Forty years ago, Carl Sagan introduced the idea that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” and this aphorism entered into public consciousness. But Sagan’s idea dates back much further. In the 18th century, Scottish philosopher David Hume helped lay a skeptical groundwork against the Bible’s claims that supernatural historical events have occurred. Speaking about the claimed resurrection of Jesus, Hume said:
1 – Miracles violate the laws of nature, and our experience tells us these natural laws are fixed. Dead people stay dead.
2 – No testimony can establish a miracle happened unless the falsehood of that testimony would be more miraculous than the miracle claim.
3 – Only primitive people entertain the idea that miracles could ever occur.
Here’s how people tend to use these ideas today. When a Christian makes a case for Jesus’ resurrection, the skeptic will often respond with:
“Ha! Jesus’ resurrection is an extraordinary claim, so where’s your extraordinary evidence? All you’ve got is a bunch of old books!” When the Christian presses further, they will probably find that the skeptic has no idea what could actually qualify as extraordinary evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. But whatever the Christian can present as evidence, the skeptic replies, “Not extraordinary enough. Try again.” So – the skeptic remains justified in his position. Miracles don’t happen.
What is happening here? The skeptic is strongly committed to the non-existence of miracles like Jesus resurrection, so they have raised an unscalable epistemic wall. No-one can scale it and convince them that Jesus rose from the dead. This is just fine for them because they feel that means they don’t need to worry about God’s existence.
Now – personally, I think it is very wise to be initially skeptical about any miraculous claim we hear. But it sounds dangerous to me that the skeptic would refuse to accept something based on what they WANT to be true. It seems much safer to follow the evidence where it leads in these matters.
I’m going to point to three serious problems with the skeptic’s position.
1 – We Don’t Erect Knowledge Barriers Against Other Unique Events
Unique and surprising stuff happens in life all the time. But so what?
1.1 Surprising Events Happen
For example, in 1954, Roger Bannister achieved something that people thought impossible. He ran a mile in under four minutes. A small crowd was there to witness the achievement, but the reports spread quickly. How extraordinary! Yet the newspaper reporting on its occurrence was pretty mundane. Here’s another one. In 1969, the first humans stepped onto the surface of the moon, and all people had to witness this were expert commentary, news reports and grainy, poor quality video. Even though a tiny minority of people would later claim these moon landings were faked, this did not reflect the international outpouring of excitement and acceptance of this unique event at the time. Extraordinary! But all the evidence we had that it happened was very normal indeed.
And someone replies, “Hang on. Neither of these events are miraculous. They are natural events.” Yes. They are unique natural events at the time, never having happened before. If you want an example of a non-natural unique event that we treat in exactly the same way, think about the beginning of the universe. Cosmologists generally accept the Big Bang theory, but point to naturally observable evidence for this supernatural event. For example, the cosmic background radiation level, and the red-shift of receding galaxies.
My point is this. For these and countless other events, we do not have extraordinary evidence supporting them. Instead, we have SUFFICIENT evidence, and this is enough for us.
1.2 Sufficient Evidence Rules Out Other Explanations
What is sufficient evidence, and what does it do? The evidence must be sufficient to make the alternative explanations for these extraordinary events to be unreasonable. In other words, given the evidence we have that these extraordinary events occurred what’s the likelihood that the event did not actually occur? It’s highly unlikely the event did not occur. For example, skeptical theories about the US moon landings are incredibly outlandish and bizarre when compared with the very normal evidence supporting the events themselves.
I think we look for sufficient evidence and are satisfied by it all the time. Here’s another example. What happens more often? People being married, or political leaders being assassinated? Clearly, more people have been married than have been assassinated. Now, consider the case of the assassination of US President Abraham Lincon. It was a unique event that is reported to have occurred on 15th April, 1865. Are we more skeptical about this event compared to, say, a Royal wedding? No we aren’t. And the reason is that, even though the assassination of Lincon is a unique event in history, we have sufficient evidence that it happened. But more importantly, the evidence rules out the alternative possibilities. Namely, he was not assassinated that day, or he died of natural causes that day, or something else.
My point is that when unique events occur, we don’t seek some extraordinary level of evidence that is beyond reach. Not at all. We are satisfied with sufficient evidence that rules out other explanations.
When it comes to the resurrection of Jesus, the documentary evidence is sufficient for many reasonable people because this evidence rules out alternative explanations of that historical event. The evidence of the empty tomb, the eyewitness appearances and the first century birth of the Christian church can only adequately be explained by the conclusion that Jesus of Nazareth died and was raised from the dead unexpectedly and significantly. However extraordinary the claim, we don’t treat this event any differently from other unique events in history.
But – should we? After all, miracles like the resurrection Of Jesus are not natural occurrences. In the next part of this blog, I’ll talk about miracles and whether the laws of nature prevent them from happening in the real world.
 David Hume, An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding Section X Of Miracles, https://www3.nd.edu/~afreddos/courses/43811/hume-on-miracles.htm.