With the recent news of the vast extent of Ravi Zacharias’ sexual abuse of women, evangelicalism has been dealt what amounts to one of the largest, if not largest, hit against it in recent memory. As I was skimming Twitter responses, there was one prominent female minister who RZ had treated respectively and therefore had vocally supported RZ when allegations first began to came out. Upon reflecting on her memory of RZ’s funeral, she expressed her own confusion and lament. As I scanned responses, there was one response that I stuck out to me. I will not link it nor directly reproduce it word-for-word, but it said something that can be restated as follows: “RZ sins are covered by the vicarious atonement of Jesus Christ as much as my own sins. It is important to keep that in mind.”
As I read this, I feel a deep sense of ire. How can someone talk about the atonement, especially atonement for RZ, in the face of news of such evil? It stuck out to me as essentially minimizing what happened and suggested that Jesus’ death is a get-out-of-jail-free-card. As I had recently written a post on the atonement that went in the opposite direction of this person’s tweet, I decided to do a little bit of research into what RZ said about the atonement. In light of the littany of allegations against RZ are, what RZ said about the atonement is quite revealing about him as a person, even as it not that different from the standard evangelical account of the atonement. Here are a few RZ quotes from a youtube video.
Starting at the 8:13 mark:
While we all look for rich moral soil, while we all look for moral reasoning around us because that provides the soil from which nobility can sprout, the ultimate problem is really not that we are immoral. The ultimate problem is that we are spiritually dead. Jesus did not come into the world to make bad people good. He came into this world to make dead people live…
[Recount a question he asked at a forum on the problem of evil and suffering] With all the evil you see around you that troubles you, have you ever paused long enough to be trouble by the evil that is inside you? That’s where the real predicament is: the evil that is inside you. And what is the greatest provision that God has made? It is the provision that morality alone can not bring to the rescue. What God has provided is the atonement, the sacrifice, the death of Christ that brings about the possibility of redemption… the forgiveness that Jesus Christ offers is the only hope for the redemption and transformation of your heart and mine.”
When we look at this, we can see one of the classic marks that has come to define Protestant thought about salvation and justification: an antithesis between the spiritual life and forgiveness that comes with faith and the morality of works. Against this backdrop, the atonement of Jesus Christ is understood to be addressing a specific, fundamental problem: that of sin. Yet, the solution to sin is forgiveness for those sins. Salvation is ultimately taken to be grounded in forgiveness for sins and only then does the transformation of the heart come about. In other words: you get forgiven of your sin by God and then you become redeemed and transformed after that point. So, in RZ’s worldview moral evil is ultimately addressed by forgiveness. Forgiveness is the key hinge point where people can then proceed into redemption and transformation. To that end, RZ expressed the standard narrative of sanctification: first you get justified and forgiven of one’s sins and then one can proceed into moral transformation and holiness from there. So, RZ seemed to have taken moral evil seriously, pointing forward towards a moral transformation.
Additionally, he said something that is simultaneously a quite chilling account along with a : “have you ever paused long enough to be troubled by the evil that is inside you?” Beyond the veiled autobiographical description of himself is the expression of the standard evangelical doctrine of sin in an expression of total depravity: that people are by nature evil.
However, despite the moral seriousness that RZ expression. there is a particularly illustrative quote, that I repeat again to highlight, which demonstrates what reveals a deeper darkness:
And what is the greatest provision that God has made? It is the provision that morality alone can not bring to the rescue.
Note what RZ says here. He doesn’t say, “Morality along can not bring to the rescue and that God makes provision for us in that space.” He explicitly says that God’s Himself actively makes a provision: morality doesn’t bring to the rescue. Perhaps RZ misspoke, but taking him literally here suggests that God actively decided to make morality in isolation from anything else to be powerless. How utterly foreign to the Scriptures! Here is what the Psalmist confidently cries out in Psalm 34.15-18:
The eyes of the LORD are on the righteous,
and his ears are open to their cry.
The face of the LORD is against evildoers,
to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth.
When the righteous cry for help, the LORD hears,
and rescues them from all their troubles.
The LORD is near to the brokenhearted,
and saves the crushed in spirit.
Here, righteousness is the basis for God’s rescue. In the face of suffering and evil, those who are righteous receive God’s protection and salvation. Whereas RZ thinks that morality can not rescue, the Psalmist expresses a deep confidence that morality does come to the rescue.
The crux of RZ’s reasoning it this: he assumes the atonement is about forgiveness. He assumes that Jesus came into the world not to address moral evil, but to do something different that RZ labels as “making alive.” Life and righteousness are understood to be both distinct and disconnected from each other. This contrasts with the expression of the Preacher in Hebrews 10.14-18:
For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying,
“This is the covenant that I will make with them
after those days, says the Lord:
I will put my laws in their hearts,
and I will write them on their minds,”
he also adds,
“I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.”
Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.
Sanctification and forgiveness, righteousness and life are fused together in the offering of Jesus Christ. To put it simply, there is no justification apart from sanctification, there is no life without righteousness.
Furthermore, what does John express about the reason Jesus came into the world in 1 John 3.8?
Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil; for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil.
John doesn’t say Jesus came into the world to give life in such a way that distinguishes it from morality. At the very heart of John’s confession about Jesus is that the sins that the devil does and teaches his “children” to do are becoming destroyed. The sickness of sin is being cured. In the end, the cross of Jesus Christ that revealed Him as the Son of God is about the moral transformation of humanity, not simply forgiveness. It is with this transformation, with this sanctification, with this harvest of righteousness that God’s salvation and rescue come about and He abundantly provides.
