Is It Ever Right to Lie? Part II: The Arguments For

So we’ve seen the strong case that can be made that God condemns every lie. On the other hand, Martin Luther and others have crafted a wide range of theories to justify lying in the desperate extremity of trying to save human life. Some say that the obligation to protect life is higher than the obligation to tell the truth in some cases where an individual is acting totally depraved. Others argue that someone who’s out to get other people cannot expect to be told the truth, so we are not obligated to give it to him since he should know it’s not going to be forthcoming.

Now, I readily state that it is no light matter to try to find an exception to an express command in Scripture. Indeed, I have thought about this long and hard, remembering Jesus’s words that, “Whosoever therefore shall break the least of these commandments and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 5:19, KJV). I therefore invite anyone who’s given better thought to the matter than I to dispute the matter around Mimir’s well in the comments section before I give my conclusion.

Let’s look at the examples. The two most famous are the midwives in Egypt and Rahab the harlot that I mentioned in the first post. These are not, however, the whole story. Saints of far greater magnitude than these three have felt the need to lie to save life. David crafts a tale for Jonathan to use to extract the truth from Saul whether Saul is trying to kill David, and Jonathan carries it out. Elisha tells the Syrian raiders who are seeking to kill him (no doubt as much to save their lives as his own), “This is not the way; neither is this the city. Follow me, and I will bring you to the man whom ye seek” (II Kings 6:19). Now, the hair-splitters say that Elisha is telling the truth here because it’s no longer the city, Elisha having just left it. Well, I find that sophistic since he’s clearly misleading them from the plain truth that, “I’m right here, guys.” But if they insist on hair-splitting, I can play that game too. The Syrians are very clearly on the right way since they have found their quarry. In Judges 4, Jael deceives Sisera, even if it’s not exactly a lie, when she tells him to “fear not” while she’s planning to kill him. Hushai lies to Absalom while trying to protect David from him. Two last minor instances. In II Samuel 17, a woman lies to hide the sons of the priests who have been spying for David, and I really doubt Joshua’s spies introduced themselves to the Canaanites as Israelite spies.

We should consider a case study. If a burglar invades your home at night and demands to know if you have any children upstairs (and you do), you really have only three responses. One is to affirm the truth that they are upstairs, at which point the burglar will go off to harm or abduct them. Another is to refuse to answer, which in some cases may be the right answer, but we all know that in this case it will be as good as saying they are upstairs. Lastly you can try to deceive the burglar and say no one else is at home and hope he’ll buy it. Basically, if you tell the truth in that situation, your one hope is that God will make the burglar trip on his way upstairs and break his neck. While this is possible, I can’t think of a single Biblical case where a Christian opted for that approach. Indeed, to tell the truth in that situation would only help an evil man accomplish an evil thing.

Just considering the context of these lies, the Bible seems to tacitly condone it if nothing else. Certainly, if no one is explicitly commended for lying to save life, no one is specifically called out for it either. Elisha is full of faith right before he lies to the Syrians, and he’s in complete control of the situation, so how can we think his faith failed him for that moment? Likewise, while the midwives and Rahab are doing things that are worthy of explicit blessing from Scripture, are we to believe that they are doing something damnable at the exact same time? Hushai shows up and receives his instructions from David to lie to Absalom right after David has worshipped and prayed to God for some kind of rescue from Ahithophel’s crafty counsel that will now be turned against him. Are we to think that David, at this moment of faith, suddenly resorts to something that could get him and his friend sent to Hell?

I think that the context shows that God approves of us lying in life-or-death situations. The problem is, I have no hard-and-fast principle for when and why it’s right. I think the Bible abstains from giving explicit commendation to these deceivers because such a statement would be so open to abuse. But I also find the various theories as to how it could be justifiable to lie lacking.

I like the hierarchialists best and consider myself one of them, but even they produce no firm principle to grasp onto. Hierarchialists believe that certain moral imperatives can trump others when they conflict. We know that this does, in fact, happen in Scripture. Romans 13 orders us to obey the authorities, but when the Sanhedrin commands the Apostles not to preach Christ, they are quite right to put their obligation to evangelize above their obligation to submit to government. I personally see this worked out when David promises to Saul that he will not cut off his posterity after him but then has to break that promise to honor the earlier promise to the Gibeonites. Hierarchialists can explain that Peter was wrong and the others right because there is no higher obligation than to honor Christ. In the other cases, hierarchialists posit that saving life is more important than telling the truth. The problem is, Proverbs on two occasions (6:30-31 and 30:9) condemns those who steal to keep themselves alive, showing that the obligation to save life does not trump the obligation to protect property. I used to think that lying was justified in these cases because the Ten Commandments are listed in order of importance and the commandment to protect life comes before the commandment to tell the truth. I still think they are in order of importance, but my logic breaks down in its conclusion because the commandment against murder also comes before the commandment to not steal. So there’s no black-and-white test for saying what moral commandment precedes which.

