Norman Geisler, who died July 1 at the age of 86, started having an impact on my life long before I got to know him.
I was a freshman at the University of Georgia in 1976, and, in quick succession during the first weeks of my college life, a Jehovah’s Witness and a Baha’i (a follower of the 19th century prophet Bahá’u’lláh) knocked on my dorm room door. I came to college to learn, so I listened to them. Then I shared with them my own Christian faith. Though I had been raised in a solid, Bible-believing evangelical church, I discovered quickly I had much to learn. These two cultists asked tough questions about Jesus and the Bible – questions I couldn’t answer.
That experience created a crisis of faith for me. I quickly came to the conclusion that I either needed good answers to these questions, or I needed to stop saying I was a Christian. So first I went in search of answers. In God’s good providence, Josh McDowell came to Athens, Georgia just as I was wrestling with these questions. His book Evidence That Demands a Verdict had been published a few years before, and every night for a week and all day on Saturday he spoke on some aspects of Christian apologetics. I did not miss a session.
Then I got a copy of his book and devoured it as well. When the Jehovah’s Witness and the Baha’i fellows came back, I had answers to their tough questions. But I often think what might have happened to me, and ultimately to my family, if those good answers were not readily available? What might have become of my faith, and my life?
So, what does all this have to do with Norman Geisler? I discovered something interesting as I read Josh McDowell’s meticulously footnoted book. A lot of the footnotes referenced books by Norman Geisler. That was the day I learned something vital about Norman Geisler: He was not merely a teacher, as noble a vocation as that is, he was intentionally a teacher of teachers. Josh McDowell was just one of thousands of people he taught over the years, many of whom – including Josh McDowell and Ravi Zacharias and Frank Turek and … well this could go on for a very long time – became noted apologists themselves.
One way he taught these men was to co-author books with them. Geisler was prolific in his own right, but as a co-author he was a phenomenon. Altogether, he was author, co-author, or editor of 127 books, including a book on transhumanism due out next year. His book The Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics was named by Christianity Today among the top religion reference books by living theologians in 2002. Many of his co-authors – including Zacharias and Turek — will tell you that writing a book with Norman Geisler was a master class in itself. It was also an act of great generosity. Having your name on a book with Norman Geisler was a great boost to many a young theologian’s and apologist’s career.
A couple of years later, I learned something else about Norman Geisler. He was a fighter. Over the years, he developed a nickname, “Stormin’ Norman.” Those who knew and loved him used the nickname with a smile, but often a knowing smile, with a recollection of some spirited conversation we might have had with him about some point of doctrine. Speaking at Geisler’s funeral, Ravi Zacharias noted this quality in him when he noted that Geisler’s full name is Norman Leo Geisler. “He was appropriately named,” Zacharias said. “For he was a lion.”
My first exposure to this quality came just a couple of years after I learned who he was via Josh McDowell. In 1978, the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy went public, after several years of writing and re-writing – much of it done by Norman Geisler. I was still in college at the time, but the issue of biblical inerrancy was much in the air then. Why is it important to affirm the inerrancy of Scripture? What, precisely, did the phrase even mean? The Chicago Statement provided badly needed clarity to a vital issue. In doing so, it created some controversy. But it also provided a place to stand and clarity of language for many faithful Christians who were fighting battles in their own denominations.
Dr. Richard Land, who is now president of Southern Evangelical Seminary, one of many organizations Geisler founded or co-founded, summarized this ability of Geisler to clarify and summarize in ways that were not reductionist: “For us, Dr. Geisler’s latest defense of the faith was like a long drink of cold water in the midst of what was too often an arid and sterile theological landscape,” Land wrote. “Dr. Geisler has been the ‘go to’ authority for more than two generations of evangelical seminary students who were looking for a bold, erudite, and uncompromisingly faithful defense of the inerrant, infallible Word of God and the historical doctrines of the Christian faith.”
But Geisler was more than a teacher and a fighter. He also had the heart of an evangelist. Geisler often told the story of sharing his faith as a young man on the streets of Detroit. Geisler had an experience similar to my own experience with the Jehovah’s Witness and the Baha’i, except Geisler’s inquisitor was a drunk who claimed to be a Bible college graduate. This drunk asked Geisler questions he couldn’t answer, and that journey set him off in search of answers, too.
Those early experiences with street evangelism, and that experience a drunk on the streets of Detroit, gave birth to another side of “Stormin’ Norman” Geisler. He was Leo the Lion, but he was also a great lover of people. Norman Geisler understood that the goal of Christian apologetics was not to win arguments, but to win people.
Until this minute, as I’m writing this, I did not put much thought into the fact that many of the times I met with Geisler were over a meal. The first time I ever met him was at a Chinese restaurant. We sometimes met at a Mexican restaurant near SES. We often got into spirited conversations about ideas, and we sometimes disagreed. Norman Geisler could use bullet-proof logic to tear a straw man or a bad idea limb-from-limb. But he always attacked the idea, not the person bringing it.
I served for a short time on the board of Southern Evangelical Seminary. As a board member I signed – gladly, willingly — the seminary’s statement of faith. However, at the time I was being presented to the board for a vote, I was a member of the Presbyterian Church in America, a theologically conservative denomination that some would characterize as “Calvinist” in its theology. Geisler sometimes called himself a “moderate Calvinist.” Once, I heard him (humorously) describe himself as a “three-and-a-half-point Calvinist.”
So, when the time came for a vote, and even though I had already signed the seminary’s statement of faith, Geisler questioned me – in front of the other members of the board – about some of the finer points of theology. In the end, he was satisfied with my answers. His vote made my selection to the board unanimous. But after the meeting, he left the room and came back a few minutes later. He was holding a massive book. It was Volume Four of his own four-volume “Systematic Theology.” He gave it to me and said simply, “I think you might find this book helpful.” He then smiled and shook my hand and said, “Welcome to the board.”
Geisler was often described as a cross between Billy Graham and Thomas Aquinas: an evangelist with a steel-trap mind. Ravi Zacharias made reference to this amalgamation of gifts at Geisler’s funeral. Zacharias said he could imagine a great throng of people in heaven who were there because of the ministry of Norman Geisler, people wanted to welcome him and say, “Thank you.” But Geisler would brush past them, asking, “Where’s Thomas Aquinas?”
When I heard that story, I imagined that Norm might smile at the humor of it but would also likely raise an eyebrow. “Extra-biblical,” I could imagine him saying. “Pure speculation.”
Geisler himself taught much about heaven, so it is perhaps no surprise that within hours of his death, Geisler’s ministry posted a message on his web-site that both taught and comforted. It was from 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14 (ESV), one of his favorite passages when he learned of the death of a Christian friend:
“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.”
Rest in peace. See you soon.
[Editor’s Note: For the transcript of an interview with Norman Geisler conducted by Warren Cole Smith, click here.]
Warren Cole Smith is the Vice-President of Mission Advancement for the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.