Ethics
Is It Ever Okay to Lie?
Nov 19, 2012
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A number of critics of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have criticized the Pentagon’s “use of deception and disinformation against enemies, real or imagined, abroad.” The question is, In a time of war, should governments always tell the truth to the enemy? The architects of the D-Day invasion, for example, used deception to mislead the Nazis. Was this wrong? Is wearing camouflage, a form of deception, unethical? Should soldiers put on bright red coats and fight in open fields face to face? How about secret codes? Was it immoral to engage a group of Navajo Indians to encrypt radio messages in their native language to confuse the Japanese code breakers during WW II? Winston Churchill may have said it best: “In war-time, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” We can go further? Is it ever right to lie or misinform a civil government? What does the Bible say? [product id="1430" align="right" size="small"]

The place to begin in the development of a doctrine of resistance is with the Old Testament. “It is precisely because the state is a divine(1) institution that its authority is not absolute. . . . Once government oversteps those bounds—when it interferes with the life of the church or demands compliance with unjust laws, for example—it exceeds its God-ordained boundaries.”(2) The Bible includes examples of faithful believers who resisted claims by civil magistrates to obey unjust laws.

The Hebrew midwives were commanded by “the king of Egypt” to put to death all the male children being born to the Hebrew women (Ex. 1:15–16). The Hebrew midwives disobeyed the edict of the king: “But the midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt had commanded them, but let the boys live” (1:17). The midwives had to make a choice. Did God’s law overrule the command of a king, even “the king of Egypt”? God shows His approval of their actions: “So God was good to the midwives, and the people multiplied, and became very mighty. And it came about because the midwives feared God, that He established households for them” (1:20-21).

In 1560, the Geneva Bible was published. Between 1560 and 1644, at least 144 editions appeared. The Geneva Bible was also called the “Puritan Bible” because it was popular with Christians who opposed certain actions of the English monarchy. In addition to being a fresh English translation, the Geneva Bible included notes on certain texts. King James I, whose name is associated with a later popular translation of the Bible, the King James Version (1611), disliked the Geneva Bible because of the specific nature of some of its notes. “The later vilification of marginal notes,” David Daniell writes in his history of the English Bible, “especially by the politicians controlling King James in the early 1600s, was from fear of the working of this sovereign God in places outside the fence of what was narrowly understood as the only apostolic Christianity.”(3) They expressly disliked the way it condemned rulers who acted contrary to God’s Word. For example, a marginal note for Exodus 1:19 stated that the Hebrew midwives were correct to disobey the Egyptian king’s order to kill the Hebrew babies. The king reasoned that if it was legitimate to oppose a ruler on one decree, then it was legitimate to oppose him on others. This is why King James professed, “I could never yet see a Bible well translated in English; but I think that, of all, that of Geneva is worst.”(4)

Jochebed, Moses’ mother, also disobeyed the edict of the king by hiding her child and later creating a way of escape for him so he would not be murdered by the king’s army: “But when she could hide him no longer, she got him a wicker basket and covered it over with tar and pitch. Then she put the child into it, and set it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile” (2:3). Jochebed even deceived Pharaoh’s daughter into believing that she, Jochebed, was in no way related to the child (2:7-9). Surely Jochebed was right in her defiance. [product id="1292" align="right" size="small"]

Rahab Hides the Two Spies

Rahab hid the spies of Israel and lied about their whereabouts. When a route for escape became available, she led them out another way from that of the pursuing soldiers. The king issued a command to Rahab: “Bring out the men who have come to you, who have entered your house, for they have come to search out all the land” (Josh. 2:3). She disobeyed a direct command of the “king of Jericho.” Some want to maintain that Rahab was right in “welcoming the spies in peace” (Heb. 11:31), but she was wrong in lying about the whereabouts of the spies. The following is a representative example:

We see, therefore, that neither Scripture itself nor the theological inferences derived from Scripture provide us with any warrant for the vindication of Rahab’s untruth and this instance, consequently, does not support the position that under certain circumstances we may justifiably utter an untruth.(5)

“Welcoming them in peace” means that they would not fall in the hands of the king of Jericho which would have meant certain death. Rahab had changed her allegiance from Jericho to Israel. Conditions of war were operating. If she had told the truth to the men seeking the two spies, then she would have been an accomplice in their deaths (cf. Psalm 50:18).

There is another point that is often missed in this story about Rahab’s lie. “Joshua the son of Nun sent two men as spies secretly from Shittim. . . (Josh. 2:1). The text continues by telling us that “they went and came into the house of a harlot whose name was Rahab, and lodged there.” Did they announce that they were Israelite spies? Joshua says the operation was to be done “secretly,” that is, without revealing the truth of their mission. Are not “spies” in the business of lying? Why was Joshua right in sending men to spy out the land, while Rahab was wrong in lying about the route the spies took? Why were the spies right in hiding and Rahab wrong in not revealing where they were hiding? Is not that an act of deception? Why didn’t they rebuke Rahab for lying? Why didn’t the spies leave by the same route they entered the city? Instead, they were accomplices in Rahab’s lie by allowing her to “let them down by a rope through the window” (2:15).

[product id="1518" align="left" size="small"]Rahab is praised by two New Testament writers for her actions: “By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish along with those who were disobedient, after she had welcomed the spies in peace” (Heb. 11:31). Rahab is listed with Abraham as one whose faith was reflected in her works: “And in the same way [as Abraham] was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works, when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?” (James 2:25). By sending the spies out by another way, she subverted the king’s desire to capture the spies. God commended Rahab for deception. Again, the circumstances were atypical. “The critics of Rahab’s lie apparently think her case is analogous to David’s adultery with Bathsheba, a union which ultimately produced Solomon. We are not, of course, bound to praise David’s action simply because Solomon’s rule produced many desirable results (such as the construction of God’s temple). We are specifically told that David’s adultery was abhorrent in the eyes of God; we are not so informed about Rahab’s actions.”(6)

So then, from this brief analysis of the Old Testament, there are times when it is appropriate to lie, and a time of war is one of those times. Those who are trying to kill us do not deserve the truth.Endnotes:

  1. The author is using the word “divine” to mean “divinely ordained.”()
  2. H. Wayne House, “The Christian’s Duty of Civil Disobedience to the Government: Contemporary Struggles Between Christians and the State,” The Christian and American Law: Christianity’s Impact on America’s Founding Documents and Future Direction, ed. H. Wayne House (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1998), 149.()
  3. David Daniell, The Bible in English: Its History and Influence (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 309.()
  4. Gary DeMar, Reformation to Colonization (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 1997), 247. Also see Daniel J. Ford, In the Name of God, Amen: Rediscovering Biblical and Historical Covenants (St. Louis, MO: Lex Rex Publishing, 2003), 41.()
  5. John Murray, Principles of Conduct: Aspects of Biblical Ethics (London, England: The Tyndale Press, 1957), 139.()
  6. Gary North, “In Defense of Biblical Bribery,” in Rousas J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1973), 841.()
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About author

Gary DeMar

Gary is a graduate of Western Michigan University (1973) and earned his M.Div. at Reformed Theological Seminary in 1979. He is the author of countless essays, news articles, and more than 27 book titles, His most recent book is Exposing the Real Last Days Scoffers. Gary lives in Marietta, Georgia, with his wife, Carol. They have two married sons and four grandchildren, Gary and Carol are members of Midway Presbyterian Church (PCA).

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