Ravi Zacharias, “Can Man Live without God?”

Ravi Zacharias is one of today’s leading Christian apologists. He lectures and has written many books, some of which are discussed elsewhere on this blogsite; I read something that mentioned this one, and thought that it might, in particular, have arguments for why, just in terms of our lives here on earth, believing is better than nonbelieving. That’s not exactly the focus of this book, but it certainly contains much bearing on this issue (for example, that without God there can be no morality and no purpose to life), and other good discussion as well. As with his other work, I’m not bowled over by him here; but this book, also like his others, is still worth reading.


The logical place to begin the discussion of any book is with its scope and organization, and for this book I seem to have collected more than the usual amount of material in this regard. Some opening notes: The book is based on a series of lectures, two at Harvard and one at Ohio State (xvi). There are endnotes but no index. And I want to flag early on here that, throughout the book, the author uses the term “antitheistic” (distinct from “atheistic”). Thus, he writes (xvi), “I hope I have shown the many logical and social breaking points of antitheistic thinking, which is just too incoherent to be true and as a system of thought is incapable of dealing with the intellectual and existential rigor that life places before us.”

Charles Colson has written a brief but strong foreword, which concludes (x, emphasis in original):

It has always frustrated me that many Christians shy away from intellectual arguments. Many deem an intellectual defense unspiritual — as though all that matters is our religious experience, as though arguing on intellectual grounds weakens our faith.

But anti-intellectualism is not more spiritual. The Bible explicitly commands us to take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. If we fail, we will find it increasingly difficult to present the gospel, and we will lose our influence in the culture.

What is needed is for lay Christians to be equipped with the kind of logic and analysis you will find in these pages. Then we need to sit down with our secular neighbors to defend the truth and the historicity of the Christian faith.

I hope you will not read this book lightly and lay it aside. Study it. Become conversant with its arguments, and use what you learn here to advance the cause of truth with your neighbors.

The culture in which we live is nearly lost. But often at the darkest moments, God raises up people — indeed prophets — to speak to our age. Ravi Zacharias is just such a man for these times. I hope and pray he will equip you for the good faith that we wage.

In the introduction, the author offers his own roadmap to the book:

I have positioned the material in three major sections, each one logically flowing from the preceding one. The first section [“Antitheism Is Alive — and Deadly”] analyzes the antitheistic worldview, demonstrating both its built-in logical contradictions and its existential inadequacies that ultimately make it philosophically unlivable. The antitheist often makes an issue of what he calls the “imposition” that theists enjoin upon society by their explicit assumption that there is such a thing as a transcultural ethic. In making this charge, the antitheist draws more theistic blood by the reminder of the untold havoc, as he sees it, that religion has wrought upon civilization. All this is done, supposedly, to contend for the tolerance and solace granted by a worldview that denies the transcendent and is neutral as to absolutes. Conveniently forgotten by those antagonistic to spiritual issues are the far more devastating consequences that have entailed when antitheism is wedded to political theory and social engineering. There is nothing in history to match the dire ends to which humanity can be led by following a political and social philosophy that consciously and absolutely excludes God. The ramifications are pervasive for society as a whole and life-altering for each individual. ….

The end of the first section leads to the logical conclusion that a philosophy of meaninglessness is an unavoidable consequence of the antitheistic starting point. This is readily admitted by the antitheist, but it is cavalierly espoused by them as liberating. Can this really be so? …. Thus, the second discussion [“What Gives Life Meaning?”] defends the certainty of the longing for meaning and provides some cogent answers in that search. [The last paragraph of the first chapter in this second section reads (73): “For our purposes, let us divide life into four stages — childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, and maturity — and in that context demonstrate and explore how, at each stage, meaning is pursued, attained, and sometimes lost.” The first two sentences of the penultimate chapter in that section read: “I have so far presented two essential components for meaning — the pursuit of wonder and the knowledge of truth — and suggested that they are both fulfilled in a person. I now suggest that the third component essential for meaning is love.” And then the first sentence of the final chapter in this section reads (113): “We have come to the final factor necessary for bringing meaning to life — security.” Finally, a couple of pages later (115): “… I remind you of the four essential components to meaning in life — wonder, truth, love, and security. When one claims to have found meaning, that meaning must coalesce these four elements. And all four are found in the person of Jesus Christ, who alone brings life meaning by meeting the test at every age of life. Not one of those tests provides the answer in isolation. But taken together they make perfect sense.”]

