Is it ever appropriate to tell a lie? The recent undercover videos exposing Planned Parenthood have raised this question once again in the minds of Christians who are committed to telling the truth because God is truth incarnate (John 14:6). Many Christians argue that under no circumstance are we ever allowed to lie, even if innocent people perish in our truth-telling. The logic goes that since lying is a sin, and it is always wrong to sin, it is always wrong to lie. The problem with our question is the definition of the word “lie.” Is it lying to lie to a Nazi soldier who demands to know where you are hiding the Jews in your house? Would those who say that it is always wrong to lie actually confess to the Nazis where they can find Jewish people to kill? Staying silent would be the same as telling the Nazis where the Jews are since the Nazis would know by their silence that there were Jews hiding in the house and would not give up searching until they found them. The Hebrew midwives will rise up at the judgment and condemn them.
I would agree with Russell Moore’s answer to this question that he gave in his class on Christian Ethics that lying is not telling the truth to those to whom the truth is owed. If lying is defined in this way, then it allows us to affirm that it is always wrong to lie and that the actions of the Hebrew midwives and Rahab in using deception are righteous in God’s sight. There are some people who are undeserving of the truth because they will use it to harm others. This kind of “lying” is not actually lying, but biblically approved deception designed to protect the innocent. As I have written elsewhere, “The truth is not owed to those who would use it to twist God’s Word and harm others. Just as a Nazi soldier is not deserving of the truth concerning whether or not you are hiding Jews in your house or Pharaoh is not deserving of the truth about the birth of Jewish children (Exod 1:17-21), a woman who is contemplating an abortion is not deserving of the truth of infant salvation lest she use it as an excuse for her sin.” God is by nature truth. But he is also righteous, loving, merciful, and the defender of the weak (Ps 72:12-13). As those living in a fallen world, if defending the helpless and needy against those who would try to kill them must involve deception, then doing so is in conformity to God who is by nature the protector of the innocent.
God approved of the actions of the Hebrew midwives in using deception because he blessed them for their actions and because Moses writes that they were motivated by their fear of God to lie about the birth of the male children (Exod 1:17, 20). Their fear of God drove them to practice deception and they would have sinned if they had not lied to Pharaoh to protect the innocent. Their lie was effective because it appealed to Pharaoh’s fear of the Jewish people as a kind of superhuman race. God approved of the actions of Rahab as well in Hebrews 11:31 noting that she was acting by faith when she hid the messengers and by allowing her to become an ancestor of the Messiah (Matt 1:5). Her receiving of the messengers and sending them out by another way included the use of deception in hiding them under her roof and lying to the guards (Jam 2:25). Israel used deception multiple times in their military victories over their enemies such as in the battle of Ai in Joshua 8 and the defeat of the Midianites by Gideon in Judges 7. Richard Wurmbrand was forced to lie to his communist torturers in prison about the location and members of the underground churches in Romania to stop them from torturing him. Should we condemn Wurmbrand for lying to the communist authorities in order to prevent more Christians from being put in prison?
What all of these people who were “lied” to had in common was that they were undeserving of the truth because they would have used it to harm innocent people. Pharaoh would have used the truth about the birth of Jewish children to murder God’s people, the guards at Jericho would have killed the Hebrew spies, the Midianites would have conquered Israel and subjected the people to slavery, and the communist authorities would have imprisoned many more Christians. If rescuing those who are perishing must involve deception, then deception is not only warranted, but it would be sinful to not use deception if doing so is the only way to carry out God’s commands (Prov 24:11). Let’s lie to the glory of God to protect the most vulnerable among us and expose the unfruitful works of darkness (Eph 5:11).