The individual person

Every individual possesses inalienable rights which no human power may disrespect

The attempt by the Nazis in Germany during World War II to extirpate the Jewish race shocked the world community. Awareness grew in all free countries that nations, as well as individuals, are subject to a superior law that they may not transgress without punishment.

In the Nüremberg trials of 1945-1946, the top German leaders were brought to trial, not only for crimes against peace, but also for crimes `against humanity’. And they were held responsible for atrocities committed against any civil population even if their crimes had been in accordance with the laws of the country where those crimes had been perpetrated. In other words, the world community did not accept excuses such as : “I only implemented national laws”, or “I just did as I was told”. The world community held that there are basic human rights of which individuals cannot be deprived by states or by political leaders.

Since World War II, everyone accepts the principle of such fundamental human rights, at least in theory. But many people have forgotten that, from its very beginning, the principle was legitimated on religious grounds.

The question first came up in the Graeco-Roman civilisation. May dominant nations treat subservient nations as they like? May masters use their slaves in any way they fancy? The answer of many philosophers was: they may not. For all nations and all individuals have to obey a higher law, the law of the gods, a law which protects all human beings.

In a famous stage play of 440 BC at Athens, Sophocles highlighted the problem. When the rebel Polynices died in an attack on the city Thebes, King Creon forbade that anyone should bury him on pain of death. But his sister, Antigone, ignored the prohibition. She collected her brother’s corpse from the place where he had died and buried him. When Creon challenged Antigone, asking why she had dared to transgress his decree, she replied:

“For it was not Zeus, the father of the gods, that published me that decree. I did not attribute such authority to your decrees, as if you, a mortal being, could override the unwritten and unfailing statutes of heaven. For the laws of heaven date not of today or yesterday, but from all time, and no one knows when they were first put forth.”

In other words, even at that time Sophocles proclaimed that there are human rights, such as the right to a decent burial, which no human ruler can deprive an individual of, because they are rights granted by `the laws of heaven’.

The law of nature

The same conviction was expressed by the Roman senator Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 – 43 BC). Even though at the time Rome was the most powerful state in the western world, he admitted a universal law, more lasting than the Roman code, that imposes on all human beings their basic rights and duties. He said that this law can be known by the use of our mind.

“Sound reason reflects a true law, a law that agrees with nature, a constant, eternal law found among all human beings. This law issues commands – to make us do our duty; forbids – to hold us back from mischief. However, it never orders good people to do the impossible, nor does it coerce evildoers against their will.

No one may abrogate any part of this law, nor deny its binding force in any way. Neither the senate nor the people’s assembly can absolve us from it. We cannot have recourse to another lawyer or interpreter against it. The law does not differ in Rome from what it is in Athens, does not differ now from what it will be in the future. No, this one and immutable law holds all nations in its grasp.

For there is one common teacher and emperor of all nations: God. He invented this law. He formulated its contents. He promulgated it.

Whoever does not obey this law will be alienated from his own self. For, having shown contempt for human nature, he will bring down upon himself the severest punishments, even if he believes he can escape other penalties.” (Quoted by LACTANTIUS (240 – 320 AD), Divine Institutions 6,8.)

Jewish and Christian writers acknowledged the same reality. Genesis 1,26-27 taught that every human being was created in God’s image, and thus had to be respected as a reflection of God. Isaiah 51,7 had spoken of God’s law that lives in people’s hearts. Paul works this out further, purposely contrasting the external law, such as the Jewish Torah with the inner law in people’s hearts.

“When Gentiles who do not have the external law, do by nature what the law requires, they themselves become their own law, even though they do not have the external law. They show that what the external law requires is written on their hearts.” (see:Romans 2,13-15).)

The theologians of later centuries elaborated the idea further. Through the power of our intellect we can perceive what things are like and what they are meant to be. They called this the law of nature or natural law. “The light of our human reason by which we distinguish good from evil and by which we discern natural law, reflects God’s light shining in us. Natural law is nothing else but a rational creature discovering God’s purpose in creation.” (see:THOMAS AQUINAS (1224 – 1275), Summa Theologica, 1,2, q.91, a.2; freely translated.)

Also natural law evolved

Now there are different ways in which such a `natural law’ can be understood. No doubt there are fundamentalist Christians who think of this law as something that a supernatural God added to creation as an extra. They imagine God creating the world first, and then imposing some rules and obligations on the created world. For instance, God created men and women for procreation. And, to guide human marriage, he then imposed prohibitions against fornication, adultery, polygamy, and so on.

But this is not the correct or classical understanding of natural law. Natural law is nothing else than nature itself. It is the natural consequence of things being the way they are. If men and women evolved to bring forth new life through their union, there are certain consequences. Both the father and the mother, for instance, have obligations regarding their offspring, especially since human offspring requires a long period of nurturing and education. But natural law by itself does not determine whether this purpose is best achieved by polygamy or monogamy, nor what would constitute adultery. Such details are laid down by cultural or religious laws, and can differ from one community to the next.