Intrinsic to those answers, and to all others offered by Christian theism, is the centrality of the person of Jesus Christ and of who He claimed to be. His answers to life’s deepest questions are presented, not only as relevant for our time, but as compellingly unique, both in detail and in extent. To the implications of His life and message the most obvious question surfaces — how do we know Jesus Christ to be the truth as He defined life’s essence and destiny? …. It is to the gnawing question of the tenability of the Christian message that the third section of the book [“Who Is Jesus (and Why Does It Matter?)?”] addresses itself. This is, without a doubt, the most important portion of the book and must be studied in its entirety, and with care. [The bridge paragraph between the last two chapters of the book reads (167): “To tell us to die with nobility when there is no hope beyond the grave is farcical at best. All of [Princeton philosophy professor Walter] Kaufmann’s philosophizing on this matter is an attempt to smother that irrepressible longing, the longing for life beyond the grave, which, in his scheme of things, is neither explained nor satisfied. Contrast this with the fact of Christ’s resurrection, which both justifies this longing and satisfies with fulfillment. In reality, when one denies the possibility of life beyond the grave — when one tries to live without God — the greatest problem for the skeptic still remains, the problem of life’s suffering. It is to answer that question now in a broader context that I turn to Jesus’ teaching on the nature of suffering.”]

Following these three essential themes that respond to the question “Can man live without God?”, Appendix A includes the questions [and answers then given] that were raised at Harvard following this presentation. These challenges well represent those most frequently posed in this context. [Appendix A (190-94) concludes with a summary (nothing mind-boggling, in my estimation) of apologetic arguments by Norman Geisler and Dallas Willard.]

The final section, Appendix B [“Mentors to the Skeptic”], is a brief thumbnail sketch of the “personal side” of some of the leading thinkers who have shaped the modern mind-set, both popular and academic [namely Rene Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Soren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell, and Jean-Paul Sartre] …. I have also endeavored to engage the heart of their antitheistic arguments and have presented what are clearly self-stultifying fallacies implicit in their philosophies. ….

The author concludes the introduction by declaring that God’s “existence or nonexistence is essential to defining everything else” (xix).


Having described the scope and organization of the book, now let me share some noteworthy passages in it.

Early on (14), the author writes:

This leads to my summation on the three-level theory of philosophy — logic, the arts, and table talk. If one is to come to a correct conclusion when debating any issue I propose we must abide by a rule, and that is this: Argue at level one, illustrate at level two, and apply at level three. The reasoning process provides the foundation, the arts the infrastructure and illustration, and the kitchen table the superstructure and application. If this process is rearranged, meaningful debate is precluded, and there is no point of reference for truth.

What I hope to do as we deal with the question of God’s existence is to initiate the discussion from the common ground of the second level — where we all feel, and live, and act — to arrive at a place of agreement on the intellectual and existential struggle we all confront. Before we end, however, we will return to the first level and establish why the message of Jesus Christ operates on sound reasoning and why His message provides a solution to the questions and agonies of our time. Then we can bring authority to our table discussions when dealing with life’s ultimate dimensions.

I thought this was useful (46, emphasis in original):

The skeptic generally presents four options that God could have exercised in creation (if, in fact, He does exist): first, to create no world at all; second, to create a world in which there are no such categories as good and evil – an amoral world; third, to create a world in which one could only choose good – a kind of robotic world; fourth, to create the world the world as we know it, with the possibility of both good and evil. Why, the skeptic also, would God choose this model, knowing that evil would ensue?

I was intrigued by this (53): “Pascal knew whereof he spoke when he said that he had learned to define life backwards and live it forwards. By that he meant that he first defined death and then his life accordingly. That makes complete sense. All journeys are planned with the destination in view.”

On page 85, the author sums up one discussion with this wonderful quote from Christopher Morley: “I went to the theatre with the author of a successful play. He insisted on explaining everything. He told me what to watch, the details of the direction, the errors of the property man, the foibles of the star. He anticipated all of my surprises and ruined the evening. Never again! And mark you, the greatest author of all made no such mistake.” There follows then a discussion of why we need wonder.

