Is It Ever Okay for Christians to Lie? Part One
A daily scan of the headlines suggests we live in a culture permeated by lies and delusion.
Confronting such a prevailing culture is daunting and forces us to reflect on a number of ethical questions. For example, is it always wrong to lie? What standards of truth must we adhere to? As Christians we claim to submit to higher ethical ideals, but how do we live out these ideals in a tangible, consistent way?
Recent studies through the book of Joshua in the Adult Bible Study class that I teach has provided an occasion to reflect on the issue of lying. The account of Rahab’s deception to protect the Israelite spies in Joshua 2 provides a fascinating test case for how to apply one’s ethics to the exigencies of real life. I’d like to take a two-part series today and tomorrow to offer some thoughts on the ethics of truthfulness. I’ll consider the issue first historically (how have prominent theologians of the past deliberated on this?) and then biblically (what does the Bible have to say about this?).
Let me begin with a curious episode from the Protestant Reformation that sets the issue of ethics and lying in historical context. In the early sixteenth century, the Protestant Reformation had shaken western Europe to its core as a fiery Augustinian monk by the name of Martin Luther recovered powerfully the doctrine of justification by faith. This recovery along with a number of other significant developments broke the iron grip which the Roman Catholic church had held during the Middle Ages. The Reformation soon became a political as well as a spiritual movement as various states began to align themselves either on the side of the Reformers or on the side of the Roman Catholic church. One of the political leaders to ally himself with the Protestant Reformation was Prince Philip of Hesse. Philip was a most interesting character.
At the age of nineteen Philip had been married for political reasons to the daughter of one of the German princes. Although he had seven children by his wife, he also had kept up a litany of mistresses as was customary for royalty in his day. Historian Kenneth Latourette relates: “After his conversion to Lutheranism his conscience troubled him so badly that only once in thirteen years did he partake of the communion, for he found himself powerless to desist from his adulteries” (A History of Christianity, p. 728). Eventually Philip came to the troubled conclusion that perhaps a second marriage might curb his promiscuous appetites. As divorce was not an option, his solution was simple: bigamy. With the consent of his first wife and of the prospective new bride’s mother, along with counsel from the Reformers Luther, Melanchthon, and Bucer (each of whom had received a letter from Philip asking advice), he would marry a seventeen-year-old maid named Margaret von der Saale. Luther, for his part, opposed divorce. Yet he argued that, although monogamy was the Scriptural ideal, the polygamy of the patriarchs perhaps set a precedent allowing an exception in Philip’s case so as to save his position and reputation. In fact, Luther was so bold as to counsel Philip to tell a “good, strong lie” to cover it up; after all, bigamy was contrary to the law of the land. Martin Bucer, on the other hand, was more carefully nuanced in his reply. He suggested that Philip tell a “holy lie,” the sort of lie that Rahab had used to protect the Hebrew spies. This type of lie, Bucer replied, was perfectly acceptable; in fact, the Bible was full of such lies. Another leading Reformer, John Calvin, apparently was not asked. Had he been, undoubtedly he would have been repulsed by Bucer’s, not to mention Luther’s, counsel. Calvin argued strongly in his writings against all forms of deception, denying there were such a thing as a “holy lie.” For Calvin, lying was never justified under any circumstances, not even to save a life.
How and why did these theologians arrive at such conclusions? The argument goes back much further, to the fourth century and a discussion between Jerome and Augustine. Jerome had argued that in a letter to Augustine that when Paul confronts Peter about his Jewish habits as reported in Galatians 2 the two had staged the entire confrontation as an object lesson for Jewish believers. They were engaging in a public spectacle of deception to make a theological point, according to Jerome. He affirmed that such “simulation” was permissible, that tolerable deceptions and dutiful lies were in some cases acceptable, and that precedent for this idea might be found in other theologians such as Origen and Chrysostom. John Cassian also argued that on occasion lying might be good (e.g., Rahab told a virtuous lie) while truth telling be sinful (e.g., Delilah sinned in telling the truth about Samson’s strength) (Conferences, 2.17). Chrysostom likewise denied that deceit is always evil and lauded the advantages of “well-timed deception, undertaken with upright intention” (“On the Priesthood,” Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 9:37).
