By Joel Settecase / 12-minute read
Have you ever heard the expression, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence?” This phrase, popularized by the late atheist scientist Carl Sagan, has often been marshaled by internet atheists in online debates with Christians as a way of placing the burden of proof on the believer to demonstrate, by way of so-called extraordinary evidence, the existence of God.
When this happens, it can be very tempting for Christians to begin to scramble to assemble such evidence, and in the process we may even find our sure footing on Scripture to be shaken.
Yet what if it is not the Christian theist, the believer, who bears the burden of proof? What if it is actually the claim that God does not exist that is extraordinary, and therefore it is the atheist who must give extraordinary evidence?
As it turns out, and as we will see, the claim that Christian theists must provide "extraordinary evidence" to the atheist, and that without such provision, the atheist is therefore justified in his unbelief, falls completely flat.
1. Atheism Has No Problem With Extraordinary Beliefs Without Evidence
Because he already believes "extraordinary" claims without evidence.
The self-creation of the cosmos (denying the reason or cause for the universe, when it’s at the heart of our search for knowledge, whether through science or philosophy, to uncover causes and root out the reason for why events happen--presupposing that every effect has a cause, and that there is a reason for why things are)
Abiogenesis (the emergence of life out of non-life, which is a scientific impossibility), neo-Darwinian evolution (which even the Royal Society has declared to be a dead theory),
These are only two beliefs held by the atheist who wants to demand extraordinary evidence for the supposedly extraordinary doctrine that God exists. Yet he turns a blind eye to his own lack of evidence; he does not turn that microscope on himself and his own beliefs, which are far more extraordinary than the doctrine that God made everything.
Now the atheist may reply, "Ah! But those claims are not extraordinary at all. They are rooted in science--and the fact that you don't know that just shows how your (extraordinary) adherence to Christianity has corrupted your mind. You ought to abandon it! Well this brings us to the next problem the atheist faces.
2. The Impossibility Of Getting An “Ought” From An “Is”
Even if Christian theism were an extraordinary claim, the atheist has no basis for imposing an epistemological requirement on the believer that he provide extraordinary evidence--or any evidence at all!
Why? Because as notorious skeptic David Hume showed many years ago, you can't get an ought from an is. To do so requires appealing to a higher standard.
For example, the statement, imagine a scene in the Old West, in which one young Johnny Jackson burst into Sheriff Pete's office, panting from having run at top speed, and announced breathlessly, "Wyatt is beating his horse!" Now imagine our friend Sheriff Pete has not been educated at one of them fancy, newfangled Ivy League schools back east, and he has therefore never been trained in any academic theory of ethics. No Kantian deontology, no natural law, no American Utilitarianism, nothing.
We might imagine Sheriff Pete continuing to lean back in his chair, feet on his desk, and answering with a single word, "And?" Certainly Johnny might become perplexed that the sheriff didn't seem to grasp the implications of his message, but then after gathering himself he may answer, "...and beating yer horse is abuse!"
Imagine our sheriff friend now took his feet off his desk, leaned forward, tipped the brim of his hat back and asked again, "...And?" By this point, we could suppose that young Johnny Jackson has grown exasperated, and he would shout, "And animal abuse is WRONG, Sheriff Pete!"
Sheriff Pete, laconic as he was, pointed up the reality that one cannot jump from a statement about the way things are (e.g. Wyatt is beating his horse) to the way things should be ("Cowboys should not beat their horses").
The only way to get from is to ought is to draw on an authority that is higher than the one doing the deed. So Johnny might appeal to a city ordinance that bans horse-beating. Of course, the city ordinance, in order to keep from being arbitrary, would itself need to be grounded in a higher authority (say, a state law), which of course, dealing with the same question of ought, would itself need to be hang from some authority higher up.
In the end, all statements of ought need to draw their authority from an ultimate authority--one that transcends all moral actors and applies in all situations and at every place and time. The atheist, unfortunately for his worldview, has no such authority to appeal to. (And you already know what this authority is for the Christian believer!).
So when the atheist tells the believer that he ought to provide extraordinary evidence for his claim that God exists, or else he has no obligation (no "oughtness") to believe, he is hanging his claims on nothing and hoping the believer either won't notice or won't call him out on it.
