In Sunday School this week, we were given the assignment of determining the biblical position on human rights and whether the term “human rights” as it’s commonly understood has any biblical foundation. Regardless of one’s religion, the dominant position in the world today is that people indeed have rights and that those rights are inherent. Often, these rights merely consist of the negation of suffering: the right not to be persecuted, tortured, enslaved or murdered. People around the world who suffer in those ways are said to have had their human rights violated. There’s no question that human rights violations are evil. The question, as I understand it, is where these rights come from. A second question would be whether the idea of rights exists only on the horizontal (person-to-person) plane, or also on the vertical plane (person-to-God).
For the first question, the Christian can only say that these rights, like all good things, come from God. The Torah contains many laws about respecting people’s lives and property. Perhaps the most basic commandment of all, the command not to murder, has its basis in a person’s being made in the image of God (Genesis 9:6). So it can be said that bearing the image of God gives a person the right to life, a right that can’t be taken away by another person but, crucially, a right that can be taken away according to the law of God (more on that when we get to the second question). Every statement in the Bible about caring for the oppressed (Leviticus 19:13-16, Deuteronomy 24:14-15, Job 31:16-23, Isaiah 1:17, Jeremiah 7:6, Matthew 25:31-46, James 1:27, for example) can be understood to presume the basic human right to escape having powerful people take advantage of you. Isaiah 10:2 explicitly refers to the rights of the poor, holding human lawmakers up to a higher standard for how to treat the oppressed.
But what must be acknowledged is that when God makes these commands, and when people obey them, they are a gift. A mere cursory glance at the state of the world will show that what we, in the United States of America, take for granted — liberty, peace, comfort — is not the norm. It is not inherent in our fallen race to bestow human rights. Why is it inherent to expect them? Perhaps this is another manifestation of that universal understanding about God that the Apostle Paul mentions in Romans 1. It is also, of course, basic human selfishness. We might not speak out about another person’s suffering, but we certainly will about our own. This leads me to the biggest danger in discussions of human rights: the idea of entitlement. We receive so many good things from God every day that we might start to think we deserve them. And that’s our second question: do we have rights before God?
Very much tied to the idea of rights is the idea of justice. In fact, they’re essentially synonymous: a rights violation is an injustice. And so it makes sense to consider human rights based on the Old Testament, because God made laws to condemn the injustice of oppression. Now, the question of how God Himself respects justice in His relationship to people goes all the way back to Abraham (Genesis 18:25) and Job (Job 27:2, 31:2-4). It has burdened the human race throughout all time. Do we have rights, and if so, why have they been violated constantly through thousands of years of human suffering and death? God has the power to stop that suffering, yet does not. How is this just?
The Bible has the answer, and it stings. Because of sin, justice for the human race requires death (Ezekiel 18:4; Luke 13:3; Romans 5:12, 6:23; James 1:15; 1 John 3:14). The first sin ever committed carried the punishment of death (Genesis 2:17), and so does all sin, which means every human being deserves that punishment (Romans 3:23). When people understand this, they will not be quick to demand justice or fairness from God. And yet I think it would be quite biblical to say that in our fallen state, the only right we have before a holy God is the right to be destroyed, which is hardly a right at all.
But mercifully, this is not the end of the story. Through the death of Christ on the cross, God carried out justice and established salvation for His people at the same time (Romans 3:21-26). Mercy and grace are significant terms in any discussion of New Testament theology, but it mustn’t be forgotten that justice is maintained through it all. God never saved anyone by fiat. The power of Christ’s death makes the saved righteous (2 Corinthians 5:21). To step out from under the cloud of death we must take off our old sin nature (Romans 6). But for those who do this, by the power of God, the result is eternal life (John 3:16, Romans 6:23, Revelation 21:4). This is where we see two passages in the New Testament that actually do speak about our rights in the context of salvation. John 1:12 (NIV, NKJV, ESV, NASB, NLT) states that those who believe in Jesus are given the right “to become children of God.” This language expresses the security of believers and the joy of their new relationship with God. The only standard for justice, God Himself, declares here that it is just and right for believers to claim this status. Then, in Revelation 22:14 (NIV, NKJV, ESV, NASB), those who have been saved and purified have the right to “the tree of life.” As children of God, they may partake in eternity with Him. These are not merely privileges, subject to forfeiture. They are rights eternally promised by someone who cannot lie (Hebrews 6:18, Titus 1:2).
There’s so much more to get into here. I haven’t even scratched the surface as far as any kind of word study is concerned. But, as in all things, I pray that I’ve told the truth, accurately representing a worldview that gives glory to God and seeks His kingdom. God hates injustice, and to reflect His character we must speak out against oppression in the world and do our best to stop it. At the same time, in the ultimate sense we have no entitlement before God. Christ bought our salvation for us, but judgment is still coming. Maybe the best way to sum everything up is to acknowledge that all rights are “God-given rights.”