Augustine, however, marginalized such views by his stringent approach to ethics, an approach which would set the agenda for the church for centuries. Augustine wrote two treatises on the topic of lying (On Lying [De Mendacio] and Against Lying [Contra Mendacio]), the first written directly in response to Jerome’s views mentioned earlier. Augustine identifies eight different sorts of lies (excluding joking, which he doesn’t equate to lying) and then denies the viability of all of them, including lies spoken to save someone’s life. On the matter of Rahab and her lie to protect the Israelite spies, Augustine notes that God dealt well with her not because she lied but because she protected God’s servants. In a memorable turn of phrase Augustine suggests that God rewarded Rahab and other well-meaning liars in the Bible for “the benevolence of their intention, not the iniquity of their invention” (benignitas mentis, non iniquitas mentientis). One author notes: “For Augustine, a lie is always a sin, no matter how well intentioned, no matter how noble the objective, because of the nature of truth itself, because God himself is truth, and because no earthly purpose can justify the spiritual cost of telling a lie” (Raymond A. Blacketer, “No Escape by Deception: Calvin’s Exegesis of Lies and Liars in the Old Testament,” Reformation and Renaissance Review 10 [Dec 2008]: 275). Augustine concluded that to claim there is such a thing as a “just lie” is to claim there is such a thing as a “just sin.” Gregory the Great and Thomas Aquinas would later reaffirm Augustine’s strict opposition to lying.
Calvin would pick up this perspective when treating the matter of Rahab and the Israelite spies. He concludes that because Rahab lied, she sinned. He comments on her trespass: “Those who hold what is called a dutiful lie to be altogether excusable, do not sufficiently consider how precious truth is in the sight of God” (Commentary on Joshua, trans. Henry Beveridge, p. 47). He affirms that never in any case is it permissible to tell a lie because nothing contrary to the very nature of God could ever be legitimate.
How then do we sort through these arguments and conclusions? The appropriate question at this point seems to be, what do the Scriptures say? For much of the following I am indebted to theologian John Murray who gave a series of lectures in 1955 on biblical ethics, based in part upon the Ten Commandments. In these lectures, Murray ably presents the biblical perspective on truth and deception (the lectures were subsequently published as Principles of Conduct [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957]).
An overview of the biblical perspective might begin with Jesus’ own words. The Apostle John records that Jesus affirmed “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Earlier in his Gospel, John had himself commented that “the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). In both cases, according to Murray, Jesus and John are not contrasting truth with falsehood per se but rather the full and complete with the partial, the eternal with the temporal, the absolute with the relative. After all, no believer would claim that the Law of Moses was untrue, yet John says that grace and truth came through Christ. What does he mean? Essentially, Jesus brings an ultimate reality to which all other versions of reality are mere shadows. The reason Jesus alone is ultimate reality is the same reason God alone is ultimate reality. As Jesus proclaims in his high priestly prayer, “This is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). The only true God of whom Jesus speaks is the God who is ultimate, self-existent, self-subsistent, eternal being. The nature of this God is equated elsewhere in John’s epistles to the nature of Jesus the Son: “We know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life” (1 John 5:20). Thus the Father as the highest and ultimate truth is equal to the Son as highest and ultimate truth. The triune God constitutes ultimate reality and therefore ultimate truth.
It is on this basis that Murray speaks of the sanctity of truth, because underlying this fact is the sanctity of God as the living and true God. God is the God of truth and all truth derives its sanctity from him. This is why the Scriptures repeatedly affirm that God cannot lie. “God . . . never lies” (Tit 1:2). “It is impossible for God to lie” (Heb 6:18). “If we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself” (2 Tim 2:13). “The works of His hands are truth and justice; all His precepts are sure. They are upheld forever and ever; they are performed in truth and uprightness” (Psa 111:7-8).
In contrast, Jesus characterizes Satan and his followers as opposed to truth: “You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I speak the truth, you do not believe Me” (John 8:44-45). This, after all, was the very tactic appropriated by the serpent to deceive Eve. As Genesis reports, he attacked the veracity of God’s pronouncement. “Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God really say, “You must not eat from any tree in the garden”?’” (Gen 3:1). The old deceiver doesn’t question God’s power or God’s knowledge; he questions God’s truthfulness.
For this reason the Scriptures repeatedly affirm the absolute, fundamental necessity of truth. Lying is a sign of ungodliness, while truth telling is a sign of holiness. Think of the condemnation of rank liars in Scripture: Achan (Josh 7:11), Judas (Luke 22:3), Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:3), Hymanaeus and Philetus (2 Tim 2:16–18; 3:9). Revelation characterizes those banished from eternal bliss as those harboring, among other sins, lying: “Outside are the dogs and the sorcerers and the immoral persons and the murderers and the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices lying” (Rev 22:15). On the flip side, everywhere in Scripture what is true is what is godly. God’s Word is truth (John 17:17), Jesus is truth (John 14:6), the Holy Spirit is truth (John 16:13), the Gospel is truth (1 Thess 2:13; Gal 2:5). Moreover, the Scriptures everywhere command God’s people to be truthful people: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exod 20:16). “You shall not spread a false report” (Exod 23:1; cf. Zech 8:16–17). “Having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor” (Eph 4:25). “Do not lie to one another” (Col 3:9).
We have seen in Scripture that truth is the norm. How then, are we to understand a number of passages in the Bible in which liars appear to be commended or at least not punished for lying as we might expect? Tomorrow, I will look at some key examples of the so-called dutiful lie from the Old Testament. We’ll see how these passages help to refine our ethic of truth and deception.