Augustine defined lying as uttering what one believes to be a falsehood with the purpose of deceiving.1 The wording is designed to leave room for uttering falsehood in order to cause someone to believe the truth, or uttering a falsehood that one believes to be true – neither of which would fall under Augustine’s definition of lying. Others have defined lying as any act of deception at all, whether it involves an utterance or not. The first item listen under the heading “Varieties of Deception” in Robertson McQuilkin’s An Introduction to Biblical Ethics is “Lying Without Words,” followed by, “Lying with True Words,” “Pretense and Exaggeration,” “Culture and Lying” (lies that are usually considered acceptable because they are a normal part of doing business in a given culture), “Hypocrisy,” and “Self-Deception.”2
The basic difficulty for the moral absolutist is what to make of situations where absolutes seem to conflict. There are three main ways of handling that question among absolutists.
Unqualified Absolutism (or Non-Conflicting Absolutism)
This view assumes there are no moral conflicts. The conflicts that seem to exist are only apparent. Lying, then, is always wrong and is never justified even if it is done to save a life. John Mitchell argued for this view in The Presbyterian Guardian:
We do agree that lying is not permitted by the law of God. We agree, too, that there are no exceptions. I would go on to point out that those biblical instances sometimes cited as exceptions are not that at all. When Rehab lied to protect the Israelite spies, the fact is recorded. The Bible commends her faith, but it nowhere approves the lie as such….We are to approach such situations in full confidence that our sovereign God will provide a way of escape – and we are not responsible to develop it for him by choosing to lie. God controls every event of the Christian’s life, and he is fully able to order it for our good.3
The unqualified absolutist view is difficult to reconcile with certain actions in the Bible that are commended. In Exodus 1 the Hebrew midwives disobeyed the government and then lied about it. The text reports that they disobeyed the government and implies that they did so out of a fear of the Lord.
The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives … "When you help the Hebrew women in childbirth and observe them on the delivery stool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live." The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live. Then the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and asked them, "Why have you done this? Why have you let the boys live?" The midwives answered Pharaoh, "Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive."4
When the midwives claimed that the children survived only because the women were vigorous and gave birth before they arrived, that was a lie. Verse 17 clearly says that the midwives intentionally let the boys live. The unqualified absolutist view holds that they midwives were wrong to tell this lie. But verse 20 says “So God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families of their own.” God rewarded them for what they did. And what they did they did by lying.
Augustine, who held that all intentional deception is wrong without exception (except in the case of joking), argued that the midwives were praised not because they did right, but because what they did was better than what it might have been.
As to the midwives, indeed, they cannot say that these women did through the prophetic Spirit, with purpose of signifying a future truth, tell Pharaoh one thing instead of another, (albeit that Spirit did signify something, without their knowing what was doing in their persons:) but, they say that these women were according to their degree approved and rewarded of God. For if a person who is used to tell lies for harm's sake comes to tell them for the sake of doing good, that person has made great progress.5
Nothing in the biblical text, however, gives any indication that the issue at hand was progress, or that the women had previously been guilty of a worse kind of lying. Their deeds are not contrasted with any other deeds. They are simply rewarded for what they did.
Joshua 2 gives the account of Rahab’s interaction with the Hebrew spies.
The king of Jericho was told, "Look! Some of the Israelites have come here tonight to spy out the land." So the king of Jericho sent this message to Rahab: "Bring out the men who came to you and entered your house, because they have come to spy out the whole land."
But the woman had taken the two men and hidden them. She said, "Yes, the men came to me, but I did not know where they had come from. At dusk, when it was time to close the city gate, the men left. I don't know which way they went. Go after them quickly. You may catch up with them." (But she had taken them up to the roof and hidden them under the stalks of flax she had laid out on the roof.) So the men set out in pursuit of the spies on the road that leads to the fords of the Jordan, and as soon as the pursuers had gone out, the gate was shut.6
Rahab deceived the king’s messengers by hiding the spies, by claiming she did not know where they had come from, by claiming they left and that she did not know their whereabouts, and by suggesting that to find them they would have to go quickly and try to catch up with them.
The passage goes on to show that Rahab’s life was spared because of her doing this.
Joshua spared Rahab the prostitute, with her family and all who belonged to her, because she hid the men Joshua had sent as spies to Jericho — and she lives among the Israelites to this day.7
Rahab is also praised in the New Testament for what she did.
By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient.8
She was acting against the law and was a traitor to her country by deceiving the king’s messengers, and yet she was rewarded by God for her actions. Unqualified Absolutists may argue that her attitude is what is commended, not her lying. It was good for her to side with Israel, and that is what she is commended for, but she was wrong to lie. Scripture, however, does not distinguish between her actions and attitudes. In fact, if the emphasis is on anything, it is on her actions:
was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction?9
She was considered righteous for what she did. And what she did was deceptive. James even specifies the fact that the particular action for which she was considered righteous was the sending of the messengers to find the spies that she had hidden in her house.
When God sent Samuel to anoint David as king, God instructed Samuel to deceive Saul.
The LORD said to Samuel, "How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil and be on your way; I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have chosen one of his sons to be king."
But Samuel said, "How can I go? Saul will hear about it and kill me."
The LORD said, "Take a heifer with you and say, 'I have come to sacrifice to the LORD.' Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what to do. You are to anoint for me the one I indicate."10
The reason he was going was to anoint David. For Samuel to claim the reason was to offer a sacrifice when the real reason was to anoint David was not honest. And yet that is what God commanded. God also gave instructions for the people to use deception in battle from time to time, such as the battle with Ai11 and Gideon’s battle with the Assyrians.12
Unqualified Absolutism, then, appears to be in conflict with some of the moral judgments that are praised in Scripture. It is also a difficult position to consistently live out. While the unqualified absolutist may feel it is wrong to lie to a rapist about whether his wife is home, he may at the same time be willing to leave his porch light on, deceiving burglars into thinking he is home when he is not.
According to this view, when moral conflicts are faced, violating either one is wrong. The best one can do is chose the lesser of two evils. The Christian who is faced with the conflict is in a position where he or she has no choice but to sin. By this view the person who lies to save a life sins, but would sin even more egregiously if he or she did not lie. This view was argued by the editor of Christianity Today:
If and when a Christian does have to choose one evil over another, he is not free from the guilt of the evil he chooses. If he lies, he is guilty of having told a lie, no matter what his motives. In calling for truth the Bible mentions no exceptions.13
This view holds that when conflicts arise it is impossible to avoid sin. 1 Corinthians 10:13, however, seems to promise otherwise.
No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.14
God will provide a way out of every temptation. If there were ever a time when were had no choice but to sin it would result in the following problems:
* We would be left with a moral obligation to do evil, which is self-contradictory.
* If God led us to the best path in such a case it would mean that God led us into sin and desired for us to commit that sin, making God into a moral lawgiver who commands evil (Contradicting James 1:13).
* This view would mean that either Jesus did not experience the moral dilemmas common to us, or that Jesus sinned by choosing the lesser of evils. Both concepts are explicitly unbiblical (Heb. 4:15; 2 Cor. 5:21).
Graded Absolutism (or Hierarchicalism)
This view holds that moral absolutes can conflict, and when they do it is righteous, not sinful, to follow the higher of the two moral laws. This is the view espoused by Geisler.
Therefore, in real, unavoidable moral conflicts, God does not hold a person guilty for not keeping a lower moral lwaw so long as he keeps the higher. God exempts one from his duty to keep the lower law since he could not keep it without braking a higher law.15
One major difficulty with Graded Absolutism is it seems to me to come too close to Relativism (and even closer to Generalism). Moral Relativism is a system where one decides what is right based on what seems right to him or her. Graded Absolutism does not go that far, but commits a similar error. It is up to each individual to discern which moral laws are higher than others. A 10 year old child could say, “I realize I am supposed to obey my parents, and they are against my idea of leaving tomorrow to go hitchhiking across America to share the Gospel with the people who pick me up, but the Great Commission and the importance of winning the lost is a higher law than children obey your parents.” The parent may counter that the fifth commandment is the higher law, but neither parent nor child would have a scriptural basis to prove which law is higher.
