licensed evangelist” with the Christian and Missionary Alliance.[xlvi] He retains his “doctorates” on his publisher website author bios, along with his “Cambridge” education. He was also the 2017 commencement speaker at Patrick Henry College (“God’s Harvard”) despite the fact that most of the faculty and student organizations were aware of the allegations circulating against him.[xlvii]
Then there is the Code of Silence. Alliance Theological Seminary not only had no comment about Ravi but refused even to say whether there had ever been a “Department of Evangelism and Contemporary Thought” at the school. General Counsel for the seminary instructed me not to further contact seminary employees. The President of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, which operates ATS, also had no comment about the allegations against Ravi.[xlviii] I then learned that a certain Richard Pease has been President of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, and a trustee at Alliance Theological Seminary, and on the Board of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, associations that likely reinforce the credential deceptions.[xlix]
One of the publishers of 2017 The Jesus Bible assured me that Ravi’s “PhD” was due to a “copy error on our end” but stopped communicating with me after I asked for specifics as to how such an error transpired.[l] Assistant General Counsel for HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Dan Foutz, assured me that he would “dig into” the extensive materials I sent him about Ravi. Apparently he did, for two weeks later he informed me that his client had “no further comment.”[li]
For its part, RZIM and its Public Relations Manager have ignored over a dozen requests for comment from me over the past two years, as well as several requests to interview Mr. Zacharias at a time and place of his choosing. Perhaps most revealing of all, not a single one of the itinerant evangelists I contacted at RZIM and at his (deceptively named) “Oxford Center for Christian Apologetics”[lii] has replied to my request for comment, much less done their duty under 1 Tim 5:20 to publicly renounce their sinning leader.[liii] Cash cows are indeed sacred cows, even over at God, Inc.
Meanwhile in the trenches of YouTube and the blogosphere, Ravi’s loyal followers assure us that whatever his credentials may be Ravi Zacharias is an intellectual powerhouse and a devoted man of God.
[i] http://bit.ly/2vhtbTt accessed June 24, 2017.
[iii] Lecture delivered at the University of Illinois, point at 5:00 minute mark http://bit.ly/1Pyvbds accessed June 24, 2017.
[iv] John Collins, a professor of Old Testament at Yale, told me by email that “all mainline scholars agree that Daniel was written between 167 and 164 B.C.E.”, two centuries after Alexander’s death. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes that the late dating has been “has been widely accepted by contemporary scholars.” http://bit.ly/2tRff2Y accessed June 27, 2017. The Jewish Encyclopedia and Encyclopedia Britannica online concur.
[v] Walking From East to West at p. 176.
[vi] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I0tbgF7U1iw at 0:45, accessed June 24, 2017. Ravi defenders sometimes argue that the fact that he discloses so many “doctorates” makes clear that they must be honorary. But holding multiple academic doctorates is not uncommon. Ravi himself mentions a professor of his at seminary, John Warwick Montgomery, who held three academic doctorates. Walking from East to West, at p. 174. As for holding multiple honorary doctorates, many famous scientists such as Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, and others have dozens of honorary doctorates. Incidentally, Ravi’s secretary answers the phone with “Dr. Zacharias’s office.”
[vii] The Jesus Bible at the Contributor’s Page, published in 2017 by HarperCollins Christian Publishing.
[viii] http://bit.ly/2tQQzYj accessed June 19, 2017.
[ix] Legislating Morality by Norman Geisler and Frank Turek, Wipf & Stock publishers, at p. 1. Ravi is not a Wipf & Stock author, but the book includes a comment from him at the blurb page.
