You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not lie to one another. [Leviticus 19:11 (ESV)]
A 2010 study on “Human Communication Research,” found that people average 1.65 lies per day. I suspect the 1,000 they people surveyed were not completely truthful and the number is probably higher! We’re all liars but are all lies equal? Is a POW’s lie to his interrogator about his platoon’s position the same as a thief’s lie to a detective? Is an undercover policeman’s lie to a drug dealer the same as not reporting all your income on your 1040? Is deceiving someone so you can give him a surprise party the same as saying the check’s in the mail when it isn’t?
Many theologians and Biblical scholars hold that, regardless of the circumstances, a falsehood of any kind is never condoned by God and is a sin. Be that as it may, there are some notable episodes of lying by some of the Bible’s heroes. We have Rahab, the prostitute/innkeeper in Jericho who saved the lives of Joshua’s spies with a blatant lie to the king’s men. Some theologians (like Calvin and Augustine), insisting that no lie ever is permissible, condemn Rahab. In that case, perhaps Joshua and his spies should be condemned. Joshua sent his men out secretly and a spy’s purpose is to deceive people into thinking he is friend rather than foe. As long as we’re condemning liars, we might as well condemn the two midwives, Shiprah and Puah, who lied to Pharaoh and spared the lives of Hebrew baby boys. Let’s add Elisha to the list since he lied to the Aramean army before leading the blind troops straight into the city of Samaria.
Is there such a thing as a “righteous lie?” Are there situations when deception is permissible? Can it ever be the morally right thing to do? The hardliners hold that we are to obey God first and foremost—even before we look to our neighbor. For them, regardless of its size or the reason behind it, a lie is a sin. They maintain that the lies of Rahab, the midwives, and Elisha showed their lack of faith in God and they should have trusted Him enough to tell the truth regardless of the consequences.
While Augustine said, “A lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving,” the other side defines a lie as an intentional falsehood that denies someone’s moral or legal right to know the truth. For them, not all falsehoods are lies and, on those occasions when people have forfeited their right to the truth (such as during a war or a criminal act), a falsehood is ethically permissible. For this camp, whether or not a falsehood is a lie, depends on the circumstances.
Clearly, a lie for personal gain is wrong, as evidenced by the leprosy inflicted on Gehazi for lying to Elisha and the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira for their lies to Peter. But, rather than being displeased with the lies told by Rahab, the midwives, and Elisha, God seemed to reward them. Rahab and her family were saved, she married an Israelite, was an ancestor of both David and Jesus, and became one of two women listed in the Hebrews 11 “Hall of Faith.” God blessed Shiprah and Puah with families of their own and Elisha went on to perform twice as many miracles than did Elijah.
Were their falsehoods sinful lies or, because of circumstances, were they excusable and possibly commendable? In Rahab’s case, although an arrow had not yet been shot, war between Jericho and the Israelites was on the horizon and, once she hid the spies, she’d taken Israel’s side. In the case of the midwives, Pharaoh had declared war on the Hebrews by instructing the women to kill all male infants. As for Elisha, his lie occurred during a time of war between the king of Aram and Israel. The lies they told were the kind of lies told by Oskar Schindler that saved over 1,000 Jews in Germany, by the Benedictine monk Father Bruno that safeguarded 300 Jewish boys in Belgium, and by Corrie ten Boom that hid and protected Jews in the Netherlands. Would God condemn them (or others like them) for lying in the war between good and evil?
Are there ever times when deception is permissible? Can a higher moral good outweigh the sin of a lie? Can we lie to protect a life? When lying is the only way to prevent a horrible evil, is it acceptable to God? Or is such a lie a failure of our faith? I’m not sure I know the answer. John Wesley famously claimed that he would not tell one lie to save the souls of all the world. I wonder if he would lie to save a life so that he then could save a soul.