Tactics and Tools

Do Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence?

Author Tim Barnett Published on 01/02/2016

Not long ago, I gave a presentation on the historical evidence for the bodily resurrection of Jesus at the University of Waterloo. This was a great event put on by Power to Change with many Christians and non-Christians in attendance.

Immediately following my talk, there was a Q&A time where people could text in their questions to a phone number that was on the screen. One particular question that came up that night was, “Do extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence?”

This is such a common question that I thought I would sketch a brief outline of my response.

First, the answer is “No!” Extraordinary claims do not require extraordinary evidence. Claims—extraordinary or otherwise—only require evidence. If there is good evidence to support the resurrection of Jesus, then it is completely rational to hold that Jesus rose from the dead.

Second, the question needs to be asked: Why does the adjective applied to the claim need to be the same adjective applied to the evidence? For example, do hilarious claims require hilarious evidence? Of course not! So even though the claim that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” may sound catchy, there isn’t any good reason to think it’s actually true.

Furthermore, whenever this claim comes up in conversations I always have a question ready. I ask, “What would count as extraordinary evidence?”

Clearly, whether or not a particular evidence is extraordinary will depend on how the person defines extraordinary. If by extraordinary they mean “really good,” then I think the evidence for the resurrection meets that expectation. Certainly, I believe that the evidence I offered for the resurrection—namely, the burial, the empty tomb, the post-mortem appearances, and the origin of the disciples’ belief—is extraordinary.

If by extraordinary they mean “supernatural,” then I think the evidence surrounding the resurrection includes that as well—although I don’t think it must. “Natural” evidence—like the observation of an empty tomb—can lend itself very nicely to a supernatural explanation when taken in conjunction with other evidence—like the post-mortem appearance of Jesus after his death and burial.

Think of the claim that the “universe came from nothing.” Almost all physicists and cosmologists agree that at some point in the finite past the universe begin to exist. In other words, there was nothing—no time, space, matter or energy—and then there was something. This could certainly be taken as an extraordinary claim of the supernatural variety. That is, of course, unless you have a naturalistic bias that excludes the supernatural before looking at the evidence. But notice, all the evidence for the beginning of the universe is completely natural—second law of thermodynamics and the cosmic expansion of the universe. Obviously this argument could be fleshed out in much more detail, but I think, at least in principle, we have clear example of how natural evidence could support a supernatural claim.

In all honesty, I believe that this slogan is often used as a smoke screen to hide behind. Rather than deal with the universally accepted evidence surrounding the resurrection of Jesus, the skeptic simply throws up his hands and claims that the evidence isn’t extraordinary enough for him. In other words, they set the bar for so-called “extraordinary evidence” impossibly high, and then when the evidence won’t meet their unrealistic expectation, they simply dismiss it with a shoulder shrug.

Don’t let people get away with making such a vacuous claim. Hold their feet to the fire and make them define what they mean by extraordinary evidence and get them to defend why extraordinary claims must require extraordinary evidence.