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Ravi Zacharias - Understanding and Answering Atheism Q&A


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Joe: I'm gonna kick us off with a question that has already been submitted online. This is a question that I feel like Ravi is certainly the world expert in, so I'm excited to hear his answer. This is the question: in a discussion, how do we train ourselves rather than answering a question at its face value, to recognize and address the assumptions behind the question?

Ravi Zacharias: I think it's critical. It's not only critical. It's following Christ's example. Do you notice how long he took to answer the woman of the well? He had systematically peeled off all of her fears, all of her concerns, all of her prejudices and she was probably stunned when he said to her, "I know exactly who you are and I know exactly what you've lived through". And he just opened up her heart to be able to confess what it was she was really looking for. Behind every question is a questioner. And behind every questioner is a convergence of hurts, and pains, and prejudices, and stumblings, and failings, and disappointments. You never really know what all has gone on. Always assume that behind a painful question is probably a lot of pain.

I learned this early in my life when I was speaking in Birmingham, Alabama. It was in the 1970's. I had just begun my itinerant work and I was sitting in the last but one pew of the church because a young couple wanted to talk privately. And they were sitting in the pew behind me and I was leaning forward like this and they asked about the issue of pain and suffering and they even used the word anguish. And I was about to lean into the best philosophical answer I could give to take the sting out of it, when I looked at the baby in the bassinet next to them and realized the baby was born with some very stark deformities it was evident. And as soon as I looked at that child, I swallowed hard and I muttered a prayer. And I said, "God, help me". And I looked at them and I said, "You're going through it, aren't you"? And they said, "Yes, sir". I said, "Tell me a little bit about it". And all I did in the opening moments is walk with them through the journey of how they had processed. Because every journey of pain and disappointment takes you through various moods and various struggles. From anger to sorrow to despair to sadness. However you cope with it till God gives you the strength to keep moving on. And with his grace, always question the questioner because it'll do that.

It'll do two things. It'll open the questioner up within their own assumptions and it'll then determine the entry point of the discussion. Very critical. When you determine the entry point of the discussion, it is not to manipulate the questioner, but it is to set the foundation on which the answer is going to stand. Because an answer without a foundation, will crumble. You have to go to the foundation and build that foundation and one of the ways you often do that is identify with the questioner. When you identify with the questioner, if that family has gone through something like that then you have to find an experience where you can find, well, at least come close in matching that. It is critical that the questioner feels the warmth of your own heart. Because before you get an answer, you have to believe in the one answering the question. I'll give you a very simple example, although, it's nothing near elaborate.

A few days ago, our grandkids were visiting. When the door opens without a knock, we know who it is. It's the grandkids. And this guy, Jude, was running havoc up and down the kitchen and you know you're just going dizzy watching him. And all of the sudden he makes a turn and stubs his toes. And he screams. He is screaming. I was about to say to him, "That's what you get, Jude, when you're running around like this..". But Margie picked him up, put him on the counter, and started kissing his toes and said to him, "Nana knows exactly how you feel. This pain is a very painful thing with a toe, or a finger, or an elbow. You bump it and you hurt it but, in a few moments, you'll be fine, Jude". And there he was tears, and I thought to myself, "What is the matter with me"? I'm trying to give him a philosophical answer when his toe is hurting. What an illustration, you know. You have to find out where the person is hurting so that they accept you before they accept your answer. And I think it's our whole team is like that and I'm amazed and watch how they do it.

And one comment we get back from the questioner is: "Thank you for understanding", "Thank you for hearing my cry". When Vince and I were in a place in one of the major universities, I won't name it, there were two young women standing in front of us. Obviously, from a completely different worldview and a completely different lifestyle. And they'd asked a question and from the platform we both answered. I was as close to the questioner as I am to you. She was at the microphone and I locked eye contact and was doing my best to answer as Vince has to. You know, after the Q&A, was over they both asked if they could see us privately. And we went to the side room and they told us their story and then they asked if they could take a picture with us and both of them gave us a big hug and thanked us for being understanding. Do you compromise your convictions? No. But you have to have conviction with compassion. If you don't have conviction with compassion, the person will never, ever respond. So I caution you be a good listener. Before you answer any question, ask a handful of questions, and then they will know you are talking to them and not just to an idea.

