Lying and Deception

Posted By on March 26, 2010

As a follow-up to the “God and deception” post, let me sketch out my position on the issues I raised.

I define a lie as the deliberate utterance of a falsehood — something contrary to reality — with specific intent to deceive or conceal the truth. The focus is what is uttered. I think deception is different when what is done is withholding information. Nothing need be said or, what is said may be the truth — but it would be the partial truth. So I distinguish between lying and withholding information.

I see no reason why withholding information is a violation of the ninth command. That command has a context — the old “by two or three witnesses the truth shall be established” idea. “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor” refers immediately to a “legal” situation in Israel, and more broadly to any intent to harm one’s neighbor by uttering a falsehood.

Let’s think about some real life situations. I do not believe the ninth commandment was given to force full, exhaustively detailed “truth telling” to questions like the following:

1. Do I look fat in this dress?
2. Doctor, did my little boy suffer before he died?
3. How do I look?
4. Are you planning a surprise birthday party for me?
5. Are you hiding Jews in your attic?
6. (The drunken Dad asks the little boy whoe mom is hiding) Where’s your mom? I want to kick her a**!
7. Where do babies come from?
8. Isn’t my toupee awesome?
9. Did you like supper, honey?
10. (Your eight year old, who isn’t very athletic, asks): Dad, I’m really a good basketball player, aren’t I?

To be blunt, the ninth commandment was not given in order to make tact a sin or to allow evil to proliferate. When people use the ninth command to force full, exhaustive answers to the sorts of questions above, especially when the asker wants the information to do violence and evil, THAT is a distortion and a violation of divine principles. The ninth command was not given so evil could progress; it was given to STOP evil. It was not given to force us to hurt people’s feelings or crush their spirit, either. Withholding information is virtuous in these instances for reasons that should be obvious in context.

I would also say that lying in some of these contexts may also be justified. We like to bring up Rahab and say things like “she’s in Hebrews 11 for her faith, not for her lie” and “James commends her only for her faith, not the lie.” This is hollow. Look at James 2:25. James is looking for biblical illustrations of genuine faith and the works that show faith is genuine. Of all the people in the Old Testament he could have chosen, he picks Abraham and RAHAB! Not Moses, Joshua, Samuel, Hannah, etc., etc. (see Hebrews 11). He uses RAHAB. James specifically commends her (James 2:25) for TWO things: (1) receiving the spies; and (2) sending them out “by another way.” The second item is directly contingent upon her act of deception and her outright lie. James knew the story, too. Rahab believed, and refused to allow evil a victory. Besides, those who want to argue against Rahab’s lie being justified fail to discern (somehow) that the context was war — HOLY war (Yahweh and his people vs. their enemies). It was life for life.

In regard to the 1 Samuel 16 incident and the “does God lie?” question, I do not think God lied. He did, however, certainly deceive. It was his idea to have Samuel take a heifer along in case he was asked questions. This allowed Samuel to effectively deceive Saul’s men when they did ask why he was there. Samuel also did not lie, since he actually *did* offer the heifer as a sacrifice. But, again, he plainly withheld information and deceived Saul’s men. Both God and Samuel were deceivers in this passage, but neither were liars. God may use deception to punish evil, but he does not lie.

Here are some other examples I like since they help us keep things in context and avoid being sanctimonious (and inconsistent):

1. The no-look pass in basketball is not a sin. No repentance necessary.
2. The Christian quarterback who looks left and throws right need not repent later.
3. A Christian really could be in the witness protection program.
4. A Christian really could be an undercover cop.
5. A Christian really could be a disinformation agent or spy in the military / civil service (this one is harder since one would need to know — as best as possible — who the enemy really was)
6. Attending a costume party isn’t a sin.
7. Pretending to be something or someone you’re not to pull a harmless prank didn’t send Jesus to the cross.
8. Acting isn’t a sin (unless the performance is dreadful).

So where does this end? How do we acknowledge the above and yet have scriptural parameters?

My view is that we owe the truth, and the full truth, to those institutions established by God and which God sets over us in providence: the family, the government, church leadership, and our employer. The only time to not give the full truth in these contexts is when we are sure, to the best of our non-omniscient sentient reality, that the asker seeks the information to do evil — and I do not define “evil” as “something I don’t like” or “something I disagree with.” I define evil in terms of scriptural descriptions of it.

