Miracles: Should Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence?


            Much has been written on the subject of the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. Some people find sufficient evidence for the resurrection, others have doubts, and still others dismiss the evidence as entirely inadequate. What type of evidence should be required for historical claims involving miracles, such as the resurrection of Jesus? Do extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, as the late astronomer and skeptic Carl Sagan was fond of saying?[i] This paper will examine the catchphrase “extraordinary evidence is required for extraordinary claims,” what it means, and whether it can and should be applied to weigh historical evidence for miracles. I will conclude that this statement can be a reasonable one if properly defined, and can even be used successfully to demonstrate the probability of the extraordinary event of the resurrection of Jesus.

Extraordinary Claims

            Before examining the argument that extraordinary evidence is required for extraordinary claims, we need to know what is an “extraordinary claim.” Intuitively we know something is extraordinary when it is beyond what is common, ordinary, or usual. In his writing “On Miracles,” Philosopher David Hume discusses “extraordinary” and “marvelous” facts in conjunction with “miraculous” facts.[ii] He states, “All men must die…But it is a miracle, that a dead man should come to life.”[iii] Hume concludes, “A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature.”[iv] By his definition, a miracle claim would be an extraordinary claim.
            In his book The Resurrection of Jesus, Christian historian Michael Licona suggests a broader definition of extraordinary claims by giving several examples of varying degrees. First he describes the well-known 1969 landing on the moon as “an extraordinary event” at the time, explaining that it was “extremely difficult and had never occurred previously.”[v] Next he paints a hypothetical scenario where his wife returns from the grocery store and reports that she spoke with the president of the United States. Licona labels this “extraordinary in a sense,” because this would be “far out of the ordinary.”[vi] Finally Licona offers another illustration where he slightly modifies the grocery store story, replacing the president of the United States with an alien with whom his wife has the hypothetical conversation.[vii] The actual point Licona makes with these examples is to explain how to weigh the evidence for each claim. We will discuss that aspect later in this paper. However, we find his various scenarios useful as examples in trying to understand what may be considered an extraordinary claim.
            Others, such as budding philosopher James Gray, define extraordinary claims as anything that is “extreme.”[viii] “Extreme claims are those that we should find to be unlikely given our understanding of the world.”[ix] Gray finds miracles are extraordinary claims because they are physically impossible.[x] However, he admits they may be metaphysically possible.[xi]
As we see, deciding whether an event is extraordinary can be matter of subjective opinion. Evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa said it well when he controversially declared, “While it is a nice dictum in principle [extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence], it does not work in practice.”[xii] Kanazawa explains: “The problem with the dictum is there is no absolute criteria for what counts as ‘extraordinary claims.’ In particular, what counts as extraordinary depends entirely on what you know and believe. In the extreme case, if you know nothing, then everything is an extraordinary claim.”[xiii]
If an extraordinary claim is merely a subjective matter of opinion, it is obvious that defining the term is problematic. Licona’s examples demonstrate there are varying degrees of what may considered an extraordinary claim. Materialist atheists reject the existence of God and anything supernatural. Christians accept the existence of God and the supernatural. Therefore, it stands to reason that an atheist may find an extraordinary claim so extraordinary (i.e. a miracle) as to make it an impossible claim, where the Christian may not. When it comes to miracles, Christians would likely agree that miracles are extraordinary events, but not impossible events. That is, after all, what makes a miracle a miracle.

Extraordinary Evidence

After attempting to define “extraordinary claim,” we need to try to understand what is meant by “extraordinary evidence.”  Does extraordinary evidence mean additional evidence or better evidence, or both? In other words, is extraordinary evidence a quality or quantity issue?
Hume seems to suggest that extraordinary evidence is a quality issue.  Emphatically he asserts, “A wise man…proportions his belief to the evidence,”[xiv] and “No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.”[xv] In other words, Hume demands better evidence than mere testimony for an extraordinary claim such as a miracle. Ironically, he purports to allow testimony for a miracle if its falsehood would be more miraculous.
In his book, Reasonable Faith, Christian historian and apologist William Lane Craig offers a brilliant rebuttal to Hume’s theory. However, he seems to opt for a quantity definition for extraordinary evidence:

What we now see is that this seemingly commonsensical slogan [extraordinary events require extraordinary evidence] is, in fact, false as usually understood. In order to establish the occurrence of a highly improbable event, one need not have lots of evidence…What the skeptic seems to be saying by his slogan is that in order to believe rationally in a miraculous event, you must have an enormous amount of evidence. But why think that is the case? ‘Because a miracle is so improbable,’ the skeptic will say. But Bayes’ Theorem shows that rationally believing in a highly improbable event doesn’t require an enormous amount of evidence. What is crucial is that the evidence be far more probable given that the event did occur than given that is did not. The bottom line is that it doesn’t always take a huge amount of evidence to establish a miracle.[xvi]