3. Biblical Theism Is Not An Extraordinary Claim
Finally, the atheist argument, that the Christian believer must provide extraordinary evidence for his extraordinary claim that God exists, falls flat because the claim that God exists is not an extraordinary claim at all. In fact, it is a claim that is (or should we say, ought to be) obvious to everyone. How do we know this?
We know it because we believe the Bible. And in the Bible, in Romans 1, God says, "For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse." See? It says right there that everyone already has enough evidence of God's existence, because God's revealed it to everyone.
Now is that begging the question? After all, I'm starting with the presupposition that the Bible is the word of God--and that presupposes that God exists, and isn't that the very thing I'm trying to prove?
Well, first of all, no. I'm not trying to prove God exists. Because I don't have to... because everyone already knows he exists (though in our unrighteousness we often suppress the truth, according to Romans 1:18). Rather I'm demonstrating that the atheist has no bearing in trying to require "extraordinary proof" of believers. And if Romans 1:19-20 is true (and it is), then the argument really does fall flat.
Now the atheist is going to argue that he doesn't believe Romans 1:19-20, and therefore this doesn’t apply to him. However, his unbelief is irrelevant. Because Romans 1:19-20 really is true. And it’s part of a larger passage in which it’s argued (by the Apostle Paul) that, although men know God, they suppress that knowledge and refuse to either honor him or give him thanks. We could demonstrate the truth that all men know God by pointing to the abundant evidence from science, from philosophy, from history, from the changed lives of believers today, and there are many other ways of establishing Christian truth claims. And this is what the unbeliever claims to want, by asking for “extraordinary” evidence.
But providing that evidence is not the point of this argument (and if we were to provide them, and Romans 1:18-24 really is true, what do you think the unbeliever will do with that evidence? Do you think there’s a chance he might suppress that knowledge just like all the other knowledge about God?
Now I am not saying this to insult anyone. Nor am I judging or looking down on unbelievers for this. Instead, I want to give full-throated affirmation to the reality that, but for the grace of God, I would be (and was) in the exact same situation.
The fact is that atheists are already suppressing their inherent God-knowledge, and me throwing more evidence at them is just going to give them more God-knowledge to suppress. They need to be liberated from that desire to suppress through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s only through him that they will have their eyes opened to, not only their own suppression, but the overabundance of evidence that fills our universe. When that happens, it’s a beautiful thing. If you’re an atheist, I hope and pray that you will encounter God through Jesus Christ, experience his forgiveness, come to repentance, and enjoy new life and friendship with your Creator. But if you ask me for extraordinary evidence, you have to understand that I’m going to answer you from a biblical worldview--just as I expect you to operate out of your unbelieving worldview.
And if you are an atheist who enjoys believing that God does not exist, you need to understand that we Christians cannot abandon our worldview (which says you have enough evidence already) in order to prove something to you (the existence of God) that you don’t want to be true (though again I hope you come to have that desire and to have that desire fulfilled). So all this is not an argument for atheists but rather a reinforcement for Christians.
The argument is, "because Romans 1:19-20 is true, therefore the atheistic argument falls flat."
No, I don't expect this will convince many atheists. That's why I will rarely go this way in argumentation or debate. Rather, I'll use arguments that demonstrate how the very concept of truth presupposes God, or that answer, “Is Christianity Illogical?” or point them to a great video from an apologist like Jeff Durbin debating atheists at the Reason Rally, showing how belief in atheistic evolution-ism undercuts its own conclusions.
No, I'm writing this mainly for Christians (though wouldn't it be great if an atheist read it and God used it as part of his or her journey to faith in Christ?!). You can be confident that, when an atheist demands "extraordinary evidence" for your belief in God and the Christian Gospel, he has neither the epistemic authority to do so, nor is he being consistent with his own worldview. You're more than welcome to tell him about some of the evidence for God (and the universe is filled with such evidence!), without giving up your biblical worldview of course, but his demand should not shake your confidence in the least.
Instead, feel free to engage in discussion, pray for him, reason with him, point out flaws in his own worldview, and be sure to quote lots and lots of Scripture. After all, the Bible itself is where we derive our belief in God, and it is one extraordinary book.
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