Ravi Zacharias routinely defends the faith in leading universities (Harvard, Oxford, et al.), proving his stature as one of the world’s finest popular apologists. He listens intently to modernity’s questions and seeks to answer them with reason and evidence. He responds to the positions of Darwin, Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche, recognizing them as the true sources of modern belief. His books, targeting a general readers, filled with quotations and illustrations, provide sustenance for believers and merit study.
His first work, A Shattered Visage: The Real Face of Atheism (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, c. 1990), focuses on two themes: “Man–The Measure of All Things” and “God–The Treasure of Life’s Pursuits.” When Man supplanted God, when Man became “the measure of all things,” when atheism replaced theism, the trajectory of the 20th century was set. In Nietzsche, clearly a “hinge between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries” (p. 18), these currents swirled together. Zacharias finds Nietzsche’s visage hovering over modernity. Nietzschean thought profoundly shaped intellectuals such as George Bernard Shaw and W.B. Yeats, Freud and Jung, as well as dictators such as Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini. Rejecting the Christian faith, Nietzsche sought to live out as well as propound the implications of atheism. Consequently, as Malcolm Muggeridge succinctly said, “‘If God is dead, somebody is going to have to take his place. It will be megalomania or erotomania, the drive for power or the drive for pleasure, the clenched fist or the phallus, Hitler or Hugh Heffner'” (p. 25).
Along with Nietzsche, Darwin has helped shape our century. Atheists needing an explanation for the existence and shape of the cosmos have found in “natural selection” a handy shoehorn with which to imposoe their worldview. As Jacques Monod, an adamant advocate, insists: “‘Pure chance, absolutely free but blind, is at the very root of the stupendous edifice of evolution'” (p. 41). Zacharias, however, draws upon work by scientists such as Stephen Jay Gould and Fred Hoyle to show how first-rate scientists find orthodox Darwinism difficult to accept simply because of accumulating data. How things come to be (the scientific question) seems increasingly mysterious; why things are (the metaphysical question) defies simplistic “natural” explanations.
Importantly, Zacharias leads us to sophisticated Christian scientists such as John Polkinghorne, a highly-acclaimed English physicist who “does a masterful job of refuting those who think science has done away with a theistic world” (p. 42). While happily accepting data derived from scientific work, Polkinhorne insists scientists refrain from unwarranted metaphysical speculations. In a seminar at Cambridge University, Polkinghorne noted “the built-in factors within this universe, with particular reference to Quantum Theory,” and “said, with a grin, ‘There is no free lunch. Somebody has to pay, and only God has the resources to put in what was needed to get what we’ve got'” (p. 44). Nothing comes from nothing! When atheists insist there’s no God, they effectively eliminate the only real reason for the existence of anything.
Without God, nothing is forbidden. Following Jean Paul Sartre’s atheistic existentialism, as Simone de Beauvoir said, “It is forbidden to forbid'” (p. 57). Without God, of course, human beings have no Divine Law which regulates behavior. As Nietzsche declared: “‘When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet'” (p. 49). In Zacharias’s judgment, “Hitler took Nietzsche’s logic and drove the atheistic world view to its legitimate conclusion. In Auschwitz the words of Hitler are clearly stated: ‘I freed Germany from the stupid and degrading fallacies of conscience and morality . . . we will train young people before whom the world will tremble. I want young people capable of violence–imperious, relentless and cruel'” (p. 59).
Whether considering Hitler or Nietzsche, Pol Pot or Sartre, Zacharias seeks to show how ideas underlie actions. Ideas have consequences. And the militant atheism of our century has led, as Nietzsche predicted, to violence and despair. A century-long experiment has been conducted, and the data accumulates like a wailing wall. Atheism’s visage is truly shattered! Only God can in fact help us where we most need it.
Thus, in the book’s second section, “God–The Treasure of Life’s Pursuits,” Zacharias presents a Christian response to the issues atheism raises. He mainly emphasizes the need for Truth! “Nothing is as important as the truth, and no knowledge so dangerous as a lie” (p. 111). It makes sense, he argues, to credit God with creating the cosmos. It makes sense to refer our moral sense to a Moral Source. It makes sense to listen carefully to witnesses such as Konrad Adenauer, Malcolm Muggeridge and Eric Liddell, men who certainly “succeeded” in the world but who found “meaning” only in Christ.
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Zacharias’ second work, Can Man Live Without God? (Dallas: Word, c. 1994) amplifies the first. He deals first with “antitheism,” then discusses “what gives life meaning” and, finally, “who is Jesus?” This volume has a foreword by Chuck Colson, who encouraged Zacharias to turn his presentation at Harvard, “The Veritas Series,” into this book. “I believe,” Colson says, “it is one of the most critical that could be written in our time” (p. ix). We must wake up to the fact that we’re in a great cultural struggle; it’s a war of ideas.
