Agnostic Carl Sagan is typically credited with coining the phrase, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, which has sometimes been referred to as the “Sagan Standard”. Sagan may actually have been parroting a fellow scientist – Marcello Truzzi – who said "An extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof”, but nonetheless, the phrase has been pinned to the famous Cosmos TV series creator and has been used many times by atheists to challenge the truth claims put forward by Christians.
When it comes to belief in God, is extraordinary evidence truly needed? If it is, does such a thing exist for God? Lastly, if such a standard is necessary, then does it also apply to the atheist worldview if it makes extraordinary claims?
What is ‘Extraordinary Evidence’?
Before we get started, I want to make it clear that there is everything right with a person asking for reasons and evidence to back up a truth claim – any truth claim. Since consequences exist in every area of life for being wrong, it’s reasonable and rational to ask questions and request verification to validate claims made by others, especially those that directly impact our life. One of Christianity’s best defenders – Francis Schaeffer – said, “Every honest question must be given an honest answer. It is unbiblical for anyone to say, ‘just believe.’”
But, do we need extraordinary evidence to believe in God? Before we can answer, we have to know what the skeptic means when they say they want evidence that is ‘extraordinary’.
If the unbeliever equates extraordinary with something that is supernatural, the situation becomes untenable as the skeptic is usually asking for evidence to prove another supernatural event like Jesus’ resurrection. If they require another miracle to validate a prior miracle, then they immerse themselves in an infinite series of requests as the second miracle now needs a third and so on.
If, by extraordinary, the non-Christian means something that is scientifically provable via repeatable experimentation and such, then nothing from history or any singular occurrence can be embraced as being true, and few are willing to assume that much skepticism.
If extraordinary means more than the usual, then is it a matter of quantity (e.g. 100 people saw something vs. just 5) or probability (the mathematical odds being likely or remote), or authority (experts agreeing/disagreeing) or a combination of these and others?
If we use the last definition (more than usual), which is the only one truly feasible out of the three, then I would like you to consider that, where Christianity is concerned, the bases are well covered.
The High Probability that God Exists
The vast majority of the time, when someone says a claim is extraordinary, they are implying that a low probability exists of the statement being true. With God, I strongly believe that the proposition ‘God Exists’ has a rather high probability of being correct, and therefore, extraordinary evidence is not needed.
Starting at ground zero, no matter how you section reality, you will always end up with something that owes its existence to something other than itself. This means every thinker who asks the question, “Why do we have something rather than nothing at all?” must go back to something that is the First Cause; something that is not contingent but is eternal. Unless a person believes in an infinite regress of causes (and few, if any do) or self-creation (an analytically false proposition) we must go back to something that has always existed, including those who try to redefine what ‘nothing’ means as Stephen Hawking and Lawrence Krauss try to do.
This means that both the Christian and atheist embrace an eternal First Cause of our existence. But how do we go about solving the disagreement over what that eternal cause is?
Skeptics often propose an eternal universe or multi-verse as their first cause, however their claim has two problems. First, as Dr. Alexander Vilenkin demonstrated in his “State of the Universe” paper, which was presented at the 70th birthday celebration of Stephen Hawking that took place in January 2012, “all the evidence we have says that the universe had a beginning.” Moreover, Vilenkin’s proof developed with Arvind Borde and Alan Guth, shows that any universe which has, on average, been expanding throughout its history cannot be infinite in the past but must have a past space-time boundary. This includes any supposed multi-verse. Since our universe and any multi-verse have a beginning, they have a cause and are not eternal.
How can we understand what our first cause is like? One proven route is by recognizing that the nature of any particular ‘thing’ can be ascertained by the effects it produces. Science confirms that an effect always resembles its cause in nature or essence (i.e. something can’t give what it doesn’t have; e.g. If I don’t have love, I can’t give love), so this acts as a strong guiding principle in helping determine the nature of any first cause.
As an example, when it comes to humanity, the question of how an impersonal, non-conscious, meaningless, purposeless, and amoral universe accidentally created personal, conscious, moral beings who are obsessed with meaning and purpose becomes a real problem for those wanting the universe to be our first cause. No appeal to any work in Abiogenesis can help. A natural-only universe simply hasn’t the wherewithal to produce those observed effects.
Instead, it would seem highly probable and reasonable to conclude that any first cause represented by the effects we see is personal (defined as ‘having intent’), moral, timeless, changeless, immaterial, intelligent, and incredibly powerful. Sounds an awful lot like the God of the Bible, doesn’t it?
So, the situation becomes rather ironic for the skeptic. They must explain why they consider the idea of an eternal universe, for which there is no evidence, completely acceptable, but the idea of an eternal Creator that has good philosophical and empirical evidence preposterous. In the end, it is atheism that actually possesses a low probability of being correct, and not Christianity. Thus, it would seem that if any worldview has a burden to supply extraordinary evidence to back up its claims as to why we and everything else are here, it is atheism.
Extraordinary Evidence for God
Beyond the proposal of a first-cause Creator being reasonable, what else exists when it comes to ‘extraordinary’ evidence for God?