Natural law derives from God, not in the sense that God promulgated a set of special decrees, but in the sense that God as the Creative Reality is the ultimate authority on which nature rests. As we know now, everything in the universe, though upheld in being by God’s creative power, evolves from lower to higher forms of being. Natural law is part of all that. As creatures endowed with reason, we carry more responsibility to respect nature and the way things should be. By showing that respect, we implicitly show respect to the Ultimate Reality that creates the universe.

This is where human rights find their legitimation. The right of every human person to freedom, to a share in the world’s resources and to respect flows directly from our sharing life, as creatures who receive everything we have from the same God. It is only because of the existence of natural law and its religious foundation that human rights can be upheld (see: W.KASPAR, “Is God Obsolete?”, Irish Theological Quarterly 55 (1989) pp. 85 – 98).

Errors of human logic

In 1941, Adolf Hitler in Germany decided on the complete annihilation of the Jewish race. It resulted in what is now known as the holocaust: the systematic massacre of more than six million Jewish men, women and children. It is an episode of history that fills us with horror. But why was Hitler intellectually wrong?

Already in Mein Kampf of 1923, Hitler had set out his reasons. His chapter on `Race and People’ makes chilling reading. However, the many pages he devoted to the Jews, exhibit a perverse and devastating logic.

Animals in nature fight to preserve the purity of their breed, Hitler says. Animals kill other animals to live. “It is impossible to find a fox which has a kindly and protective disposition towards geese, just as no cat exists which has a friendly disposition towards mice.” For the best to survive, competition has to be ruthless.

The Jews, Hitler continues, are an inferior race. Allowing them to mix with the original inhabitants of Europe will lower the level of the superior Aryan race and will bring on physical and mental degeneration. We owe it to progress, to eliminate what is second-rate. “What is weak or diseased or wavering must be left behind. The stronger has the right to survive. This struggle furthers the health and resistive powers of the species. It is one of the causes by which evolution produces a higher quality of being.”

This was the logic on which Hitler and his Nazi followers based their indiscriminate and murderous persecution of all Jews. As a true demagogue, Hitler even appealed to religious principles. Showing tolerance towards the Jews would be “a sin against the will of the Eternal Creator. And as a sin this act will be avenged. Man’s efforts to build up something that contradicts the iron logic of nature brings him into conflict with those principles to which he himself exclusively owes his own existence. By acting against the laws of nature he prepares the way that leads to his ruin!” (see: A. HITLER, Mein Kampf, English Ed., London 1968, esp. pp. 238-276.)

We can make some interesting observations regarding this crooked line of argumentation. (1) Hitler knew that even his own dictatorial government could not decree the death of innocent people. He had to appeal to a `higher’ law. (2) Hitler used the conclusions of evolutionary science to shore up his own convictions. (3) Hitler appealed to belief in a Creator to give his argument greater validity. It is not these three factors themselves, but the way he manipulated them, that twisted his logic.

Why was Hitler wrong? Obviously, his assessment of the Jews as an inferior race was totally unjustified. But even if the Jews had been a weaker race, his conclusion was wrong. For Hitler considered evolution totally in physical terms. He chose to disregard the highest achievements of human history which are exemplified in truth. justice, integrity, tolerance, forgiveness and cross-cultural friendship.

None of these higher human values would exist without religion. Charles Darwin himself, the architect of the theory of evolution, admitted the role of religion in shaping them.

“To do good in return for evil, to love your enemy, is a height of morality to which it may be doubted whether the social instincts would, by themselves, have ever led us. It is necessary that these instincts, together with sympathy, should have been highly cultivated and extended by the aid of reason, instruction, and the love and fear of God, before any such golden rule would ever be thought of and obeyed.” (see: Ch.DARWIN, The Descent of Man, London 1871.)

In the final analysis, Hitler’s logic failed because, while he claimed to follow `the laws of nature as established by the Creator’, he had in fact abandoned all religious principles. He appropriated to himself the powers of God

One of the first modern, political documents that explicitly mentions human rights, bases these rights unequivocally on belief in a Creator. It was the Declaration of Independence of the first Thirteen American States in 1776.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all human beings are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

The liberal institutions which the modern world has brought into being spring ultimately from religious, and, more specifically, from Christian roots. The conviction of the unconditional value of the individual human person is an heirloom of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. It has its origins in the biblical notion that the human person is the image of God, in other words that something of the dignity and glory of God is reflected in every person who bears a human face.



The text in this chapter is from How to Make Sense of God by John Wijngaards, Sheed & Ward, Kansas City 1995. Tom Adcock designed the cartoons. The Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada awarded the book a prize on 25 May 1996.

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