Jun 25, 2012

If God hates lies why does he approve of deception in the Bible?

If someone grabbed your cash-point card from your bag and demanded you gave them your pin-number would it be sinning as a Christian to give them a made-up number? If it’s wrong to lie then as Charles Hodge point out are you not lying when you leave the lights on in your home to deter a thief when you’re away ?

Is it always wrong to lie or can it ever be right to withhold the truth or even lie?

The 9th commandment reads ‘you shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.’

Given that God is a God of truth (John 14:6, Romans 3:4) and who does not lie (Titus 1:2) can it ever be right for Christians to lie? Over the centuries Christians have wrestled with the question of whether we are always required to speak truthfully. Do we owe everyone not just the truth but the whole truth?

When we read stories in the Bible we do find passages where God appears to praise those who deliberately deceive others. One famous example is in Exodus 1:15-21 and the story of the Hebrew midwives. In the account Pharaoh tells the midwives to kill the Hebrew boys but Shiphrah and Puah let the boys live. When questioned by Pharaoh they fabricate a story about the Hebrew women giving birth before they arrive.

Twice in the story we are told that their motive behind their action was that they ‘feared God’ in v.17 and v.21. Indeed they risked a great deal to cover-up what was really going on and faced extreme punishment in their attempts to protect the children.

The principle we find at work in the Bible is that God’s people are commended for their deceit when they use deception to a) protect innocent lives and b) prevent evil such as murder.

So is it a sin to lie? The passage suggests that not all deceit is ‘false testimony’ because not all deceit should be thought of as a failure to ‘love our neighbour as ourselves’. When we lie to promote ourselves or inflict harm on our neighbour we are sinning but some deceit is a necessary action to show that we are willing to love and protect our neighbour in the face of evil. Just as we saw earlier in our series that not all killing is murder because for example killing in self-defence was allowed by God so now we see that not all deceit is false testimony.

It is surely worth remembering that although these cases offer fascinating case-studies of what it actually means to lie it is not likely that we will ever need to use deception in such a way in the course of our own lives (unless our role is in the military!)

But such stories do suggest that it might be necessary and appropriate to withhold information where that information would be used in a harmful way. We do not therefore have an obligation to speak all that we know when asked to reveal it if to do so would promote evil or fail to protect someone. Indeed when someone asks for information in order to commit a crime or to inflict harm they have forfeited their right to the truth.



  • Good post Neil – thank you.

    I wonder if you put it a little too weakly in the conclusion though. God doesn’t just approve of the hebrew midwives withholding truth – he blesses them for actively seeking to deceive Pharaoh.

  • I agree with the statement that those seeking to harm other may have forfeited their right to the truth – but I can see an “isn’t this a slippery slope?” response from some.

    How would you suggest we should decide when someone has (or plans to do!) something bad enough to forfeit their right to the truth?

  • Gents,

    it struck me cycling to work this morning that the Hebrew midwives’ deceit didn’t save anyone’s lives except perhaps their own. What saved the children’s lives was the midwives’ unwillingness to obey Pharoah. Indeed the children are still in danger, Pharoah knows they’re still alive: if the lesson is to deceive in order to save lives shouldn’t the midwives have claimed to have killed them so Pharoah would think the job was done? as it is, he comes up with another way of killing the boys by drowning.

    So a precedent for civil disobedience certainly, but wouldn’t Jesus’ example of enduring unjust punishment for the salvation of others and refusing to commit deceit to escape it (1 Pet 2:18-25) suggest that the midwives’ deceit is the one area in which they are not an example to us?

  • I agree with this article. There is such thing as justified lying. Say the Nazis come by your door and ask if you’re hiding Jews, you’d be justified in lying to them, or if a serial killer showed up with a weapon and asked where so-and-so was, that you were hiding. Or if a dishonest salesperson was trying to con you. You’d be justified on all counts, because you’d be protecting innocent life. Because the other person/s would not have a right to the truth; they would not be entitled to the truth. If one is not entitled to hear the truth, then one doesn’t have to give it to them. But otherwise, if one IS entitled to the truth, then you need to tell them.

  • One of the most common errors in Bible interpretation is assuming that because the Bible REPORTS something, then that must mean God approves of what is being reported. Not so! God does not approve of lying or deception, but He still works through sinful people (like you and me) to accomplish His ultimate will.

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