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30 Responses to “Lying and Deception”

  1. Nobunaga says:

    This has been a eye opener for me, thanks. Would you say there is any similarity to what has been said and the muslim teaching of Taqeyah ?

    I personally see Taqeyah as more sinister and blatant outright lying to the enemy (infidel/Christians/Jews) as they would see it.

  2. Jonnathan Molina says:

    It is note worthy that God allows millions of his animal creations to use deception (in the form of camouflage and countless forms of behavioral trickery) in order to survive in the wild and that he said his creation was “very good”. Now, I don’t subscribe to the view that the “very good” statement was meant to be a moral kudos (see: John Walton’s book “The Lost World of Genesis Chapter One”) but, rather, a comment on how well things functioned as planned. So, via analogy, you could argue that deception is a necessary skill set among all creatures (including man), esp. if it comes down to survival or protecting something (food supply, young, etc.) And, I don’t think anyone would seriously go around saying that this is lying to the predator. In the same way, we may deceive (out of necessity) and not lie. Note that in war, we use camouflage (deception as strategy) and withhold sensitive information from the enemy (as Rahab did) in order to survive and, ultimately, win the conflict.

  3. blop2008 says:

    I mostly concur with your statements except your strict definition of deception as .

    I haven’t seen one dictionary defining deception or deceit as withholding information. I can easily, in certain conversational contexts, withhold information without deceiving anyone or lying. Deception may involve withholding information, but it isn’t a definition for it.

    Deception is defined mostly as the action of (1) misleading (2) betraying (3) tricking

    To dissimulate or retain information when someone inquires about something does not necessitate the activity of misleading, betraying and/or tricking.

    However, in the end, one must consider oneself to be honest and truthful as much as possible when the situation fits and does not necessitate a dishonest and untruthful response, especially if it does not open an entrance for evil and sin to take place to begin with.

    • MSH says:

      I wasn’t trying to come up with a “dictionary” definition — just seeking to explain how I dichotomize lying and withholding information.

  4. Ian Scott says:

    Interesting post to me, since I’m currently on sabbatical writing a book on this very topic! Kudos for your honesty. One question I have, then, is whether we should be defining “truth” as “correspondence with reality” at all. It’s a bit like the term “inerrancy.” The term does convey something real. But in practice we have to qualify it so much that we have to wonder whether the whole framework of thought off-track a bit from the beginning. Maybe the same reality can be dealt with better from a different angle. So with “truth.” Maybe instead of trying to qualify the context in which we do and don’t have to “tell the truth,” we should ask whether the biblical tradition comes at “truth” from a different direction than we moderns and post-(or hyper-)moderns.

    • MSH says:

      I think there’s a lot to be said for exploring these trajectories. I have a firm grasp on my own lack of omniscience, and so I’m far less interested in coming up with a “theory of everything” for this issue (and others!). I just believe that the text should be taken at face value — God does use deception, he rewards deception and even lying to evildoers on occasion, but the text is adamant that God does not lie. I’m simply putting all that together in a way that allows the Lawgiver (God) to make the rules and the exceptions (by His own behavior and accolades). I think I have a good start toward that by keeping the ninth command in context and arguing that the goal is the protection of those who seek to follow God/Christ and impede evil.

  5. Ian Scott says:

    By the way, I don’t buy the separation between lying and withholding information. If I act to deliberately support your false assumptions, then I have deceived you. It doesn’t matter whether my act was “active” (speaking) or “passive” (not speaking). Both are still acts. That’s why we confess that we have sinned “by what we have done and by what we have left undone.” To say I was merely withholding information is a bit like sticking my arm out as you run by and then saying “I didn’t hit you, you ran into my arm!” (A trick my kids have perfected).

    • MSH says:

      Not sure where the disagreement is. I said very plainly that withholding information IS deception. I also allowed for the telling of a falsehood to stop evil (Rahab). I’m not sure you read me closely enough (or perhaps I could have been clearer). If you still disagree, I’d like to hear how you intend to thwart evil in the situations I offered (without making decisions by indecision) and I’d like to hear a biblical rationale for forcing full, exhaustively detailed answers in the cases I proposed.

  6. blop2008 says:

    Ian,

    Thanks for your input. I believe your take on lying and withholding information can be true depending on specific situations, but this is not always the case. The example you provided that your kids like to perform on you is called lying, something that withholding information doesn’t need.