Using words like “lots of evidence,” and “enormous amount of evidence,” and “huge amount of evidence,” clearly demonstrates that Craig views extraordinary evidence as a quantity issue.
Interestingly, Licona seems to side with Hume in defining extraordinary evidence as a quality issue. Referring back to Licona’s hypothetical situation where his wife reported speaking to an alien at the grocery store, in order to determine the credibility of the testimony and to overcome his doubt that aliens exist, he says, “I should not require extraordinary evidence but additional evidence that addresses my present understanding of reality or my horizon, which may be handicapped and in need of revision.”[xvii] Here, Licona distinguishes between extraordinary evidence and additional evidence as if they were separate and distinct.
Licona offers another example of how additional evidence is not the same as extraordinary evidence. Muslims reject the resurrection of Jesus and even his crucifixion because the Qur’an says Jesus was not killed in the first century.[xviii] Even though the evidence for the crucifixion and resurrection may be strong, it might not be strong enough to convince a Muslim. Licona argues, “This would not mean that extraordinary evidence is required before historians are warranted in concluding that Jesus died by crucifixion in the first century.  It only means that a Muslim may require additional evidence before believing, since there is a conflict with the Muslim’s horizon.”[xix] This makes Licona’s definition of extraordinary evidence clearly a quality, not a quantity, issue. Unfortunately, despite distinguishing extraordinary evidence from additional evidence, Licona does not offer any helpful examples of what he considers to be extraordinary evidence.
            Matt Slick, President of Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry, does offer an example of what could be considered extraordinary evidence from a quality viewpoint, i.e. better evidence. He asserts that ordinary evidence would be written accounts, whereas extraordinary evidence would be film.[xx] Therefore, film would be better quality of evidence than mere testimony. Slick concludes, “[B]ut we know that this extraordinary evidence is not reasonable since there was no film in Jesus’ time. Therefore, can the requirement that extraordinary evidence claims (Christ’s resurrection) require extraordinary evidence apply to Jesus’ resurrection? It would seem not.”[xxi]
Hard pressed to find one consistent definition, Gray embraces both a quality and quantity definition for extraordinary evidence. He states, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence in the sense that they require more evidence than usual before they are properly proven to be true;”[xxii] and “Before we decide that ghosts exist, we should require better evidence that ghosts exist than the evidence we have that minds require bodies.”[xxiii] However, to make the matter more confusing, Gray also states, “Extraordinary claims don’t require some strange type of evidence that is so different from an ordinary type of evidence. Extraordinary claims can be proven to be true in much the same way as any other type of claim.” Gray cannot seem to make up his mind how to define extraordinary evidence, let alone whether extraordinary evidence is needed for extraordinary claims.
This lack of consensus regarding definitions for “extraordinary claims” and “extraordinary evidence” proves to be a stumbling block for those insisting that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. One cannot require a method for weighing historical evidence of miracle claims without clearly defining the method to be used.

Weighing the Evidence for a Miracle Claim

Just as there is no consensus for defining “extraordinary claims” and “extraordinary evidence,” likewise there is no consensus regarding how to weigh historical evidence for miracle claims. Hume was instrumental in helping to create the theory that extraordinary evidence is required for extraordinary claims. His approach to weighing the evidence of miracles, such as the resurrection of Jesus, is to weigh the testimony of men, eyewitnesses and spectators (not always reliable),[xxiv] against the laws of nature (always reliable).[xxv] He concludes that mere testimony is not adequate to establish a miracle.[xxvi] In other words, the natural must always outweigh the supernatural.
Craig rebukes Hume’s position that more than testimony is required for a miracle claim, stating, “Hume’s argument actually falls into two more or less independent claims. On the one hand there is his claim that miracles are by definition utterly improbable; on the other hand there is his claim that no evidence for a purported miracle can serve to overcome its intrinsic improbability. As it turns out, both of these claims are mistaken.”[xxvii]
In response to Hume’s rather ridiculous claim that if the falsehood of a testimony would be more miraculous than the miracle itself, then it might be sufficient evidence to support a miracle claim, Craig summarizes the dilemma Hume presents: “Thus, with regard to the resurrection, Hume asks, which would be the greater miracle: that a man should rise from the dead or that the witnesses should either be deceived or try to deceive?”[xxviii] Craig exposes Hume’s hopeless bias and presupposition against miracles: “But in fact, says Hume, the evidence for miracles does not amount to full proof. Indeed, the evidence is so poor, it does not even amount to probability. Therefore, the decisive weight falls on the side of the scale containing full proof for the regularity of nature, a weight so heavy, that no evidence for a miracle could ever hope to counter-balance it.”[xxix] Craig concludes that Hume would rather accept an extraordinary [naturalistic] explanation rather than admit “such a striking violation of the laws of nature. Thus, even if the evidence for a miracle constituted a full proof, the wise man would not believe in miracles.”[xxx] Hume fails to adequately discuss the real issue of the probability of miracles and endeavors instead to demonstrate their improbability.[xxxi]
Licona takes a slightly different approach to weighing the evidence for a miracle claim. He argues:

