As a boy growing up in Canada, Daniel Gilman loved church and what he saw as compassion from the God of the Bible for those who suffer. As a college philosophy student, a question began to chip away: Is God just an inspiring fairy tale character, or does he exist? It was a celebrity evangelist named Ravi Zacharias who filled Gilman with confidence that it was possible to be an intellectual believer in a God who is real.
“He was hugely helpful in my becoming convinced I could be intellectually honest and really believe,” said Gilman, now 32, who became a minister with Zacharias’s global, $36-million-a-year ministry, built around a truth-seeking, evidence-exploring, Q-and-A-style of evangelism called apologetics. “He said: ‘If evil is a category, there must be good. If there is good and evil, there must be a moral law. If there is a moral law there must be a moral lawgiver.'”
Now GiIman and millions of others are left with deep questions about good and evil as independent investigators hired by Zacharias’s Atlanta-based ministry are set to release a report detailing serious sexual misconduct by the iconic apologist. Until his death of cancer at age 74 in May, Zacharias had been one of the best-known figures of American Christian radio and TV for decades.
“God gave us the greatest apologist of this century,” Vice President Mike Pence said in May at a memorial for Zacharias that was watched live by more than 1.2 million people around the world. Other luminaries who spoke included former NFL quarterback Tim Tebow and rapper Lecrae. Then-White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany broke down in tears in May on Christian television talking about the death of a man she said made it so people didn’t feel they had to “check their brain at the door as a Christian.”
Zacharias is accused of sexually harassing multiple massage therapists who worked in the 2000s at two day spas he co-owned in the Atlanta suburbs. The allegations were first reported in September by San Francisco lawyer Steve Baughman, who runs a YouTube channel called the Friendly Banjo Atheist and by Christianity Today. Investigators said in a very brief, interim report released in December that they “have found significant, credible evidence that Mr. Zacharias engaged in sexual misconduct over the course of many years.”
In 2017, Zacharias faced separate allegations of abusing his power the year before with a much-younger married follower and soliciting nude photos from her, then lying about it and publicly accusing her and her husband of extortion. It’s unclear whether the investigation, led by Atlanta law firm Miller & Martin, will delve into that matter as well. Its mission, said the interim report, was to focus on allegations of abuse at the spas. However, the report said, lawyers were given authority to follow other sexual misconduct leads, and they have.
The final report is expected to be a dramatic comedown for a figure who was not only a staple in Christian culture but often served as the representative of engaged conservative evangelicalism at secular forums from the United Nations and Harvard University to Westminster Hall and Google headquarters. His ministry sends teachers to do talks around the world, runs classes for people who have spiritual doubts and creates materials to train people to evangelize a secularizing culture.
“There’s a sense in which I find myself reexamining the answers I learned from Ravi and questioning: Is this true? Or just as he was a fraud, is his message as well?” said Gilman, who worked as an itinerant apologist for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries until last month, when he was let go, he says, after questioning RZIM’s handling of the issue. It’s not Gilman’s faith in God that has been shaken, he says, but his faith in the Zacharias teachings.
Fans and those close to Zacharias’s wife and three children, who have all been in high positions in the ministry, have reacted in other ways. Some are burning his books. Thousands on the group’s Facebook page are debating whether to believe the charges, and if they are true, asking whether to erase his witness as a Christian. Others are defending his legacy.
“Even *if* these allegations are true, there is no doubt that God actively blessed my Dad. …so what these individuals are saying,” Nathan Zacharias posted on Instagram last week, “is that God was wrong to do so, so we must now correct God’s blessing/mistake by erasing my Dad and his voice.”
At stake in the Zacharias scandal is also the credibility of his ministry, which was founded in 1984 and runs offices in 15countries with nearly 300 staffers. That is because RZIM leaders have faced questions for years about Zacharias, ranging from his inflation of his academic credentials, about why the head of a global apologetics ministry owned two massage parlors (Touch of Eden and Jivan Wellness), and why his personal masseuse was on the ministry’s payroll.
The questions have been raised since 2018 in reporting by investigative bloggers – Baughman and Christian writer Julie Roys – as well as articles in Christianity Today and World, both evangelical publications.