    - Someone can be asked a question and respond without giving all the details, but enough to answer the question (you probably do this occasionally; as I myself do). That is certainly not lying nor is it deception or misleading. HOWEVER, If that person deliberately and indirectly deviates the question to avoid answering that particular question at all, that is deceptive or misleading.

    - Someone can be asked a question and respond with falsehood by (1) inventing a non-truthful response or (2) by denying the true response. That is lying.

    One can easily hold unto information without lying or deceiving. I have defined these terms above by using dictionary.com. Here’s another definition of Lying from Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate:

    “”to make an untrue statement with intent to deceive”"
    “”something that misleads or deceives”"

    In this case, lying and deceiving overlap and are even classified as synonyms.

    If my explanations are incorrect, please evidence your point by clear definitions that you can obtain from dictionaries. Now in the biblical worldview, maybe the equivalent Hebrew and Greek words don’t convey the exact same points. That’s another matter I haven’t checked. In this case we would have to check in Biblical dictionaries with Logos :-)

  7. blop2008 says:

    Another point:

    A man has a boy and a girl.

    Jenny asks Mike: “Do you have a boy”
    Mike answers: “Yes”
    Jenny says: “How old is he?”
    Mike answers: “He is 5 years old”

    Mike did not lie nor deceive because he also has a girl. He simply chose not to provide that information at that time. He withheld information. Withholding information COULD be involved in a lie, but not by necessity. Mike could of said: ” I also have a girl “, but he didn’t.

    This example is very simplistic and may not do justice to Biblical instances, but it’s just to show that keeping information from going out doesn’t mean it’s a lie or a deceit.

    Also, notice that if Mike tells someone else that he has a girl who is 6 years old but doesn’t say he has a boy, that is not a contradiction. A contradiction would be if he told someone else that ” No, I do not have a boy “.

    This is something we see in the NT.

    • MSH says:

      True; one can withhold information (and I’d recommend it online in a range of contexts) while everything that comes from your mouth can be true.

  8. blop2008 says:

    The comments section in WordPress is a bit awkward. It would be cool if we could reply to a specific comment with indentation.

    Mike,

    I agree with your main body which I made clear in my first comment above. I concur with what you portray except with your definition of withholding information as deception. Maybe I am wrong on that, but that’s one thing you have to show, that withholding information is deception, but it, unfortunately, involves clear definitions. Otherwise, the definitions are too broad and one can play with details to oppose another view.

    In some modern dictionaries, lying and deception have overlaps and/or are synonym. However, it is always with intent to deviate or transgress the truth. Withholding information could be involved in a lie/deception but not by necessity as you admit in your last comment:

    “True; one can withhold information (and Id recommend it online in a range of contexts) while everything that comes from your mouth can be true.”

    That’s all. Like you contest, it depends which situation in which context. In Rahab’s case she lied or mislead the arrivers to protect the Israelites. In this frame it may or may not be ok for her to have done that. God doesn’t appear in heaven judging Rahab from A to Z. Rahab is considered just perhaps for other reasons that go with faith. Lot was not sinless but was considered Just or Justified. Meaning, just because Rahab was considered Just (like many patriarchs) doesn’t signify she did everything right. I think it was ok, but I don’t want to be dogmatic and say that it was. Rahab could of told the truth and God could of still protected the Israelites anyhow by other means. But it was most certainly a justified reflex, I concur. God will be the judge. I do agree that in certain cases lying and or deception may be permitted when the situation fits, like Jesus’ example when going up to Jerusalem (still not sure about this incident though).

    With Samuel, it was more undercover. He was going to that place for a specific reason (to anoint David) but God told him to add a task (offer the heifer) to his list and make it appear as if that was his primary goal when in reality his primary goal was to anoint David. But he still applied the second goal, so it’s not a deliberate transgression of the truth (Lie/Deception) rather it was a means to prevent trouble. We agree on this.

    In the end, I also acknowledge we should focus on specific instances in the text, otherwise it gets granular and complicated, as you comment.

    I’ll wait for you to come up with another post before I present something more thorough.

  9. blop208 says:

    Leaving aside the above comments,

    I remembered Exodus 1:15-22 today, where the midwives lied to Pharaoh because they wanted to protect the infants, they feared God. God blessed them. In this case, they lied to stop evil, the situation was an exception.

