Does God Lie?

Posted By on March 15, 2010

This has been on my list of things I really want to dive into (having taught ethics for a number of years).

We know that there are specific statements asserting very clearly that God does not tell lies (e.g., Num. 23:19; Titus 1:2). However, God does use deception.  Some of you no doubt will want to define lying so that it includes deception, but that is not only unwise, it puts you (and God) in a theological pickle. Here’s the passage (1 Samuel 16:1-13) I always used in ethics class to get us into the subject:

1 The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul, since I have rejected him from being king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil, and go. I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” 2 And Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ 3 And invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do. And you shall anoint for me him whom I declare to you.” 4 Samuel did what the Lord commanded and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling and said, “Do you come peaceably?” 5 And he said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord. Consecrate yourselves, and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice. 6 When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is before him.” 7 But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” 8 Then Jesse called Abinadab and made him pass before Samuel. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 9 Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 10 And Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel. And Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen these.” 11 Then Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but behold, he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and get him, for we will not sit down till he comes here.” 12 And he sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy and had beautiful eyes and was handsome. And the Lord said, “Arise, anoint him, for this is he.” 13 Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers. And the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon David from that day forward. And Samuel rose up and went to Ramah.

Did you spot the deception? Here are some questions to consider:

1. How do we define lying so that God is cleared, since he uses deception? (And some of you can provide other examples).

2. What relationship is there to this and the ninth commandment?

3. Does the ninth commandment actually forbid all lying? Is its purpose to give full, detailed answers in truth-telling regardless of context?

4. Why did Jesus demand deception (withholding the truth) on occasion? Why is that permissible? (See e.g., Luke 5:14; 8:56; 9:21)

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44 Responses to “Does God Lie?”

  1. The Wingnut says:

    Very interesting post! I’ve been following your site for a while now, but haven’t commented. Your insights into the text we follow are beautiful, and quite honestly most of it flies right over my head! I’m gonna jump in with this one though.

    1. In my opinion, a definition of lying must include some sort of “motivation clause” or something. I realize the subjectivity of that, but when I hear “lying”, I hear someone either attempting to avoid consequences for their actions, or intentionally misleading in order to fulfill some selfish desire. Deception *may* fit into that definition of lying, but deception can also be used outside of that definition. I can think of those who operated the Underground Railroad using deception for the good of the least, or those in Europe during WWII who hid and helped Jews escape the Nazis. In those cases, deception was used as a valuable tool in order to bring rescue to those who needed it. One could make the argument that God uses deception in those terms, thinking about the long-term health of the nation of Israel.

    2&3. It seems to me that the ninth commandment has more of a legal connotation, as a rule that would be specifically for the judicial system. One should uphold the entire body of commandments that God has handed down, and you cannot do that if you treat the judicial system based on those commandments flippantly, as you would if you gave false testimony. In that context, the ninth commandment would forbid someone from using the judicial system as a personal weapon against those around you, and not neccessarily pertain to lying in the sense that we are accustomed to thinking.

    4. I think Jesus’ goal was not to neccessarily be deceptive about these events, but simply use the acts as testimony themselves. Instead of people going around saying, “Look what Jesus did!”, they would simply show themselves to their community. In the case of the leper, it took a visit to the priest to be declared clean. Word would have spread from there, because that is quite a significant happening, to suddenly be without leprosy. As for Jarius’ daughter, there already was a crowd around, and Jarius was in the synagogue, so his community would have been well aware of the situation.

    In Luke 9 the situation is different, but I think that all through His ministry, Jesus endeavored not to keep His ministry a secret, but to keep the focus on God redeeming Creation, not on this man who does many signs.


    • MSH says:

      I would agree that intent (“motivation”) is important, and a necessary part of a coherent definition of lying. Notice that what I wrote before can divide “lying” and “lying that breaks the ninth command.” In the case of the Nazis and hiding Jews, I would argue that both lying and deception (note that I distinguish the two) are not only biblically allowed, but biblically virtuous. I’ll explain in a future post.

