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Is It Ever OK for a Christian to Lie?

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Is it ever OK for a Christian to lie? Make no mistake: God is truth, and we are to be like God. Truth-telling is therefore a crucial moral duty for those in the kingdom of God (see esp. John 8:44; Acts 5:1-11; Col. 3:9; Rev. 21:27). The question is this: "Is it ever morally permissible to tell a lie?" Continue reading . . . 

Is it ever OK for a Christian to lie? Make no mistake: God is truth, and we are to be like God. Truth-telling is therefore a crucial moral duty for those in the kingdom of God (see esp. John 8:44; Acts 5:1-11; Col. 3:9; Rev. 21:27). The question is this: "Is it ever morally permissible to tell a lie?" Or are we obligated to tell the truth in every situation, no matter the consequences? As we seek to answer this question it’s important to remember that one's conduct or actions are vehicles for truth and falsehood, authenticity and deceit, no less so than one's words. So, is the Christian ever justified in communicating a falsehood? Perhaps a few examples will help focus our thoughts:

Is it ethical to post a "Beware of the Dog" sign on your fence to deter a burglar, even when you don't own a dog?

Is it ethical to leave the lights on in your house when you are away, again to deter a potential burglar from breaking and entering?

Is it ethical for a woman to fake a heart attack or to pretend to faint when attacked by a rapist? Is it ethical for her to call out to her husband as if he were close by, when in fact he is not? Is it ethical for her to tell her assailant that she has a sexually-transmitted disease in order to discourage his assault?

Were the Allies in WW II justified in deceiving Hitler concerning the location of the Normandy invasion?

Is it ethical for a football team to send a man in motion to the left side of the formation in order to deceive the opposing team into believing that the play will be run in that direction, when in fact it will be run to the right?

Is it ethical for the police to operate radar in unmarked cars? After all, by using unmarked cars they are deliberately deceiving us into thinking that they are civilians.

Is it ethical for the police to conduct undercover, plain-clothes investigations which by definition demand that they deceive people concerning their identity and intent?

Is it ethical to lie to someone about where you are taking them in order to keep the secret of a surprise birthday party that is planned in their honor?

Is it ethical for those in the military to wear camouflage uniforms in order to mislead their enemies concerning their location?

In Columbine, Colorado, during the tragic shooting incident of April, 1999, one of the gunmen asked: “Does anyone here believe in Jesus Christ?” Were all the Christians present at that time morally obligated to identify themselves?

Suppose you once led a homosexual lifestyle, or perhaps only indulged in that behavior on a few, isolated occasions. In recent years you have walked in sexual purity and no longer feel homosexual urges. A friend or pastor asks you: “Have you ever indulged in homosexual behavior?” Are you morally obligated to say “Yes”? Are you lying if you say “No”? Saying, “No comment” is tantamount to saying “Yes,” at least as far as the interrogator is concerned.

Consider these other examples where it appears that moral obligations conflict.

Richard’s father lies dying and makes a request of his son: “Please promise that after I’m gone you will take care of my horses. Promise me that you will feed them, groom them, and do whatever it takes to keep them healthy.” In grief over his father’s condition and out of love, Richard gives his word. After six months, the money his father left to cover the expense of caring for the horses is gone. Richard is forced to borrow money to fulfill the promise he made to his dad. The money drain soon begins to take its toll on Richard’s wife and children. Is Richard morally obligated to continue paying for the care and upkeep of these horses while his family suffers? Is Richard’s “promise” to his father morally binding?

Mary’s brother Alex has planted a terrorist bomb somewhere in Kansas City that will detonate in one hour. Mary is the only person who knows where it is hidden and she promised Alex that she would never tell. Although she now regrets making this promise, she is a devoted sister and refuses to disclose the bomb’s location. If we do not discover the bomb and dismantle it within the hour, thousands of innocent people will die. Suppose we can torture Mary to extract the information from her. Would it be morally permissible to do so? Whereas torture is an immoral act, do the humanitarian consequences that result from it justify our using it on Mary? The utilitarian would say Yes. What do you say, and why?

