One of the greatest Christian apologists of our lifetime has finished his task. To me, Norman Geisler (1932-2019) was a mentor, a co-author, and a friend. He passed into heaven on Monday morning, July 1. Can I tell you 3 lessons I learned from Norm?
#1 – Aim Higher.
Although Norm was not a Renew partner, he has written much which should be of interest to Renew readers. Emphasis on the word much. He was a voluminous writer (over a hundred books), popular professor (Trinity, Dallas, Liberty, Southern Evangelical, Veritas International), and influential theologian (founder of two seminaries, first president of the Evangelical Philosophy Society and International Society of Christian Apologetics, and general editor for the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy).
Even in heaven, Norm will continue to loom large in Evangelical scholarship as a mentor of today’s top apologists (e.g. Ravi Zacharias, J.P. Moreland) and a mainstay on apologetics bookshelves.
Part of what explains Norm’s impressive output is one of the pictures hanging in his home. We were eating pizza and talking about my future plans when Norm told me about a picture he owns of a boy with an apple on his head. Obviously, William Tell’s son, right? Yes, but this story does not end happily. The arrow has missed the apple and is instead burrowed in the boy’s forehead. The caption: “Aim higher.”
Tacky décor, but good point. We ought to aim higher. Norm did, and look at all God was able to accomplish through him. Functionally illiterate in his early years, Norm laughed when he sensed God calling him to be a scholar. Yet by writing and teaching and mentoring well into his 80s, Norm directed multiple generations of apologists into sharp thinking and biblical faithfulness, never once letting his aim go slack.
#2 – Be Real.
As a former student of Norm’s, I have sat through hours of his lectures and read through thousands of his pages. I have spent countless hours studying his ethics, philosophy, theology, and apologetics. We even wrote a book on atheism together (The Atheist’s Fatal Flaw: Exposing Conflicting Beliefs, Baker 2014), which—though a high point for me—remains a footnote in his impressive library of output.
When I learned that Norm had died, I reflected. Strangely, it wasn’t any of these academic accomplishments of his that first came to mind.
Rather, I began to remember a time at CiCi’s pizza, during a break from the apologetics conference, when he jokingly chastised me for ordering water with my pizza. “You should always get pop with pizza.” I remembered how, at another conference, he joked about the state my in-laws are from: “Isn’t that where they had to put artificial turf in the football fields so the cheerleaders would stop grazing after the games?” Then he laughed a long, hearty laugh. I began to remember how I saw him playfully snatch a toy from one of the young kids and play “keep away” while she laughed and tried to get it back—being grandfatherly to a kid he had just met. Clearly, Norm was as fun a grandpa as he was formidable in his debates.
I remember my first impression when I met him. Honestly, it had to do with his height! A giant in Evangelical scholarship, a titan in Evangelical publishing, and yet—five-foot-four? Five? Short, funny, approachable. Very real. Our interactions taught me that it doesn’t matter how many books you’ve published or seminaries you’ve started, you are still you. And you shouldn’t pretend to be otherwise by remaining aloof. He was real with me, and his realness made him grow even larger in my mind than the legendary scholar I’d known in print.
#3 – Defend the Faith.
Norm taught us how to defend the precious essentials of Christianity. Even though he was well-versed in logic (one of his 100+ books was a textbook on logic), his apologetics presentations were not dry or mechanical. Rather, he modeled a winsome, often humorous way of defending the faith. Here are some memorable lines:
“Nothing comes from nothing. Nothing ever could. Even Julie Andrews taught this.”
“I can write an inerrant book. Page 1: 1+1=2. Page 2: 2+2=4. I could even go two or three more pages!”
“There have been lots of virgin births. But the guy usually pays anyway.”
“The proceeds for my books will go to feed needy children—mine.”
“Atheist books strengthen my faith even more than devotionals.”
(in the context of Jesus’ claim to be the only way) “If a firefighter points you to the only way out of a burning building, you’d better not argue.”
“There’s no such thing as truth? Well, is that true?”
“Christianity isn’t a leap of faith in the dark. It’s a step of faith in the light.”
“We never said that everything needs a cause. Only that which has a beginning needs to have a cause. God has no beginning; therefore God needs no cause.”
“If God exists, then miracles aren’t just possible, they’re actual. Because the greatest miracle of all already exists, namely creation out of nothing.”
“Why do apologetics? The Bible commands it, the culture demands it, and the results confirm it.”
If you aren’t familiar with Norm’s work, I highly recommend that you check out his books, most notably I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, The Big Book of Bible Difficulties, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, and If God, Why Evil?
I’m proud of Norm and thankful for him. I guess we’ll only know the full magnitude of Norm’s ministry when we’re in heaven, getting to talk to all the people who are there in some part because of his devoted work. I trust there will be pizza.