Many Christians espouse the view that all telling of untruths is lying and lying is always, in all circumstances, immoral and wrong. Let’s begin here and address several issues. Of course, as Christians, we can’t just stop with philosophy when determining right and wrong. We have to include scripture—not only as an ingredient but as foundation for the discussion. To discuss it, let me take the contention above and break it down into a logical argument. Let’s start with the following syllogism:
P1 Christian morality is obedience of God’s commands.
P2 God’s commands forbid any and all telling of untruth.
C Christian morality forbids any and all telling of untruth.
Premise 1 is, for the Christian, unassailable. To paraphrase the Euthyphro dilemma loosely for a Christian audience “Is an action good because God commands it, or does God command it because it is good?” Many might think this a minor question but it actually has enormous ramifications. Many will say things like, “God commands that because it is good,” or “God only does that (or allows that) because it is right.” These statements may be useful for comfort but they are ethically and theologically horrific. I say this, because if God does something because the something is good, then what defined it as good? If God defined it as good and then did it, that is something very different than what is often said. If God acts because the action is a prior good, then there must be something or someone (some good-maker) superior to God and commands God by “determining that which is good.” This is heretical, and the implications are awful. The command or action of God is its own “good-maker”. It is He who decides what is good, because he is the very standard of good.
This actually helps to answer some of the problem of Evil, because if God permits an event, then his permitting the event is a good thing, even if the event itself is an evil perpetrated by another. Any action of God is good for no other reason than that it is God’s action. Any command of God is, likewise, good for no other reason than that God commanded it. So premise one is no problem for the Christian.
My version of the argument is an acceptable deductive argument and there is no problem with the structure, so if the premises are true the conclusion must also be true. For this reason, let’s lay aside the conclusion for now.
The problem if there is one, must be with the second premise. This can be demonstrated very quickly. If we use the process of reductio ad absurdum and assume the negation of the conclusion, the argument survives only if one or more of the premises are wrong. Since premise one is already agreed to be right, the only option is either the truth of the conclusion or some problem with premise 2. Let me explain a bit more plainly. If we agree that Christian morality is obedience of God’s commands, the only way it can be acceptable to ever tell an untruth is if God has not forbidden any and all telling of untruth.
If God has commanded us never to tell an untruth, then telling one is always wrong and the argument above stands. However, if God has not commanded us never to tell an untruth, then premise two is false and the argument becomes nonsense.
So how can we know if God’s commands forbid any and all telling of an untruth? Of course, as people of the Word, we look to the Bible. We can look for a couple things, each of which will tell us something different.
(1) Any command that flatly says, “Thou must never say anything that is untrue.”
(2) Any command that in proper context can be interpreted to mean, “Thou must never say anything untrue.”
One is easy to look for. Search any concordance and you will see there is no such plain command. This is not a problem though, because some of our most important and cherished moral commands do not involve a direct command, but are discerned from the whole of scripture. I know some will try to point out the commanded to “not bear false witness.” However, the context shows it is not to be applied to all speaking untruth. The context there is bearing witness in court. It actually has to be treated as number two in the above pair to see if it applies to all other areas of untruth or is limited only to court. Others will bring out Jesus’ command to “let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no’.” The context here is not telling truth or untruth. The context is oaths. This is not, as many believe, an oath that what you say is true. It is actually an oath to God, heaven, earth, etc. to perform or abstain from some act. Instead, for you it should be enough to say “Yes, I will do that” or “No, I will not do that.” There is no need to swear to do it, because it should be an act of obedient love to do what you say you will. We can tell this because of the comparison to doing what you have made an oath to do.
Looking along the lines of two, how can we know if a command against telling untruths should be interpreted to apply to any and all untruth? We can look for the negative of it. If we find any place in scripture where those who tell an untruth are commended or blessed by God for their deception then we know there is no such universal command against untruth. Also, if we find any examples of God commanding anyone to tell an untruth then either there are times acceptable to tell such, or we have a contradiction.
I can give you three examples of people who told an untruth and were either blessed, commended or condoned for doing so. They are:
- Exodus 1:19, the midwives lie to pharaoh and are commended.
- Joshua 2:4-7, Rahab is blessed for lying to protect the spies.
- 2 Samuel 17:17-20, the wife of Bahurim lied to protect David’s men from Absalom. While there is no mention of blessing or commendation for this, the record does not give the feeling of condemnation, but of condoning the action.
Then in 1 Samuel 16, God actually commanded Samuel to lie to Saul if his mission to anoint a new king was suspected. When Samuel told God that Saul would kill him if it was discovered, God commanded him to take a sacrificial animal and if asked tell Saul you were only there to sacrifice. This is an open command to deceive, to tell an untruth.
We have three examples of people being blessed or commended in God’s Word for telling an untruth and we have God commanding one of his prophets to tell another untruth. This shows us it is not possible to interpret scripture as forbidding any and all telling of untruths. There are times when telling an untruth is acceptable.
We can see now Premise 2 above fails because it can be demonstrated that God’s commands do not forbid any and all telling of untruths. Since Premise 2 fails there is no reason to assume the truth of the conclusion. This means there is no good reason to assume God forbids any and all telling of untruths. It is equally possible that there are forms of untruth that God will not only forbid but bless—we’ve seen some above.
Some will ask, “So are you saying Christians should lie?” Of course not! However, I wonder if there might be times that telling an untruth should not be given the moral nuance of the word lie. This is why I so carefully used the phrase “tell an untruth” above.
In our language we have a way of saying someone killed another person, without painting the action with the moral stain of murder. We can differentiate the two words “kill” and “murder.” I can say, “He murdered him” and it has an automatic harsh moral declaration within it. If I say, “He killed him” the moral question is left open. I think part of our problem with discerning a moral untruth from an immoral lie stems from our language’s lack of such nuance in this area. Perhaps if we had some word for “deception of an enemy,” or for “deception to protect the weak or beloved” separate from our morally loaded word “lie” then we would be able to more quickly see the difference.
One quick and trite example: what does the person who says a Christian must never tell any lie say to a small child who asks where children come from? Most will tell them, at least, less than the whole truth, if not a flat-out lie. But isn’t “less than the whole truth” itself a lie?