Can You Have Human Rights Without Scripture?

By L. Alfred James

human rights

The Bible has been extremely important in making the world a better place. Last article we noted one cause for this. Scripture provides a logical reason for believing that human beings are intrinsically valuable. Namely, that they are made in the image of God. The evidence from history confirms that scripture, and this doctrine in particular, has radically transformed Western culture for the better.

Without any scripture, without any revelation from God, we have no reason for thinking that human beings have much value. To be sure, we might feel that human beings have great value. But those are just feelings, and feelings often lead us astray. We should be guided by our intellect, not our emotions. And intellectually, we have no reason for believing that human beings are more valuable than pigs, monkeys, dogs, grasshoppers, or trees. As far as we can tell, these feelings of human value are just delusions of grandeur, an unjustified belief in the superiority of human beings over the rest of nature.

This means that there is no such thing as human rights. Why? Because belief in human rights, without a revelation from God, is just a gigantic leap of faith. Listen to how William Lane Craig explains it:

If you take a scientific naturalistic view of the world, you are not going to have a belief in human rights and morality. Ethical values can’t be found in a test tube. If you believe in human rights and morality you have immediately transcended the limits of science and have admitted that there are sources of truth and kinds of truth that are not scientifically accessible.1

And just as (we saw last week) the evidence from history confirms that a reverence of scripture leads to the elevation of all human beings (slaves, women, children, poor, etc.), by the same token the evidence from history also confirms that a rejection of scripture leads to a devaluing of life. As a case study, consider the society of France in the 1700’s.

Human Reason Idolized

In the late 1600’s, scientific thinkers like Isaac Newton, Galileo, Johannes Kepler, Robert Boyle, and Rene Descartes acquired celebrity status. Their popularity was due to their astonishing breakthroughs regarding gravity, astronomy, and mathematics. Their theories made numerous accurate predictions about the stars, the planets, small objects in motion, large objects in motion, air pressure, and combustion. It seemed as if the human mind was finally able to understand nature and learning to harness its power.

Because of these achievements, many intellectuals in Europe came to believe that human intelligence could conquer all problems. There was no limit to what we could figure out. Careful logical reasoning could tell us what is good, what is true, and what is real. The term for this kind of confidence in purely human reasoning is humanism.

Thus, there was no need for any kind scripture. There was no longer any need to depend on the Bible to tell us how to think and how to live. Intellectual superstars like Voltaire, Thomas Hobbes, and Jean-Jacque Rousseau fiercely insisted that society should eagerly dispense with the Bible and most Christian doctrines.


Voltaire published a multi-volume Philosophical Dictionary that was overflowing with bitter and inflammatory sarcasm against the Bible. He also confidently expressed his belief that Christianity would soon cease to exist. In a 1767 letter to Frederick the Great, the King of Prussia, he said, “Christianity is the most ridiculous, the most absurd, and bloody religion that has ever infected the world…My one regret in dying is that I cannot aid you in this noble enterprise of extirpating the world of this infamous superstition.”

Thus, these brilliant people, teeming with intellectual swagger, declared the Bible to be utterly irrelevant. Of course, they still believed that God existed. This is largely because there was no viable theory of evolution that had been formulated before Darwin, and they needed God in order to explain how the universe came to exist and how life came to exist. But that was about all they needed God for. God’s only role was creating the universe and life. After that, he was out of a job. The name for this kind of belief, belief in a non-Christian God who was silent (and inactive), was Deism.

The French Revolution: A Case Study

Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, and other anti-Christian thinkers were enormously influential in France. A huge number of the intelligentsia in French culture followed them devoutly. A blossoming movement took root. Its goal was to eradicate Christianity and exalt human reason. This movement grew and eventually fomented a revolution, the French Revolution. They overthrew the king and established a completely secular government. Francis Schaeffer explains:

In June 1789, the first phase of the liberal bourgeois plan of the French Revolution was at its height. . . . Their base, consciously, was purely a humanist theory of rights. On August 26, 1789, they issued the Declaration of the Rights of Man. It sounded fine, but it had nothing to rest upon.


Church property was confiscated, churches were converted into “temples of reason,” and the calendar was changed so it would no longer be based on the birth of Christ. The French revolutionaries were very confident and hopeful. Things were looking so bright. They enthusiastically believed they would create an intellectual utopia, a society that is perfectly rational. How? By depending only on human reason!

But the Declaration of the Rights of Man was simply an empty declaration. In point of fact, after installing a secular government, all rights were now dependent entirely on that government. Human rights had no theological basis. This was a major problem for those who wanted to be logical. Without a supernatural revelation about the worth of human beings, there was no way to justify the claim that human beings have any rights. If anyone asked, “Why should I believe that human beings have rights? What is the rational basis of such rights?” there was no objective way to answer this question. 200 years later there is still no objective answer. As a result, the only basis for human rights was the new revolutionary government. And the only way to have your rights protected by that government was to obey it. Sadly, what the government gives, the government can take away.

By the end of 1794 more than 300,000 people had been arrested on the suspicion that they were not cooperating with the new government. At least 40,000 of these people were killed, many of them beheaded. In fact, the original leader of the revolution, Maximilien Robespierre, was himself executed in July 1794. By that time, two percent of all adults in France had been arrested.3 So much for human rights.

NapoleonThe “Directory” (the second version of a revolutionary government) miserably failed to live up to the utopian dreams of the intellectuals who fomented the revolution. Besides the aforementioned brutality, the French economy was floundering, and the military was fighting wars on multiple fronts. All of this made the government extremely weak. Thus, they quickly submitted to their highest-ranking military leader, Napoleon, when he decided he was taking charge. He hastily took over as the absolute ruler of France, and then gave it his best shot to take over as the absolute ruler of the world. So much for a rational utopia. So much for human rights.

Thus, the intellectual arrogance of Voltaire, Rousseau, and their fellow deists ultimately led to the deaths of thousands, and the despotism of a dictator.

What does this ignoble experiment in deistic governance teach us? It teaches us that human reason—without scripture—cannot provide a logical basis for believing in human worth. And a society with no logical basis for human worth will be chaotic. As Vishal Mangalwadi has said:

Equality and human rights are not self-evident truths. In his original draft, Thomas Jefferson penned, “We hold these truths to be sacred and unalienable.” That was the truth. That’s why the Declaration grounded the “unalienable” rights in the Creator rather than in the state. The most honest declaration would have been, “We hold these truths to be divinely revealed.” Revelation is the reason why America believed what some Deists ascribed to “common sense.” To be precise, these truths appeared common sense to the American Founders because their sense was shaped by the common impact of the Bible—even if a few of them doubted that the Bible was divinely revealed.4



1. William Lane Craig, “An Interview With Timothy Keller.”
2. Francis Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? (Wheaton, IL: CrossWay Books, 1976), 122.
3. See
4. Mangalwadi, Vishal. The Book that Made Your World (pp. 391-392). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.

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