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Ethics and Truth-telling

Taken from “Is It Okay To Lie to Nazis?” in a forthcoming book with Baker Books

Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine, criticizes biblical ethics for its alleged preoccupation with “absolutes”—and not allowing for any ethical tensions or exceptions. I’ve met people who have concluded that since ethical tensions exist (telling the truth to Nazis vs. protecting innocent Jewish lives), this means moral standards don’t really exist.

Such perceptions aren’t accurate, however. In fact, the very tension that exists between truth-telling and preserving innocent life assumes that we take seriously two or more important moral obligations. Furthermore, these tensions may not be of equal value and may call for properly ordering/prioritizing them according to God’s kingdom purposes. Biblical ethics is more subtle and nuanced than many imagine. Yes, certain acts are always wrong (rape, adultery, torturing babies for fun), but we also should consider the context of actions (while murder is always killing, not all killing is murder), the character doing the act, and the motive behind the act.

Let’s take a look at one area—namely, deception. While all lying is deception, not all deception is lying. As we look more closely at Scripture, we see that it permits deception in three general areas.

#1: Criminal activity/oppression: The Hebrew midwives Shiphrah and Puah in Egypt (Ex. 1:15-21) engage in deception. Because they “feared God,” they resisted Pharaoh, who wanted to put innocent Hebrew male babies to death: these women “did not do as the king of

Egypt had commanded them, but let the boys live” (v. 17). When confronted by Pharaoh, they used deception: “Because the Hebrew women are not as the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife can get to them.” The divine response? “God was good to the midwives”; and “because the midwives feared God, He established households for them (vv. 20, 21). Note the close connection between fearing God, resisting Pharaoh (including using deception), and God’s approval.

The same is true of Rahab of Jericho (Josh. 2). She is commended elsewhere (Heb. 11:21; Jas. 2:25) as one who displayed “faith” in God by hiding two Hebrew spies, deceiving the authorities, and sending the spies off in a different direction. According to James 2, she is praised in part for her deception: “she received the messengers and sent them out by another way.”

In our day, we don’t seem to think that there is a moral problem with leaving on our house lights when going on vacation or going out at night. Why do we seek to give the impression that someone is home when no one really is home? We’re preemptively attempting to deceive would-be thieves, whom we don’t owe the truth. Also, police use deceptive tactics when conducting sting operations to catch drug lords, break up prostitution rings, or trap money launderers. Certainly such deception is justified, and we implicitly assume the legitimacy of deception in such instances.

Deception in such instances becomes even clearer when God gets involved directly. In 1 Sam. 16:1-5, God told Samuel to anoint a king, and Samuel replied that if king Saul heard of it, he would kill Samuel. God gave this advice to him: “Take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord’” (v. 2). Because of Saul’s jealousy and evil intent, God urged Samuel to deceive anyone who asked. Because of Saul’s irrational ruthlessness that threatened to violate others’ rights, he had forfeited a right to full or even partial disclosure of what Samuel was doing.[2]

#2: Warfare: The very principles of warfare in the Old Testament presuppose deception, and God is often involved in helping

Israel. For example, Joshua is told by God to set an “ambush” (Josh. 8:2). In one instance, God himself sets an ambush (2 Chron. 20:22). Even though God is “true” (Rom. 3:4) and “cannot lie” (Tit. 1:2), he still deceives the enemies ofIsrael in warfare.

Jael deceived the Canaanite commander Sisera and ended up killing him in his sleep using a tent peg (Jdg. 4:17-21). Elsewhere, we see Elisha deceiving the Syrian army, which resulted in their capture—and a peaceable resolution to war with Israel (2 Ki. 6:18-23).

#3: Light, inconsequential social/conventional arrangements: Sporting events and board games often require deception (e.g., pitchers throwing curveballs, quarterbacks faking a running play in order to pass the ball, a chess player attempting to put his opponent in check, etc.), but this is an agreed-upon convention that is built into these activities.

Jokes presuppose some kind of deception; punchlines often come as a surprise. Harmless practical jokes and surprise parties can be great fun—even if they involve deception. Social conventions also often allow for mild deception, and this is not taken as lying—withholding the truth from whom it is due. In some Oriental cultures, it is understood that a guest says “no” several times to the offer of a second helping before finally accepting. In our culture, when we are asked, “How are you?”, it’s not immoral to say, “Okay” or “Doing all right” or (perhaps more precisely) “Hanging in there.” Unless the asker is a close friend, he isn’t looking for any deep self-disclosure.

After the walk to Emmaus, Jesus himself “acted as though He would go farther” (Lk. 24:28), but the two disciples urged him to stay. Jesus wasn’t really “pretending” but was simply exhibiting modesty: he wouldn’t force his presence upon them but gave them an opportunity to freely invite him in.[3]

Being a person of truth in a fallen world doesn’t require revealing all or telling everything on one’s mind (“You’re ugly!”). (Remember that God gave Adam and Eve clothing to wear!) The level of disclosure between a married couple will be much deeper that of a parent to a child or of coworker to coworker. For example, some things that take place within a family should be kept within that family and not brought up in public. The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who himself engaged in deception to protect innocent persons from being destroyed by the Nazis, wrote wisely about considering such contexts.[4] He gives the example of a child, who may be embarrassed or ashamed of issues at home, such as a father’s alcoholism. A prying teacher asks him in front of the class if his father often comes home drunk. The child doesn’t know how to handle this conflict and so, doing the best he can, denies it. The teacher, however, is in the wrong, and the child has an obligation to keep certain things within the family: “The family has its own secret and must preserve it.” Even though the child denies the situation, Bonhoeffer says, he bears more truth than if he had betrayed his father’s weakness.

