EXTRAORDINARY CLAIMS, EXTRAORDINARY EVIDENCE
Written by Doug Ponder on July 20, 2014
Extraordinary Claims, Extraordinary Evidence
“Not enough evidence, God! Not enough evidence!”
That’s how renowned philosopher Bertrand Russell said he would answer God’s question, “Why didn’t you believe in me?” if ever he were to find himself before God on judgment day.
Russell was not the first, and certainly not the last, to make such a claim. Before him were the likes of David Hume and Pierre-Simon Laplace, who argued that the weight of evidence for an extraordinary claim—like the belief that Jesus rose from the dead, for example—must match the strangeness of the claim. Or as Carl Sagan famously restated, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
What Counts as Extraordinary?
Strictly speaking, there’s nothing wrong with the idea that ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.’ Big claims require big proof. So far, so good.
But there are two problems with how that idea is sometimes misused. For some people, ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’ is merely a way to dismiss the issue without further investigation. “I wouldn’t believe in Jesus unless he appeared to me personally, because extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence!” Such people have no interest in examining an actual case for Jesus. They have already made up their minds beforehand, instead of letting the evidence speak for itself.
The other problem is that extraordinary things do happen in our world, which means that if we want to determine the truthfulness of an historical event, we cannot only consider the likelihood of the event itself. We must also consider the likelihood of the historical evidence surrounding the event being just as it is even if the event in question had never taken place. In other words, it may be that ‘extraordinary evidence’ for an extraordinary claim is found in a constellation of seemingly ordinary events that happened in such a way that an extraordinary event is the most plausible explanation. That’s a mouthful, but all we’re saying is this: the extraordinary claims of Christianity are backed up with several streams of evidence for which the only sensible explanation is that Jesus, in fact, rose from the dead (just as he said he would do).
The Extraordinary Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus
Not the Jewish Hope – Jews, as Jesus’ followers all were, did not believe in a resurrection in the middle of history, and they didn’t expect for their Messiah to be killed either. In fact, they held these beliefs so strongly that even though Jesus told them ahead of time that he would be killed and resurrected, they still didn’t believe him until after he returned from the grave! In other words, it’s highly unlikely that twelve people would change their minds about strongly held beliefs concerning the death of the Messiah and his resurrection in the middle of history, unless those things actually occurred and forced them to change their beliefs.
Not Just His Friends – Jesus did not live a secret life. His teachings and his miracles were all done in public in the presence of both friends and enemies. Similarly, Jesus was seen after his death by hundreds of people in different times and places. In fact, one man who had formerly made a name for himself by killing Jesus’ followers became a follower of Jesus upon encountering him after his resurrection. It may not take much to convince close friends, but it takes a mountain evidence to convince one’s enemies.
Not the Right Witnesses – If Jesus’ followers had wanted to make up a story about the resurrection of their Messiah, they picked the “wrong” people to be the first witnesses. The New Testament tells us the first people to see Jesus after he rose from the grave were women, whose testimonies in that society were not regarded. So, it’s more likely that Jesus did rise and first appear to a couple of women than it is to think that some men in a patriarchal society would have thought to make women the first eye-witnesses.
No Shrine in Sight – The tombs of famous Jewish figures, especially martyrs, almost always became shrines that were visited by their followers. But this did not happen with Jesus, as it did for the previous Messiah-claimants before him. The question we should ask is, “Why did all of those other tombs become shrines while Jesus’ tomb did not?” Instead of the people randomly snubbing Jesus’ tomb, it’s more likely that his tomb never became a shrine precisely because his body was no longer there.
No Turning Back – Of the eleven remaining disciples (Judas killed himself over the grief of what he had done), ten of them were killed for their refusal to recant their beliefs in Jesus, and the last was exiled to live on a remote island. When on trial, not one of these men said, “You know, this whole thing about Jesus is actually a lie. We took the body from the tomb, and made up a cool story. But now that you are threatening me with death, well, it’s time I come clean.” It’s highly unlikely that eleven men would independently refuse to recant their faith in Jesus, unless they were utterly certain that it was true.
Not the Right Day – For over one and a half thousand years, the Jewish people had worshipped God on the Sabbath, or Saturday, the seventh day of the week. But after the resurrection of Jesus, suddenly Jews began worshipping God on Sunday. What would make a deeply traditional culture shift their sacred day of worship? It would take something so remarkable, so significant, that they felt it was acceptable to change. That something was the resurrection of Jesus, which occurred on a Sunday.
When you put all of those together—(1) that the Messiah’s death and resurrection were not the Jewish expectation, (2) that Jesus’ followers were not just his friends but even former enemies, (3) that the first witnesses were women in a patriarchal society, (4) that Jesus’ tomb never became a shrine, as did the tombs of other martyrs, (5) that Jesus’ disciples all suffered and died for what they believed to be true, and (6) that thousands of Jews were convinced to switch their sacred day of worship from Saturday to Sunday—these semi-ordinary events combine to form a tapestry of extraordinary evidence.
Not a Problem of Evidence
When you consider the teachings of Jesus in light of the evidence for his resurrection, all signs point in the same direction. Jesus truly was who he claimed to be: the Son of God, the Lord of creation, the long-awaited Messiah, the Savior of the world.
But why do some still not believe? If the evidence is so clear, how can anyone resist it?
We all have the same set of evidence, so it’s not that this person has more, thus they believe, while that person has less, so they don’t believe. No, the answer is found deep within our own hearts. So long as someone does not want Jesus to be who he claimed to be, they will continue to find an excuse to dismiss the evidence. In other words, there is enough evidence to convince those who are open to being convinced, but there will never be enough evidence to coerce someone who doesn’t want the gospel to be true.
Blaise Pascal, a brilliant Christian thinker in the 17th century, put it like this: “God so regulates the knowledge of himself that he has given indications of himself which are visible to those who seek him and not to those who do not seek him. There is enough light for those to see who desire to see, and enough obscurity for those who have a contrary disposition.”
This seems unfair, but it’s actually just God giving people what they want. He says to those who are open to him, “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.” (Jeremiah 29:13) And Jesus adds, “Seek and you will find, knock and the door shall be opened, ask and it will be given you. For he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it shall be opened, and to him who asks it shall be given.” (Matt. 7:7)
Meanwhile those who have already made up their mind, who are closed-minded and convinced in themselves, cannot be persuaded so long as they remain in that state. It’s not an evidence problem; it’s a desire problem. It’s not that there is no case for Jesus; it’s that they do not want any of it to be true. As atheist author Thomas Nagel confesses in his book, The Last Word, “I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God” (emphasis mine).
Ironic, isn’t it? An atheist author talks about what he wants to be true and what he hopes to be true, when usually it’s the religious folks who are accused of wishful thinking.
If you’re reading this and you’re not a convinced follower of Jesus, ask yourself: Are you open, truly open, to being wrong about Jesus? Have you considered the multiple streams of evidence that point to him? Are you honest enough to confess, like Thomas Nagel, that some part of you doesn’t want Jesus to be Lord? And finally, do you really think it’s wise to base on your life on what you want to be true, instead of giving the evidence a fair hearing?
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. But I think the evidence surrounding Jesus matches the claims about him, and he says to you now, “Seek and you will find.”
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.