Episode 59 - Do Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence?

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It's very likely that when you've talked about your Christian convictions that God created the world, even that God exists, or that Jesus (man and God) came to Earth and died on the cross for sin and lived a perfect life, that people will say to you, "Well, that's an extraordinary claim, and you've only presented (if you have) just some ordinary evidence, but extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." Doesn't that just sound really compelling? Like, well, it is an extraordinary claim that a God exists, I guess, from a certain perspective, so ...

Now, if you're anything like me, which maybe you're not, but the first time someone says this to you, your reply might go something like, "Whose evidence are you saying isn't extraordinary? What's wrong with my evidence?!” Joking aside, you're probably going to feel stuck. That has been my experience in the past, but here's what I want to suggest to you, that you not accept their claim, their assertion that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

Why should I believe that?

What if you replied, "That sounds like an extraordinary claim to me. What evidence do you have that that's actually the way it should work? Why should I just believe you that an extraordinary claim requires extraordinary evidence? I understand that that sounds pithy and nice, but why should we believe that? What is your evidence for that assertion, that an actual extraordinary claim requires actual extraordinary evidence?"

This puts the burden of proof back on them. Now, I will admit that's a slightly odd type of question, but I think it fits. I want them to do the explaining here. I want them to explain to me why it actually has to work this way.

What type of evidence would you accept?

If they're able to, or even if they're not, my next question is going to be, "What type of evidence would you accept? Not specifically what type, but what specific evidences would you accept to prove to you that God exists, to prove to you that Jesus rose from the dead?" I want them to lay out for me what they are going to accept. Because oftentimes they're going to keep asking the Christian, "Yeah, well, present evidence. Well, that's not enough. Present more evidence. That's not enough. Present extraordinary evidence. Well, that's not enough for me."

Let's get them to set the ground rules here. What evidence will they accept? A lot of times you're not going to get an answer, even in professional debates. A lot of times when the atheist is asked this question, they don't have a good answer, and a lot of times the answers they do give, if they give one, pretty much renders all of history unknowable.

In fact, oftentimes some of the evidences that are required for Christian claims would make it where we couldn't even know that George Washington was President of the United States or anything else in even recent history. We're going to get standards in these types of conversations that aren't really capable of being applied in the real world. They don't function in any other area of knowing accept when the atheist wants to apply them to Christian or religious claims.

I once asked a guy this question, "What evidence would you accept?" Or, "Why don't you believe Christianity?" He said, "Well, I don't know everything about it, and I can't believe in something I don't know everything about." I said, "Do you understand gravity?" He said, "Well, it holds things down." I'm like, "Well, do you understand why or how or what produces the force of gravity?" He said, "No." I said, "But you believe in gravity." He said, "Well, yes." I said, "Well, doesn't that seem inconsistent? You don't understand everything about it, but you're willing to say, 'Well, I believe in gravity.'"

I said, "What about the internal combustion engine in your car? Do you understand how that works?" He said, "Well, no." I said, "What I'm hearing you say is you drove here in a car that you believe exists but don't know how it works, which is held to the ground by a force you believe in called gravity but don't understand how it works, but you're telling me you can't believe in anything that you don't know how it works." He said, "I see your point." That was actually very helpful in our conversation. We need to be able to encourage people to use equal scales and equal balances and equal tests in all areas of their life when we're talking about reality.

Well, what are the chances we would have the evidence we do if the event didn't happen?

Question the questioner, step one. Step two, though, I think there is something to this type of claim that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. However, there's another principle here that's often missed, because it's not just that we're looking at the evidence we have for a claim. There's another way to look at this. We have to ask the question: Well, what are the chances we would have the evidence we do if the event didn't happen? This is extremely helpful. What are the chances that the universe would be here if no one created it? If we're wrong about God creating everything, what are the chances that everything could come about randomly? Does that even make sense? Well, no, it doesn't make sense to say that everything can come from nothing with no cause. That requires more evidence than claiming that it had a cause. You see, that's actually the more extraordinary claim, that everything can come from nothing with no cause.

It's the same way with the fine-tuning of the universe. What are the chances that randomness and no purpose would result in a universe that is extremely well-suited for life as opposed to someone creating it? I'd say that's the more extraordinary claim also. What about the fact that humankind has this moral sense, that we have this intuitive understanding of right and wrong? Is it perfect? No, but it's very consistent across cultures and times. What are the chances we would have that if we were just meat-machines, if there was no God, if there is no soul, or if evolution is true? Why would evolution create in us a desire to put other people first and ourselves second when that does not help us propagate our genes, that actually doesn't put me first, that isn't survival of the fittest? It doesn't.

We can bring in this principle of inference to the best explanation when we're looking at evidence. What explanation makes most sense given the evidence? Well, it makes more sense that everything comes from something, not from nothing, and that if something appears fine-tuned, that it's actually fine-tuned, and that if we have a moral sense, that morality actually exists, since naturalistic explanations aren't sufficient. We can infer to the best explanation from the evidence we have.

More than that, we ask the question, "What are the chances we would have the evidence we have if the event didn't happen?" Let's specifically look at the resurrection. What are the chances that the Church - the Christian Church - starts out of Jerusalem after its leader gets killed if He didn't actually rise from the dead? Well, firstly, the Jews did not expect the Messiah to die, so that makes starting a movement around the guy who wasn't supposed to die very unlikely. Additionally, Judaism did not have the concept of the isolated resurrection of an individual, so it makes making that up, that Jesus rose from the dead, it makes making that up very improbable. It's more improbable to think that everyone's going to rally around a guy who didn't actually rise from the dead and claim he did than it is to say that they were going to rally around a guy who actually rose from the dead.

Another evidence we have is that there were women at the tomb. What are the chances that people trying to spread a lie, that Jesus actually rose from the dead but he didn't, make up that women are at the tomb? Does that make the explanation more probable or less probable? Well, no, if it didn't actually happen, you're not going to say there were women at the tomb. What about this: We have evidence that the disciples and apostles were willing to endure torture, and some even to the death, for this claim. What is the chance that they're willing to do that if they know it's a lie? Is it a greater chance that they're willing to die for a lie or die for the truth?

This question of, "What are the chances we would have the evidence we do if the event didn't happen?" is extremely helpful. We don't just analyze, "How probable does the evidence make the explanation?" We also say, "How probable does it make the opposite?" You might need to think about that a little because it's a little different way of thinking. It makes a lot of sense of these types of questions.

In summary, do extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence? No. The resurrection, the existence of Jesus of Nazareth, His death and resurrection, those are all events in history, and they're historical claims. They're not extraordinary claims in a certain way, and so we can use historical methods to try and establish them. More than that, when we're asked the question, ask the person why we should believe the claim that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Ask them, "What types of evidences would you accept?" and see if they're being consistent.

Thirdly, it's helpful to point out the next two steps. One, we can actually look at the evidence and infer to the best explanation. Where does this evidence point? What's more likely? That's a very helpful principle that we use in all areas of life. More than that, ask the question, "What are the chances we would have the evidence we do if the event didn't actually happen?" What we'll see is that, for all of the evidences in Christianity, they make the claims that we're making more probable, not less. The idea that the events didn't happen is made less probable by the evidence we have. The evidence we have points to the resurrection, not away from it, and it makes any non-resurrection hypothesis extremely unlikely compared to the likeliness of Jesus rising from the dead.