Without many of us noticing, our nation has been radically changed by committed enemies of truth and righteousness. Their success stands revealed insofar as a majority of Americans discount the reality of truth or moral absolutes. “This confusion over truth,” Colson insists, “is the fundamental crisis of our age” (p. ix). Malcolm Muggeridge lamented that, in his lifetime, “The quest for justice continues, and the weapons and the hatred pile up; but truth was an early casualty'” (p. 96). Lies were told in the midst of fighting wars, signing treaties, filming advertisements, publishing papers, and lecturing in universities! “‘It is truth that has died, not God'” he said (p. 96).
What’s happened, Zacharias says, results from a successful takeover of “the intellectual strongholds, our universities,” from which have come incessant attacks upon reality of God, “so that God was no longer a plausible entity in scholastic settings.” Much of this was done to philosophically eliminate “anything that smacked of moral restraint” (p. xiv). Thus we have publicity-hungry humanitarians such as Ted Turner declaiming that “‘people of this age shouldn’t be told to do anything'” (p.136). Anything goes.
Consequently, “Antitheism Is Alive–And Deadly.” Its presence can be easily discerned in the songs young folks sing. Zacharias often cites popular music, reminding us of the truth of Andrew Fletcher’s observation: “Give me the making of the songs of a nation, and I care not who writes its laws” (p. 3). Much “rock” and “rap” resound with meaninglessness and despair, violence and suicide. The nihilism of much modern music testifies to our culture’s loss of faith. It’s equally evident in the learned treatises our intellectuals draft. Thus an influential biologist, Stephen Jay Gould, declares that human beings have only inhabited planet earth for 250,000 years, a slender splinter of time. “‘The world fared perfectly well without us for all but the last moment of earthly time–and this fact makes our appearance look more like an accidental afterthought than the culmination of a prefigured plan'” (p. 55). The lyrics of bands like Nirvana may be more shocking, but the message is the same: nothing much matters, especially human beings.
Such should concern us if we ponder the words of Viktor Frankl, who survived Auschwitz to write: “‘If we present man with a concept of man which is not true, we may well corrupt him. When we present him as an automaton of reflexes, as a mind machine, as a bundle of instincts, as a pawn of drive and reactions, as a mere product of heredity and environment, we feed the nihilism to which modern man is, in any case, prone. I became acquainted with the last stage of corruption in my second concentration camp, Auschwitz. The gas chambers of Auschwitz were the ultimate consequence of the theory that man is nothing but the product of heredity and environment–or, as the Nazis like to say, ‘”of blood and soil.” I am absolutely convinced that the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Maidanek were ultimately prepared not in some ministry or other in Berlin, but rather at the desks and in lecture halls of nihilistic scientists and philosophers'” (p. 25).
Frankl, of course, eloquently articulated a philosophy of meaning labeled logotherapy. Life lived for others, life lived for God, gives purpose and direction for us, even in the most trying of situations. As Zacharias ponders the question, “What Gives Life Meaning,” he finds rich resources to guide his readers. Poets and philosophers, scientists and seers, have explored the depths of reality and give us hints as to how we can share their discoveries. Ultimately they lead us to God and His Son, Jesus Christ. In the book’s “Introduction,” we’re treated to this anecdote: “Television talk-show host Larry King made a very perceptive comment when he was asked who he would most like to have interviewed from across history. One of those he named was Jesus Christ. ‘What would you have asked Him?’ came the rejoinder to Mr. King. ‘I would like to ask Him if He was indeed virgin born, because the answer to that question would define history.’ As trite as it may sound on the surface, Larry King was absolutely right in identifying the hinge upon which all history turns” (p. xviii).
The book includes two appendices. The first prints the questions and answers taken from the Veritas lectures at Harvard University which help us understand the kinds of questions the world is asking as well as showing Zacharias’s skill in responding. The second provides short studies of the “mentors to the skeptics” who have largely shaped modernity: Rene Descartes; David Hume; Immanuel Kant; Soren Kierkegaard; Friederich Nietzsche; Bertrand Russell; Jean-Paul Sartre. Zacharias’s discussion provides helpful information, but they also show he has thoroughly read and mastered the real sources and knows whereof he speaks.
The third work of Zacharias is Deliver Us from Evil: Restoring the Soul in a Disintegrating Culture (Dallas: Word, c. 1996), and it deals with “the moods of the present,” “the voices of the past,” and “the face of the future.” On the volume’s flyleaf he enunciates his theme:
“The ideas that shaped our culture were great and worthy. The principal goal was to reconcile liberty with law. But in the last century our culture has undergone incredible changes and challenged the ideas that once shaped and guided us. The result has been the collapse of law, the eradication of the spirit, and the unleashing of evil.
“The response of the Christian calling for a return to morality is a scream in the dark, because morality has no self-sustaining light. It is a vacuous term left at the mercy of our passions.
“Only in the defense and authority of the Word can morality be anchored, evil understood, and the soul restored.”
