Essential Theology

Does God Ever Approve of Lying for the Greater Good?

An article on Christian Post (CP) unearthed a theological crisis within the Christian community. The article by Christian Post reporter Ray Nothstine was posted on August 21, 2015, and asked the question Should Christians Lie to End Abortion?

The report stated the concern of University of South Carolina Professor, Christopher O. Tollefsen, author of Lying and Christian Ethics, who published an essay questioning the tactics used by the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) to uncover some of the “dark” practices of Planned Parenthood in selling body parts of aborted fetuses.

It seems that the CMP revelation came as a result of “… techniques that involved lies,” according to Tollefsen who went on to say that pro-lifers should “occupy a higher ground of truth.”

The CP reporter included objections to Tollefsen from various notables and organizations defending CMP, saying that it was done to save lives, suggesting that they believed it was acceptable, if not by religious practice, certainly as a journalistic paradigm to uncover the truth.

Needless to say, the article generated some very interesting comments from the CP readers. One standout comment was, “Someone forgot to tell God that lying to preserve lives is a sin.”

The clear implication here is that if one lies to save lives, then that lying is not a sin. Furthermore, and more startlingly, it implies that in such circumstances God gives lying his stamp of approval. But can that be sustained biblically?

There are a few things that are misunderstood, confused and conflated in the many responses; especially by those defending as acceptable the practice of Christians lying if it is perceived to redound to some great good; and more so if that good is saving innocent lives.

Things Misunderstood

The comment, “Someone forgot to tell God that lying to preserve lives is a sin,” which for my purpose represents the sentiment of those defending the practice of Christians lying for a good cause, reveals a misunderstanding of what scripture reveals and teaches on this ethical issue. And, maybe, ignorance of the orthodox, historical doctrine of God held by the Church.

It is taken as axiomatic that a misunderstanding of the nature of God leads to bad doctrines. Scripture is unequivocal about many things concerning God and sin. God cannot sin. God hates sin. God cannot look upon sin. Sin separates us from God. Sin results in death. The scripture is also unequivocal that lying is sin, God hates lying, and liars will be cast into the lake of fire. As far as the scripture is concerned those things are not debatable. There is absolutely no scriptural ground for saying that God approves of Christians lying in any circumstance.

The Church Fathers disagreed on a few things, but there was unanimity on the Holiness and Righteousness of God. Those are uncompromising Essentials of the Faith. Orthodox Christian theology holds that God cannot conceive of sin, and the notion that The Holy One would instruct anyone to commit sin, or even approves of any sin, flies in the face of that orthodoxy.

Apart from being logically incoherent given the orthodox view of the nature and person of God, the suggestion that He would aid and abet any sin in any circumstance reduces the Almighty to the low stature of the petty, capricious gods of mythology. That, however, is the result of faulty hermeneutics.

So-called difficult passages will often lose their mystique when sound hermeneutic principles are applied to biblical interpretation. All scriptural interpretation must yield to the nature and person of God. Any interpretation that calls into question His holiness and righteousness must be reinterpreted; any difficulty is the result of our lower intellect and understanding, and not because of any blemish in Him.

Things Confused

One bible text was offered to show that in some instances God not only approves of lying, but actually participates in the sin by commanding His servant(s) to lie. A little more than casual reading of the text, and keeping in mind what scripture reveals about God’s holiness and righteousness, will quickly dispel those notions.

Take God’s command to Samuel to go and anoint a King to replace Saul in 1 Samuel 16:1-3. At first blush it seems as if God is telling Samuel to lie to Saul, should he be confronted by the king. But God actually gave Samuel a reason not to lie. God told him to go and offer a sacrifice thereby providing a reason to be there. So telling Saul that he was there to offer sacrifice to God would not be lying.

What confuses many is the fact of Samuel withholding God’s ulterior purpose from Saul. That is neither lying nor deception. What the defenders of Christian lying are not getting is that lying is speaking or communicating falsehood. Withholding information when the recipient has a right to it is lying because it creates the false impression of the real state of affairs. If the recipient does not have a right to the information, then withholding information is not lying. Saul had no need or right to know God’s further plan.

