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.