People do not ask for their rights any more, they demand them. They seek liberty without responsibility. They say, “Hey, I’ve got my rights!” Often, when people start insisting on their rights, what they are really asking for are new and special privileges.

That is not the way human rights were understood fifty years ago this week (December 10, 1948), when the United Nations approved its Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That Declaration is worth pondering because it is the most important statement this century about what human beings are and what they are for.

The Bible does not speak about “human rights,” at least in so many words. It hardly ever talks about what other people owe us. It is much more concerned with what we owe to others—things like acting justly and loving mercy (Micah 6:8).

Nevertheless, many parts of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reflect biblical truth. It is a monument to God’s common grace, in part because some of the men who wrote it—men like Charles Malik and Jacques Maritain—wrote from the standpoint of the Christian world view.

First, its preamble affirms “the dignity and worth of the human person.” There is something unique about every human being, something to be prized and protected.

The Declaration tries to explain why this is true. It is because human beings are “endowed with reason and conscience” and are able to “act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood” (Article 1). That is true, although it does not quite explain the real reason human beings are so valuable. It is because we are created in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:26-27). The one who has endowed us with reason and conscience is the Creator.

But at least the document recognizes that there is something special about human beings. They deserve respect. “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status” (Article 2).

In keeping with biblical teaching, the U.N. Declaration takes its stand against injustices such as slavery, torture, and false arrest. It preserves the freedom of religion, including the freedom to change religions. “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance” (Article 18). This is an important article because Islamic countries, especially, deny citizens the right to convert to Christianity.

The Declaration shows respect for the family as well as the individual. It offers special protections for mothers and children. It identifies the family as the “natural and fundamental group unit of society” (Article 16). This, too, is part of God’s plan, that human society is founded upon stable families.

Then there are the comments the Declaration makes about work and leisure. Here, too, the view is nearly biblical. Everyone should work, and in just and favorable conditions (Article 23). Everyone “has the right to rest and leisure” (Article 24). This, of course, is the reason for the biblical Sabbath. God has made us in such a way that we flourish when we maintain rhythms of work and rest.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is that it understands that rights are really responsibilities. These days a right has come to mean something everyone else owes me. But that is not how the U.N. Declaration understands a right. Article 29 clearly explains that everyone “has duties to the community,” and that the purpose of the law is to show “respect for the rights and freedoms of others.”

Properly understood, a human right is not something I insist on for myself, it is a responsibility I undertake for someone else. This is simply the biblical view of love: treating my neighbor as myself (Matt. 22:39). Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others (Phil. 2:4).

All these things fit in well with a biblical view of the world. If these are what human rights are, then Christianity is all for them: the dignity of humanity, the cry for justice, the freedom to worship, the sanctity of the family, and the balance between work and leisure.

There is only one major problem with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: human beings themselves. The Declaration was written while the wounds of the Second World War were still fresh. It was a response to the horrific events of the 1940’s, especially the Holocaust. It was written because “disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind” (Preamble).

Unfortunately, not much has changed since then. Disregard and contempt for human life continue to result in barbarous acts which outrage the human conscience. The U. N. Declaration has been unable to stop the atrocities of the last 50 years. It could not stop the gulags of the Soviet Union, the “ethnic cleansing” in the Balkans, or the wanton slaughter carried out by dictators like Pol Pot and Idi Amin.

It has never been able to deliver what it promised: “a social and international order in which rights and freedoms” could be “fully realized.” In that respect, at least, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been a universal failure.

This week U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan described the 1948 Declaration as “the highest of human aspirations.” If that is true, then the very best humanity has to offer is not good enough. It is not good enough to bring peace on earth and good will to men.

Only God can do that, and only through his Prince of Peace (Isa. 9:6). Yet Jesus Christ is conspicuous by his absence from the U.N. Declaration. When the document was first written, Jacques Maritain said, “Yes, we agree about the rights, but on condition no one asks us why.” Why do human beings have rights? As long as that question remains unanswered, human beings will not be treated with the respect they deserve.

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