All six points here regarding the Resurrection are good (162-63, introduced by, “When an honest reader looks at the affirmations that are made and the substantiations that are provided, the following deductions ensue”), but especially number 5:

  1. Jesus Christ Himself talked of His resurrection on repeated occasions. Both His enemies and His followers were told to expect it. Those who sought to smother His teaching took elaborate steps to counter the possibility of His claim, including the placement of a Roman guard at the door to the tomb.
  2. Although His supporters basically understood His promise to rise from the dead and had even witnessed His raising of Lazarus, they did not really believe that He meant it literally until after the fact. Therefore, they could not be accused of creating the scenario for this deception.
  3. It was the post-resurrection appearance that made the ultimate difference to the skeptical mind of Thomas and the resistant will of Paul.
  4. The transformation of the disciples from a terrified bunch of individuals who felt themselves betrayed into a fearless group ready to proclaim the message to Rome and to the rest of the world cannot be explained with a mere shrug of the shoulder.
  5. Had the Roman authorities wanted to eradicate Jesus’ teaching once and for all, they would have only needed to present His dead body—–but they could not. There is something often missed here. If the disciples were fabricators of an ideal, they could have merely posited a spiritual resurrection, which could have been done even with the presence of a dead body. Instead, they went the hard way, by talking of the resurrection of the actual physical body, which, if not true, was an enormous risk to take should the body have ever been detected. No, they believed in a literal resurrection because they had witnessed it. This is a very telling piece of evidence in light of the fact that Rome, itself, once diametrically opposed to the gospel, was later won over to Jesus’ message. The religious leaders wanted nothing more than they wanted to stifle Christianity. And in fact, Jesus’ own brother James was not a believer until after the resurrection.
  6. One other very interesting factor to bring to our attention is from non-Christian sources. Even the Koran, which is hardly in favor of the Christian message, attests to Jesus’ virgin birth and credits Him with the unique power to raise the dead, a most interesting notation often forgotten by the Muslims themselves.

After this list, the author concludes (163): “In summary, it was Jesus’ victory over the grave that provided the grand impetus for the early church to tell the world that God had spoken and, indeed, had done so in a dramatic and incontrovertible manner. All this transpired in history and is open to the historian’s scrutiny.”

I liked this from one of the appendices (192, quoting Professor Dallas Willard): “And we must at least point out that an eternally self-subsistent being is no more improbable than a self-subsisted event emerging from no cause. As C.S. Lewis pointed out, ‘An egg which came from no bird is no more natural than a bird which had existed from all eternity'” (cite omitted).

The main text of the book closes (179) with this wonderful quote from G.K. Chesterton:

Our civilization has decided, and very justly decided, that determining the guilt or innocence of men is a thing too important to be trusted to trained men. It wishes for light upon that awful matter, it asks men who know no more law than I know, but who can feel the things that I felt in the jury box. When it wants a library catalogued, or the solar system discovered, or any trifle of that kind it uses up its specialists. But when it wishes anything done which is really serious, it collects twelve of the ordinary men standing round. The same thing was done, if I remember right, by the Founder of Christianity.


Some odds and ends:

  • Here’s one general observation that the author makes on apologetics (189): “The first step is to demonstrate that God exists. The second is to defend the Christian message as the system that best explains who this God is.”
  • The author spends a lot of time criticizing Soren Kierkegaard, which is a bit odd. The first time Kierkegaard is mentioned (39), it’s not pointed out he was a Christian. Amusingly, in a discussion having nothing to do with Kierkegaard (83), the author uses the phrase “unscientific postscript” (part of the title of one of Kierkegaard’s books).
  • The author notes that Mortimer Adler was a late convert to Catholicism, which I didn’t know (148-49). There’s an anecdote involving the conservative history professor Wilfred McClay (46-47).
  • After reading the first sentence of chapter 14 (“The second defense of Christ’s teachings is that He alone answers the determined philosophical quest for unity in diversity.”), I steeled myself for a dose of political correctness, but my fears were exaggerated.
  • Here’s an odd thing I’ll end with (I promised “odds and ends,” right?): Neither the book itself nor the Library of Congress information in the book has a question mark in the title. Is that just an error or is the author trying to make a point about the obstinacy of antitheists? In the introduction, by the way, the author calls the titular query “the greatest question of our time” (xvi).