To buttress the belief that Christian lying can be justified, examples from some of history’s darkest periods were offered to show the utilitarian ethics of Christians lying. One comment says, “Lying to defeat the evil enemy as war strategy is acceptable. It’s not breaking of God’s commandment. The Europeans did it to [the] Nazis to save the Jews…”

This is an emotional rather than an intellectual response, and falsely assumes that lying as a war strategy is acceptable to God. There is confusion about the difference between those that lie to protect the Jews from the Nazis and a strategy of war. Lying to protect lives in time of war is not a war strategy in itself, and though it may serve some expedience, is still a sinful act.

The comment continued, “Killing the unborn children is more evil than the Holocaust. Doing nothing about it is utterly evil…”

This seems to be saying that Christian lying becomes an ethical and moral imperative in the battle against evil. That is breathtaking in its implication for Christian ethics, because it is tantamount to the situational ethics of secularism. Imagine the Church having to come up with a set of parameters to determine when it is acceptable to apply this ethic. And imagine the difficulty and confusion that individuals would face in knowing where to draw the line. There would be an inevitable surrender to relativism.

In theology there is a term called secondary causality. This assumes that human actions are second order causalities; that is, as free moral agents our actions are not divinely caused but comes from our own volition. It can therefore become confusing to those looking for moral cover when it comes to the ethical appropriateness of an act that benefits others or saves lives. So whatever moves us to act in defense of the vulnerable, the means of achievement must be judged against the requirements of a holy, righteous God as to whether it is right or wrong. Just because the outcome is favorable doesn’t mean the method was ethical or acceptable to God.

Things Conflated

Other scriptures were offered to show characters who were blessed by God, presumably because they lied. But that is conflating lying with demonstrations of faith. A comment declared, “…the Egyptian midwives… lied to prevent the babies from being murdered, and God blessed them with families of their own.” And, “Rahab lied and was blessed and became a part of the lineage of Christ.”

Clearly, the blessings enjoyed as a result of the faith of those characters are being conflated with the approval of their lying.

But as I noted above with secondary causality, these characters acted out of their own intuitions, even if they were motivated by their faith. This can be further demonstrated by applying the hermeneutic principle that accounts for who God is and what the scriptures say, for example, about Rahab.

James 1:13 – 14 “Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed,” and James 2:25 “Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?” (NKJV)

In those two passages we can readily see two biblical principles to aid in our interpretation of the Old Testament texts. The first is that it’s the person and not God who bears the responsibility for committing sin; and second, Rahab was blessed not because she lied, but because she received the messengers and sent them out another way. This she did because she believed God based upon the testimony of the spies, and was justified as a result.

The Consequence

To me, the fact that so many professing Christians demonstrate such passion in their belief that God has exceptions for Christian lying, represents a theological crisis of faith. To accept Christian lying as anything but an act of sin against a Holy God, demonstrates a lack of faith in God on a spiritual level.

One comment asked, “So while lying is always a sin, is there a time when a Christian can choose to lie rather than allow a heinous act to take place. And simply confess the lie to God and receive His forgiveness and cleansing as we read about in I John 1:9?”

That is an interesting question because it recognizes that God does not approve of lying in any circumstance. However, because it raises the specter of normalizing Christian lying by simply asking for forgiveness after the fact, it begs the question: Do Christians really believe that God could not achieve the desired outcome without us having to resort to lying? If we think about it, adopting that approach would allow Christians to sin at will, and as a consequence we would get the unpleasant spectacle of Christians engaging in morally detestable behaviors without remorse.

That is not a trivial point to make. When a Christian sees an act of sin as the only option to achieve a desired outcome from a situation, it means that person is not acting in faith (think of Daniel being thrown into the den of hungry lions, and the three Hebrews being thrown into the fiery furnace). Scripture teaches that anything that is not of faith is sin (Romans 14:23b).  So I conclude that Christians lying, even for what is perceived to be a noble cause, is an affront to God; it is not an act of faith; and it is counterproductive to the Gospel and to the cause of Christ.