      The ninth command (hang on to your hats) does, like every other passage in Scripture, have a context!

      Jesus does ask people to deceive — his words presume that people will ask — so he says, if they do, don’t tell them what you know or have seen. In other words, he demands people withhold information. I don’t think he sinned (!) when commanding that.

  2. Jamie says:

    I find John 7:8-10 interesting. Was Jesus mistaken about not going up to Jerusalem, was he being deceptive or was he simply stating that he wasn’t going up at the same time as his brothers? It seems funny to say he wasn’t going up and then to go up.

    8 You go up to the feast. I am not going up to this feast, for my time has not yet fully come.” 9 After saying this, he remained in Galilee. 10 But after his brothers had gone up to the feast, then he also went up, not publicly but in private.

    • MSH says:

      good one; I don’t think he was mistaken at all. A plain reading of the text is that he intended to go up the whole time but did not want to tell them. So he did deceive them. Again, I don’t think we can say Jesus was morally wrong for this.

      • This one has a textual variant ??? (not) {C by Metzger} vs. ???? (not yet). It is dubious to make a case for this particular example on such a textual difficultly as this. If the later is the correct, Jesus never even deceived anyone.

      • As far as John 7:8 is concerned: This one has a textual variant ??? (not) {C by Metzger} vs. ???? (not yet). It is dubious to make a case for this particular example on such a textual difficultly as this. If the later is the correct, Jesus never even deceived anyone.

  3. blop2008 says:

    I gotta feeling….that this is gonna be an interesting series :-)

  4. haibane13 says:

    I think lying has to include empty words ,false witness, etc. God’s words in this passage were not empty so while it was deception it wasn’t lies. The sacrfice was carried out and was legitamate. In a negtive example the serpent’s words to Eve were not empty either however it was illegitamate for the serpent to call the shot and for both Adam and Eve to eat of the fruit. I don’t think decepetion necessarily requires lying .

    • MSH says:

      agreed — I also think deception and lying are two different, but perhaps at times related, things.

    • RandomReader says:

      Actually, I’m pretty sure the serpent lied. Full out flat out lied. he said that Eve wouldn’t surley die. Well… mabey it took a couple hundred years but she did surely die afterwards right? Even if the part about getting knowledge and wisdom were true he lied about her not going to die eventually for eating the fruit. hence it was a lie.

  5. rode says:

    God has also used lying spirits from his divine council to set a death trap for a king….i will look for the verses..

    • MSH says:

      1 Kings 22. God had decided / decreed it was time for Ahab to die, and then essentially allows the divine council to “handle it” (“It’s time for Ahab to go — now let’s hear some suggestions for carrying out my decree”).

  6. blop2008 says:

    I’m not so sure what to input here, but let me throw this in:

    – We must be clear on what deception and lying is
    – Is withholding the truth a lie? I don’t think so. Lying is transgressing the truth to hide something true or use it as deceit. Withholding the truth to keep something secret is not lying.

    Pay attention to this:

    How about killing? What is to kill or murder? When God takes away the life of someone either by taking away his or her breath, or using an enemy to slay that person, or incurring a disease on that person or whichever other means God would intentionally use to take away the life of someone, is that killing?

    I do not think so! Or at least, it’s not the same category. Why? Because God owns our souls and he gave us life in the first place and because he own us, he has the full right in his judgment to take away the life of anyone. BUT, for us, taking away the life of someone whose life we do not own (like God does), we cannot kill or murder without God’s approval to do so, since we do not have the life ownership that God does have.

    Jamie mentioned John 7:8-10, but I think one needs to read its full context, that is John 7:1-24. Jesus’ time was not yet come to be sought to be killed by the Jewish leaders in Judea AND Jesus was not going to follow his brothers to show his power openly to the world. Why do you think he wanted to keep things on the low?

    • MSH says:

      yes – definitions of both lying and deception are very important.

      I agree that withholding information is not the same as a lie.