An interesting situation is presented in the movie, Return to Paradise. Three friends are spending vacation in Malaysia. Having rented a bicycle, one of them trashes it and concludes that the owner will simply keep the deposit (which he believes is worth more than the bike). Two of the three leave the country the next day. One week later the owner of the bike comes with the police to reclaim his property. The bike is not found, but 104 grams of hashish is discovered. Anyone found with more than 100 grams is regarded as trafficking in drugs. The young man (although not the one who trashed the bike) is put in prison and sentenced to death by hanging. It isn’t until two years later, after the appeals process has been exhausted, that the man mentions to his lawyer his two friends and their complicity in purchasing the hashish. The lawyer, a lady, returns to New York City where the two are living (unaware of their friend’s plight) and tells them that if they do not return to Malaysia within eight days, their friend will be executed. The court has agreed that if they will take responsibility for their share of the drugs, they must each serve three years in prison and their friend’s life will be spared. If only one returns, he must serve six years.

Are they morally obligated to return? If only one chooses to return, is the other obligated to do so as well in order to keep his friend’s sentence to three years instead of six? One of the two is engaged and has made promises to his fiance. What is his obligation to her? He says that he won’t do six years, but he’s willing to do three if the other will. Finally, they both agree to return to Malaysia. Upon their arrival, they discover that the lawyer is actually the sister of the man in prison. They realize that she has lied to them and would perhaps do anything to save her brother’s life. So how can they trust her? The agreement she struck with the Malaysian court was verbal, not written. Might not they hang as well? Might their sentence be longer than three years? She tells them she decided not to reveal her true identity, knowing that they would think she would concoct any story to persuade them to return. Does her concealment of these facts change their obligation to their friend? One of them believes so, backs down, and returns to New York City. The other decides to proceed, unwilling to let his friend die. When the court convenes, the judge discovers that the story has been leaked to the press and printed, together with a quotation from the lawyer criticizing Malaysian justice. The infuriated judge changes his mind and says the first young man must hang and his friend must still serve six years in prison. Does the judge’s decision have any impact on the morality of the third man’s decision to return to New York?

In order to make this question even more forceful, consider two famous biblical examples. First, consider Pharaoh's demand that the Hebrew midwives kill all new-born male babies (Exod. 1:17-21). When asked by Pharaoh why they did not obey his command, they told him it was because the Hebrew women were not like the Egyptian women and are vigorous and give birth before the midwife can arrive (Ex. 1:19). God appears to issue his verdict on their behavior when it says that he “dealt well with the midwives” and “gave them families” (Ex. 1:20-21). In other words, the midwives deliberately deceived Pharaoh and God appears to reward them for it.

Then, of course, there is Rahab who lied to protect the Israeli spies (Joshua 2:1-7; see also Heb. 11:31). James appeals to Rahab and what she did as an illustration of how good works necessarily flow from genuine, saving faith: “And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?” (James 2:25). Rahab communicated a falsehood in her efforts to protect the spies and is apparently applauded for doing so. And did you note that Joshua sent spies into the land, whose purpose is to deceive and undermine the enemy in order to gather information the enemy hopes to conceal. God had spies working for him in the OT.

It would appear, therefore, that there are occasions when deception is ethically permissible. But note well: not all falsehoods are lies. A lie is an intentional falsehood which violates someone's right to know the truth. But there are cases in which people forfeit their right to know the truth. The question, therefore, is not whether it is ever morally permissible to lie. The question is, "What is a lie?" A lie is the intentional declaration or communication of a falsehood designed to deceive someone who has a moral and legal right to know the truth. A lie is the telling of an untruth to someone to whom you are morally and legally obligated to speak the truth. There are, however, certain occasions on which we are not under obligation to tell a person the truth (in times of war, criminal assault, etc.).

In closing, I want to be certain that no one responds to this article with anything less than a fervent commitment to truth-telling. In arguing, as I have, that there may be occasions when the communication of a falsehood is ethically permissible, I am not suggesting that Christians should become lax or casual in their treatment of the truth. Our goal should never be to wiggle our way around the truth or to search for an ethical loophole if one can be found. When the psalmist described the person who is privileged to “sojourn” in God’s tent and to “dwell” on his holy hill (Ps. 15:1), among the qualities cited are speaking “truth” in his heart (v. 2), refusing to “slander with his tongue” (v. 3), and being the sort of person “who swears to his own hurt and does not change” (v. 4). “He who does these things,” says David, “shall never be moved” (v. 5).

