Is it ever acceptable for a Christian to lie?

Make no mistake: God is truth, and we are to be like God. Truth-telling is a crucial moral duty for those in his kingdom (John 8:44; Acts 5:1–11; Col. 3:9; Rev. 21:27). The crucial practical question is this: Is it ever morally permissible to tell a lie? Are we obligated to tell the truth in every situation, no matter the consequences?

As we seek to answer this question, it’s important to remember that one’s conduct or actions are vehicles for truth and falsehood, authenticity and deceit, no less so than one’s words. Is the Christian ever justified in communicating a falsehood? Perhaps a few examples will help focus our thoughts before we examine two well-known biblical texts.

Situational Ethics?

Is it ethical to post a “Beware of Dog” sign on your fence to deter a burglar, even when you don’t own a dog?

Is it ethical for a woman to fake a heart attack or to pretend to faint when attacked by a rapist? For her to call out to her husband as if he were close by, when he is not? For her to tell her assailant she has a sexually transmitted disease to discourage his assault?

Were the Allies in World War II justified in deceiving Hitler concerning the location of the Normandy invasion?

Is it ethical for the police to operate radar in unmarked cars? After all, by using unmarked cars they are deliberately deceiving us into thinking they are civilians.

Is it ethical for the police to conduct undercover, plain-clothes investigations that, by definition, demand that they deceive people concerning their identity and intent?

Is it ethical to lie to someone about where you’re taking them in order to keep the secret of a surprise party in their honor?

Suppose you once led a homosexual lifestyle, or perhaps indulged in that behavior on a few isolated occasions. In recent years you have walked in sexual purity and no longer feel those urges. A pastor asks you: “Have you ever indulged in homosexual behavior?” Are you morally obligated to say “Yes”? Are you lying if you say “No”? Saying “No comment” is tantamount to “Yes” as far as the interrogator is concerned.

When Moral Obligations Collide

Consider other examples when moral obligations appear to conflict.

Richard’s father makes a dying request of his son: “Please promise that after I’m gone you will take care of my horses. Promise you’ll feed them, groom them, and do whatever it takes to keep them healthy.” In grief over his father’s condition and out of love, Richard gives his word. After six months, the money his father left to cover those expenses is gone. Richard borrows money to fulfill his promise, but this drain takes its toll on Richard’s wife and children. Is Richard morally obligated to continue paying for the care and upkeep of these horses while his family suffers?

Mary’s brother Alex has planted a terrorist bomb somewhere in Kansas City that will detonate in one hour. Mary is the only person who knows where it’s hidden. She promised Alex she would never tell. Although she now regrets making this promise, Mary still refuses to disclose the bomb’s location. If the bomb is not disarmed within an hour, thousands will die. Suppose we can torture Mary to extract the information from her. Would it be morally permissible to do so? Whereas torture is an immoral act, do the resulting humanitarian consequences justify using it on Mary? The utilitarian would have to say “Yes.”

Two Crucial Texts

This question is even more serious since there are two famous biblical examples.

1. Pharaoh’s demand that the Hebrew midwives kill all newborn male babies (Exod. 1:1721).

When asked by Pharaoh why they didn’t obey his command, the midwives tell him it’s because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before a midwife can arrive. God appears to issue his verdict on their behavior: he “dealt well with the midwives” and “gave them families” (vv. 20–21).

The midwives deliberately deceived Pharaoh—and God appears to reward them for it.

2. Rahab the prostitute, who tells a falsehood to protect the Israelite spies (Josh. 2:17; cf. Heb. 11:31).

James 2:25 appeals to Rahab as an illustration of how good works flow from genuine, saving faith: “And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?” Rahab communicated a falsehood to protect the spies—and is apparently applauded for it. And note that Joshua sent spies into the land, whose purpose was to deceive and undermine the enemy in order to gather information the enemy hopes to conceal. God had spies working for him in the Old Testament.

Falsehood vs. Lie

It appears, then, that there are occasions when deception is ethically permissible. But note: not all falsehoods are lies. A lie is an intentional falsehood that violates someone’s right to know the truth. But there are cases in which people forfeit their right to know the truth. So the question is not whether it is ever morally permissible to lie, but “What is a lie?” A lie is the intentional declaration or communication of a falsehood designed to deceive someone who has a moral and legal right to know the truth. A lie is telling an untruth to someone to whom you are morally and legally obligated to speak the truth. There are, however, certain occasions in which you are not under obligation to tell someone the truth (e.g., in times of war, criminal assault, and so on.).

A lie is an intentional falsehood that violates someone’s right to know the truth. But there are cases in which people forfeit their right to know the truth.

I want to be certain that no one responds to this article with anything less than a fervent commitment to truth-telling. In arguing, as I have, that there may be occasions when the communication of a falsehood is ethically permissible, I am not suggesting Christians that should become lax or casual in their treatment of the truth. The truth sets us free (John 8:32).

Our goal should never be to wiggle our way around the truth or search for an ethical loophole. When the psalmist describes the person who is privileged to “sojourn” in God’s tent and to “dwell” on his holy hill (Ps. 15:1–5), among the qualities cited is speaking “truth” in his heart, refusing to “slander with his tongue,” and being the sort of person “who swears to his own hurt and does not change.” “He who does these things,” David insists, “shall never be moved.”

Editors’ note: 

This article was adapted from Sam Storms’s book Tough Topics 2: Biblical Answers to 25 Challenging Questions (Christian Focus, 2015).