Dr Johnson: Extraordinary Claims and Extraordinary Evidence

In the 8/12/12 Stand to Reason podcast (start at 1:06:00), Greg Koukl discusses the popular aphorism, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” He doesn’t care for it, probably because he wants to lower the bar of evidence for his own remarkable claims about Jesus.

He proposes instead, “Extraordinary claims require adequate evidence.” As an example, he cites the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969. “A man has walked on the moon” is an extraordinary claim (or certainly was in the 1960s), but he notes that we were satisfied with the evidence of “a simple newsreel” (by which I presume he means the live video feed from the moon).

That video alone, as powerful as it was, might not have been enough to support the enormous claim of the moon landing, but of course we had far more than just that. We had public statements from NASA, the press, and the president; we had public launches of ever more enormous rockets from Cape Kennedy through the 1960s; we had thousands of workers within the aerospace industry who were in a position to blow the whistle on a hoax; we had satellites visible from the back yard of the ordinary citizens; and we even had the validation from the USSR—if we hadn’t landed on the moon, they would have delighted to point out the lie.

Was Koukl’s “simple newsreel” extraordinary evidence? In pre-Photoshop days, I think so. Add all the peripheral evidence backing up the claim, and you have evidence that, by any measure, was extraordinary. Koukl’s attempt to downplay the necessary evidence for an extraordinary claim fails. It’s a weak and disappointing attempt to shirk his burden of proof for the supernatural elements of Christianity, presumably because he knows that that burden, rightly evaluated, is gigantic.

One aspect of an extraordinary claim is its importance. “Extraordinary” means both “surprising and unexpected” as well as “important.” The Guinness Book of World Records has many entries for extraordinary in the first sense but very few in the second. The gospel claims are both unexpected and important, so they’re extraordinary by any measure.

Back to Koukl:

Use of this slogan functions to stack the deck against the … religious person making the claim because when you buy that equation it turns out that there’s almost no evidence that is going to be extraordinary enough to substantiate the extraordinary claim (1:09:40).

Yes, there’s almost no evidence documenting events 2000 years ago that can substantiate the extraordinary claim, “Jesus rose from the dead.” No, that’s not stacking the deck. That’s the same skepticism you apply to other nutty claims, whether it’s that Mohammed rode to heaven on a winged horse or that someone can sell you the Brooklyn Bridge, cheap. There simply isn’t enough evidence to support the gospel’s enormous claims, so there is no reason to accept them.

That’s the easy resolution to this difficulty—if there’s not enough evidence, don’t accept the claims.

Koukl admits that “people don’t rise from the dead very often” but then goes on to say that the gospel story isn’t a resurrection claim all by itself but that this is woven into a narrative that says that a man was dead and then people saw him alive again, and before his death the man predicted all this. Given that this is the evidence, “Well, that would change things, wouldn’t it?”

Not in the least. The facts we have at hand are that there is a story that talks about this. It’s not a fact that people saw Jesus risen from the dead, it’s just a story (perhaps more precisely: a legend). It’s in the same bin as the stories of Merlin or Prester John or Caesar Augustus, each of which has supernatural elements. I’ve written more about how the gospels weren’t written by eyewitnesses (“Is Mark an Eyewitness Account?“).

Koukl says that what is an “extraordinary claim” is subjective and depends on the person. Okay—but is Koukl saying that the claims of Scientology aren’t extraordinary to the Scientologists, so they are entitled to believe in their religion because they have a different worldview? And would this also be true for Mormons or anti-vaxers or flat earthers or those who believe in fairies? This seems to be evidential relativism of a sort that I can’t imagine Koukl supports.

Koukl is playing Whac-A-Mole, and by shoring up one problematic issue in his apologetics he forces another to emerge.

Everyone is entitled to their own opinions,
but they are not entitled to their own facts
— Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Photo credit: Wikimedia

About Bob Seidensticker
  • HoboBanana

    I used to use ‘vacuum cranium’…

  • Kitirena Koneko

    So, if Jesus really did rise from the dead, does that mean that Odin, Osiris, Orpheus, Tammuz, and other “dead-and-reborn” gods, goddesses, etc. did too?

    Either they all did, or it’s all mythology, meant to teach us a moral lesson, much like Aesop’s Fables. I admit that as a neopagan, I like to believe in the existence of multiple gods, but as a realist, I think the truth is that they’re all parables, not meant to be taken as anything other than a nice little story to illustrate a moral point. Of course, I seem to recall several ancient Greek philosophers pointing out that only fools and little children take the stories of the gods literally, so…