Joe: Thank you so much, Ravi. We'll be hearing a little bit more about the answer to that question in the final session of the day which is going to be on the art of conversation. So there'll be some more practical tips coming as well. Let's have a live question from the floor.

Question from audience: Hello Ravi. My question is on grace and justice. I kind of feel like they are slightly mutually exclusive, not slightly, but I'm having trouble understanding how God can be both graceful and just. It seems like if he's going to be graceful, then it's not really enacting any justice. You know, justice isn't served.

Ravi Zacharias: Well, you know, Michael Ramsden my colleague is doing an incredible amount of creative work in this whole area of justice and judgement. Why justice is so important in the mind of God. The Greek philosophers talked about liberty, equality, justice, truth, beauty, goodness, ideas by which we live, ideas by which we judge. The problem with Greek philosophers is they were never ultimately able to point all of that to a person and that's where it really took the Hebrews with the revelation of God to be able to talk about a gracious God and a just God and merciful God. And that's why the very concept of the Hebrew language: "Chesed", lovingkindness. Who understood that better than David himself? You know, here was a man who had gone so far afield in crossing boundaries. I want to do a little dividing of a thought here. Very important, okay? I do a lot of thinking.

People ask me when I do my study, when I do my preparing. When you're sitting in the long hours on the plane, 13, 14-hour flights you got a lot of time to think. And I was thinking in the last three to four weeks. Started focusing on a distinction I had never made before. The distinction between sin and evil. We're all sinners. We all stumble. We all fall. David illustrated that best not only from his sensuality, but also from murder. How did God ever call him a man after his own heart? We would never have thought of that. We would never have thought of that division, of that compliment to a person that had stumbled this way. See, there's a difference between sin and evil. When Abel and Cain are in the beginning going through what they are, and God looks at Cain and says, "If you do what is right will you not be accepted? If you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at the door. It desires to have you". We all have sin. When sin has us, when we are possessed by sin, and care not for the destruction of another person, that's evil. You move from stumblings and falterings in your own heart to the cavalier way of not caring about the destruction of another.

And so Cain really didn't care about going and murdering his brother. He was okay with it. And that's why he had the eviction and he moves away and becomes sort of a forever hunted person. How did God deal with sin? He judged evil by taking it on himself. He was not a sinner but he was dealing with evil. But he forgave us as sinners. So grace and justice go hand in hand. It's a beautiful combination of the graciousness of God and the justice of God. If you and I were to get what would justice called for, we would never be here today. God took the judgement and the horror of what justice demanded, so that with a gracious hand he could forgive you and me. And oftentimes in life, when you're wronged you will be called to make a judgement. You can with a clean slate forgive the person who has hurt you and take upon that anguish on your own and extend the grace of Christ. When Pilgrim arrived at the top of the mountain, at the top of the hill, and the bag fell off, what he had really experienced was the grace of God because he was looking at calvary and the justice of God and the judgement of God had already taken place. Only in the Christian world do you get this juxtaposed. God is just. God is a judge, but the fiercest of the judgement he reserved for the very own son, so that you and I can be forgiven.

And I think when I look every morning at the grace of Christ, we, as Christians, need to be much more gracious than we are and much more graceful than we are. Ultimately judgement belongs to God... But grace is the offering he gives to others through you and through me. They are not antithetical one to another. They work in confluence with a just God. When justice and love stare at you and me on the cross we know where the justice is and where the love is. Father, forgive them, for they don't know what they are doing. In every other worldview, in every other worldview those are put together. That's why karma and the pantheistic worldview. That's why the muslim has to have his good deeds outweigh his bad deeds. In the Christian world there is a bifurcation right from the beginning. God takes the judgement upon his own son, so that justice is met and grace is offered to you and to me in forgiveness. Okay, thank you, Justin.

Joe: Thank you, Ravi. Let's take another live question.

Question from audience: Hello. My question is that in modern society, we see that culture is devaluing sex and marriage. It's promoting evil through certain types of media whether it be demonic or just straight-up violence. So how do you see this change in society impacting us as people in generations to come in the future?