We live in an age of falsehood. Flattery, mere idle chatter, always saying what one thinks, and even certain silences (which ought to be articulated) could be categorized as “lies.” They fail to match up to the reality of God in Christ.

There are times, however, when a person may in good conscience deceive—in cases of (a) ruthless political oppression and criminal activity, (b) (just) warfare, and (c) certain conventional social situations. Deception in the cases of (a) and (b) should still have the overarching goal of restoring or creating an environment that is conducive to truth-telling. As Glen Stassen and David Gushee write,

Those . . . who are threatened and oppressed may be permitted in times of moral emergency to suspend truthtelling temporarily in some contexts in order to honore central covenant obligations—and to work clandestinely, if necessary, for a just and peaceful public square in which truth may be freely spoken once again.[5]

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1 Michael Shermer, The Science of God and Evil (New York: Henry Holt, 2004), chapter 6.

2 Regarding traveling from Galilee to Jerusalem for the Feast of Booths, Jesus tells his unbelieving brothers: “Go up to the feast yourselves; I do not go up to this feast because My time has not yet fully come” (Jn. 7:8). Yet, Jesus comes later during the feast. Was Jesus being deceptive here? No, Jesus declares that the Father had not moved him to go to the feast. So for the moment, he was planning on staying behind. The only reason he went to Jerusalem part-way through the feast was because his Father had revealed that he should. See D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 308-9.

3 I. Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 897.

4 Taken from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, trans. Neville Horton Smith (New York: Macmillan, 1965), 367-8. For a Christian position taking an opposing (no-deception) view, see Paul J. Griffiths, Lying: An Augustinian Theology of Duplicity (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2004).

5 Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 388.

9 Responses to “Ethics and Truth-telling”

  1. By no means,
    ethical standards do exist. Telling a lie to a Nazi to protect innocent Jews is the lesser of two evils. That does not take away the fact that it is still an evil, however more good will come out of it than the other. We still have to pay for lying, but then again, that’s why Christ came right?

    Great commentary.
    God Bless.

  2. Thanks for the comments!

    I’m certainly an advocate of ethical standards! Keep in mind, though, that Scripture doesn’t portray the Hebrew midwives in Egypt or Rahab as doing anything evil. In fact, they are commended *for* deceiving in order to protect life (they fear God rather than the authorities). And–this is important–*God himself* encourages Samuel to use deception if necessary with the irrational Saul. Again we are not obligated to tell the truth to those who have forfeited their right to it by engaging in criminal activity or ruthless oppression. That is, ys, deception is not ideal in such instances. It would be better to have different conditions. But given that such evil oppressors exist, deception is justified–and not as being the lesser of two evils.

    Again, thanks for your input!

    All best,

    Paul

  3. I agree completely. Thanks for the correction.

  4. I love this stuff! When is your book out?

  5. Thanks for your encouraging words, “Steamroller Philosopher.” The book (title still to be determined) will be out next year with Baker Books.

  6. Hierarchal ethics of this sort is often criticized by folks who think it’s relativistic. How should the Christian thinker defend objective moral values given hierarchal ethics? Thanks for your ministry, Paul!

  7. For those who think such a hierarchical ordering of ethics is relativistic, we could perhaps ask them if they leave their house lights on when they are on vacation!
    It’s also helpful to keep in mind that we are talking about “all things being equal” (prima facie) obligations. We are obligated to keep our promises, but sometimes we may not be able to keep them–but we’re still obligated to explain to the other person why we weren’t able to fulfill that obligation (e.g., car broke down, etc.).
    I think that even the most rigid critics of a hierarchy of ethics must recognize that we don’t tell the truth in the same way to all people because of the differing relationships we have to them. Are we obligated to tell the truth to all people in the same manner that we are to our spouses? Of course not! How much more when it comes to war or criminal activity–which leads us to the further point that we have clear biblical precedent for the legitimacy of deception in certain clear instances (warfare and criminal activity). These seem to illustrate the hierarchy of ethical considerations without giving way to relativism.
    This hierarchy doesn’t diminish the truth that murder or rape or torturing babies for fun is always wrong and that there is no justification for it. Such acts can hardly be relativized by circumstances or motivations!

  8. Phil McCheddar May 13, 2009 at 8:25 am

    Not sure if anyone is still following this thread – I have joined it a bit late!

    Paul – your article has cleared up an issue that had puzzled me for a long time – thank you! But there remain a few incidents in the Bible that still puzzle me because they don’t seem to fall into any of the categories you listed. I would be very interested to hear what you or others think about the following please:

    David in 1 Samuel 21:2
    Micaiah in 1 Kings 22:15
    Elisha in 2 Kings 8:10
    Jeremiah in Jeremiah 38:25-27

    Thank you.

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