Morality and Ethics

Lying – Is it ever permissible?

The command in Scripture is certainly clear:

Lev. 19:11  Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not deceive one another.

So that would include all types of lying, without any exception.

Now as far as a quarterback doing a fake handoff, I don’t think pretending (as in acting) is lying. I think “bearing false witness” gives the sense of what lying is, it’s putting your witness on it, taking a stand, yet knowing that it’s not true.

So it is good to point out that a lie is making a false statement where the implication is that there is real truth in this statement, in a game, in acting, such claims are not being made, so “false witness” would then be saying in effect “I’m claiming this is true,” like a witness in court would.

Now we don’t have to give people information they want in order to hurt others or commit a crime! But we don’t have to lie, either. Will a lie deliver our family or friends? This is not certain. But wouldn’t it still be better to lie in a situation where someone’s life was endangered, to at least try to save them or ourselves, in this way?

Such a situation came up, actually, in Corrie ten Boom’s family, when they were hiding Jewish people, and Nazi soldiers asked Corrie’s sister Nollie, point blank, “Is this a Jew?” about Annaliese, a Jewish person she was sheltering. She said “yes,” and Annaliese was taken away by the Nazis, and Nollie was taken away, too, to prison.

Mietje relayed [a] message from Nollie, one especially for me: “No ill will happen to Annaliese. God will not let them take her to Germany. He will not let her suffer because I obeyed him.”

Six days after Nollie’s arrest, the telephone rang. “The Jewish theater in Amsterdam was broken into last night. Forty Jews were rescued. One of them–a young woman–was most insistent that Nollie know: ‘Annaliese is free.’ Do you understand this message?”

I nodded, too overcome with relief and joy to speak. How had Nollie known? How had she been so sure?

(from “The Hiding Place”)

There was another similar incident, which is described in this book, with Corrie’s sister Nollie. God can certainly deliver us, if we refuse to lie, isn’t that a Christian’s hope, in all cases?

How much braver then, how much more excellent to say, “I will neither betray nor lie?”

This did a former Bishop of the Church of Thagasta, Firmus by name, and even more firm in will. For when he was asked by command of the emperor, through officers sent by him, for a man who was taking refuge with him, and whom he kept in hiding with all possible care, he made answer to their questions, that he could neither tell a lie, nor betray a man; and when he had suffered so many torments of body (for as yet emperors were not Christian) he stood firm in his purpose. Thereupon being brought before the emperor, his conduct appeared so admirable, that he without any difficulty obtained a pardon for the man whom he was trying to save. What conduct could be more brave and constant?

(Augustine, “On Lying”)

Now some would say that there are times when one principle can override another one, and this is true, it is appropriate to trespass to save a drowning person. But still, we don’t ever have to sin, for God to deliver us or someone else.

Isaiah 50:2-3  Was my arm too short to ransom you? Do I lack the strength to rescue you? By a mere rebuke I dry up the sea, I turn rivers into a desert; their fish rot for lack of water and die of thirst. I clothe the sky with darkness and make sackcloth its covering.

Yet will we every be forced to choose between sinful actions, even with all God’s power to save? If that was true, then this verse would not hold up:

1 Corinthians 10:13 And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.

If the required choice is between sins, then as far as not sinning in this situation, there is no deliverance, and no way out.

Then we have this verse as well:

James 2:10 For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.

If we break one law, we break the other one, too. So we can’t break one law and not break the other, not really.

Now some would say that in certain circumstances a particular means is ethical but the same means in other circumstances would be unethical, and this is quite true. But this is not a principle that applies to all means. Surely no one would agree to rape, for instance, as a means to an end. Some acts are always immoral, and must not be done, such as rape, or any other deed that is always a sin.

But does God follow this rule about not lying, can he ever have been said to do this? For example, what about when God sent a lying spirit to deceive Ahab (1 Kings 22)? Well, here God told Ahab what he was doing! But how about where “God sent them a powerful delusion” (2 Th. 2:11)? Here also, God could send a lying spirit, as he did in Ahab’s case, and God similarly tells what he is doing, God put “he sends a powerful delusion” in the Bible, for everyone to read…

So no, God cannot lie:

Hebrews 6:18  … it is impossible for God to lie …

The word here expresses the idea of “powerlessness,” God does not have the power or the ability to do this! This does not discount omnipotence, by the way! For sin is like a contradiction in arithmetic, 1+1 cannot be other than 2, in arithmetic, or in moral conduct.

Also, Scripture teaches that “all liars” will be judged:

Revelation 21:8  But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars–their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.

So this again includes all lying, and in addition, if God were to lie, he would himself come under this condemnation.

Thus instead, we can trust in God’s deliverance, and never resort to a lie, even for the best of reasons, even in the greatest danger.

Ephesians 4:25  Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body.

Proverbs 30:8 Remove far from me falsehood and lying…

Psalm 32:2 Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord does not count against him and in whose spirit is no deceit.

If lying for the best of reasons is permitted, then this undoes all statements purporting to be true:

“For even things which pertain to the praises of God might be represented as piously intended falsehoods, written in order that love for Him might be enkindled in men who were slow of heart; and thus nowhere in the sacred books shall the authority of pure truth stand sure” (Augustine, “Letters”)

“Tell me yourself–I challenge you: let’s assume that you were called upon to build the edifice of human destiny so that men would finally be happy and would find peace and tranquility. If you knew that, in order to attain this, you would have to torture just one single creature, let’s say the little girl who beat her chest so desperately in the outhouse, and that on her unavenged tears you could build that edifice, would you agree to do it? Tell me and don’t lie!” (Dostoevsky, “The Brothers Karamazov”)

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