    • I know this is an old post, but I did a sermon while back on the midwives and found Phillip Ryken’s take on their “lie.” He suggests that it wasn’t a lie at all, but a taunt. It is too absurd for a lie. Imagine that Pharaoh would actually believe that the Hebrew women were not like Egyptian women, giving birth so quickly? If that was true, why would they even need midwives? Ryken writes, “Speaking tongue-in-cheek, the midwives were making sport of Pharaoh by suggesting that the Hebrews were hardier than the Egyptians. What they said was more a joke than a lie. Thus, Pharaoh was mocked.” I think this particular case of “lying” may not be a lie at all.

  10. Witchfinder says:

    Don’t know much about the philosophy of truth, but I do know that a true deception will create a tightening in my chest every time. It’s not something I feel after telling my great-aunt that her stuffed peppers are divine.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Dr Heiser,

    I agree with main idea of the post here but where do we draw the line? For instance, it is really easy for me to justify lying to the Nazi’s to protect the Jews hiding in the closet. I am studying apologetics this term and one of our ancient extra biblical sources on Jesus is a correspondence between Pliny the Younger and Emperor Trajan. Basically Pliny is asking advice on interrogating the Christians,

    [quote]
    The method you have pursued, my dear Pliny, in sifting the cases of those denounced to you as Christians is extremely proper. It is not possible to lay down any general rule which can be applied as the fixed standard in all cases of this nature. No search should be made for these people; when they are denounced and found guilty they must be punished; with the restriction, however, that when the party denies himself to be a Christian, and shall give proof that he is not (that is, by adoring our Gods) he shall be pardoned on the ground of repentance, even though he may have formerly incurred suspicion.

    Habermas, G. R. (1996). The historical Jesus: Ancient evidence for the life of Christ. Rev. ed. of: Ancient evidence for the life of Jesus. (200). Joplin, MO: College Press Publishing Company.

    [/quote]

    This is an instance of evil, should you use deception to save your own life? What about all of the martyrs?

    • MSH says:

      lying and/or deception for self-preservation isn’t really what I have in view if you read closely — I’m talking about saving the lives of people. That said, Rahab and the Egyptian midwives, for example, do save themselves in the process. Then there is the matter of altruistic self-preservation (say, you have several children and are their sole provider). I think the conscience needs to be the arbiter between *selfish* self-preservation and altruistic self-preservation. Frankly, only God knows the heart, and he knows we are dust. We should be willing to lay our own lives down for our family and others who will die if we choose otherwise. My approach at its core is an attempt to honor God (*why* he gave a certain command – to attend to its spirit) and honor thy neighbor — specifically by being an impediment and enemy of evil.

  12. I forgot my name. Please delete the anonymous post.

    Dr Heiser,

    I agree with main idea of the post here but where do we draw the line? For instance, it is really easy for me to justify lying to the Nazi’s to protect the Jews hiding in the closet. I am studying apologetics this term and one of our ancient extra biblical sources on Jesus is a correspondence between Pliny the Younger and Emperor Trajan. Basically Pliny is asking advice on interrogating the Christians,

    [quote]
    The method you have pursued, my dear Pliny, in sifting the cases of those denounced to you as Christians is extremely proper. It is not possible to lay down any general rule which can be applied as the fixed standard in all cases of this nature. No search should be made for these people; when they are denounced and found guilty they must be punished; with the restriction, however, that when the party denies himself to be a Christian, and shall give proof that he is not (that is, by adoring our Gods) he shall be pardoned on the ground of repentance, even though he may have formerly incurred suspicion.

    Habermas, G. R. (1996). The historical Jesus: Ancient evidence for the life of Christ. Rev. ed. of: Ancient evidence for the life of Jesus. (200). Joplin, MO: College Press Publishing Company.

    [/quote]

    This is an instance of evil, should you use deception to save your own life? What about all of the martyrs?

    • MSH says:

      The martyrs will no doubt be blessed (and are). The better question is: what about the people in the Bible itself who were blessed by God after using deception or lying and did not give their lives?