[This article was taken from my book, Tough Topics 2: Biblical answers to 25 challenging questions (Christian Focus, 2015)]

11 Comments

Does the principle of distinguishing the spirit and letter of the law ever come into play when faced with "moral dilemmas" regarding lying?

Along with the others who commented, I likewise find this post troubling and confusing. Another set of verses that I find perplexing would be John 7:8-10. Attempts to explain those verses seem awfully strained.

This is an interesting verse in this context:
Luk 24:28 So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He acted as if he were going farther, Jesus acted "as if"!

Jesus clearly valued straightforward reliability in our character---let your yes be yes and your no be no. Don't manipulate words so that you are truthful in letter, but deceitful in spirit. It is not hard of people to do that and leave others with a false impression, while "technically" telling the truth. I have seen enough of this to know how relationship destroying it is and the offender can maintain a "clear conscience" while being very dishonest. Nevertheless the command to "not bear false witness" is a command to not testify to something when your unreliable testimony will cause harm to your neighbor. Rehab's "lie" was evidence that her loyalty to one kingdom had changed to loyalty to another kingdom. God instructed divine deception in the matter of Ai . God sends a 'lying" spirit to those who do love the truth. It is very interesting how when a difficult biblical precept comes up, it is hard to accept because of the potential for abuse. I have contact with a person who regularly misrepresents my words about things and it is excruciatingly painful and I think if you do that as a matter of course, it is not good evidence for your spiritual condition. Nevertheless, we are not always required to tell everyone everything at every time.

If Jesus healed me of my blindness or leprosy and commanded me not to tell anyone, isn't God commanding me to lie when everyone notices I am no longer blind or no longer have leprosy?

This is a very troubling take on lying. Living with a pathological, compulsive liar for 28 years, I can assure you would change your stance. Lying twists the mind until that mind can no longer tell a lie from the truth. It lets every other unclean spirit access to the person that lies and deception and confusion run rampant. Not just with the liar, but with anyone associated with him. It is evil.

I won't lie to you: OU doesn't have a chance against the Ohio State Buckeyes! ;-)

I believe we struggle with this because we reflexively oversimplify morality due to it's potential to be so circumstantially driven. For the Born-Again, what must be wholly grasped is God's guiding presence through every situation (Ex. 4:12; Lk. 12:12). As a Born-Again, I cannot speak or act so as to deceive someone to harm them, be it socially, financially, or otherwise; but, as you illustrated, it is not biblically immoral to deceive others with the intention to bless them (play sports, surprise b-day, etc.), or obey God (share the gospel in a closed country, protect family, etc.). Would you agree?

May I suggest another realm where lying is vital? Caring for a loved one with dementia. I lost count of how often we needed to lie to my father to keep him at peace. "Yes, Mom will be right back" (when we know she'll be gone for a few hours getting her hair done). "You just had your lunch" (when he wanted to eat every time he walked into the kitchen). "We'll take you home soon" (when he wanted to go home, but was in fact in the house where he was born and lived his whole life). Or playing along with him, when we went to the grocery store and he would say, "Wow, I've never been in a store like this in my whooooooole life" (when in fact he did all the grocery shopping b/c he enjoyed it, but we would play along, pointing out exciting features to encourage his joy). Thank you for defining lying. Big help. Blessings!

The case of the midwives and of Rahab being blessed by God does not prove that God approved of their lies. To say this is to say that God is not holy. Sin is always sin even when it is manifest in the midst of faith. God's grace always overlooks the sin when their is faith. The many questions in this article are good questions. Deception is not always a lie, especially when you allow someone to believe what they want to believe. God does send lying spirits, but does not approve of them.

Dr Storms,
While agreeing with much of what you provide in your examples, I wonder how your definition of lying squares with our Biblical call to be pure as Jesus was pure or Holy since God is Holy? While not equating humanity with God, if there are instances where we can deceive others as you suggest and they are not lies how can we trust that God who claims that He cannot lie does not somehow equally deceive us ?
Tim

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