Do ‘Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence’?
When dialoguing with skeptics, one phrase you can expect to see repeated time and time again is this: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
On the surface, this may seem quite reasonable. After all, how can we make an extraordinary claim if we don’t have the proper evidence to back it up? Upon closer examination, however, this statement turns out to be a clever sleight-of-hand; what counts as ‘extraordinary’ is subjective, and entirely dependent on your starting assumptions!
By making this statement, the skeptic is, in effect, asking you to write them a blank check to be just as intractable and unmovable as their heart desires, rejecting any and all evidence that they deem not ‘extraordinary’ enough to warrant belief. I urge you: don’t be willing to write them that blank check. Instead, insist that a reasonable and fair standard of evidence be applied—the same standards that are used in other areas.
Since all evidence is interpreted from within the framework of a person’s worldview, don’t expect that when we, for example, are arguing for the reliability of Scripture, or for the evidence of God’s existence from nature, that the skeptic will suddenly ‘see the light’ just because you mention things like early independent attestation (in the case of New Testament reliability) or the incredible design in nature (in the case of God’s existence). They already have ways of looking at these things through their ‘agnostic/atheist glasses’ that render these things unremarkable, or ‘not extraordinary enough’, in their eyes. Yet at the same time, they will embrace all manner of highly extraordinary claims (like chemical evolution or ‘abiogenesis’ and undirected evolution of life from single cells up to human beings) with very weak or no evidential backing.
The ‘extraordinary claims’ maxim is a double standard. You can usually be sure that the person uttering this statement is not willing to apply it to their own claims! If you play their rigged game and it proves unfruitful—as it almost certainly will—try a different tactic instead. Expose their non-Christian worldview for the incoherent mess that it inevitably is: take the roof off!
For example, you may ask the skeptic to justify their use of reason in the first place. Since they are attempting to sit in judgment against the Christian worldview, what is it about their worldview that grants them any justification for doing so? How can they trust their ability to reason, or their own sense perception? If they are evolutionists, then they believe they are the ultimate product of random mutations filtered through the process of natural selection. But we know that natural selection only serves to favor what works for survival! ‘Truth’ is totally irrelevant to this process. So, an evolutionist skeptic has to depend on their brains and their senses to give them ‘truth’, when their own worldview provides no basis for trusting these faculties. They may believe in evolution only because they are genetically predestined to do so—not because it has any merit as objective truth. In this way, we see that evolution is self-defeating as an epistemology or theory of knowledge.
You cannot change a skeptic’s heart to make them receptive to the truth of the Gospel, but that should not stop you from making mincemeat of their hypocritical arguments when you have the chance. Depending upon the situation, I would also highly recommend that you employ these techniques in as gentle and loving a manner as you can: “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still!”