If the evidence for the occurrence of a particular miracle is strong—that is, the historian can establish that the authorial intent of the sources is to report what was perceived as a miracle, the event occurred in a context that was charged with religious significance, the report possess traits that favor the historicity of the event and no plausible naturalist theories exist—then a requirement for extraordinary evidence is unwarranted. Some historians may require additional evidence supporting supernaturalism before believing since the event is foreign to their present horizon, but no greater burden of proof is required for a miracle-claim.[xxxii]

In other words, this paradigm “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” or “Sagan’s Saw,” as he calls it,[xxxiii] is an inappropriate standard of proof in weighing historical evidence for miracle claims, especially the resurrection of Jesus.
            Skeptical New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman admits he does not accept Hume’s argument that miracles cannot happen. However, he argues that even if miracles do happen, history cannot establish it.[xxxiv] 

I’m just going to say that miracles are so highly improbable that they’re the least possible occurrence in any given instance. They violate the way nature naturally works. They are so highly improbable, their probability is infinitesimally remote, that we call them miracles…Historians can only establish what probably happened in the past, and by definition a miracle is the least probable occurrence. And so, by the very nature of the canons of historical research, we can’t claim historically that a miracle probably happened. By definition, it probably didn’t. And history can only establish what probably did. I wish we could establish miracles, but we can’t. It’s no one’s fault. It’s simply that the canons of historical research do not allow for the possibility of establishing as probable the least probable of all occurrences.[xxxv]

Craig responds to Ehrman first with mathematical equations demonstrating probability of the resurrection and then summarizes:

In order to show that that hypothesis is improbable, you’d have to show that God’s existence is improbable. But Dr. Ehrman says that the historian cannot say anything about God. Therefore, he cannot say that God’s existence is improbable. But if he can’t say that, neither can he say that the resurrection of Jesus is improbable. So Dr. Ehrman’s position is literally self-refuting.[xxxvi]

Craig exposes the bias and faulty reasoning in Ehrman’s approach to rejecting the historical evidence for miracles.
            In considering evidence for miracles, the problem with skeptics is their presuppositions. They commence their investigation with the a priori assumption that there is no God and no supernatural. Therefore they reject the resurrection by default because anything that requires God or the supernatural cannot occur. For atheists to overcome their presuppositions, the extraordinary evidence presented would need to be irrefutable. In other words, they seek solid proof, often via scientific evidence.[xxxvii] 
            However, history is not science; and historical methods are not the same as scientific methods. Licona reminds us that historians speak of the “probable truth of a theory rather than absolute certainty.”[xxxviii]  “Historians cannot obtain absolute certainty for many of the same reasons that absolute certainty always eludes us in most areas.”[xxxix]
Christian apologist C.S. Lewis may help put this discussion into proper perspective. He confesses that history can neither prove nor disprove the miraculous according to ordinary rules of historical inquiry. He contends the ordinary rules of inquiry cannot be established until we first resolve whether miracles are possible and how probable they are:


If immediate experience cannot prove or disprove the miraculous, still less can history do so. Many
people think one can decide whether a miracle occurred in the past by examining the evidence ‘according to the ordinary rules of historical inquiry’. But the ordinary rules cannot be worked until we have decided whether miracles are possible, and if so, how probable they are. For if they are impossible, then no amount of historical evidence will convince us. If they are possible but immensely improbable, then only mathematically demonstrative evidence will convince us: and since history never provides that degree of evidence for any event, history can never convince us that a miracle occurred. If, on the other hand, miracles are not intrinsically improbable, then the existing evidence will be sufficient to convince us that quite a number of miracles have occurred. The result of our historical enquiries thus depends on the philosophical views which we have been holding before we even began to look at the evidence. This philosophical question must therefore come first.[xl]