Ravi Zacharias: I appreciate that. And you know, we often think this is something new. In some ways it is because the capacity to disseminate in mass communication is huge. But if you go through the first ten chapters of the Bible, my goodness, you see everything that you wanna see and more. It's already there. If you read what was going on in Rome at the time when Paul went to speak to the Caesars, you talk about the slaughter of innocent people. You talk about murder, you talk about violence, you talk about abortion. It was just on a massive, massive scale. Right now what we are aware of is that the dissemination capacity, because of the eye gate. And it is not just that. It is the fact that once upon a time you had to go to a place to find evil to look at. Now you don't have to go to it. It comes to you. It is in the hip. It is in our phones. As I was talking to the Google people I mentioned to them, I said I heard a comment that reminded me so much of what is really going on. A man once said you may have a smart phone, but it is not a wise phone.

And I'm not sure how happy the googliers were to hear that kind of thing. But I said that's where we work together. You may provide the phone. We wanna talk about the wisdom and how to use it. And you know, every day you learn. Even as mature people you learn. You learn the hard way what to open, what to look at, what not to open, what not to look at. I like what lo' said. You know, the purity has to first begin with us and so we begin each day by repenting of our own sin and our own unclean heart and go through the day being an example to a world that is struggling. Why does the world struggle? As Naomi was pointing out, their starting point is different. It's a naturalistic framework. Ethics are self-referencing. You point to yourself and you define all your values. That's not what God wanted us to do. The biggest break in the day and the dawn of creation was in that one commandment. "Do not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil" because you do it you're gonna die. What did satan say? Satan encountered it with a counter perspective. "No, no, no. Do it because you will be as God defining good and evil". That's really what he was saying. "Play God".

The moment we started to play God all of this stuff has been unleashed upon us. So how do we deal with it? We have to deal with it in several ways. Most importantly by admonishing our own lives. I have committed to God. These days I'm gonna start by admonishing myself. Where do I reckon I go wrong today? What can I do that's ill-judged or ill-advised today? You prepare for the day by preparing your own heart. Secondly, I think what lo' said is so important. Being pure in your own heart, and in your thinking, and in your words. You look at the political arena today. You know, when my brother and I left India I was 20, he was 22. That was 1966. As the plane took off that's the first time he and I ever sat in a plane. As the plane took off he looked at me and said, "I'm never coming back here again". He was two years older than me. I said, "Are you kidding me"? He said, "No. Politics are so corrupt here and the power brokers wield such authority here I'm never coming back".

Now after having lived in this part of the world for 50 years I see the same thing happening here. Politics has become so corrupt. I have never seen such absence of charity. The question is not whether you like a person or not. The question is how do you treat every person with dignity and respect and let God be the ultimate judge on whether that person was a good person or not. We've lost civility when film actors can be standing up and talking about looking for somebody to assassinate the president. In heaven's name, what has happened to us? Do we not see that we not just looking at a president we are looking at a father, we're looking at a husband? We don't think of this anymore. So the only way I know is to provide a life that is an alternative to the way we see things happening. Speak graciously, live purely, live each day with a clean slate and I know this from experience that the day will come where even those who did not like what you believe towards the end of their years they will look at you and say you're the only one I really respected in the days that I was working. I can give you illustration after illustration after illustration. So how do we deal with this? Think good thoughts, live a pure life, a pulpit needs to address the issues of the time. If the pulpit is not addressing it we are losing the millennial generation completely.

A few days ago my wife was watching bill ayers the guy who was with the weather underground. Blowing people in the weather underground, whatever it is called. Setting bombs, blowing people up. And you know what he said in the interview last week? He said once we thought we could destroy this country by blowing places and people up. We knew we weren't succeeding so we decided instead to build young people who'd become professors at the university and change culture. It's exactly what they did. It's exactly what they did. The average ivy league professor today is a radical left-wing thinker. So they are. There are many exceptions thankfully but there are. The rule is not that. How do we change society? Start speaking from the pulpit on ideas that are truth and relevant and get into the educational world and start changing it from within and then use the arts to show beauty and goodness. Which is why we are also trying that. Start with your own life. Move to the other perimeters that affect life. And if you live like that in the sunset years of your life somebody will come and say to you, "You're the only one I really respected in the days even though I disagreed with you at that time". I hope that'll help you.

