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.

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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.

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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.”

It is hard to underestimate the impact of the Bible on this particular episode in American history. King, a Christian preacher, confronted the human rights violations of his day with an appeal based not on common consensus but on a higher truth rooted in the character of God as revealed in the Bible.

The influence that the Bible has had on our culture is difficult to ignore. However, you may not agree with this characterization of history, and you may not share our opinion of the Bible’s importance in regard to social justice or human rights. In fact, you have the freedom to disagree with us. And it is to that freedom, religious freedom, we now turn.

Free to (Dis)Believe

One of the common criticisms we have heard in our travels and in the many discussions we have had across the country is that the Bible is a source of oppression and that Christians are always trying to force their faith on others. Christians are often portrayed in media as being pushy, demanding contrarians to culture, protesting the rights of others and seeking everything from limits on sex to censorship. Many have told us that they feel Christians who engage in the public square and attempt to influence public policy do so in order to compel everyone to believe the way they do.

We are sensitive to this criticism. As we consider the way Christians have engaged with society and culture, we cannot deny that the motives of some in the public square might align with those accusations. But we want to begin to separate what some people claim is biblical from what the Bible actually says.

Among other things, this country was founded on the desire to exercise freedom of religious expression. Waves of people left Europe and other shores where religious belief and practice were controlled by the church or the state, and they came to the New World to read and apply the Bible according to their personal convictions. And as our nation began to formalize our freedom, it became law that the state shall “make no law regarding the establishment of religion and the free exercise thereof.”

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Since the founding of this nation, Christians have advocated for an opportunity to be heard, free from governmental, religious, and societal constraints. We wish for an opportunity to offer up the truth we have found in the Bible, and it is up to you to take it or leave it. Christianity is strengthened, and the Bible is in no way limited, when other religions have the same access to the marketplace of ideas that it has. If we could whisper one thing into the ear of every culture warrior, it would be that it is not necessary to limit others in order to be heard.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian who was executed by the Nazis for his part in an assassination plot against Adolf Hitler, wrote extensively about Christian freedom, Christian engagement on the world stage, and the importance of a free exchange of ideas. He wrote, “The essential freedom of the church is not a gift of the world to the church but the freedom of the Word of God to make itself heard.” What he is saying here is that the Bible has its own authority and its own freedom. The truth found in the Bible needs only to stand and be presented. Faith is not faith when it is forced on you; that’s coercion.

We believe that when you read the Bible, you will encounter a narrative being offered to humanity rather than imposed on it. This narrative is the essence of every religious freedom we see protected in our form of government and practiced in our culture. To those who critique Christianity as stifling, and to those who use Christianity to stifle the voices of others within the marketplace of ideas, we say, “Go to the Bible.”

Jesus does not travel from town to town demanding that everyone believe in him. Rather, time and again, we see him arrive on the scene, proclaim his message, heal the sick, and extend an invitation to follow him. Jesus says in the Bible, and by extension to you and me, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).

Whether you choose to believe the Bible or not, whether you choose to read it or not, there is little cause for doubt that the Bible continues to have an impact on our culture. There are reasons, beyond mere habit, why it is a source of comfort in days of national strife and mourning. There is a reason why you can find it behind the scenes, supporting the structure of our society. We would like to propose the radical idea that the Bible is a unique text that is more than just another book, more than a mere collection of stories; it is a revelation of divine character.

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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.