Limited Application Absolutism
Because of the problems I have cited I do not hold to any of these three views. The best view, in my estimation, can be found in Matthew 12 where Jesus addressed this very issue. When the Pharisees accused Jesus’ disciples of violating the Sabbath, Jesus responded by teaching on the subject of conflicting norms.
Haven't you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread-which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests.16
God had given a strict law that no one but the priests were to eat the showbread.17 Nevertheless, Jesus taught that David did not do wrong by eating it. The reason for the showbread law was the fact that God wanted the people to regard the Temple and everything in it as holy.18 If someone just casually walked in and started snacking on the showbread, he would be violating God’s will by taking lightly God’s Temple and treating it as common. It was not wrong, however, for David and his men to eat it, because God did not intend that law to be applied in cases where someone would die if he did not get some food. David and his men purified themselves and showed great honor and respect for God’s Temple demonstrating that they were not in violation of God’s purposes in making the showbread law.
Jesus went on to give another example.
Or haven't you read in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple desecrate the day and yet are innocent?19
Again, Jesus is concerned with the spirit, not just the letter of the law. When God made the law about not working on the Sabbath, He never intended that law to apply to the priests. Each law that God makes has a context, and that context gives an idea what the intention of the law is. When there is a special circumstance that falls outside that intention, then it’s inappropriate to apply that law to that circumstance.
Jesus applies what He is teaching to the Pharisees in verse 6.
I tell you that one greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath."20
When God made the Sabbath law He never intended it to make it so the disciples of the Messiah can not eat when traveling with Him. To take God’s Sabbath law and use it to forbid them from gaining strength on their journey is to apply it beyond the way God intended it. All of God’s commands are absolute, but apply absolutely only within the sphere appropriate to the context of the command.
The ethical system Jesus is teaching here is different from all three of the views discussed above. Perhaps a good name for this view would be Limited Application Absolutism. This view actually amounts to a version of Non-Conflicting Absolutism, since it holds that God’s commands never actually conflict. But I have given it a different name because the application for lying differs from that of the classic Nonconflicting Absolutism view. Generally the nonconflicting absolutist would insist that it is always wrong to lie. But according to this view, if there is a circumstance that goes beyond what God intended in giving the command not to lie, then a lie would be permissible. And we know such circumstances do exist because of the examples in Scripture when people were praised for dishonest words or actions.
While he does not use the term “limited application absolutism,” the view set forth by McQuilkin is essentially the same view.
My contention is that the Bible does justify deception in three categories: inconsequential social arraignments, war, and in opposing criminal activity. If these exceptions are valid biblically, then to deceive in these circumstances in any way, including verbally is no evil to be confessed, but legitimate moral behavior.21
McQuilkin goes on to define the three categories by giving scriptural examples of divinely sanctioned instances of deceit.
Applying a command only in the context in which it was intended is a practice that is generally understood by most people in other contexts. For example, a father may see his children in a fight and say, “No yelling!” If the next day one of them woke up in the middle of the night to a house full of smoke it would not be his father’s will for him to quietly tiptoe out of the house all the while whispering “Fire!” This is not a case of conflicting absolutes. When the father gave the no yelling command he intended it to be applied to cases of fighting, but not to emergencies. God does not list every conceivable exception to every command. He expects us to pay as close attention to context just as a father would expect of his kids in a fire after making a no yelling rule.
Augustine, On Lying, pp.5, New Advent website, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1312.htm.
Congdon, Roger. “Did Jesus Sustain the Law in Matthew 5?” Bibliothecra Sacra. 135 (April 1978). Dallas. Texas: Dallas Theological Seminary (Electronic edition by Galaxie Software) 1999.
Davies, W.D. and Allison, Dale C. Jr.. Matthew. vol.1. Edinburgh: T&T Clark: 1988.
Geisler, Norman. Christian Ethics: Options and Issues. Grand Rapids: Baker Books. 1989.
Guelich, Robert. The Sermon on the Mount: A Foundation For Understanding. Dallas: Word Publishing. 1982.
McQuilkin. Robertson. An Introduction to Biblical Ethics. Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers. 1995.
Talmud. Tractate Bava Kama Chapter 8, http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Talmud/bavakama_toc.html
Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod website. http://www.wels.net/cgi-bin/site.pl?1518&cuTopic_topicID=13&cuItem_itemID=4455