Joe: Thank you, Ravi. You were just speaking about morality in our culture. One of the challenges that we'll often hear from atheists is actually against the morality of the God of the Old Testament. So we have a question that's been asked here which is: how do I justify the old existence of the laws of Moses to an unbeliever and they give the example of the punishment for sexual immorality being death?

Ravi Zacharias: that's your field, Joe.

Joe: Your view, what you have to say.

Ravi Zacharias: That's Joe's subject. She's writing a book on this. You know what? If you were to ask me what are three or four of the toughest questions you can think of that's somewhere at the top. You do struggle with it. And the Muslims are very quick to point out the Old Testament had its hazards, too. But here's what I, let me just say to you as quickly as I can. Number one, I would ask the person: why do you think it is immoral? What happened? Are you asking that from a naturalistic framework or are you asking that from a theistic framework? If you're asking from a naturalistic framework what is your point of reference for ethics because in fact it was Darwin who talked about Nathan — nature being red in tooth and claw. The bloodletting and the savagery is part of a naturalistic evolutionary process. So are you telling me you have moral reasoning with which to raise the question. If you're raising this on the point of your moral reasoning you must have a moral law-giver, but that's whom you're trying to disprove and not prove. If there's no moral law-giver there's really no moral law. If there's no moral law there's really no good. If there's no good there's no evil. This question self-destructs within a naturalistic framework.

So the first thing you say to your questioner is what is the basis on which you are making this judgement? Do you believe in a moral law? Then having diffused it philosophically you move to it to the particularly or the question that he or she is raising in the Old Testament. And you have to realize what the Old Testament revelation corpus was like. How was it actually revealed? You know it's fascinating when you look at Matthew 14 and 15. Matthew 14 is the feeding of the 5.000. Matthew 15 is the feeding of the 4.000. They were two distinct miracles. When the 5, 000 were fed there were 12 baskets full. When the 4, 000 were fed there were 7 baskets full. Why? The 12 baskets full was for the house of Israel, the 12 tribes. The seven baskets full were the seven gentile cities that lived in Canaan. Which had the Jebusites, the Hittites, the termites, the all the kind of thing. All of these -ites. If you count them there were seven of those. The Girgashites, the Jebusites, Hittites, and all of them. Seven gentile cultures within Canaan.

Fascinating that the miracles were done back to back to show that the whole house of Israel and all the gentile world were gonna be fed by the bread of life which is Christ himself. So grace was extended to all of them. Now, when you look at the little microcosm of the Israelite nation, what was going on? Revelation was concrete, dramatic, and had its imperatives. It was a concrete expression and so therefore in proportion was also the judgement. God had established a covenant relationship with a group of people. Let me put it to you this way. If all of a sudden, this ceiling were to come apart and God were to descend down here and say to you and me, "If you walk out of here and live an evil life after seeing what you have just seen, judgement will be dramatic. It'll be upon you, it'll be upon your household". And you walk out of here and live with the impertinence and the clenched fist can you really blame God after he'd given you that kind of concrete and dramatic revelation? So, judgement was in keeping with the dramatic nature of the revelation itself. They were a covenant people and God was trying to protect that people to be the instruments through whom he would reveal the grace to the whole world.

So don't just look at the laws and the stringency of the judgement and the way they were honoring that covenant was in the sabbath. That was the expression of the covenantal relationship. If God had demonstrated to me in such dramatic ways all that he demonstrated to them I don't think I'd point my finger at him and say, "Why did you judge me this way"? When he would say to me, "I gave to you all the evidence you wanted, all the dramatic nature, and you still clenched your fist at me". Isn't it fascinating. We question why does God judge so dramatically. We never ever pause and say how gracious of a God who kept them through the 40-year wondering in the wilderness and protected them with all the manna and so on. It's because we like to put God on the witness stand. We don't like to be on the witness stand ourselves and be questioned. The judgement was in proportion to the revelation. If you and I were to be judged thank God he's judging us with the patience and the longevity of grace and kindness. Because we are not exposed to that dramatic nature of all that God reveals to us so he is patient and kind. At least that's one thorn I would like to remove from that question if I may.

Joe: Thank you Ravi, you give me some ideas for my next talk. Let's have another question from the floor.

