One hot Sunday morning in November 2014, a man and his daughter were cycling near a motorway in western Sydney when they heard a strange noise coming from a stormwater drain. They called the police, and it took seven people to lift the concrete slab covering it.

What they found inside was a baby. He’d been left there by his mother just hours after birth – and had survived for five days before being found.

The so-called “baby in the drain” caused a media sensation. The mother was found and charged with attempted murder; the popular outrage was enormous. How could anyone abandon a helpless baby?

This reaction seems completely natural to us, even inevitable. But history shows that it certainly isn’t the default human response to this situation.

In ancient Rome, parents who didn’t want their children – because they were disabled or deformed, because they were girls, because they were just one too many mouths to feed – would take them outside the city and leave them on a rubbish dump.

The practice of infanticide was not only not frowned on, but actually encouraged by law and philosophers. Aristotle and Cicero both recommended it. The Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote: “We drown children at birth who are weakly and abnormal.”

So what changed?

“It’s hard for modern western persons quite to grasp how strange, in long historical perspective, their view of the unique, almost infinite, value of the person [is]. It simply wasn’t the case in the ancient world. It hasn’t been the case in most of human history.”

David Bentley Hart, University of Notre Dame

Imago Dei

How do we measure the worth of a human being?

Arguably the most absolute claim about human value is that every man, woman, and child is created in the “imago Dei” – the image of God.

The intrinsic value of humans is established right at the beginning of the Jewish scriptures:

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness” … So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them. 

Genesis 1:26-28

Christians inherited the Jewish idea that every person had worth – a worth bestowed on them by the Creator of the universe, and therefore inalienable: it could not be lost, or stripped away.

It was an idea that departed radically from other ancient cultures, in which the vast majority of people were seen as disposable.

The Image of God: The concept

What does it mean for every person to be made “in the image of God”?

The Image of God: An illustration

Simon Smart heads to George Washington’s house for a concrete take on a big philosophical concept.

The Image of God: The impact

So what happened when Christians started acting like every person was made in God’s image?

“It’s perhaps the most radical thing that the biblical literature has to say because it fundamentally puts every human being in the same level, so whichever way you organise society the fundamental ethos is going to be egalitarian.”

Iain Provan, Regent College

Towards a declaration of universal human rights

Contrary to popular perceptions, the French Revolution or the Enlightenment did not invent the idea of human rights.

Nor did the United Nations conjure the idea out of thin air when they adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

The early Christians cared for the poor and sick, rescued abandoned infants, and assigned equal value to women and slaves alongside the rich and powerful. Their insistence that every person bore the divine image started a social revolution that reverberates to this day.

The road from these fledgling attempts to accord dignity and equality to all people to the modern Western sense that human rights are absolute and self-evident is a winding one.

That’s the theory: every human being, without exception – young or old, sick or healthy, “useful” to society or not – is infinitely precious to the God in whose image they are made, and should therefore be treated with dignity and respect.

In practice, though, Christians who claimed to believe this didn’t always act like it.

“My reservation is that, while Christians did a lot to introduce the idea of the equality of all individuals, they also did a lot to obstruct the progress of that idea.”

Samuel Moyn, Harvard University


The history of slavery in the West contains some of the highest highs and lowest lows when it comes to the impact of the church on the world.

The first Christians were not abolitionists. A tiny and often persecuted minority, they had nothing like the political clout or social influence to confront the system of slavery head-on.

But from the beginning, they sought to alleviate the effects of that system. Christian slaves and masters were urged to love and respect one another in ways that would make it difficult in the long run to sustain the fiction that one human being could “own” another. As the church grew in numbers and confidence, they began buying up slaves in order to liberate them.

Slavery, then, all but died out in the Christianised world. Unfortunately, though, that’s not the end of the story.

As Europeans explored and then colonised the “new world” from the 15th century onwards, the development of plantations in the Caribbean and in America fed a new demand for slave labour – and the transatlantic slave trade, history’s largest forced migration and very possibly the greatest crime against humanity ever committed, was born.

The effects of this new, racialised form of slavery – even harsher and more degrading than that practised in the ancient world – have reverberated down to our own day. And it was leading churchmen, drawing on their favoured interpretations of the Bible, who propped up the system for so long.

“There is no power out of the church that could sustain slavery an hour, if it were not sustained in it.”

Albert Barnes, Preacher (1798-1870)

Yet if some Christians looked to their Bible to justify the practice of owning slaves, others, like William Wilberforce, drew on those same scriptures to spearhead the decades-long campaign to abolish the slave trade.

“If the abolition of slavery had been left to enlightened secularists in the 18th century, we’d still be waiting.”

Rowan Williams, University of Cambridge

Negative or positive?

The belief that every single human being is made in the image of God, that they have therefore an inherent dignity, that they should be treated with respect – that idea has again and again motivated people to fight against injustices like slavery.

But singing “in tune” with Jesus hasn’t only been a negative project, one of opposing systems that treat humans like they’re not made in the image of God.

When it’s taken seriously, it’s about full human flourishing – not just freedom for the body, but freedom for mind and heart and soul. And it’s those concerns that laid the foundations, historically, for positive goods like literacy, mass education, and democracy.

“I think that’s one of the most beautiful things in history.”

Marilynne Robinson, Iowa Writers’ Workshop

Where to from here?

Today, if you’re a fan of universal human rights, then you’ve been influenced by this Judeo-Christian idea that every person is made in the image of God.

Of course, you don’t have to believe in God in order to treat people with dignity and respect. But both history and philosophy remind us that we can’t take the assumption that all people are valuable for granted.

“Christianity has taken the side of everything weak, base, ill-constituted. … It preserves what is ripe for destruction; it defends life’s disinherited and condemned. In every noble morality it counts as weakness.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Philosopher (1844-1900)

“The religious perspective says every human being relates from the word go to another order, another reality which is the divine, the sacred … It may or may not be true that you can carry on pragmatically believing in human rights without that, but it’s a very, very robust anchorage for human rights, if you do think that. I am not too optimistic about it surviving indefinitely without something like that.”

Rowan Williams, University of Cambridge