I received this questions, one that has been asked throughout the entire history of Christianity:
Is it ever OK for a Christian to lie? I am thinking about Christians who hid Jews during the Holocaust and lied to the Nazis about it.
Also Rahab lying to protect the spies also comes to mind.
This is a good question. These two examples are often used when the question is asked. So is it sinful to lie to save a life?
I think that the Bible states emphatically that lying is wrong in all its forms at all times, in the sense that it is not part of God’s design and falls short of His perfection. He does not lie.
The Bible talks the most about a specific kind of lie: lies about God. The first lie was Satan in the Garden. This is why Jesus calls him the father of lies (John 8:44). The prophetic books are full of condemnations for false prophets who distort God’s truth. The New Testament condemns false teachers. Lies about God and His truth are unequivocally sinful.
There are also lies to God, like Adam and Eve’s dishonest deflection of what they had done (Gen 3:11-13), or Cain’s lie to God (Gen 4:9). These are also sinful. However, there are not many examples of this in the Bible, as the relationship between God and man becomes less direct for most of history. However, when the Law is given, swearing falsely is condemned (see Numbers 30). This would be tantamount to lying to God and is expressly forbidden. This is part of what the third commandment forbids (Ex 20:7).
The other kind of lying specifically condemned in the Law is deception or falsehood that perverts justice. This is the spirit of the ninth commandment (Ex 20:16). This is forbidden multiple times in the Bible. This also applies to unfair business practices or the treatment of another’s property, as in Leviticus 6:1-7. God’s concern for righteousness and justice is controlling: lies that pervert either are sinful in every case.
There are also many examples of lies that are not specifically condemned in the Bible. The facts are just recorded. Abraham lied about Sarah being his wife, and Isaac followed suit. Jacob lied a bunch. Rahab lied to her own people. David lied often, and even Jonathan was less than truthful in order to protect him. The Bible neither condemns nor condones these falsehoods explicitly. That doesn’t mean they are not sinful, of course. But it doesn’t mean they are, either.
There are two examples of lies in the Bible that show us that lying is not always sinful. First, in 1 Kings 22, God explicitly allows deception in order to bring about His will (1 Kings 22:22). God does not lie, but allows a heavenly being to deceive the false prophets and Ahab. This is, of course, to bring about ultimate justice. This would seem to indicate that deceiving the wicked in order to preserve justice and righteousness is allowable. Second, the Egyptian midwives lie to Pharaoh (Ex 1:15-19). They lied because they feared God. And we are told outright that God rewarded them for their actions (Ex 1:20). But what actions were being rewarded? The lies, or the protection of the innocent children and preservation of justice? The whole witness of the Bible would tell me that it is not the deception being rewarded, but the concern for justice. This again seems to indicate that lying to the wicked to protect the innocent from sin is allowable to a point.
I believe that Jesus’ words about divorce are instructive here:
And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” (Matt 19:3-9 ESV)
Jesus states three things here. First, God’s design was for there to be no divorce. In this sense, divorce is wrong. Second, God allowed divorce because of the sinfulness of man’s heart. The laws about divorce (like those about multiple wives, concubines, etc.) were put in place to protect the weak and those offended by sin. Third, there are specific sins that make what is against God’s original design allowable for a person. Divorce is not sinful in certain cases where one has been sinned against, all in the interest of justice and righteousness.
Now let’s apply this to lying. God’s design was for there to be only truth. In this sense, lying is wrong. But, because of the Fall and the sinful nature of man, God allows it in certain cases where the weak or those offended by sin need to be protected. Where there is wickedness and sin (Pharaoh, Ahab, the people of Jericho, the Nazi’s), lying is not sinful if it is done in the interest of justice and righteousness. This view seems to me to be consistent with everything the Bible says about lying – both the condemnations and the allowances/approvals because of the hardness of man’s heart.