Where Do Human Rights Come from?

A political commentator on MSNBC made the claim that if you believe human rights come from God, you aren’t just a Christian; you are a Christian nationalist. This is an amazing statement because if human rights don’t come from God, they can only come from people. Who else is left? Giraffes? Aliens? Nothing comes from nowhere.

Apparently, she trusts that people who don’t believe in God can somehow formulate a proper view of human rights. Ivan the Terrible, Genghis Khan, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot,  etc. all demonstrate how tragically wrong she is. Of course, people can say they believe in God and be racist murdering dictators, but in fact, it is their own views of selective human rights that give rights to themselves, and those loyal to them, and deny the rights of everyone else that they can use for their own purposes, including slave labor and holocausts. The Holocaust Museum in Israel, where they read the names of slaughtered children for hour after hour after hour, and walking on the killing fields of Cambodia with hundreds of thousands of human bones at my feet, cemented this in my mind. Period.

I remember reading an atheist decades ago who was saying how deeply grateful he was that many people believed in God, because he admitted that he had no basis whatsoever for human rights, and at least God-fearing people did, even though he believed they were wrong. He understood that if human rights are decided by humans, no human is safe.

Richard Wurmbrand, tortured in communist prisons, wrote, “The cruelty of atheism is hard to believe. When man has no faith in the reward of good or the punishment of evil, there is no reason to be human. There is no restraint from the depths of evil which is in man. The communist torturers often said, ‘There is no God, no hereafter, no punishment for evil. We can do what we wish.’”

We know murderers and rapists violate human rights. But how do we know this? We have a consensus about objective moral standards, and we even agree on many of them. But if God does not exist, then on what objective basis could human rights exist?

Rights must come from somewhere. The Declaration of Independence claims “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” But what if no Creator exists? Imagine a declaration saying, “Human beings, even those dumber than toast and too weak to survive on their own, are equal and have the same rights as the smart and strong.” Leave out the Creator and you leave out human rights.

After quoting the Declaration of Independence, Francis Schaeffer wrote in A Christian Manifesto:

Who gives the rights? The state? Then they are not inalienable because the state can change them and take them away. Where do the rights come from? They [i.e., the authors of the Declaration of Independence] understood that they were founding the country upon the concept that goes back into the Judeo-Christian thinking that there is Someone there who gave the inalienable rights. . .

Responding to the commentator I quoted at the beginning of this blog, Daniel Darling wrote:

Something a lot of journalists and pundits get wrong about the belief that natural rights “come from God.” This isn’t a signal that we want a theocratic state. It’s a belief that actually puts limits on what government can and cannot do. Governments, therefore, are stewards of liberty and cannot burden the conscience.

Even those who reject the claims of the Christian worldview should acknowledge that it does in fact offer a moral foundation upon which to base human rights, and to discern good and evil. And they should ask themselves whether, without realizing it, they sometimes borrow from the Christian worldview because their own worldview cannot provide a foundation on which to judge good and evil.

Without such a foundation, this world would be a frightening place to live in—as indeed it is wherever human rights are opposed or undermined. 

Photo: Unsplash

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries