A sermon of a well-known evangelist was being broadcast one day, and I just can’t forget him talking about how we should never lie. A little white lie? No, we should never go there. Well, Ok, but what about lying to save someone’s life? There are Christians who think it is wrong to lie in order to save someone’s life. But is this stance biblical? Is it always wrong to tell “a” lie, or is it only wrong to be a liar?
Exodus 20:16 (the 9th commandment) states, “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” Does this command somehow imply that if your neighbor is evil and is about to rape your wife or daughter, that you can’t deceive the neighbor somehow in order to save your loved ones? When faced with evil and/or murderous intent, we cannot defend ourselves with words? A person in this situation could defend themselves or others physically and not be questioned, yet there are Christians who will deny the use of words in self-defense. The motive of one’s heart is what God sees and knows.
There are many verses in the bible indicating that God hates a deceitful heart, a person who deceives for fraudulent or exorbitant gain. Proverbs 11:1, Proverbs 20:23, Hosea 12:7, and Amos 8:5 all show that God hates “dishonest scales” and “false weights,” used by those who boost prices and cheat; Micah 6:11 states, “Shall I acquit a man with dishonest scales, with a bag of false weights?” Merchants like this are stealing (commandment 8, “You shall not steal”) through deception. There are other verses about usury and excessive interest as well: “He lends at usury and takes excessive interest. Will such a man live? He will not! Because he has done all these detestable things, he will surely be put to death and his blood will be on his own head” (Ezekiel 18:13). Other relevant verses are: Exodus 22:25; Leviticus 25:35-37; Deuteronomy 23:19; Nehemiah 5:7, 10, 11; Psalm 15:5; Proverbs 28:8; Ezekiel 18:8, 17, 22:12.
People who bear false witness, and people who deceive innocents as a way of life in order to take their money and resources, are liars. God is against those who hurt innocent people. There are a number of instances in the bible where persons have lied in order to save innocent life, especially in time of war, or to right an injustice that no one else had stepped in to right. For instance, in Exodus 1:15-21, Pharaoh orders the Hebrew midwives to kill newborn boys, but not girls. The midwives did not comply and when called before Pharaoh, they lied to him, because “they feared God.” God was then kind to the midwives and gave them families of their own. In this situation, the midwives did what they had to do in order to save their own lives and the lives of others; the situation was evil and not the midwives, who, “fearing God,” would not think of lying generally in life. We live in a corrupt world, not in heaven, where there will be no necessity to defend life in this way.
Before continuing our look at whether or not it is OK to ever lie, let’s look at what “sin” and “repentance” mean. Sin means “to miss the mark,” to miss the target of God’s law. Sin can be committed against God’s law, or sin can come from not doing what God commanded, like not loving your neighbor. Also, there are greater sins and lesser sins; thus a gradation of sins (see Matthew 11:20-24) is acknowledged by God. Repentance means to undergo a change of mind. When a person comes to faith in God, they undergo a change of direction in their lives, away from sin and toward Christ. Also, the will and power to repent for individual sins by the believer is assisted by the Holy Spirit.
A problem (for some) with situations like the midwives in Egypt and with the following stories, is that persons lied or deceived, yet did not repent. However, the situations required deception in order for a greater good to result, or a wrong to be righted. Some theologians view the lies in these cases as common sense morality that any child would know to be “right,” while some say that the persons must have repented of the deception in order to have been blessed or saved by God (and they were, as recorded in the Bible), and that the repentance simply was not recorded. It should be noted that in other stories of the bible where deception was committed for selfish ends, but by a person declared righteous or blessed, repentance is recorded (as with David’s adultery and murder, for example).
Tamar and Judah (Genesis, Chapter 38)
This event is placed within the story of Joseph, which may seem incongruous. However, it was this event created by Tamar that exposed Judah’s “callous hypocrisy” and is the beginning of Judah’s personal transformation that leads to his thoughtfulness shown in the rest of the story (Dunn p. 65). Tamar was Judah’s daughter-in-law. She was married to Judah’s eldest son, who died, and then to the next son, as was the custom, but he also died. Judah promised his youngest son to Tamar, following the custom again; she was to live with her own family until the son was old enough to marry. However, Judah did not keep his word. At a time when Tamar knew that Judah was coming to her area, she dressed as a prostitute. Judah voluntarily came to this “prostitute” and Tamar became pregnant. Later, when it became obvious that Tamar was pregnant but did not have a husband, Judah declared that she should be burned to death. Being brought before Judah, Tamar presented items that Judah had left with the prostitute. At that the shamed Judah declared, “She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn’t give her to my son Shelah.” Judah did not sleep with Tamar again. Jesus’ genealogy includes Tamar.
Rahab and the spies (Joshua, Chapter 2)
In following the command and gift of God, the Israelites were entering the promised land after their long trek from Egypt. Joshua, Moses’ successor, sent two spies to Jericho to obtain information about the city. The spies, perhaps questionably, went to the house of a prostitute, Rahab. Amazingly, they found a confession of faith and loyalty to the God of Israel there, in the person of Rahab. Somehow the king of Jericho knew there were spies in the city, and that they had gone to see her. Because of Rahab’s faith, she hid the spies and deceived the city guards into thinking that the spies had already left. She assisted the spies in escaping and asked that they give protection to her and her family when Israel attacked Jericho. This they did, and Rahab and her family became a part of Israel. Jesus’ genealogy includes Rahab, and her faith is commended in Hebrews 11:31. As something to consider, it seems that there was no other way for Rahab to respond in this situation. Without her deceit, it seems certain that the spies would have been goners; also, it can be seen that it was because of her faith and loyalty to God that she lied to the guards. If she did not want to protect God’s people, she would not have had any reason to lie.
Jael and Sisera (Judges, Chapters 4 and 5)
The story of Jael and Sisera is as astonishing as it is gruesome. A short description does not do the tale or context justice and it is recommended to the reader to study a few commentaries on Judges 4 and 5 (such as the Eerdman’s reference given below). The event takes place while Israel was under the jurisdiction of Canaan, and a woman prophet, Deborah, was leading her people in this state. Through God’s word, Deborah told Barak to ready men so that Sisera, the commander of the Canaanite army, could be given to him. Barak showed a lack of confidence, so Deborah prophesied that Sisera would be delivered into the hands of a woman instead. Barak, along with Deborah, attacked Sisera and his men. After intense battle, Sisera fled, but Barak followed the rest of the troops and defeated them. In the meantime, Sisera entered the tent of Jael, a member of a clan friendly to the Canaanite king. Jael, however, was loyal to Israel (and maybe she was angry since from the wording in Judges 5, she may have been raped by Sisera). She pretended to be friendly with Sisera and encouraged him to rest, but after he fell to sleep she hammered a tent peg through his temple, killing him. Jael is called “most blessed of women” in the Song of Deborah (Judges 5).
Other instances of deception in the Bible
We covered the stories of some interesting ladies of the bible, like Tamar who deceived in order to obtain what was rightfully hers (after it was clear that the other party was not honoring an agreement), and Rahab, a foreign prostitute who turned to God and lied in order to save Israelites, and Jael, a female who, through deception, defeated the powerful commander of Canaan who had attacked Israel. The reader should not get the impression that the Bible shows only females deceiving when necessary, however.
King David, before he was king and running from murderous King Saul, went to live in Philistine territory, though the Philistines were Israel’s enemy. Since David wasn’t alone but had 600 of his men with him, and their families, they needed a large area to stay in. King Achish of Gath agreed that David and his men could live there. While David lived there he went and raided towns outside of Israel, toward Egypt, and killed all who lived there so that there would be no witnesses. This was necessary for David’s deception, since he told King Achish that he was raiding Israelite towns. The king was led to believe that David was loyal to him and that Israel surely despised David. The king eventually called on David and his men to join in attacking Israel, and he had to agree. However, when the King’s commanders insisted that David and his men might turn on them and so shouldn’t fight, David went out of his way to show loyalty to the Philistine king (1 Samuel 27; 29:1-11).
Lest anyone should think that David was rewarded by God for his violent deeds here and elsewhere, he was not. David loved God, but committed sins; his later life was full of the consequences of these, and in addition, God forbade David from building His temple because of his bloodshed (1 Chronicles 22:8). Another example of a man lying in the Bible, though not anywhere near as fully and heinously as David, is in Jeremiah the prophet. In Jeremiah 38:24-27, Jeremiah is consulted by King Zedekiah, who was appointed to that position by the King of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar. Zedekiah was surrounded by scheming men and simply asked Jeremiah to not tell these men of a private conversation they had regarding Nebuchadnezzar’s impending invasion. Jeremiah obeyed and was not truthful about the conversation when asked. This simple act of deception appears to be in line with God’s wish to spare Zedekiah’s life (Jeremiah 38:20-23).
So, was it OK or even desirable that the midwives in Egypt, Tamar, Rahab, Jael, and Jeremiah, were deceptive? What does your moral common sense say? Is it alright to lie in order to save someone else’s life (or right a wrong that no one else can, or will, do)? Is it still “evil” when one does so? If Rahab saved lives by lying, was it something she needed to repent of?
Theological and New Testament considerations
Peter Kreeft, a Christian and a philosophy professor, wrote an easily accessible essay on this issue in response to criticisms over an abortion-related “sting” operation (Kreeft 2011). His stance is that it was good that the persons conducted this sting operation, despite the deceptions involved. When faced with a great evil in this corrupt world, deception – while in other types of situations is wrong – can be right. Were those who hid Jews and lied to the Nazis about it, wrong? No, what they did was right. Was it wrong to use spies to help stop the Nazis from using nuclear weapons? Is it wrong for the police to conduct undercover work and sting operations? No, these activities that involve deception are not wrong, but right, Kreeft argues.
Why do so many people these days take an absolutist stance and argue for the wrongness of these works by people who are only trying to save life? Kreeft says, “I think they are so (rightly) afraid of moral relativism that they have (wrongly) fallen into moral legalism.” He says that there is moral truth and moral reality, but that people in this age have become like computers, not listening to their moral intuition. They deal with abstractions and not with people. For those who cannot or will not acknowledge that saving Jews from the Nazis using deception was right and good, Kreeft says, “If you don’t know that, you’re morally stupid, and moral stupidity comes in two opposite forms: relativism and legalism. Relativism sees no principles, only people; legalism sees no people, only principles.” He concludes that perhaps, as Jesus called us to become like children, He meant “for us to remember our more simple and innocent moral wisdom.”
We have looked into some Old Testament people who lied in order that good may result, and how God commands against bearing false witness and using deceptive means for personal gain. Does the New Testament convey anything different? No, but it does perhaps convey more. In Acts 5:1-11, a married couple who had tried to deceive fellow Christians found that they were in fact lying to God. Ananias and Sapphira had sold some property in order to donate it to fellow believers, but for some unknown reason, they secretly decided to hold some back for themselves. God had not demanded that the couple, or anyone, give at all. All donations were voluntary and Ananias and Sapphira simply needed to be honest about what they wanted to do. Instead, they collapsed in death in front of Peter and other witnesses. The message seems pretty clear: God was with the new church and God knows people’s hearts.
Revelation 22:15 states, “Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.” Who will go to hell? Everyone who loves and practices falsehood. Those who practice being deceptive, who walk in that way of life, will end up separated from God. Ultimately, why is this the case? Because liars will never accept the truth. This dovetails with how John defines “liar:” “Who is the liar? It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the antichrist—he denies the Father and the Son” (1 John 2:22). “Anyone who believes in the Son of God has this testimony [God’s, not man’s] in his heart. Anyone who does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because he has not believed the testimony God has given about his Son. And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son” (1 John 5:10-11).
Further, the author of Romans talks of those who suppress the truth: “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse” (3:18-20). God’s qualities are clearly seen and all men know it, according to these verses; men are without excuse . . . period. This is why in the next group of verses (3:21-22) it states: “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools . . . .” Men know God but some choose to deny Him, and then fall deeper into darkness.
So we can see that there are those people who walk in a way of life that is against God, and those who walk in the way of God. Those who walk away from God can still show kindness in life (Luke 11:11-13), and those who walk with God can still sin at times in various ways. What matters is the way (which path) in which one is walking. “If we claim to have fellowship with him [God] yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin” (1 John 5:6-7). Through Jesus we become righteous and are purified, even if we stumble here and there (1 John 1:8-10).
Based on these things, and what has been presented earlier, can we tell if it always wrong to deceive? Can anyone really claim that lying to murderers, like the Nazis, in order to keep innocents from death, is wrong? Could Jesus have had something similar in mind when he said, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd [or sly] as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16)? After all, we know “that the whole world is under the control of the evil one” (1 John 5:19b). Will not all of our choices in some situations, then, be evil (if you consider any deception at all evil)? Do we not have free will in order to choose what seems best, while lacking the power to create other choices (change reality)? Should we not choose “the lesser of two evils” instead of doing nothing? In the case of persons lying to the Nazis in order to save lives, wouldn’t greater evil have resulted from doing nothing? This seems very much like common sense, common moral sense as Kreeft is shown to have pointed out. What we are not to do is “be” liars who: (1) bear false testimony against someone, (2) deceive for personal profit and gain, and (3) deny and suppress the truth about God.
Anonymous. “Question / Comment – Is it ever ok to lie?” Jesus Plus Nothing. http://www.jesusplusnothing.com/questions/LyingOk.htm (accessed March 2012).
Dunn, James, General Editor. Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003.
Kaiser Jr, Walter, et al. Hard Sayings of the Bible. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996.
Kreeft, Peter. “Why Live Action did right and why we all should know that.” CatholicVote.org. February 2011. http://www.catholicvote.org/discuss/index.php?p=14306 (accessed March 2012; follow hyperlink for newer url, accessed April 2014).
MacDonald, William. “Prophecies of the Messiah Fulfilled in Jesus Christ.” In Believer’s Bible Commentary, by William MacDonald, xviii-xxiii. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995 (1989).
Palmer, Ken. “Recorded Women.” Life of Christ. November 2010. http://www.lifeofchrist.com/life/genealogy/women.asp (accessed March 2012).
Sproul, R.C. Essential Truths of the Christian Faith. Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 1992.
A very slightly different version of this article was posted (by me) at Examiner.com in 2011, and then edited and posted at my website in 2012. Thanks so much for reading!