      As with the ninth command, there are also “exceptions” (really “other contexts”) where taking life is permissible — and even expected. Most of the commands have biblical “exceptions” of some type — because they have contexts and other things in the Bible are exempted (by the Bible). Maybe we’ll get into some of those as well.

      The context you give for John 7 doesn’t undo the fact that Jesus withheld his true intent — it just gives us insight as to why he was justified in doing so.

  7. Many years ago, I was part of a Messianic group in which I was taught that G-D is master over BOTH good and evil. He is Lord of ALL (total inclusion). Therefore, only He can determine when and how to ‘use’ evil when it becomes necessary for the ultimate good. Such as when in 1 Kings He allows a ‘lying spirit’ to go forth and entice Ahab. In fact, we are even told that the spirit was ‘enabled’ by the Lord to do this.

    Yes, I agree that motivation (G-D looks at the heart, etc.)is vital in when deceit is involved. I believe it was Paul who asked “Shall G-D only do good and not do evil”. (I would cite the passage, but cannot find it at the moment, sorry). This again tells us that He is G-D and Lord over both. G-D, the trinity, (and by extension [to a lesser degree, possibly], the divine council) are they which do have ability to exercise judgement in when and how evil can and should be used. For us, for humans, the ‘use’ of evil is, as it should be, very restricted. It should be used only at G-D’s instruction (and with much prayer for discernment). At least, this is what I think with my very limited knowledge.

  8. Nobunaga says:

    I understand Jesus was trying to keep His miracles quiet as He had given the elders of Israel plenty of direct evidence of His claim to be Messiah and they inspected him and followed Him around to check the claims out, but in they eventually committed the unforgivable sin and no more signs were given to them, They had rejected the Messiah but Jesus continued to help people but this was not for the sake of convincing Israel that He was the Messiah and wanted to keep these miracles hidden from the elders of Israel. my 2 cents

    I’m waiting for someone to tell me the difference between a lie and a deception this could help me out no end. I tend to be a very black and white kind of guy so would like to find out more about the grey.

  9. blop2008 says:

    Mike, thanks for the clarification. Context is important, and yes there may be exceptions for each context

    Everyone else thanks for the participation.

    Mike should make another post with a generic definition of a lie and a deception both with exemplary passages to be crystal clear. Then perhaps we’ll move on with agreements and disagreements.

    How about these two brief definitions:

    Deception: (1) to mislead (2) to trick — It may involve a lie but not by necessity

    Lie/Lying: (1) Intentional Inaccurate or false statement (2) State an untruth or falsehood —- It may be to deceive and/or to hide/contradict the truth for XYZ reasons.

    *NOTE: Ignorantly being misinformed and spreading that misinformation is not a lie per se. A lie is always intentional to (1) hide (2) trick/deceive whether for good (to save someone for instance) or bad (XYZ reasons; you name it).

  10. Cory says:

    “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for. ” Obi-Wan Kenobi

    Lie or deception?

    On a serious note. A nonbeliever could look at this conversation and try to remark that ‘context’ is just another word for moral relativism. I don’t believe that, of course. It would make for another good discussion sometime though, if it hasn’t been covered already…

  11. Nobunaga says:

    I dont get the connection with the examples given by Dr Heiser in point 4. I do not see how keeping things secretive is deception. No doubt i’m showing my lack of education in ethics but as a simple reading i dont get deception from these texts at all. I see Jesus keeping the cards close to His chest that to me is not deception.

    If i play poker with you and you want to know what i have its not unethical for me not to show you what i have, it may be unethical for me to say i have something which i don’t (lie), but it wouldn’t be unethical for me to represent like i have something if i don’t expressly say it, that requires judgment/discernment on your behalf to evaluate what i have based on your knowledge.

    Is it possible to lie without speaking ?

  12. rode says:

    wow, this is really veeeeery interesting…. GREAT POST

  13. rode says:

    i’m still trying to get my head around this hehe:
    “As with the ninth command, there are also “exceptions” (really “other contexts”) where taking life is permissible — and even expected. Most of the commands have biblical “exceptions” of some type — because they have contexts and other things in the Bible are exempted (by the Bible). Maybe we’ll get into some of those as well.”

    can’t wait for the follow up

    • Mike Burke says:

      This is a very interesting thread, but did it end on March 25th, 2010?

      Have there been no followups or replies since then (and if there have, how do I get to them)?

      How do we define the difference between lying and deception?

      • MSH says:

        what’s there is there (or not). I don’t delete anything on the back end.

        • Mike Burke says:

          So it seems that you’re saying that God doesn’t lie, but He does sometimes deceive?

          What’s the difference, and why does God do one, and not the other?

          • MSH says:

            Lying is uttering something false / contrary to reality. Deception is withholding information or misdirecting (in simplest terms). God did that on occasion in the OT to punish evil or evildoers. It’s up to him to decide how to judge sin when he deems it is time.

  14. Anonymous says:

    God and Jesus And the Holy Spirt and Mary do not lie• but really do what’s Best.

    Because its not called lying in heaven.

  15. chris says:

    what to bet? even Jesus lied! shall we mention matthew 12:12 what so ever you desire ask in my name and it shall be given unto you. what a lie! I am living proof that this was a bold face lie. 31 years I have prayed and begged for help and to date I have had NOTHING change or get better.

    How about Gods promise of no weapon formed against you shall prosper. EVERY weapon formed against me has prospered, and lets not forget Beloved above all things I want you to be in health and be prosperous. LIAR I have been so stressed out qand misserable the last 31 years my health is growing worse, and as for prosperous I am dirt poor living in a garage. yeah tell me god’s promises are not lies. I am living proof they are.

    • MSH says:

      It’s really hard to believe that people can still read this post and misunderstand it so badly.

      Can you show me where God promised you or anyone else a wonderful life?

  16. yo says:

    First let me say I shame on you for weaseling around purposeful deception like that. You should stop trying to teach ethics until you develop some actual morals.

    (from the skeptic’s)

    1 Kings 22:23
    Now, therefore, behold, the Lord hath put a lying spirit in the mouth of these thy prophets, and the Lord hath spoken evil concerning thee.

    2 Chronicles 18:22
    Now therefore, behold, the Lord hath put a lying spirit in the mouth of these thy prophets.

    Jeremiah 4:10
    Ah, Lord GOD! surely thou hast greatly deceived this people.

    Jeremiah 20:7
    O Lord, thou hast deceived me, and I was deceived.

    Ezekiel 14:9
    And if a prophet be deceived when he hath spoken a thing, I the Lord have deceived that prophet.

    2 Thessalonians 2:11
    For this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie.

    13 other lies (by Anonymous):

    1. “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.”

    God says that if Adam eats from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, then the day that he does so, he will die. But later Adam eats the forbidden fruit (3:6) and yet lives for another 930 years (5:5). 2:17

    2. As a punishment for killing Abel, God says Cain will be “a fugitive and a vagabond.” Yet in just a few verses (4:16-17) Cain will settle down, marry, have a son, and build a city. This is not the activity one would expect from a fugitive and a vagabond. 4:12

    3. God promises Abram and his descendants all of the land of Canaan. But both history and the bible (Acts 7:5 and Heb.11:13) show that God’s promise to Abram was a lie. 13:15, 15:18, 17:8, 28:13-14

    3. How long was the Egyptian captivity? This verse says 400 years, but Ex.12:40 and Gal.3:17 say 430 years. 15:13

    4. “In the fourth generation they [Abraham’s descendants] shall come hither again.” But, if we count Abraham, then their return occurred after seven generations: Abraham, Isaac (Gen.21:1-3), Jacob (Gen.25:19-26), Levi (Gen.35:22-23), Kohath (Ex.6:16), Amramn (Ex.6:18), and Moses (Ex.6:20). 15:16

