Is it ever permissible to lie?

Question: In 1 Samuel 16 God tells Samuel to go see Jesse in Bethlehem to anoint the new king (David). Samuel responds by saying that if Saul finds out why he is going, Saul will kill him (v. 2). God then tells Samuel to go to sacrifice and to give that as his reason for going (v. 2). Isn’t this deceptive?

Yes, it is. Samuel held back the main reason for his going to Bethlehem, and thus deceived Saul. Furthermore, he did this at God’s command.

Many Christians are a bit squeamish about this. But this is not the only instance of God approving the use of deception. One need only think of the two Hebrew midwives lying to Pharaoh and being blessed by God on account of it (Ex. 1:15-21), or Rahab hiding the two Hebrew spies and lying to the men of Jericho (Josh. 2:1-7)—not to mention the fact that the spies themselves, by virtue of being spies, were practicing deception—or Ehud’s deception of Eglon (Jud. 3:15-23), or Jael’s deception of Sisera (Jud. 4:17-22), or Elisha’s deception of the Syrians (2 Ki. 6:14-20), to see that God has on many occasions approved of his people in the use of deception.

Even God himself, at times, uses deception to further his purpose. For instance, he is said to have put a “lying spirit” in the mouth of all the false prophets to entice King Ahab to fall in battle (1 Ki. 22:19-23; cf. Isa. 19:14; Ezek. 14:9; 2 Th. 2:9-12).

What are we to make of all this?

Consider an analogy. The fourth commandment prohibits work on the Sabbath. But does this mean that there are no circumstances under which it is permissible to work on the Sabbath? No. The Bible clearly allows works of necessity (Lk. 13:15; 14:5-6), works of charity (Mk. 3:1-4) and works of piety (Matt. 12:5; Jn. 7:20-23) to be performed on the Sabbath. “Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it away to water it?” (Lk. 13:15). “Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?” (Lk. 14:5-6)

Consider another analogy. In the fifth commandment, children are commanded to honor their parents (Ex. 20:12). This entails obedience (Eph. 6:1-2). But does this mean that there are no circumstances under which it is permissible for a child to disobey his parents? What if a parent should tell the child to do something which God forbids, or forbids a child to do what God commands? What should he do? He must obey God rather than his parents (Acts 5:29). The principle holds true for a wife’s submission to her husband, and the citizen’s obedience to the civil magistrate.

Consider still another analogy. The sixth commandment is, “You shall not kill.” But does this mean that there are no circumstances under which it is permissible to kill? No. The Bible clearly recognizes the moral legitimacy of killing in self-defense (Ex. 22:2), killing in capital punishment (Ex. 21:12-14), and killing in a just war (Ex. 17:8-16).

The eighth commandment prohibits stealing. But consider this situation: You’ve borrowed a neighbor’s shot-gun for a hunting trip because there was not enough time for yours to be repaired beforehand. You’ve returned from hunting, but haven’t yet had time to return the gun. Your neighbor comes over in a rage. He’s just had an argument with his wife. He says he’s so angry he could kill her. He demands his shot-gun. Should you return it? If you don’t, in effect, you’re stealing from him. But if you do return it, you’re aiding him in the murder of his wife.

Likewise, the Bible prohibits lying (Ex. 20:16; Lev. 19:13). But does this mean that there are no circumstances under which it is permissible to deceive?

The year is 1944. You live in German occupied Holland. You are hiding a Jewish family in your attic. The Nazis are going door to door in your neighborhood looking for Jews. It’s the middle of the night. There’s a loud knock on the door. It’s the S.S. They ask you if there are any Jews living in your house. What do you do? Do you tell them the truth; do you lie; or do you remain silent? If you tell them the truth you are aiding them in the murder of the Jewish family. If you remain silent, they will infer that the answer is yes, and the effect is the same as if you told them the truth. If you lie, you can spare their lives.

Sometimes obedience to one of God’s commandments involves us in an apparent disobedience to another. And when this is the case our duty is obedience to the weightier commandment of the law (cf. Matt. 23:23). This is the case in the illustration of a person hiding Jews in Nazi occupied Holland. To tell the truth in such circumstances involves a person as an accomplice in the violation of a weightier commandment than that against lying—it involves him as an accomplice to murder. Indeed, it is not a violation of a command of God against lying to lie in order to save the lives of the innocent.

Here’s the key: truth must be told to everyone who has a right to know the truth. But not everyone has a right to know the truth. If someone wishes to make an illicit use of the truth, deception is a legitimate option. R. J. Rushdoony writes,
Man has an obligation to speak truthfully in all normal circumstances, but he cannot permit evil men to steal, murder, or rape by his truth-telling...Truth-telling under such circumstances is not a virtue but moral cowardice. (Rushdoony, Institutes of Biblical Law, p. 548)
Charles Hodge wrote, is generally admitted that in criminal falsehoods there must be not only the enunciation or signification of what is false, and an intention to deceive, but also a violation of some obligation. If there may be any combination of circumstances under which a man is not bound to speak the truth, those to whom the declaration or signification is made have no right to expect him to do so. (Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. 3, p. 441)
Earlier I said, “Sometimes obedience to one of God’s commandments involves us in an apparent disobedience to another.” The operative word here is “apparent.”

Again Charles Hodge writes,

“...the question [is not] whether it is ever right to lie; but rather what constitutes a lie...[T]here must be an intention to deceive when we are expected and bound to speak the truth. That is, there are circumstances in which a man is not bound to speak the truth, and therefore there are cases in which speaking or intimating what is not true is not a lie.” (Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. 3, pp. 442-443, emphasis added)
Theologians sometimes refer to this as a “holy pretence,” or a dolus bonus (good deceit), or even a “lie of necessity.”

I should add that it is never right for a Christian to escape persecution, even martyrdom, by lying and denying the Lord (Matt. 10:31-32, 38-39).

This teaching is liable to misunderstanding and misapplication as a means to justify all kinds of unholy falsehoods for personal advantage. Nevertheless, for those who do find themselves in a position where a “holy pretence” is necessary, their conscience need not be troubled.

Let this be clearly understood: I am not advocating the idea of situational ethics where there is no Law of God to guide our behavior and ethical decision-making. No. The Christian is to submit himself to the authority of God’s law. But there are times when we are confronted by an apparent conflict between obedience to one or another of God’s commands. In these circumstances we must obey the weightier commandment.

In the cases in which God used deception to further his purpose (1 Ki. 22:19-23 [par. 2 Ch. 18:18-22]; Isa. 19:14; Ezek. 14:9; 2 Th. 2:9-12), he was using it as a just punishment of those “who refused to love the truth and so be saved...but had pleasure in unrighteousness.” This was, in essence, the application of lex talionis, the law of retribution: “an eye for an eye...” The wicked loved not what was true, and so in retribution God gave them over to what was false.


Anonymous said…
Wow, Pastor Doug, I really appriciate your thoughts on this comment. I often think of the midwives who lied to save the babies, but have wondered how to handle the seeming discrepancy. This makes a lot of sense to me!

Thanks for your hard work!

-Joel Wiliamson
Doug Enick said…
Thanks, Joel, I'm glad you found it to be helpful.

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