Lauren and Michael McAfee on the Bible’s Impact on Human Rights

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Lauren Green McAfee is a speaker, writer, and connector with a heart to engage others in the Bible, as well as Corporate Ambassador for Hobby Lobby. Michael McAfee is Director of Bible Engagement for the Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C.

This excerpt is taken from Not What You Think by Michael & Lauren McAfee. Copyright © 2019 by Michael & Lauren McAfee. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com.


The Bible begins with the story of creation. God speaks the universe into existence. Within that story is the account of the creation of humankind. According to the Bible, above and beyond everything else God made, humans are special, his crowning achievement! The Book of Genesis records the moment when God decided to create human beings: “Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’ So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:26–27).

According to the Bible, humans are different because, unlike all the other creatures on the planet, we are created in God’s image. Everyone bears what Christian teaching calls the imago Dei—Latin for “image of God”—and therefore are often referred to as image bearers. For this reason, humans have worth; they have value over and above anything else in creation. When this notion is applied to ethics and human rights, it is revolutionary.

We are all made in the image of God. This is what makes our worth and our dignity inherent and inseparable from who we are, whether governments recognize human rights or not. We do not have rights because we deserve them; we do not have rights because we have earned them; we do not have rights because we are white or black, male or female, American or Chinese. We have rights because each of us is made in the image of God and therefore has inherent worth and dignity.

Yet this truth hasn’t always been self-evident or widely believed. Throughout history, various cultures have recognized the rights of the few—perhaps only men, perhaps only white men, perhaps only landowners. In ancient Greece, the birthplace of democracy, men were viewed as having rights, while women and children and non-Greeks were viewed primarily as property.

It is in Christianity and, more specifically, in the Bible that we find the source of universal human rights. All humans are created in the image of God—this is the abolitionists’ argument for the dissolution of slavery. All women are created in the image of God—this is the argument of women’s rights advocates for equal pay and voting rights. Children are created in the image of God—this is the argument against child labor. For pro-life advocates, this truth extends even into the womb, as they argue that every fetus is a human being, an image bearer in utero, and therefore is deserving of freedom and life.

Although it may be easy to take these rights for granted or to think that they are merely part of what it means to be Western or American, the roots of basic human rights are found in the assertion that every person has inherent worth because every person is made in the image of God.

The late Max Stackhouse, professor and director of the Kuyper Center for Public Theology at Princeton, put it this way: “Intellectual honesty demands recognition of the fact that what passes as ‘secular,’ ‘Western’ principles of basic human rights developed nowhere else than out of key strands of the biblically rooted religions.” This biblical foundation for human rights also serves as the basis for modern ethics and the concept of social justice.

Justice for All

Few causes animate our generation like issues of social justice. Once we acknowledge that every individual has inherent human rights, those rights must be protected by law. But as we have seen over the course of human history, there are times when the law denies protection to those most in need of it. Many horrendous actions have at one time or another been sanctioned by the law. So how do we decide which laws to keep and which to overturn? Simply because some prejudice remains legal, that in no way makes it right.

One of the reasons the Bible is valuable is because it reveals the moral character of God, and in so doing, it reveals the kind of moral character he intended for the people he created. If humans are made in the image of God, then it is reasonable to think that part of bearing his image is to act in a way that reflects his character. We will see that the God of the Bible is just, condemns evil, and has compassion for victims.

The Bible reveals a God whose character remains consistent and whose desire for justice remains clear. This revelation exists above both personal and legal opinion on social issues and serves as the ultimate source of appeal when at times we just get it wrong.

Martin Luther King Jr. recognized this. He was jailed in Birmingham, Alabama, for exercising his constitutional right to free speech and for fighting for the freedom of an oppressed class of citizens. King could not appeal to the crowd for justice; in his case and during his time, he could barely appeal to the courts. King did what many in the past have done when earthly justice was denied them: He appealed to a law which transcends time and supersedes secular authority.

King wrote, “How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. … An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality.”

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Source: Christianity Today