Question from audience: Hi Ravi. So when speaking with western atheists, there's often an unawareness that the morals they hold to have a Judeo-Christian background. It is taken for granted that these morals are natural and reasonable and thus can exists without a religious framework. So how do you do respond to a westerner who genuinely believes that, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you". Can be derived from science and rationality?

Ravi Zacharias: Fair enough. I'll never forget being in Moscow some years ago and my wife was walking with me and two or three others. And we were going, I was going to do a Q&A time at the center of geopolitical strategy, they're all atheists, all the professors were atheists. And we were walking on a cold wintery day. And they're all walking ahead, I'm a slow walker, so as was why amble at that, my back having issues, I can't really walk fast. So I was walking and all of sudden I am face to face with a man, closer than you are to me right now. It was a wintery day, he had his trousers on but no shirt, he was bare bodied above the waist with a machete in his hand. And he's starring at me, eyeball to eyeball. And I'm alone. There's a crowd around there, but they saw this maniac running around and it's him and me, starring at each other. I just looked at God and said, "God, see the curtains, or you're gonna be the curtain for me. And stop this".

He just starred at me. I don't know what stopped him, I starred right back, and he turned and ran wheedling. In the meantime, the general that was taking us, turned around and came running and this guy had started to flee in the process, and so when I was starting to talk at the geopolitical strategy, they were looking at me, and the professor said, "We have our own morality, you know. We have a basis for our morality". I said, "You're right, I just saw it on the street. A man with a machete in his hand". I said, "Why don't you go out unto your own street in Moscow today and tell me what you think of the morality out there". I said, "What do you think of Stalin? Who killed 15 million of your people. He had his own morality too".

Later on that afternoon, my wife and I were having lunch with the general, who had taken us there. And it was a very meagre lunch: it was the days were very dark, everything had mayonnaise in it because it made you feel more full. And half way through that lunch there were tears running down his face, and he recognized he had no basis for morality. If the actualist says to me, "We have the basis of morality". I'll say, "Go take a look at Washington right now. Who's morality are you seeing? Take a look at Hollywood. Who's morality are you seeing? God into the inner city of Chicago, who's morality are you seeing? If you don't have a transcended basis for the intrinsic work of human kind, then what Chesterton said is true, "The tragedy of disbelieving God is not that a person ends up believing in nothing at last it is much worse, he ends up believing in anything". Chesterton said, "There's only one angle at which you can stand straight, many angles at which you can fall". That's why love and grace are the two greatest ethics that come out of this. It teaches us to love our neighbor, and teaches us to offer grace when people stumble and fall, there is no other world view that provides it.

In fact, if Dawkins is right, and he complains about all that God is, megalomaniacal, and all of this genecidal and all the descriptions he gives of a hateful God, if there is no God, who is he talking about? He's talking about us. And if he's talking about us, why is he calling it wrong? If he does not bring a vertical position by which to judge it, so all of his arguments are actually against humanity. Not against God, he just likes to use God with which to describe his verbal ptyalism and whatever he does. I just say to you, as wonderful as it sounds, when man becomes God, that's when you come back, like zombies sent back from north Korea, destroying the young boy, so heartlessly. And now describing themselves as the victims of criticism. That's what happens in a purely horizontal ethic. So, its simply is illogical to talk about goodness and evil. Philosophers like Kai Nielsen or Bertrand Russell, J.L. Mackie, a strong atheist, in fact, Antony Flew who is the strongest atheist in the 70s, 80s and 90s, one of the reasons he struggled with his atheism was just this issue, towards the end of his life. He said, "I have no answer for moral reasoning". And yet, we need it. Okay, thank you.

Joe: Great. We're gonna welcome the next question from the floor. I think to be respectful of RavI's time, and I do apologize 'cause we've been inundated with questions but this is going to be the last question for this afternoon. But the rest of the team will around later in the day so please do, feel free to come and ask us more questions as well.

Question from audience: Hello Ravi. My question to you is, in your 40 plus years of ministry was there any aspect of the Bible that you struggled through out and how did you overcome it.

