The God of the Bible is the God of truth, beauty, and goodness. As seen in the Ten Commandments (“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,” Ex. 20:16), God expects his people to adhere to his standard of truth. But is it ever permissible to tell a lie?
Telling the truth and the permissibility of lying have been perennial issues of concern for both Christian ethicists and for the individual Christian facing an ethical dilemma. For instance, if a killer inquires about the whereabouts of his next potential victim, is a Christian permitted to lie in order to protect the innocent? Is it acceptable to lie in order to achieve great good? May a Christian falsify documents in order to smuggle Bibles into a “closed” country?
The Sanctity of Truth and the Condemnation of Lying
The Bible clearly emphasizes the sanctity of truth. God “never lies” (Titus 1:2) and his people are to imitate him by being people “of the truth” (John 18:37). Jesus described himself as “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). Moreover, Jesus promises that “the truth will set you free” from the bondage of sin (John 8:32). Finally, one of the evidences of human depravity is that people “exchanged the truth about God for a lie” (Rom. 1:25).
By contrast, lying is condemned in Scripture: “Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord” (Prov. 12:22). The devil “is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). Paul tells Christians, “Do not lie to one another” (Col. 3:9). He also commands, “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor” (Eph. 4:25) and says that believers should be “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). At the final judgment, those who are thrown in the lake of fire include “all liars” (Rev. 21:8). Telling the truth, therefore, is to characterize followers of Christ.
Does Scripture Sometimes Approve of Lying?
At the same time, however, Scripture records incidents that seem to approve certain examples of telling a lie. For instance, in Exodus 1, the midwives disobeyed the pharaoh's command to kill the male Hebrew children (“the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live,” v. 17). When asked why they did not kill the male babies, they said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them” (v. 20). In other words, the midwives claimed that the births happened so quickly that they could not get to the mothers in time to make it appear that there had been a stillbirth. This was at best a half-truth (applying in only some cases), and the explanation that they “let the male children live” (v. 17) suggests that they were lying to the king. But at the beginning and end of the narrative, it says that “the midwives feared God” (vv. 17, 21).
Another example is the case of Rahab the prostitute, who hid two Hebrew spies (Joshua 2). When Joshua sent two men to evaluate the situation in Jericho, Rahab took them to her rooftop, where she hid them under stalks of flax (v. 6). When a messenger from the king insisted that Rahab turn the men over to the authorities, she replied, “True, the men came to me, but I do not know where they were from. And when the gate was about to be closed at dark, the men went out. I do not know where the men went” (vv. 4–5). Despite her lies, Rahab is commended in the so-called “hall of faith” in Hebrews 11:31 “because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies.”
On the other hand, some interpreters argue that in neither case were the lies to be considered morally praiseworthy. Their lifesaving acts had a good motivation (to save lives) and good results, but those should be distinguished from the wrongful means that they chose to employ (i.e., telling a lie). In addition, some would argue that since Rahab was a Canaanite prostitute (Josh. 2:1), there is no indication that she had any knowledge of God's moral instructions to Israel. This makes it doubtful that every aspect of her conduct is intended to be read as an example for believers to imitate.
Is Lying Ever Permissible?
Several notable Christian theologians, including Augustine (a.d. 354–430), John Wesley (1703–1791), and John Murray (1898–1975), have taught that deliberate lying is never permissible. For instance, Augustine argued in his essay On Lying that telling a lie had the effect of eroding confidence in the truth and therefore weakened the Christian faith. Like every good theologian, he first defined his terms. A joke, even if involving factual falsehoods, is not a lie because everyone knows from the tone of the voice or the mood of the person telling it that it is meant to be taken not literally but humorously. Lying, strictly speaking, is seriously affirming as true something that one knows to be false. Augustine stated explicitly that one should never lie, even to prevent rape or to save a life. Lying, he argued, would ultimately undermine the gospel by destroying all certainty that one is telling the truth. If one cannot be trusted to speak truthfully about some things, how could one be believed when it comes to matters as important as the resurrection of Christ? Besides, Augustine observed, lying is a web that entangles a person. One lie requires another lie to cover it up, which requires yet another lie, and so on.
