Do Extraordinary Claims Really Require Extraordinary Evidence?
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Do Extraordinary Claims Really Require Extraordinary Evidence?

One of the specific arguments against the resurrection of Jesus is that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” This saying, largely made famous by the late Carl Sagan, has become very popular in the skeptical community. But is this statement patently true? Or, are there any flaws in such a claim?

While “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” seems logical at first thought, there are some flaws in this line of reasoning. First, the statement seems to collapse in on itself because the claim is asserted as a universal principle, meaning it applies independently and is binding on everyone in all spheres of life. Where is the extraordinary evidence that this particular universal principle, is true? Given that there is no extraordinary evidence to prove that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” this claim is logically self-defeating.

Second, what counts as “extraordinary evidence” from the standpoint of the skeptic? In the case of the historical claim regarding Jesus’ resurrection, what would “extraordinary evidence” look like? Since this claim concerns a historical event, does the skeptic not believe that the historiographical approach used among scholars today is sufficient? If not, why not? It seems then, that the extraordinary event/evidence claim, is purely ad hoc (contrived) used to mask an a priori rejection of the possibility of past supernatural events.

Third, if this skeptical claim is correct, it cuts both ways. On this view, we could never have enough evidence to believe in extraordinarily improbable natural events either. For example, the probability of winning the Powerball Lottery is roughly 230 million-to-1. To win the lottery would, by definition, be extraordinary. On the “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” justification, no one could ever be considered rational in believing the news reports because the reporting of the event would be outweighed by the overwhelming improbability of the event actually taking place. However, we don’t see “Powerball lottery skeptics” writing into news stations demanding extraordinary proof that someone won the Powerball! Why is that? Because extraordinary evidence is not required to show that an extraordinary event took place. Only sufficient evidence is required. In the Powerball scenario, there are multiple first-hand accounts confirming a winner, which is passed on to the news stations, which is then checked and re-checked. The same is true with historical claims like Caesar crossing the Rubicon, the existence of Alexander the Great, and the resurrection of Jesus.

On these grounds, Christians do not need to fall into the trap of answering such a question. Rather, they should respond with a couple of questions for the skeptic:

  1. Can you define what the extraordinary evidence necessary to establish the credibility of a historical event like the resurrection is?
  2. Would the same type of evidence be needed to confirm that someone won the Powerball lottery? If not why not?
  3. How do you calibrate the standard of “extraordinary evidence?”

By utilizing these questions, Christians can safeguard themselves and others against the false claim that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

Photo Credit: Center for Inquiry, Canada.

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