How about the Anthropic Principle – it demonstrates an anticipatory design in the universe and yields some compelling evidence. Astrophysicist Hugh Ross has calculated that the odds of all anthropic constants (120+ at last count) to be in place for any planet in the universe by luck alone to be one chance in ten with 138 zeros after it. This number becomes even more incredible when one realizes there are only 1070 atoms in the entire universe.
While critics have tried to shoot holes in the fine-tuning argument, they’ve failed pretty miserably leaving us with some pretty extraordinary evidence to support the claim of a cosmic Designer.
Next, because I’ve been a database engineer and software executive for decades, I’m constantly amazed at the enormous amounts of information (not data) that is contained within life. Even Richard Dawkins admits that the message found in just the cell nucleus of an amoeba has more information than all thirty volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica, with the entire amoeba itself having as much information in its DNA as 1,000 complete sets of the Encyclopedia Britannica.
The important thing to understand is that the makeup of these entities is not random, but rather the information is highly organized, indicating an intelligent source. If an archaeologist can walk into a cave and ascertain from a few scratches on the wall that an intelligent source was there, it seems to me that with all the information surging through our bodies, we have some pretty extraordinary evidence for the claim of a supernatural Creator.
What about the Bible – is there anything there that speaks to a supernatural source?
While studying engineering, statistics, etc., in college, I was confronted with and blown away by the prophecies contained within the Bible. Prophecies such as the destruction of Tyre (Ezek. 26:1-16), the regathering of Israel in our lifetime after thousands of years of dispersion (Is. 11:11-12; 66:7-8), Daniel’s prophecies about the rise and fall of Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome, and specific leaders such as Alexander the Great and Antiochus Epiphanies (Dan. 7:1-8; Dan. 8, Dan. 11) are so specific and on the mark that the only way skeptics have tried to refute them is by saying they were written after the fact. However, good historical investigation proves their claims to be false.
Moreover, the prophecies about the coming of Jesus are simply astonishing. Over 100 distinct prophecies about Christ hundreds of years before His birth were made, which all came true. Peter Stoner, in his book Science Speaks, calculates the odds of just eight prophecies being accidentally fulfilled in the life of one man to be 1017 or one hundred quadrillion. Mathematicians point out that anything which exceeds 1050 power is the exact same thing as zero chance, and this probability is exceeded with 20 fulfilled prophecies (and remember, Jesus fulfilled over 100).
Concerning Bible prophecy, Blaise Pascal wrote: "I see many contradictory religions, and consequently all false save one. Each wants to be believed on its own authority, and threatens unbelievers. I do not therefore believe them. Every one can say this; every one can call himself a prophet. But I see that Christian religion wherein prophecies are fulfilled; and that is what every one cannot do." It seems to me we have some pretty extraordinary evidence to substantiate the supernatural nature of the Bible and the God behind that Bible.
I could continue, but you get the idea. I think Christianity has some pretty extraordinary evidence on its side.
Extraordinary Evidence for Atheism?
But, let’s now stop for a moment and consider the skeptic and atheist worldview. Do they make claims that necessitate extraordinary evidence?
The atheist claims that a cause (with a beginning all its own) possessing none of the characteristics of its effects created all that we know via time + matter + chance. That’s a pretty extraordinary claim.
The atheist claims that “Living objects . . . look designed, they look overwhelmingly as though they’re designed. Biology is the study of complicated things which give the impression of having been designed for a purpose” but are not designed, and that the information contained with all of us did not come from an intelligent source. That’s a pretty extraordinary claim.
The atheist claims that Jesus either never existed or all the historical accounts written about Him are inaccurate, exaggerated, and cannot be trusted. Given all the historical evidence refuting such a position, that’s a pretty extraordinary claim.
If extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, then the atheist has some explaining to do. And that explaining needs to involve supplying the same extraordinary evidence that they require of Christians.
 Carl Sagan (writer/host) (December 14, 1980). "Encyclopaedia Galactica". Cosmos. episode 12. 01:24 minutes in. PBS.
 Marcello Truzzi (1978). "On the Extraordinary: An Attempt at Clarification". Zetetic Scholar 1 (1): 11.
 Francis Schaeffer, “The God Who is There” in Trilogy (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1990), 189.
 Hugh Ross, “Why I Believe in the Miracle of Divine Creation” in Why I am a Christian, Geisler & Hoffman, general editors (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2006), 138-141.
 Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, (W. W. Norton & Company, 1996), 17-18, 116.
 For more information on these prophecies and others, see Newman’s compilation of evidence from Bible prophecy http://www.amazon.com/The-Evidence-prophecy-prediction- Christianity/dp/094478898X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1338935170&sr=8-1
 http://www.sciencespeaks.net/ (Chapter: The Christ of Prophecy).
 Dawkins, 1.
Robin Schumacher is a software executive and Christian apologist who has written many apologetic articles, appeared on nationally syndicated radio programs, and presented at various apologetic events. He holds a Master's in Christian apologetics and a Ph.D. in New Testament.