Others, such as Martin Luther (1483–1546) and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945), have argued that, while Christians should be known for their commitment to the sanctity of truth, there are exceptions to the rule against lying. Present-day ethicists who identify themselves as hierarchialists maintain that Scripture teaches that some moral principles take precedence over others. Lying may be appropriate in cases where telling the truth conflicts with obeying a higher commandment of God. For instance, one may lie in order to save a life. This hierarchialist view does not represent a cavalier attitude toward lying but holds that one is sometimes faced with conflicting moral absolutes, and it takes this situation seriously and tries to find the solution that more fully expresses God's ideals and priorities. Thus, someone who tries to smuggle Bibles into another country probably believes that the Great Commission takes precedence over atheistic law (as in Acts 5:29, where the apostles said, “We must obey God rather than men”).
While some hierarchialists hold that breaking a lower moral command to obey a higher one is what God requires, and is therefore not sinful, others hold that breaking any of God's commands is always sinful even though sometimes it is morally necessary. Against this position, it is argued that such a view cannot be reconciled with the life of Christ. If one is ever tempted with a situation in which all of his choices require him to disobey something in God's Word, and so commit sin, then Jesus must have been faced with a situation like that too, because he is the “one who in every respect has been tempted as we are” (Heb. 4:15). However, that would mean that Jesus actually disobeyed a moral command of God, and if disobeying any of God's moral laws is sin, then that contradicts the final phrase of verse 15 that says Jesus “in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” Therefore the life of Christ encourages believers to think that they will never face a situation in which they are forced to disobey one of God's commands in order to obey another one.
German theologian Helmut Thielicke (1908–1986) maintained that an individual or group may forfeit its right to be told the truth. In those cases, some would argue, truth telling is not obligatory. An example would be the deception and concealment involved in military contexts. In war, the “tacit agreement” of truthfulness has been made null and void. No one expects the enemy to speak truthfully about military strategy, prowess, or power. As a result, says Thielicke, the situation involves “mutual mistrust.” These are the rules of the game, as it were. Lying is not wrong in these cases because the parties involved are not committed to mutual trust. Another example might be when someone intends to use truth as a weapon against an innocent individual. If, e.g., someone is holding innocent people hostage at gunpoint, some would argue that the police are not obligated to tell the truth when negotiating with the hostage-taker. By harming others, the criminal has forfeited his claim to the truth.
In response, those who hold that it is always wrong to lie would say that there will always be another solution, often involving various ways of hiding facts but not lying (cf. 1 Cor. 10:13). They would argue that the obligation to speak truthfully is not annulled by the debased moral condition of those to whom one speaks, but is based on an obligation to always reflect the character of God (cf. Matt. 5:48; Eph. 5:1; Col. 3:9–10). And God himself “never lies” (Titus 1:2; cf. Heb. 6:18), not even to sinful unbelievers. Therefore God's people should not do so either.
Is It Permissible to Conceal Truth in Order to Mislead?
What about actions intended to conceal truth or to mislead others? While such actions are related to the issue of lying, they are still a distinct issue, and individual examples are more complex because the meaning of an action is often ambiguous. In addition, an examination of particular cases in the Bible reveals some instances where misleading actions are wrong (cf. 1 Sam. 14:2–6; 28:8; 1 Kings 22:30; Prov. 13:7b; 2 Cor. 11:15) and other situations where they seem to be right (cf. Josh. 8:1–21; 1 Sam. 16:1–3: 19:11–13; 21:13–15; Ps. 34:1; Prov. 13:7a; Matt. 6:17–18). In any case, careful thought about lying requires treating such actions as a distinct category.
Finally, whether or not one believes that God ever approves of false statements, there are surely conditions under which it is appropriate to tell someone less than one knows or believes. For example, candor—being totally frank, or saying exactly what is on one's mind—must be used judiciously. Charity should temper how one responds to another person. To say to the pastor bluntly, “Your sermon was terrible,” would not be edifying, but destructive. Speaking the truth in love requires discernment and restraint. Tact is a Christian virtue. In any case, the obligation never to speak a falsehood does not imply that one has an obligation to tell everything that one knows. There are many times when silence is appropriate (cf. Matt. 26:63).
In sum, followers of Christ are to live lives characterized by charitable truthfulness. Failure to speak the truth in love to, or about, one's neighbor should be resisted. Lying is a sin of which one should repent. Even those ethicists who argue that there may be rare occasions when it is appropriate to lie agree that the temptation to lie to protect one's ego or status is so great, that few in practice are able to limit their lying to appropriate cases. In an age in which “everyone utters lies to his neighbor; with flattering lips and a double heart they speak” (Ps. 12:2), Christians should, by contrast, be known as those who speak the truth and whose words can always be trusted.
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Lying and telling the truth