[x] His Bachelors is from Ontario Bible College in Toronto, Canada, and his MDiv is from Trinity International Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. Trinity confirmed with me via email that its MDiv “has always been accredited as a professional degree.” The Divinity School is part of Trinity International University, which according to U.S. News and World Report has an undergraduate acceptance rate of 96%. https://www.usnews.com/best-colleges/trinity-international-1772
[xi] In the summer of 2015 I complained to Ravi’s ministry about these deceptive “Dr. Zacharias” practices and his failure to use include the word “honorary” at his website bio. They quickly reduced, by more than half, the number of references to him as “Dr. Zacharias”, but refused to add the word “honorary”. A year and a half and several critical YouTube videos later they added “honorary” to the bio in November of 2016, but then removed it in March, 2017. In May 2017 they once again disclosed that Ravi’s doctorates are merely honorary. In June of 2017 they removed all references to him as “Dr. Zacharias” from his website bio. http://bit.ly/2tNpqqW accessed June 27, 2017. The same puzzling behavior went on at Ravi’s “Oxford Center for Christian Apologetics” in Britain, where the word “honorary” was added to his bio after I brought the matter to their attention. Shortly thereafter it was removed, and then it was re-added after I re-complained. Ravi’s reluctance to do the obviously right thing here tells us a good deal about his character and concern for his public image.
[xii] New Birth or Rebirth, back cover author bio, published by Multnomah Books. See also the Penguin author bio at http://bit.ly/2tQQzYj accessed June 19, 2017.
[xiii] Walking From East to West at p. 205. Google the phrases “Ravi Zacharias” and “visiting scholar at Cambridge University” and one can see how widely the claim has spread.
[xiv] Personal communication with Ravi’s supervisor at Ridley Hall, Dr. Jeremy Begbie, who told me he believes Ravi was there for “about one term (ie. 2/3 months.)”
[xv] Personal communication with Cambridge Office of External Affairs and Communications.
[xvi] See, for instance, Ravi’s memoirs, Walking From East to West at p. 205 and a speech he made to a United Nations prayer breakfast, at http://bit.ly/2sVmd5E accessed June 19, 2017.
[xvii] Personal communication with Cambridge.
[xviii] Ravi’s ministry and his Ridley Hall supervisor, Dr. Jeremy Begbie, have refused to say whether Ravi actually enrolled in courses with Polkinghorne or merely audited. Dr. Begbie was willing to tell me that he had “arranged for Mr. Zacharias to attend lectures and classes at the University” but did not answer a follow-up question about auditing. (Personal communication.)
[xix] See for instance his author bio at Thomas Nelson (a division of HarperCollins.) http://bit.ly/2sV5BuC and the back cover of his book, Cries of the Heart, http://amzn.to/2vhM8Fi both accessed June 25, 2017.
[xx] Walking From East to West at p. 229.
[xxi] Personal communication with Oxford and with Oxford’s Queen’s College. See also my video Lying for Lord or Self at http://bit.ly/2ujyILT at 5:30.
[xxii] See, for instance, his television interview with Kirk Cameron at http://bit.ly/2tNgjWY at 5:15. By Googling “Ravi Zacharias” and “Senior Research Fellow at Oxford” one can see how widely the claim has been used to promote Ravi’s speaking events.
[xxiii] Personal communication with Oxford and Wycliffe Hall. The description of Wycliffe as an “affiliated institution” is found in the university’s Student Handbook, http://bit.ly/2ujiPVA accessed June 19, 2017.
[xxiv] Apologetics315 Interview at http://bit.ly/2sUCzLS accessed June 18, 2017. Given Ravi’s lack of academic credentials it is very unlikely that he has ever spoken at an “academic forum.” He does, however, claim to have lectured at many famous universities. It is very likely, again given his lack of academic credentials, that the invitations to speak at such universities come mainly from Christian student groups, not from the universities themselves, nor from their faculties. But Ravi fails to disclose this, as we see here in one of his more desperate bits of braggadocio: “I have spoken on almost every major campus—Berkeley, Princeton, Cornell, you name it. If we haven’t been to a major school it is more often than not because we haven’t had the time to accommodate the request.” Walking From East to West, at p. 209.
[xxv] Personal communication with Wycliffe Hall. See also my video Lying for Lord or Self at 6:15.
[xxvi] Perhaps Ravi has held an unpaid teaching position at the university. Given his lack of credentials that seems most unlikely. It is also unclear how such a position would be consistent with his “official lecturer” claim.