    5. God promises Abram’s descendants the land of Canaan from the Nile to the Euphrates. But according to Acts 7:5 and Heb.11:13 God’s promise to Abram was not fulfilled. 15:18

    6. God promises to make Isaac’s descendents as numerous as “the stars of heaven”, which, of course, never happened. The Jews have always been, and will always be, a small minority. 26:4

    7. God renames Jacob twice (32:28, 35:10 ). God says that Jacob will henceforth be called Israel, but the Bible continues to call him Jacob anyway (47:28-29). And even God himself calls him Jacob in 46:2. 32:28, 35:10

    8. God calls Jacob Jacob, though he said in Gen.32:28 and 35:10 that he would no longer be called Jacob but Israel. 46:2

    9. God promises to bring Jacob safely back from Egypt, but Jacob dies in Egypt (Gen.47:28-29) 46:3

    10. The tribe of Judah will reign “until Shiloh,” but Israel’s first king (Saul) was from the tribe of Benjamin (Acts 13:21), and most of the time after this prophecy there was no king at all. 49:10

    11. Contrary to the prophecy in 48:21, Joseph died in Egypt, not Israel. Gen.50:24

    12. God pr-omises to cast out many nations including the Canaanites and the Jebusites. But he was unable to fulfill his promise. 33:2

    13. In this verse God says he will write on the stone tablets, but in 34:27 he tells Moses to do the writing. 34:1

    • MSH says:

      And you need to read much more carefully. The post says God uses deception and does not owe truth to further evil. So your examples are not rebuttals.

      This issue also has nothing to do with *apparent* contradictions between passages. You would have to assume there was intent to be contradictory in the first place, but you can’t time travel to know that, or psychologize the writer. And it’s clear to me you’ve spent zero time in the scholarly literature where your examples get discussed.

  17. Nathan says:

    Let’s keep this simple: explain how “but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen 2:17) is not a lie? When Adam ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge, did he die IN THE DAY THAT HE ATE OF IT as YHWH said he would? He did not. YHWH lied. Reading it more carefully doesn’t change that.

    Yet several Bible verses state that YHWH cannot lie.

    Conclusion: the Bible is not a reliable source of truth.

    • MSH says:

      this is only coherent if one defines death as the FINAL cessation of life. But that would miss the point of the story and the language IN ITS OWN ANCIENT NEAR EASTERN CONTEXT. I keep beating this drum because it needs beating. ANE parallels to the story show us CLEARLY that the point was the loss of immortality (i.e., it explains why humans are mortal). So, yes, when they sin and are removed from the garden (there is no elapse of days – it is meant to be read as the same day), the place of immortality (since it was God’s abode), they lost their immortality.

      I tried to keep that simple.

      Now you can explain to the rest of us why you aren’t reading the Bible in its ancient context – or perhaps why you are judging it outside its own context, framing the discussion on your own terms.

      And keep that simple for us.

  18. Mike Burke says:

    You said “Lying is uttering something false / contrary to reality. Deception is withholding information or misdirecting (in simplest terms).”

    But by that definition, wouldn’t it be “lying” for God to tell Abraham that He wanted His son as a burnt offering when He really didn’t?

    I know that’s not exactly what God said to Abraham.

    He didn’t say “I want you to offer your son as a burnt offering on the mountain I’ll show you,” He said “go and offer him as a burnt offering on the mountain I’ll show you,” but isn’t that splitting hairs?

    Are you saying God deceived Abraham about what he’d have to do on that mountain (but didn’t lie to him) only because of the way a single sentence was worded?

    Is that what the difference between lying and deception comes down to?

    Please reply.

    Thank you.

  19. Christopher says:

    Hope someone here can help me. I am 27 years old and I have, “Schizophrenia,” which, I reckon, is really just a word for, “haunted by demons.” I feel them, hear them and see them. I have been trying to use that, “authority over ALL the power of the enemy,” that Jesus gave to us to tell the devil and his minions to leave me alone, but they do not… I don’t want to say that Jesus lied, or anything… but, I mean, what else should I call it? He said that He gave us that authority… but its not working… why won’t it work? I just want them to go away, please help.