Ravi Zacharias: Yeah, it's been a long time. 72. It's 45 year, you know, of ministry, 45 years of marriage, 45 years of ministry. I would have never managed through ministry without my family and without my partners and without my colleagues, one of the reasons we built a team. Right from the beginning when RZIM was built, the co-founder asked me why I wanted to have a team. And he said, "Ravi, in sure of having an organization that supports you, you might end up with and organization that you have to support. Are you gonna cope with that"? I said, "No, I want accountability, I want friendship. I want multiple voices, I don't want to focus on one person. Only on the person of Jesus Christ and the Gospel. And when multiple voices say the same thing, there is wisdom and anointing and power in that".

But there's a side value to it. We don't travel alone. We travel with our colleagues, and the encouragement and the collegiality as iron sharpens iron, because this is a very draining life. It's a very draining life, you can become weak physically and emotionally and if you're not careful, spiritually. 'cause you spend so many hours alone in a hotel room. And we need our buddies to be there to prop us up. We take our turns, propping each other up. Have I ever had struggle with any aspect of the Bible. I'll be brutally honest with you. No. I never have, the question that was asked on the ethics of the Old Testament I think: Yes, I struggle with. I took a whole course in that with the famed Walter Kaiser and Gleason Archer, I just gave one area of an answer, there are many other answers that you can give to that, and I do, I do often reflect on that, but here's the way I look at it. A good hermeneutic, a good principles of interpretation is always to go from what you do know to what you don't know. You don't go the other way around.

What you do understand you try to explain what you do not understand. What happened to me on that bed of suicide when I was 17. And a Bible being brought to me when I never owned one and never opened one and somebody turning to John 14:19, "Because I live, you also shall live". Can I position two things for you? God will always show you the pattern the longer you are on the road. He will always show you the pattern. The longer you are on the road, there's never a shortcut to holiness or Godliness, you wind and you wander and you get there. I want to give you two illustrations. It was a year or two ago, I was in calgary, and I was having lunch with a man by the name of John Tabe. A Canadian, tall gentleman. Now in his veteran years, his wife just passed away three weeks ago. John was a missionary to India with youth for Christ. And we're sitting and having lunch. And he said, "I just want to know..". You know he's the man who the last day he was in India, after eight years of service in India, when he was taking his family and going back, he and I were sitting across the table, having tandoori chicken and all that, and I was gesturing like this, and he had a big guy, he was a big guy, took my wrists in his hands and he looked at me and said, "You will either be a biggest disaster or you will be a man God greatly uses, you make the choice," he said.

So we're sitting in Calgary, we're about to do the Calgary open forum that evening, and John Tabe looks at me and says, "I've never wanted to tell this to you, but I want to say this, do you know who sent Fred David with a Bible to your hospital room when you were 17"? I said, "No, mister Tabe, I don't". He said, "I did". I only found this out, a year or two ago. I didn't know that this Canadian gentleman cared enough and he found out I was in the hospital having attempted to take my own life and couldn't see visitors, he sent Fred to bring me the Bible, how does this happen? How does this happen? And one more thing, the verse that lead me to Christ, "Because I live, you also shall live". When my mother passed away at 57, my father said, "What verse do you want on her gravestone"? I said, "Dad, the verse I first heard from her. 'because I live, you also shall live.'" And then that time, she didn't even know what it meant but she came to know the Lord. He said, "I'll do that son, it means so much to our family".

Years go by, I'm in Delhi, I want to find my grandmother's grave. I remember I was 9 years when she died, I was not quite sure then, so I went to the registrar, Margie was with me and we're opening this big thing, and he started to look for what year she died. All in hand and ink. Comes to 55, and there it says, Agnes Monico, I said, "That's my grandmother". He said that's the number of the plot here, so Margie and I go, it's buried under some dirt, you couldn't even see the stone. So I called the gardener there, with a shovel and a bucket and I said, "Get this out. Put the dirt out for me. I'll give you something".

So he's digging and digging and digging. All of a sudden, we start to see the stone, and my wife grabs my arm and says, "Look at that". My grandmother's name, date of birth, date of death, and Jesus said, 'because I live you also shall live". It was the same verse on my grandmother's grave as it ended up being on my mother's grave. And I've already told my wife, "That's what I want on mine as well". Complete the story and finish the thread. God will show you again and again and again he cares for you, I have never doubted like the hound of heaven, he pursued me until I trusted in him, and he's not about to abandon me, now I will stay the course with him. See you all know that, okay. God bless you all. Thank you so much.
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