Sinning in the Name of Christ: Ravi Zacharias, Paul Tillich, and the Skeletons under the Altar

Christian Apologist Ravi Zacharias (1946–2020) and Liberal Theologian Paul Tillich (1886–1965) share several things in common:

  • Both men were considered premier Christian apologists.
  • Both men rose to fame later in life.
  • And both men used a superior position to prey upon women.

Allegations against Zacharias first came to public attention in 2017, when Lori Anne Thompson claimed Zacharias pursued her for phone sex and sexuality explicit photos. RZIM (Ravi Zacharias International Ministries) countersued Thompson for defamation of character. Zacharias wrote to Christianity Today defending himself stating, “in my 45 years of marriage to Margie, I have never engaged in any inappropriate behavior of any kind. I love my wife with all my heart . . . and have exercised extreme caution in my daily life and travels, as everyone who knows me is aware.” Zacharias attempted to shame Thompson by noting her attack on a sick man battling cancer.

Evidence for Ravi Zacharias’s abuse came as a shock to many in the past year, when RZIM (once considered the largest apologetic ministry in the world) launched a full-scale investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct of its founder in February 2020. RZIM published a twelve-page report revealing that Ravi Zacharias had received sexual favors from over 200 massage therapists, that he kept several hundred nude photos of women on his phones, and that he had received sexual photos, texts of a sexual nature, and sexual favors up until a few months before his death.

Perhaps the most astounding part of this investigation is the extent to which RZIM and Zacharias went to coverup and rationalize his own sin. In 2018, one woman reported to Christianity Today that he “made her pray with him to thank God for the ‘opportunity’ they both received.” Multiple victims reported that he called them his “‘reward’ for living a life of service to God.”

As of February 2021, RZIM CEO Sarah Davis (Ravi Zacharias’s daughter) said that RZIM would be severing ties with Ravi Zacharias and his writings and would reconsider the abusive structures which led RZIM to cover up Zacharias’s sin. Davis notes that RZIM will no longer continue to be a ministry of apologetics, stating, “RZIM cannot and should not continue to operate as an organization in its present form. Nor do we believe we can only rename the organization and move forward with ‘business as usual.'”

Davis’s canceling Zacharias’s works is similar to Paul Tillich’s own existential dread; Paul Tillich feared that if the sexual exploits of his private life were ever uncovered, his works would no longer be read.

In order to preempt any future ‘discovery’ of his sin by the public, Tillich blessed Wilhelm and Marion Pauck to write his biography and to tell the truth of his life. Just prior to his own death, Tillich expressed to Pauck his gratitude, “I am in safe hands.”

Pauck’s Paul Tillich: His Life and Thought published much of the private life of Paul Tillich posthumously. The book reads like a ‘tell-all’ of Tillich’s personal sin: plagiarism, a love triangle, divorce, his second marriage (an open relationship), and preying on his female students. Speaking of Tillich’s ‘unconventional’ sexual ethic toward women, Pauck writes, “he openly admired women—all women. It made no difference whether it was a waitress in a French restaurant or a student in the classroom, the wife of a colleague, or a sophisticated worldling who conducted a salon.” Pauck concludes, “[Tillich] urged them to remain open, even as he was, to the infinite experiences of life.”

The details of Tillich’s second marriage are grim. Already engaged when they met, Tillich’s future second wife, Hannah Werner, was ten years his junior. Tillich attempted convinced Werner to leave her fiancé and become romantically involved with him. Since Tillich was still married (his divorce not yet finalized), Werner rejected Tillich’s advancements and married her then fiancé. She continued a secret romantic entanglement with Tillich into marriage. But Tillich wasn’t satisfied as Werner’s cuckold; he pursued Werner even after the birth of her first child. Tillich’s advances charmed her. After giving birth, Werner abandoned her husband and child for Tillich, leaving her infant in a nursing home. Pauck reports that the child died from neglect shortly after.

As Tillich’s close friend and confidant Pauck concludes, “Tillich entered each friendship with a special anxiety of which he was never altogether free. Those who knew of his fatal weakness [speaking of his serial adultery], accepted him as he was. . . . His overriding fear was that his story might one day be made public and bring ruin upon his work, if it were misrepresented and misunderstood. . . . He sought to assuage his feelings of guilt by a rule which he developed over the years: it did not matter so much what happened between two people so long as agape was not absent from the relationship.” Unlike Zacharias, Tillich didn’t want his leave his sin to be uncovered by an investigative report.

Since they both leveraged their fame and authority to exploit women, what are we to make of these premier Christian apologists? I offer two thoughts on the matter.

First, there is one seminal difference between Zacharias and Tillich. Zacharias openly condemned sexual exploitation as sinful. Paul Tillich never viewed preying on female students as wrong, just ‘unconventional.’ While Zacharias’s approach to his own sin is hypocritical, his message remains true: sin is wrong and salvation is found in Christ alone. RZIM recognizes this by setting up call centers for Zacharias’s victims.

The same cannot be said for Paul Tillich. Although one might find it admirable that Tillich sought transparency (albeit posthumously), their is no measure of repentance in his legacy. Tillich’s biographers, the keepers of his secret sins, conclude that he was a “genius of friendship” and a “premier theologian.” They dismiss Tillich’s plagiarism, predatory practices, and familial neglect as the burden of his genius. “He clung to his new way of life, for he had convinced himself that his work suffered when he was deprived of the experience of the erotic.” Paul Tillich’s approach to ethics undermined his own teaching—his ethic enslaved his conscience to the anxiety of exposure, but never moved him to repent or express such behavior as wrong.

Second, both men sinned in the name of Christ. Both men committed blasphemy. Blasphemy is a horrendous sin because of its vertical and horizontal impact on the kingdom of God. Vertically it ascribes sin to the Divine. When the life of a Christian leader blasphemes the name of God, they lie about the character of God. But the One God who is Father of all women does not offer his daughters as tribute to glorified predators. Horizontally it defames the name of God across the world. Blasphemy impedes men and women from coming to the cross as they view its power on the Christian renowned as ineffective at best and perverse at worst.

How ought we respond?

The common clay from which all men are formed unites us to Tillich and Zacharias. “So, let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man” (1 Cor 10:12–13a). The sins of Tillich and Zacharias are monstrous but not exceptional. Everyone who takes up the mantle of Christian apologist, theologian, pastor, or leader, must observe more carefully not only what they teach but how they live. The Bible expresses the call of every Christian to “be holy as God is holy” (1 Pet 1:16).

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