Is a lie ever justified? Should we lie if it means protecting other people? Bodie Hodge, AiG–U.S., shares a thought-provoking email exchange.
The following is an email exchange between a reader and Bodie Hodge:
You, know I almost hate to do this because I know how much email you guys handle . . . But I want to respond to Bodie Hodge’s “contradictions” article on Rahab’s “lie”. Bodie is almost always right on the mark and is probably my favorite feedback man, but in this case I have to take exception to his saying that it is always wrong to lie . . . The ninth commandment says we should never bear false witness against our neighbor (or anyone). But if the Nazis are looking for Jews, and you know where they are, it would not be wrong to lie, in order to protect them, nor would this be bearing false witness “against” someone . . . I think in the same way the Israeli midwives lied to the Egyptians about the birthing of male babies in Moses’s day . . . I know its a rare exception, but there may be other circumstances when it might be appropriate to “lie”, although obviously, 99% percent of the time it would be wrong . . . Keep up the good work, all of you, your ministry is the most awesome in the world, just blows me away
Thank you for contacting Answers in Genesis and thanks for the comments. I know this can be a touchy subject, but please bear with me as I try to explain. Keep in mind that I, too, am not perfect but will try to answer as scripturally as possible. (Also, sorry for the length—but this feedback will allow me the breadth that I did not have with the contradiction article on Rahab on the website.)
Bearing false witness is a lie, and in Hebrew the word for false in Exodus 20:16 is sheqer, which literally means “lie.” It is derived from the Hebrew word shaqar, which means “deal falsely, be false, trick, and cheat.” There are many verses in the Bible that reaffirm the Ninth Commandment, and a couple are:
You shall not steal, nor deal falsely, nor lie to one another.
1 John 2:21
I have not written to you because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and that no lie is of the truth.
The devil is the father of lies (John 8:44), and one lie to God the Holy Spirit was worthy of instant death for Ananias (Acts 5:3–5). Paul points out that even if he were to lie for the glory of God, he would be deemed a sinner for such an act:
For if the truth of God has increased through my lie to His glory, why am I also still judged as a sinner?
In light of such passages, does a “righteous lie” really exist? The most common example sent to me was envisioning the Holocaust and being placed in the position of lying to potentially protect someone’s life. Like most, if placed in such a difficult situation, it would be very difficult. In fact, I could never be sure what I would do, especially if it were a loved one.
But consider for a moment that we are all already sentenced to die because we are sinners (Romans 5:12). It is going to happen regardless. If a lie helps keep someone alive for a matter of moments compared to eternity, was the lie, which is high treason against the Creator, worth it?
It would be like sitting in a cell on death row and when the guards come to take your roommate to the electric chair, you lie to the guards and say you don’t know where the person went—while your roommate is hiding under their covers on the bed. Does it really help? Since we are all sinners (Romans 3:23), death is coming for us, and there is an appointed time (Ecclesiastes 3:2).
The truthful lip shall be established forever, but a lying tongue is but for a moment.
Is it worth sinning against God to try to buy a moment of time next to eternity—intentionally lying is foolish and would only harm the extent of your own life (Ecclesiastes 7:17). Lets’s look further at Scripture for an example of a situation where a lie could have saved a life.
Stephen in Acts 6–7 preached Christ, and men came against him. This culminated with a question by the high priest in Acts 7:1 who said: “Are these things so?”
At this point, Stephen could have done a “righteous lie” to save his life so that he could have many more years to preach the gospel. However, Stephen laid a long and appropriate foundation for Christ—then preached Christ. And they killed him.
But this event triggered a persecution that sent the gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 11:19) and peaked with Paul (who consented to Stephen’s death) coming to Christ and taking the message to the Gentiles and writing several books of the New Testament. The Lord had a greater purpose for Stephen—even though it cost him his life. Keep in mind, however, that this, and other examples, are about the person in question—not another.
I often wonder if a Nazi soldier asked if someone was there hiding and they told the truth before God, could the Lord have in mind a greater purpose? Could God have used that person to free a great many people who ultimately died in the Holocaust? Or have done something to stop the war earlier? Or cause a great number of Jews and Nazi’s to come to know Christ? It is possible, but we simply cannot know. And one should not dwell too long on “what ifs” anyway.
No doubt, there is great value in the truth (John 8:32). As fallible, sinful human beings, our imperfect thoughts may not be able to comprehend what God has in mind, and we need to strive to trust God when He speaks on this subject, regardless how hard it may be. We need to place our faith fully in Christ and trust in God in all things—and not lean on our own understanding (Proverbs 3:5).
