This is the twenty-sixth follow-up post to Gagarin and the Seven Heavens. The evangelical Protestant apologist Norman Geisler died on the 1st of July, 2019. He was 86 years old. While he had a PhD in philosophy, he is not remembered for his contributions to that field, but applied his philosophical training to the defense of the school positions peculiar to the religious tribe of evangelical Protestant Christians — inerrantism of the Bible and such. I read him a little bit when I was nineteen, and promptly moved on to Pannenberg and Nietzsche. Most of Geisler strikes me as strangely preoccupied with something like sales — preconceiving the Bible to be a document that is divinely pristine and unerring (but confirming the historically specific tribal assumptions of evangelical Protestants), a document that is understood to be a foundation of truth, and vindicating it against anyone who would deny its normativity or trustworthiness (in the sense that Geisler wants it to be trustworthy). Recently, I recently came across his four-volume “Systematic Theology,” and wondered: what does he say about the ascension of Jesus? So I dug through it. Here is what I found.
Space Ghost was a cartoon that aired from 1966 to 1967. I remember seeing reruns air in the early 80s as a toddler. (If you’re curious what it looked like, you can see clips here or here.) In my memory, I remember superhuman beings flying through space as though they were the starship Enterprise floating through a very 1960s imaginary of what space must look like from space. It basically looked like the sky.
There is something about the cosmic imaginary in Space Ghost that feels very parochial — in my memory, there’s very little about the locations and the backdrops that couldn’t be people going to the Arizona desert and flying through the sky. There is nothing that I recall feeling genuinely extra-terrestrial there. It’s just our domestic space, the kind of space we know from our animal experience within the sphere of the conditions on the Earth, just writ large.
Mormonism gets a bad rap for postulating a cosmology that is notably different from anything pre-modern (and, so, Biblical) — a cosmology which feels very, well, nineteenth century. Feel free to read about Kolob. Interestingly, Evangelicalism has its origins from approximately this time, and in the same country — it is only a century older than Mormonism, having roots in 18th century America. I will skip over obvious differences simply in order to state that, when it comes to the cosmic imaginary, Evangelicalism is marked by a kind of 18th-century minimalism that affects its cosmic imaginary, whereas Mormonism’s cosmic imaginary feels more florid (even if it is of a kind), more in tune with Romanticism.
Why say all of this? Norman Geisler, in his “Systematic Theology” (which is really just an orderly dogmatic theology of a kind of crass sort), writes about Jesus in a way that sounds an awful lot like the Mormon vision.
After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
This is the chief text on Christ’s bodily assumption into heaven; it affirms that it was a literal, visible ascension in Jesus’ resurrection body. His body was not, as some suggest, transformed into being invisible, but rather His physical body simply passed out of their sigh behind “a cloud [which] hid him from their sight.”
This also raises the question of where Jesus’ body is at the present time. Evangelical scholars offer two views. One is that Jesus’ body moved literally and physically into another dimension. This, they suggest, is evidenced by the apparent immediacy with which Jesus appeared and disappeared after His resurrection (cf. Luke 24:31). Modern physics, with its many dimensions, appears to make something like this possible. It would also provide an answer to the problem of Jesus’ being physical and, thus, visibly present somewhere in the physical cosmos where, say, a high-powered telescope could see Him. However, none of these are insurmountable difficulties, since Jesus could surely hide behind a cloud of His shekinah glory in some remote place in the universe that we could not penetrate.
The other view is that Jesus is still present in this space-time dimension. The fact that the text implies He did not disappear immediately but ascended gradually until He was hidden by a cloud would seem to lend support to the view that His body is still present but hidden in the space-time universe. Whichever view, Christ still exists in the numerically same physical body, now glorified, in which He died, rose, and ascended. [Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology, Volume Two: God, Creation (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 2003), 628]
There is another string of quotes from the Bible in Volume Three, 167-169, but they repeat all of this, and add nothing new.
Geisler sounds, here, like he’s selling us Space Ghost Jesus.
Whatever might be said to defend Evangelical Protestantism in general, it must be said that the Evangelical imagination has a remarkable family resemblance to the Mormon one at this point, insofar is it is sort of a crass version of modernism — the universe is temporally Benjamin’s “empty, homogeneous time” temporally and an analogical ’empty homogeneous space’ spatially — a set of medium-sized dry goods in a fundamentally pointless set of containers, unless purpose is supplied somehow.
Header image found here.