[xxvii] Walking From East to West at p. 188 where he says he was “chairing” the department. See also http://bit.ly/2sUZKpo accessed June 18, 2017 in which he calls himself the “chairman” of the department.
[xxviii] Personal communication with Dr. Terry Wardle.
[xxix] Personal communication with Dr. Dennis Hollinger.
[xxx] Personal communication from John Cutter Investigations, New York.
[xxxi] Personal communication with Pastor Kerry Bowman, an influential minister in Southern California who studied under Ravi at ATS. The fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree. Pastor Bowman is currently working on a Doctorate of Divinity, but I noticed that his LinkedIn page said that he had completed it. He quickly corrected the entry and assured me that it was a mistake. I believe him. But I then noticed that he falsely describes his Master of Divinity degree from ATS as a “Master’s Degree, Evangelism and Contemporary Thought.” Here we have another example of a prominent Christian evangelist who feels free to alter his academic credentials in ways that make them significantly different from (and better than) what was actually earned.
[xxxii] Alliance Theological Seminary is a religious school in New York where nobody seems to notice that the Dean is off by half a century and about seven emperors at the school’s homepage with his claim that “Constantine declared Christianity as the state religion in 325 A.D.” http://bit.ly/2sUSNVl accessed June 18, 2017. ATS is also a place where the Human Resources Director disclosed to me some revealing information from Ravi’s personnel file. In a phone call that I later confirmed in writing, Karen Davie told me that there is “a story” around Ravi’s desire to have the words “contemporary thought” in his academic title. She said that it was “important” to Ravi that those words appear in his title but that the school president had not allowed such. Curiously, although Ravi began teaching in 1980 at ATS with the contractual title “Chair and Associate Professor of Evangelism” he was listed as holding the title “Associate Professor of Evangelism and Contemporary Thought” in the school catalogue. Ms. Davie told me that this description did not properly reflect the president’s wishes. Unfortunately, the seminary is not talking any more, and neither is Ravi or the Church. So I will leave it to more well-connected journalists to find the “story” that lies in Mr. Zacharias’s ATS personnel file. At this point, however, we do know that Ravi adopted for himself an academic title that he never held in a department that never existed.
[xxxiii] Walking From East to West at p. 99.
[xxxiv] Walking From East to West at p. 179.
[xxxv] http://bit.ly/2sVi5Cy published June 13, 2011, accessed June 19, 2017.
[xxxvi] Walking From East to West at p. 180.
[xxxvii] Ibid. at p. 193.
[xxxviii] Ibid. at p. 129.
[xxxix] Ibid. at pp. 129-130.
[xl] Ibid. at p. 133.
[xli] Ibid. at p. 208.
[xlii] Ibid. at p. 133.
[xliii] Ravi has apparently removed this boastful description from his website since I criticized him for making it in my video, Lying For Lord or Self. But his boast is preserved in the video at 14:24. http://bit.ly/2ujyILT
[xliv] Walking From East to West, at p. 199.
[xlv] The term “Christian Industrial Complex” goes back at least to Warren Smith in 2006. http://bit.ly/2tNbcGo accessed June 24, 2017.
[xlvi] Personal communication with C&MA General Counsel’s office.
[xlvii] Several months before Ravi’s commencement speech I sent several dozen emails to faculty and student groups at Patrick Henry College informing them of the results of my investigation and offering to provide further information about Ravi Zacharias. I received not a single reply.
[xlviii] Personal communication with C&MA General Counsel, Gary Friesen.
[xlix] See Mr. Pease’s professional bio at http://bit.ly/2ujPIBs accessed June 27, 2017. Mr. Pease did not respond to my phone message asking to speak to him about Ravi in connection with this article.
[l] Personal Communication with Passion Publishing Managing Director, Kevin Marks.
[li] Personal communication.
[lii] The OCCA is an “autonomous study center” whose courses are not accredited by the University of Oxford. Despite its title, it is not part of the University. https://www.theocca.org/occa accessed July 17, 2017.
[liii] 1 Timothy 5:20. “Those who sin should be reprimanded in front of the whole church; this will serve as a strong warning to others.”