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
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
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
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]
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.
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
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]
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
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
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:
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]
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
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
responds to Ehrman first with mathematical equations demonstrating probability
of the resurrection and then summarizes:
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]
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
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
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]
Lewis succinctly articulates, the philosophical question of miracles must be
dealt with first before discussing how to weigh the historical evidence for
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.
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,
[v] Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 194.
[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/.
[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.
[xvi] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and
Apologetics, 3rd ed. (Illinois: Crossway, 2008), 273.
[xvii] Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus,195; emphasis
[xviii] Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus,195.
[xix] Ibid., 195-196; emphasis
[xx] Matt Slick, “Extraordinary
Claim Require Extraordinary Evidence,” Christian
Apologetics & Research Ministry, accessed May 10, 2016,
[xxii] Gray, “Do Extraordinary
Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence?”; emphasis added.
[xxiv] Hume, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 10.5
[xxvii] Craig, Reasonable Faith, 270.
[xxxii] Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 196; emphasis
[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,
[xxxvii] Slick, “Extraordinary Claim
Require Extraordinary Evidence.”
[xxxviii] Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 105.
[xl] C.S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study
(HarperCollins, 2009), 68-75, Kindle.