    • MSH says:

      I wouldn’t say schizophrenia is demon oppression since it can be treated with drugs / chemically (demons aren’t bad chemicals or chemical imbalances).

      • Christopher says:

        MSH said: I wouldn’t say schizophrenia is demon oppression since it can be treated with drugs / chemically (demons aren’t bad chemicals or chemical imbalances).

        Actually, it really can’t. They have no actual clue what causes Schizophrenia. They’ve searched the entire body, especially the brain… there is just simply no physical cause.

        They do, “treat,” it with medicine… but its not actually treating it at all… all those pills do is make one either not care that its there or not notice it anymore… but its still there.

        So, why do they offer, “treatment,” when they can’t really treat it? Money. Pure and simple.

        They cannot truly treat it… because they have no idea what causes it.

        • MSH says:

          So the math professor from Princeton treated for schizophrenia all these years wasn’t helped? Treatment isn’t a cure, I know, but it seems a bit too much too presume people aren’t successfully [as in “helped a lot”] treated.

          • Christopher says:

            Lol, well I don’t know any math professor from Princeton, but I do know those pills make ya feel funny. Like, “ha-ha funny,” like… high-funny.

            I’m sure a lot of people would say, “this really helps me out a lot,” just to feel, “funny.” :/

    • Christopher says:

      About my original problem, a theorem:

      God never lied. He has given to me that full authority over the enemy. The very sovereign power that God has over all, God has given to us over the devil.

      Which, of course I’m sure, comes with the requirement of being subject to God’s Word, His say so… and, no, God probably isn’t going to allow His children to abuse the authority God gave to us. Obviously no being unreasonable (No commanding demons to carry your stuff, wash your dishes or do your laundry… and certainly cannot get a, “sign,” out of this. Etc.)

      Also, remember, God has that sovereign authority over all, yet we were all able to disobey Him. I reckon the fact that we have that authority over the devil, doesn’t negate his free will, nor His free will to say, “no, I’m not allowing that,” for whatever the reason.

  20. Christopher says:

    2 Thessalonians 2:11
    For this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie.

    I see no deceit on God’s part in this. We know that,
    2 Timothy 3:16 All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.

    This means ALL scriptures. Not only our own. Everyone who wrote of God (or, tried to right of God) was inspired by God (at least the concept of God) to try to write about Him. Whether a certain scripture were correct or not is neither here nor there to 2 Timothy 3:16.

    In that way, God could say that He sent them the delusions (of that which is against the Bible) for they were still inspired by the thought of Him, and it would not be a lie, but it would merely be only one angle of that truth.

    Same could go for those lying spirits. I mean, He created them, thus, by creating them, He SENT them into His creation. Its not His fault they chose to lie.

    Same could go for the devil. I mean, He created him, thus, by creating him, He SENT him into His creation. Its not His fault he chose to rebel.

    Anyway, just my two cents.

  21. David says:

    This is a subject very dear to me. Because I have a very special relationship with God. (Jesus) He has preformed miricals in my life and told me before he done it. But there was a time or to he deceived me to get me where he wanted me. No real harm done at all if anything it opened my eyes to understand how God Sees things and he see them a lot different then we are taught to see things. Now can God (LIE) he’s God to say he can’t would be limiting him and God is limitless. For me to think Jesus would intentionally lie to hurt me would be a very devastating blow to me that I don’t think I could recover from. Maybe it’s because I really do love him and it would hurt me to bad if love wasn’t his soul motivation for us. Maybe a lie or deception is the only way he can reach some of us. Maybe we get so lost at times a lie is the only thing we will believe. Maybe a lie is the only thing that will get our attention so we can be open to the truth behind it. This is a very important mater a and I pray he gives me and all of us the understanding and the answer we are asking. God Jesus Christ do you lie?

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