We are, at the present, engaged in a monumental conflict. The fate of Western Civilization dangles by a slender thread. In the 1960’s, “a self-mutilating cultural upheaval burst upon the American scene that cut to the very core of the nation’s soul” (p. 7), and the counter-cultural radicals of that era have moved into positions of influence in universities, bureaucracies, courts, and even the White House. Re-shaping society, re-designing the American character, has become the political project of aging Marxists, existentialists, flower-power hippies, post-modernists, et al.
With unusual prescience, Norman Mailer discerned the emergence of “a new kind of man” in the 1960’s. Summing up Mailer’s essay, Myron Magnet writes, this new man “was the hipster, who knew from the atom bomb and the Nazi concentration camps that societies and states were murderers, and that under the shadow of mass annihilation one should learn . . . to give up ‘the sophisticated inhibitions of civilization,’ to live in the moment, to follow the body and not the mind, ‘to divorce oneself from society,’ and ‘to follow the rebellious imperative of the self,’ to forget ‘the single mate, the solid family, and the respectable love life,’ to choose a life of ‘Saturday night kicks,’ especially orgasm and marijuana. For 1957, this was prophetic. It contained in a nutshell much of the self-liberation part of the cultural program of the sixties'” (p. 10).
Contributing to this program, indeed often leading the parade, were “Christian” clergymen who betrayed their faith to conform to the “hipster” culture. A Canadian historian, Paul Marshall, has carefully documented this development in his country, noting that clergy betrayed their sacred trust, mainly by discarding Scripture as the inspired Word of God. The older orthodoxy seemed old-fashioned, rather like well-worn work shoes, embarrassing to wear in stylish faculty lounges. Peter Berger, an American sociologist, adds to Marshall’s indictment. Protestantism’s ship was torpedoed by “historical criticism,” and without a trustworthy Book sank like the Maine. Decade by decade “conservatives” politely protested, but the liberals grabbed power in seminaries and bureaucracies, so “mainline” churches slowly lost their vitality. Today the liberals are getting shoved aside by radicals, determined to use institutions as tools of social change.
Shakespeare’s lines–Ulysses speaking in Troilus and Cressida–clearly here apply:
Take but degree away, untune that string, And hark what discord follows! Each thing meets In mere oppugnancy. The bounded waters Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores And make a sop of all this solid globe; Strength should be lord of imbecility, And the rude son should strike his father dead; Force should be right; or rather, right and wrong (Between whose endless jar justice resides) Should lose their names, and so should justice too. Then everything includes itself in power, Power into will, will into appetite; And appetite, an universal wolf, So doubly seconded with will and power, Must make perforce an universal prey, And last eat up himself. (3,3, 120ff)
Power fills the vacuum vacated by truth. The Nietzschean project–transvaluing all values–discarding all truths, prevails. Postmodernism, with its denial of truth, its repudiation of all absolutes, openly acclaims power as the only item of significance. Rather than “truth,” postmodernists crave feeling, passion, position, power. “This surrender of truth is the hallmark of our culture’s greatest crisis and makes the culture war so deadly, restricting meaningful dialogue on questions of the soul” (p. 211).
To respond to the modern mood, Zacharias urges us to regain a foothold in the truths of history. With Luther we must discover that, as Luther said, “history is the mother of truth.” To understand history from God’s perspective, to see it as His Story, sets us securely in Revelation. Thus understood, history becomes “the arena in which God unfolds His truth, with the hearts of men and women as the locus in which He attempts His work” (p. 125). Carefully reading the Bible unveils the truth about the human story, especially the repeated truth, so evident in the kings of Israel such as Manassah, that “It is possible for one person to lead millions of people into untold evil” (p. 137). Secondly, this is possible “only because the nation has ceased to think clearly” (p. 139). Finally, Zacharias insists, “The greatest lesson is that the ultimate test of any civilization is what we do with our children” (p. 140).
During the 20th century, multiplied millions of children have suffered and died in horrendous ways. “What are we doing to our children when we tell them there are no moral boundaries? When we ridicule sacred things? When we leave them vulnerable to any philosophy that comes around? When we walk out on marital commitments and leave them defenseless in a predatorial world? What have we done? We have sacrificed them as we have gambled away the sacred and left them to be vandalized by the evil that is present at every stage of life” (p. 143).
History also tells us of the good influence of kings such as Josiah. Under his guidance, law and order, righteousness and blessing, was restored. So we must never despair, however evil things seem to be. God, working through obedient men, can transform the world. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wondered, “‘Who stands fast? Only the man whose final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all this when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and exclusive allegiance to God–the responsible man, who tries to make his whole life an answer to the question and call of God. Where are these responsible people?'” (p. 184.).
Where were they in the 1940’s in Germany? Some were there, but not enough of them! Where are the responsible ones in America in the 1990’s in America? Who cares for truth? Who risks anything to uphold the fully inspired Word of God? Who seeks to save the souls of lost men and women in this land? To Zacharias, these are the gripping questions we must address if we’re true to the faith.