The word “dignity” has different and very important shades of meaning. The traditional concept of human dignity in the Western world is based on recognizing that human beings possess intrinsic value. “Human dignity” has typically been understood as the inherent worth of a human being—people are valuable simply because they are humans. This has been influenced by Christianity, of course, which teaches that people have inestimable worth because they are image-bearers of their Creator (Gen. 1:27). There is another definition that we see involving death. Funeral homes stress the importance of dignity because death is a somber and sobering event. It may also appear in discussions involving end-of-life decisions (and we see it prominently in cases of euthanasia).
Human dignity underlies some of the social issues in our world as well. We find it just beneath the surface in discussions of the use of force by police and injustices committed by people in positions of power or influence. The inherent worth of human beings is one of our unspoken assumptions about the world and expectations about how justice should operate.
Many people may not know that a biblically-influenced concept of human dignity was a rarity in the ancient world. For instance, slavery was commonplace. The ancients memorialized it in art. Most people took it for granted as a part of the natural order of things. The Greek philosopher Aristotle famously referred to slaves as “living property.”
Other individuals in society fared little better. Women were often treated as second-class human beings. Individuals from foreign countries could be victimized easily. Children would be thrown out in a garbage dump if they were born with a physical abnormality or even if they looked too sickly.
The Bible is often criticized as a virtual charter for human rights abuses. Critics typically—and often with breathtakingly little evidence—fault the Bible for slavery, misogyny, and wars. They accuse it of inspiring terrorists of all stripes, from right-wing terrorists to abortion clinic bombers. They fail to realize that the Bible and the Christian faith promote human dignity.
First, Christianity elevates human value. This derives from the first chapter of Genesis, which clearly articulates the worth of humanity as God’s image-bearers and as his special creation chosen to govern (“have dominion”) over the earth (Gen. 1:28). Here we must notice that believers have often been at the forefront of addressing human injustices. This includes anything that devalues a human being, such as slavery. The end of slavery in the West was due to God-fearing individuals like the Englishman William Wilberforce. The British abolitionist movement began in the 18th century thanks to the Quakers. Another example was the horrid practice of child exposure. Early Christians frequently rescued abandoned children from garbage heaps, where they would otherwise die or be taken by slavers and raised in a life of slavery and prostitution.
Second, Christianity ended violence as entertainment. While some might complain about the brutality of sports such as football or mixed martial arts, ancient sports were much more violent. Charioteers would often die in races (the average driver might only live until his early twenties). Gladiatorial combat was not always lethal, but gladiators did die in an estimated 20-50% of contests in the arena. Boxing and wrestling matches sometimes ended in the death of one of the contestants. A famous statue known as “The Boxer at Rest” reveals a visceral look at the brutality of sport—a close examination of the statue’s head reveals deep cuts and scratches on the face, which no doubt mirrored the reality of injuries suffered in boxing matches.
Third, the Bible demands a higher sexual ethic. Greco-Roman culture was absurdly uneven in its expectations of men and women. Society required women to be utterly faithful, while men could engage in almost any sexual behavior. The latter is captured perfectly by a fourth-century BC Greek statesman named Demosthenes, who said, “We have prostitutes for pleasure, concubines to care for our daily body’s needs, and wives to bear us legitimate children and to be faithful guardians of our households.” The Bible contrasts sharply with this disparity, indicating that an exclusive marriage relationship is what God intended for his creation (Gen. 2:24). Both men and women are held to the same standard, unlike those of both past and present cultures—sexual purity is essential, regardless of gender.
Some might argue that our concept of human dignity evolved over time and that the Bible is not required to treat other people humanely and with equity. It might be helpful to look at societies with little or no influence from Christianity and see how the concept of human dignity fares in those areas. Atheistic regimes, such as Soviet Russia, have been responsible for tens of millions of deaths. Manshu Detachment 731—also known as Unit 731—was a Japanese research and development unit of the Imperial Japanese army guilty of some of the most heinous war crimes in human history. Modern China—another staunchly atheistic nation—has long been criticized for its human rights abuses, including persecuting religious groups, using prisoners as unwilling organ transplant donors, and committing genocide against the Uyghurs.
Scripture instructs us to love our neighbors as ourselves (Lev. 19:18; Gal. 5:14, also 1 Cor. 10:24). This presumes inherent equality between believers as well as between Christians and non-Christians. For instance, Jesus himself instructed his people to pray for anyone and everyone, including personal enemies and anyone guilty of committing acts of persecution (Matt. 5:44).
The Bible opposes slavery, sexism, ageism, and ethnocentric thinking. We cannot follow God’s commands to love other people if any of these things are part of our worldview. Scripture insists that we treat people with respect and honor not because they have earned such treatment but because they are fellow image-bearers of God.