  13. Cris Putnam says:

    Fair enough, I have been thinking about it too. In a case like the with the Romans, I think the testimony of the martyrs honors God. I have to believe that God would supernaturally attend to such an occasion and give us the courage.What came to mind is what Jesus told the disciples,

    Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer, for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict. (Luke 21:1415, ESV)

    He promises to give us the right answers independent of ourselves. Also,

    Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. (Revelation 2:10, ESV)

    • MSH says:

      This is an ineffective response precisely because we see God *not* doing what you presume – coming in at the last minute and resolving situations. We *do* see people acting (at times lying) and THEN God blessing them.

  14. Michael says:

    I love this topic. I teach a Biblical ethics course and the problem of lying is the one that really gets my students motivated.

    The definitions and distinctions between lying and deception are a good place to start and your original posting as to whether and how God might lie is a good question. I agree with you that God does not lie, but He certainly deceives as your example of Samuel clearly shows. One might also argue that God’s explanation to Abraham as to why Sarah laughed is a deceit by half-truth meant to protect Abraham’s feelings.

    Here are the examples I ask my students to examine. These especially confound many of my students with absolutist views:

    – Genesis 12 & 20 – Abraham lies to save himself by putting Sarah in jeopardy of adultery.
    – Genesis 25 – Jacob deceives his father
    – Genesis 38: – Tamar tricks her father-in-law into being her redeemer (to fulfill the Levirate marriage obligation).
    – Exodus 1 – God rewards two midwives for lying.

    In none of these narratives is the liar punished. What are we to make of these stories? The lesson I offer at the conclusion of the section on lying is that God has a hierarchy of moral values in which His value of life trumps truth. On the other hand, truth and lovingkindness are somewhat equal in that lies that do no harm, bring no reward to the liar, and do chesed trump truth.

    In truth, the Holy Scriptures present an opportunity for deep moral reflection contra others who believe God’s will is, well, cut and dried.

    Thanks for the great topic and the opportunity to comment,

    Michael

  15. Mike says:

    The Jews or the Christians claim that Abraham LIED to save his life. But a lie is a lie and a prophet who is supposed to be the role model for his future generations LIED for his life!

    http://www.islamicera.com/ishmaelorisaac.htm

    • MSH says:

      not sure what the point is here. The Bible nowhere says prophets (a) are perfect or (b) need to be perfect to be prophets. – ??

  16. Peter Nelson says:

    Agreed. Thanks.

  17. Diane says:

    Love the discussion. I know the responses are old but if anyone reading could respond: I have had two situations with christian schools that I did not know how to respond in a christian manner. First school went to great lengths to raise $ for our building project. We raised enough but pastor asked congregation to take out small mortgage to evel the soccer field – come to find out he used his permission (blank permission by congregation to take out mtg – not limited by a specific amount) to take out $400K when the remodel project was ony $250K. That opened my eyes and then after a visit to the county recorder I found out he took out 4 mortgages in 10 years for 2.5 times the amount of remodel projects (as per city permit data). No one knew as he took out each one with a different cosigner (he had new decons every 2 years). While what he didis legal (only requires him and one decon to take a mtg) I did think it was unethical and many others did that left or were kicked out by him. Was exposing themortgages a christian response?

    In a second christian school I asked if teachers were licensed and was told yes. Come to find out these licenses were expired or not in the content taught. Also, test scores were low, lower than the neighboring public, but the school did not report on them to parents and parents really did not know. They just assumed their kids were getting a good education. When I as a teacher started asking questions and wanting to give parents all the info on my students I was treated very poorly and shunned. I made a comment on google to give parents the information I would have wanted when I enrolled my kids (at great expense too). My comment was just that one could find out about the licensure of teachers on the state education website and that I wished they published testing results to parents so as students, parents and educators we could create goals and a means to reach those goals. Should I have just walked away and said nothing? What would Christ do? Yes, when he was attached by Pilot he was sometimes silent but other times he did expose the pharisees lies. And when others were affected he always seems to confront lies to protect them (the woman to be stoned). I feel like I acted self righteously as I am a sinner too and would not want my shortcomings revealed but I am not sure I have every tried to deceive in that way.

    • MSH says:

      first question: I’d say “yes, you did the right thing by turning him in”; it is not ethical to allow someone to commit criminal acts when those criminal acts are not in defense of one’s conscience / loyalty to God.

      I would also hold these people accountable in the second instance. This deception was in no defense of life or to avoid compromising one’s loyalty to God. It appears completely self-motivated (or a desire to stick it to the state). The school wasn’t being compelled to act disloyally to God by these regulations.

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