What is it that Jesus Himself says about his own ministry? In John 8.31-38:
Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”
Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. I know that you are descendants of Abraham; yet you look for an opportunity to kill me, because there is no place in you for my word. I declare what I have seen in the Father’s presence; as for you, you should do what you have heard from the Father.”
Speaking to many people who ‘believed’ in Jesus (many of whom later wanted to turn around and kill Jesus), he speaks of a truth that will make people morally free. Those who continue in the Rabbi Jesus’ word will come to know the truth and become free. Not a word here about finding forgiveness that then leads to transformation and sanctification. It is the words of Jesus’ teaching that provide freedom. Once we come to the recognition that the whole of Jesus’ moral instruction points towards and expresses the attitude of Jesus’ cruciform attitude and life, we can then begin to connect the atonement to discipleship to Jesus: continuing in Jesus’ word points and guides us into participation with Jesus’ cross (and resurrection). It is through this that we come to a new transformation of life.
How far apart RZ was from Jesus and the Scriptures! But in the end, while RZ is accountable for the abuse, harm, and evil he perpetuated and will answer to God, he isn’t necessarily responsible for what he had come to believe about the atonement. He, like many others, have been raised in a theological worldview that placed rejection and punishment from God as the central problem of sin such that the cross brings us near to God. To that end, he believe in an ultimately powerless “gospel,” that simply relied upon human motivation to moral transformation after the ‘salvation’ of forgiveness.
What if, however, the central problem that the cross address is that of the practice of evil and injustice, whereas rejection and judgment from God is simply the outworking of the reality of sin in people’s lives and actions? What if God sent His Son into the world to redeem people from the power of evil, from enslavement to sin? What if the atonement wasn’t about addressing some residual guilt and memory of sin that demands some form of necessary compensation, but to change the bodies and minds of people who commit sin, to tame the powers of sin and death in the flesh so that righteousness would become abundant?
Forgiveness alone doesn’t transform. Many experiences in life demonstrate this, where forgiven people continue in their ways. If forgiveness alone would have transformed, then the cross of Jesus Christ would have been entirely unnecessary, as the Levitical system of sacrifices provided forgiveness for sin. This is not to mention the multiple instances throughout the Old Testament where God forgiveness Israel. Yet, what happened with Isreal throughout the Scriptures? Even as God forgives them for their idolatry and sins, they fell back to sin and idolatry again and again. Leviticus and the prophets do not speak of this forgiveness as hypothetical. So, even as God forgave sin, sin prevailed.
Rather, it is love that transforms. It is the demonstration of God’s powerful love in the cross of Jesus Christ that calls forth love from us. It is this new love that binds our hearts to the word of God as the source of life; it is this new love that directs our actions to live by God’s word; it is this new love that leads us to continue in Jesus’ words.
It was this love that was absent with the crowd Jesus spoke to in John 8, who ultimately sought to kill Him, even as they believed in Him. Here is Jesus’ words to them in 8.43-47:
Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot accept my word. You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. Which of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is from God hears the words of God. The reason you do not hear them is that you are not from God.”
Not that Jesus said this to people who “believed” in Him, and yet they ultimately don’t believe the way Jesus says. These people, he says are like the devil, a murderer, and a liar. Those who believed in Jesus but didn’t believe in what Jesus says sought to kill him.
So too have some evangelicals symbolically sought to kill Jesus on the cross to get their way to heaven. They overlook Jesus’ actual words on many affairs, instead choosing to lop off and ignore many things that Jesus said about righteousness, freedom, and judgment. They believe in Jesus, but they don’t really believe what He says when it comes to righteousness and judgment. Then, perhaps even more revealing when you think about it: they treat the crucifixion as the only way for them to achieve God’s righteousness, as if God is incapable of forgiveness without putting someone to death. If they were alive back in Jesus’ day, their beliefs would have dictated that they join in with the religious leaders to put Jesus to death so that they could be saved. That the only way God could even forgive them for their sins is to send an innocent man to death. Perhaps the cross was the only way to save us from our sins, but not because God needed death to forgive, but because it is only in taking up our own cross to become morally transformed that we could be free from the sin that put Jesus upon the cross.
Murderer’s at heart and liars. RZ’s own life revealed the lie of “forgiveness leading to transformation” and while he may not have murdered anyone in the strictest, most literal sense of the term, all the allegations point forward to the fact that he destroyed many bodies and souls for satisfying his unholy, insatiable lusts. This was not a man who had a moment of weaknesses in the rush of the moment, but one who had become hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. Corresponding to that, he disconnected life and righteousness, sanctification and forgiveness.
To be clear, though, believing as RZ believes does not make one like RZ. It doesn’t mean you are a murderer at heart. It means one is mistaken. One can have a heart that loves, a heart that seek God’s will and yet fall into this prevalent error. This is true for many people, and yet God in His love continues to lead them and guide them even as they don’t fully understanding the truth of God’s righteousness. Yet, this theology can be expressed and advocated in such a way that is absolutely consistent with way of life that the children of the devil live in. This theology prevents discernment between the spirit of God and the spirit of the antichrist as it is a subtle, misleading mixture of God’s love and power with falsehood that clouds people’s judgment. It is almost as if the devil has distorted the way people understand God’s word into believing a misleading ‘truth,’ just like he did to Eve, getting them to believe “you will not die!” And it is true in one sense, they don’t immediately die when they partake of this sin, but yet it is misleading because they will die and not be raised to eternal life because of their enslavement to sin. Because of the prevalence of this misleading ‘truth’, we see an American (and even Western) Christianity that is left in absolute ruins and is in need of rebuilding by the true shalom-makers who, imperfect as they are, seek to live according to Jesus’ word in all truth.