RZIM had until December largely defended Zacharias and portrayed him as a victim. In September, after Baughman reported Zacharias had allegedly sexually harassed and abused spa workers, ministry leadership offered staff talking points, urging them to say the allegations “do not in any way reflect the man and friend I knew,” and that the ministry will continue its work of “helping the thinker believe, and the believer think.”
Requests for comment to RZIM were not immediately answered, but its board of directors on Dec. 23, after the law firm investigators said they had uncovered problems, said: “We are devastated for those who suffered from Ravi’s misconduct.”
Some close to the ministry are asking how a group dedicated to open inquiry appears to have been unable or unwilling to do so when it came to itself. People who worked in or watched RZIM over the years say it was staffers’ fearless dedication to seeking the truth about life’s biggest issues that seemed to inoculate them from challenges to their credibility.
“Some senior leaders grew up Muslim and became Christian and we knew how hard it was for them, the cost they paid. The reputation of the entire leadership is based on their intellectual ability to find the truth,” said Carson Weitnauer, who previously led the U.S. speaking team and then took over its online platform for asking questions before leaving last month. It sometimes used RZIM’s unofficial motto: #noquestionsofflimits, Weitnauer said.
Openness to questions “was the stated value. Which made it harder to see that the real value was loyalty,” he said.
Gilman agreed, saying challenges about anything related to Ravi or his family could lead to trouble for a staffer. Ravi’s wife, Margie, was chief culture officer at the ministry until she resigned last week; daughter Sarah, chief executive; daughter Naomi head of Wellspring, RZIM’s humanitarian arm; and Nathan was a video producer there until he also resigned recently.
“You can say, ‘I’m having doubts about the reality of who Jesus was.’ But if anyone questioned any Zacharias on the team, that wasn’t welcomed,” Gilman said.
That was the culture in 2017 when Lori Anne and Brad Thompson, a couple from Ontario, reached out through a lawyer to Zacharias. Their letter described the couple meeting Zacharias, whom Brad deeply admired, and how it led to first a friendship between Lori Anne and the apologist – 30 years her senior – and then, over months, him encouraging her to first share details including her sexual abuse as a child at the hands of her father, and then, she said, soliciting nude photos. She began to spiral because of his “selfish and predatory behavior,” the letter said, until finally she told Zacharias she needed to tell her husband.
“Are you going to tell him it’s me?” Zacharias wrote in emails, according to blogger Julie Anne Smith, who writes about abuse. “You promised you wouldn’t Lori Anne. If you betray me here I will have no option but to bid this world goodbye I promise.”
Saying that the couple’s mental health, their marriage and their children had been seriously harmed, the Thompsons said they would either go to court or he could pay them $5 million. Zacharias instead told his board and filed a lawsuit against the couple, alleging Lori Anne had “shockingly” sent him inappropriate images out of the blue, that he blocked her, had done nothing wrong and that the couple had conspired to extort him.
“We felt really abandoned by God,” Lori Anne told The Post in an interview the couple did this weekend.
They said their faith is now focused on God, and they are trying to rid their minds of the theology and words of Zacharias.
“If Christ is true, he is the best example and the highest ethic. That’s the best example we can find. If it’s not true, at least we’ve lived in a way that’s ethical,” she said as her husband stared off, his face apparently pained. “If Christ isn’t true,” he said, “who do we follow then?”
As the case became public, RZIM supported Zacharias and staffers said the Thompsons were seen in the ministry as dishonest aggressors.
“I believe there will need to be an apology to the Thompsons for the way the ministry has unjustly portrayed them as extortionists, despite the lack of evidence,” Max Baker-Hytch, an apologist with RZIM’s Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics in England, wrote to the ministry leaders in December.
He said although Zacharias’s reputation is in tatters, the ministry could “act justly” and “show the world the power of the cross.”
What will happen to the powerful ministry Zacharias built is already a topic of debate. Does the scandal merely show how no one avoids sin, but that Zacharias’s gifts and work as an evangelist should still be honored? Or instead should Christian bookstores and churches remove his books and his ministry be paused to focus on how to help those who were hurt?
“Shut the doors, take the resources to try and identify other victims and do what you can to serve them,” said Boz Tchividjian, an attorney and advocate for survivors of abuse who is working with the Thompsons. “You can do great work in the world, but if your organization is sponsoring or represented by someone who is hurting others and destroying individual lives, don’t call yourself a Christian organization.”