As Lewis succinctly articulates, the philosophical question of miracles must be dealt with first before discussing how to weigh the historical evidence for miracles.
            So-called skeptics who reject God and the supernatural should not pretend to weigh the historical evidence for miracles. The argument that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence is often a sham cover for rejecting “impossible” claims (i.e. miracle claims) in the absence of absolute proof. Of course absolute proof is unattainable for the historian and the skeptics know it. If skeptics honestly want to require extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims, they have the burden of finding a consensus for defining the terms and how to objectively weigh historical evidence for miracles. Moreover, if they succeed in this endeavor, this same method should then be used to weigh the skeptics’ extraordinary claims, such as the Hallucination theory for the resurrection of Jesus.

Conclusion

While many skeptics may be fond of insisting that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, they cannot define the terms or explain a method of weighing the evidence with any degree of consensus, which is problematic. Their use of this catchphrase to reject what they consider impossible claims for miracles reveals their a priori assumptions against the existence of God and the supernatural when considering historical evidence for  claims such as the resurrection. As established above, there is much variation and subjectivity involved in determining what is an extraordinary claim and what is extraordinary evidence. However, a consensus for definition may be possible. I propose that historians agree that extraordinary claims are simply any event out of the ordinary, including beyond the laws of nature. And I propose that historians agree to define extraordinary evidence primarily as additional evidence, a quantity issue. Therefore, it would be reasonable for the historian to insist that the more extraordinary the claim, the more additional evidence may be required to weigh the evidence and judge the claim.
When we apply this to criteria to the miracle of the resurrection, since this is arguably the most extraordinary of extraordinary claims, it would require an enormous amount of evidence, which would not be unreasonable. The good news is that there is an enormous amount of solid evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. In conclusion, if we apply the criteria to the resurrection of Jesus, we find an extraordinary amount of trustworthy evidence exists for this most extraordinary claim, which demonstrates the probability that Jesus Christ was resurrected. 



[i] Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 194.
[ii] David Hume, “On Miracles,” Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (London: A. Millar, 1777), 10.8 & 10.11, accessed May 7, 2016, http://www.davidhume.org/texts/ehu.html.
[iii] Ibid., 10.12.
[iv] Ibid.
[v] Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 194.
[vi] Ibid., 194-195.
[vii] Ibid., 195.
[viii] James Gray, “Do Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence?” Patheos: Hosting the Conversation on Faith (April 15, 2015), accessed May 7, 2016, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/notesfromanapostate/2015/04/do-extraordinary-claims-require-extraordinary-evidence/.
[ix] Ibid.
[x] Ibid.
[xi] Ibid.
[xii] Satoshi Kanazawa, “Do Extraordinary Claims require Extraordinary Evidence?,” Psychology Today (March 20, 2011), accessed May 10, 2016, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-scientific-fundamentalist/201103/do-extraordinary-claims-require-extraordinary-evidence.
[xiii] Ibid.; emphasis original.
[xiv] Hume, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 10.4.
[xv] Ibid., 10.13.
[xvi] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, 3rd ed. (Illinois: Crossway, 2008), 273.
[xvii] Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus,195; emphasis original.
[xviii] Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus,195.
[xix] Ibid., 195-196; emphasis added.
[xx] Matt Slick, “Extraordinary Claim Require Extraordinary Evidence,” Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry, accessed May 10, 2016, https://carm.org/extraordinary-claims-require-extraordinary-evidence.
[xxi] Ibid.
[xxii] Gray, “Do Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence?”; emphasis added.
[xxiii] Ibid.; emphasis original.
[xxiv] Hume, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 10.5
[xxv] Ibid., 10.12
[xxvi] Ibid., 10.13
[xxvii] Craig, Reasonable Faith, 270.
[xxviii] Ibid., 250-251.
[xxix] Ibid., 251.
[xxx] Ibid.
[xxxi] Ibid., 272.
[xxxii] Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 196; emphasis added.
[xxxiii] Ibid., 197.
[xxxiv] Debate: William Lane Craig vs. Bart Ehrman, “Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus?” March 2006, at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. Transcript of debate accessed May 11, 2016, http://www.reasonablefaith.org/is-there-historical-evidence-for-the-resurrection-of-jesus-the-craig-ehrman.
[xxxv] Ibid.
[xxxvi] Ibid.
[xxxvii] Slick, “Extraordinary Claim Require Extraordinary Evidence.”
[xxxviii] Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 105.
[xxxix] Ibid., 128.
[xl] C.S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study (HarperCollins, 2009), 68-75, Kindle.

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