I’m not saying this to be “preachy,” because I really don’t know what I would do in such a situation. However, I would pray that the Lord would grant me the wisdom to know what to say and how to say it—but more preferably—how to avoid being in that situation in the first place.
Let’s consider again the Nazi-Holocaust situation: there seems to be a conflict in the situation to lie before God to try to save someone else’s life. The result is often called the “greater good” or “lesser of two evils.”
I’ve been told in the past that the lesser of these two evils would be to lie to save a life—hence the common phrase “a righteous lie.” This is often justified by appealing to the command to love our neighbor (Romans 13:9).
But how does God view this, remembering that God is a discerner of our motives. To God, a lie for selfish motive was worthy of death to Ananias. But, in fact, just one sin is worthy of death (Genesis 2:17). (This should be a reminder that we should continually praise God for His grace that is bestowed upon us). But let’s look at Scripture again. The two greatest commandments are:
Then one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, perceiving that He had answered them well, asked Him, “Which is the first1 commandment of all?” Jesus answered him, “The first of all the commandments is: ‘Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one. And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
Jesus tells us that all the commandments can be summed up into these two statements. But of these two, the first is to love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. So, this would trump the second. Our actions toward God should trump our actions toward men. Peter also affirmed this:
But Peter and the other apostles answered and said: “We ought to obey God rather than men.”
If we love God, we should obey Him (John 14:15). To love God first means to obey Him first—before looking at our neighbor. So, is the greater good trusting God when He says not to lie or trusting in our fallible, sinful minds about the uncertain future?
Consider this carefully. In the situation of a Nazi beating on the door, we have assumed a lie would save a life, but really we don’t know. So, one would be opting to lie and disobey God without the certainty of saving a life—keeping in mind that all are ultimately condemned to die physically. Besides, whether one lied or not may not have stopped the Nazi solders from searching the house anyway.
As Christians, we need to keep in mind that Jesus Christ reigns. All authority has been given to Him (Matthew 28:18), and He sits on the throne of God at the right hand of the Father (Acts 2:33; Hebrews 8:1). Nothing can happen without His say. Even Satan could not touch Peter without Christ’s approval (Luke 22:31). Regardless, if one were to lie or not, Jesus Christ is in control of timing every person’s life and able to discern our motives. It is not for us to worry over what might become, but rather to place our faith and obedience in Christ and to let Him do the reigning. For we do not know the future, whereas God has been telling the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10).
Wow, you put a lot of work in to that answer Bodie, and from a biblical basis too. I agree with you 100% about lying to protect yourself, that could be interpreted as mere cowardice, and I think most of your biblical examples dealt with that. However there is a scripture in Exodus ch.1 vs. 15–22, in which the Jewish midwives are told to kill all the male babies they delivered but refused to do so. When asked why they hadn’t destroyed the babies, they told the Egyptians the Hebrew women simply gave birth faster than the Egyptian women, and had the babies before the midwives got there. Vs.17 however says that the Jewish midwives saved the male children alive, so here they are lying not only to save the male babies but probably to escape punishment from the Egyptians. Vs. 20 says that God dealt well with the midwives for doing this. I think this is one of the rare examples or cases where lying would truly not be offensive to our Creator. At any rate, I think this scripture shows that not all lies are equal, at least to my mind. In that most lies are done for self advancement, self protection, greed, etc., but some are done at least with the intention of protecting others, their reputations or physical selves. I can’t fault your stance though, your conscience and the Word must be your guide. Keep up the good work.
I looked up the passage about the midwives, and I, personally, don’t believe they lied. Scripture doesn’t really say they did. Please see the context:
Then the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, of whom the name of one was Shiphrah and the name of the other Puah; and he said, “When you do the duties of a midwife for the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstools, if it is a son, then you shall kill him; but if it is a daughter, then she shall live.” But the midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the male children alive. So the king of Egypt called for the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this thing, and saved the male children alive?” And the midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are lively and give birth before the midwives come to them.” Therefore God dealt well with the midwives, and the people multiplied and grew very mighty. And so it was, because the midwives feared God, that He provided households for them. So Pharaoh commanded all his people, saying, “Every son who is born you shall cast into the river, and every daughter you shall save alive.”
Naturally, their fear of God led them to refuse the order to murder. It makes more sense to me that they could have informed the Hebrew wives what the Pharaoh had commanded, and, thus, many of the Israelite women were giving birth before the midwives would arrive so they would not be in a position of killing the child. Perhaps the midwives took their time to arrive as well. That would allow the children to survive and the midwives to speak the truth to Pharaoh.
What would make pregnant mothers more vigorous or lively to have the child born? Make them aware that if they do not give birth quickly their child’s life may be in danger. There are any number of ways the mothers and midwives could have avoided it.
With humbleness in Christ,