The other arguments have their flaws too. The argument that an adversary in warfare or criminal committing a crime has made an “implicit agreement to deceive and be deceived” doesn’t quite hold water with me because, if they know they can’t expect the truth from their opponent, they wouldn’t ask the question in the first place. The idea that someone wanting to use the truth to harm others has forfeited the right to the truth seems intuitively right to me, but it’s nowhere stated in Scripture.

So, while I hope you never find yourself in a situation when you have to lie to protect yourself or your loved ones, I don’t think God will condemn you if you do. I can’t give you a hard-and-fast rule as to why that would be right in the face of all the Bible verses condemning lying, but I think the overall impression Scripture conveys is that it is what a saint can, and maybe even should, do.

Is It Ever Right to Lie? Part I: The Arguments Against

The Bible is full of condemnations of lying. Bearing false witness is banned in the Ten Commandments, the prophets denounce the dishonesty of their contemporaries, and finally Revelation says that anyone who “maketh a lie” shall “in no wise enter” Heaven (21:27, KJV). Yet the Bible also reports several cases where saints deceive to save themselves or others in dire circumstances. Indeed, they seem to have no other choice. This has led to the question of if Christians are ever permitted to lie for a higher purpose.

Let’s be clear about what lying is, first. Lying is stating something you know to be untrue with the intent to mislead someone else into believing it. It’s not telling a fictional story or a joke because the context makes it clear that you are not intending to be taken literally. In fact, prophets up to and including Jesus tell many fictional parables to illustrate a deeper truth. That’s just art. It’s also not concealing something you know. There are many times when tact is preferable, even more loving, than full candor. Famously, in I Samuel 16, God gives Samuel a cover story to mislead anyone who might report his trip to Bethlehem to Saul. What God tells Samuel to say is true, but it leaves out the main purpose of his visit, which is to anoint David. It’s not speaking in approximations or exaggerations when you are making a basically truthful point because there are verses in Scripture that contradict themselves if we don’t allow for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit using approximations and exaggerations. Lastly, it’s not conveying false information that you believe to be true, though usually you should make a correction when you find out you were wrong if it’s on something important enough.

Those who say lying is never justified have the easy task since that is the most straightforward reading of the Bible. They say that the Bible’s commands against lying are given in an absolute way and that it never explicitly approves of those who lie in these dire situations, even though what they are doing otherwise is laudable. In one of the two most famous examples, God blesses the midwives in Egypt, who spare the Hebrew babies from Pharaoh’s death sentence and then manufacture a story to tell Pharaoh that they could not carry out his command. In the other, James praises Rahab, who took Joshua’s spies into her home to hide them and then told her fellow Canaanites that they had left. In both cases, the praise is clearly on their saving life, and the Bible is silent on the subject of their lying to further their objectives. Since Protestants know that individual initiatives cannot override God’s clear decree, many believe that there is no way to justify a lie. St. Augustine was firmly against it. He believed that any compromise in a Christian’s reputation for truthfulness is a compromise in the trustworthiness of their Gospel message.

Tellingly, Jesus was tempted in every way that we are, but He never lied. Scripture says God cannot lie, and we are supposed to resemble Him as His children. (On the other hand, Jesus, knowing full well when His hour had or had not come, never had the need to lie to save His life. Maybe that’s why Abraham was wrong to lie about Sarah not being his wife, since he also had firm promises to rely on, while those who don’t know how things are going to turn out could be right to lie.)

Since Protestants know that individual initiatives cannot override God’s clear decree, many believe that there is no way to justify a lie.

There is one case study, in fact, where Scripture condemns lying even to save life. Peter denies Christ three times to keep himself from going to the cross with Him, and the guilt ravages his conscience. However favorable a light Scripture casts on the other liars, here’s one it clearly condemns for the lie itself.

The Bible time and again shows that God takes very seriously what we say, presumably because He’s given words such power. We say that actions speak louder than words, and James is all for that when he says that blessing someone in need is not as good as actually giving them something, but we should not discount words entirely. According to some interpretations of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, He has decreed that He will not forgive a certain sin of speech, rather than a certain action. Human language is by far the predominant way, if not the only way, we obtain knowledge outside our own personal experience. We can only be one place at one time, but through words anyone who’s been anywhere can shape our perceptions of the world around us. That’s why false testimony is condemned in the Ten Commandments. It also says that those who invent news stories and rumors to shape public opinion based on falsehood have a lot to answer for.

So, there’s a strong case in Scripture about never lying, even to save life. One thing we can all agree on is that it is never right to lie with the intent of hurting someone. The issue here is if there’s the tiniest little exception in a dire circumstance that most of us will never experience. I’ll look at the arguments for there being such an exception in the next post.