The answer to this question will be easier to arrive at if we think of an historical example from the not too distant past. Consider for a moment the predicament of Jewish sympathizers who lived in Nazi Germany during World War II. Imagine that such a person was hiding Jews in his home, trying to protect them from Gestapo. Imagine a member of the police comes to the home and asks, “Do you have any Jews hiding here?” What would God have the person do? Would God have the person tell the strict truth, hand the Jews over to the Nazis, and have them die in concentration camps? Or would God have the person lie to the Gestapo, just as Rahab of Jericho lied to protect the two Jewish spies?
Surely the answer is obvious, right? God would hardly approve of such a person if he chose to tell the truth to the Nazis. Imagine the person trying to rationalize to God on judgment day, “Well, yes, I handed them over to be put to death, but at least I never lied.”
Lying in the Bible
Three prominent examples of lying in the Bible come to mind. The first, which was alluded to a moment ago, is Rahab in the book of Joshua, chapter 2-6. Jewish spies come to spy out the city of Jericho. Rahab, aware that God is handing Jericho over to the Jewish people, hides the spies and lies to the men who come looking for them, on the condition that Israel spare her and her family when they overtake the city. Far from disapproving of her failure to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth to the Jericho police, the book of Hebrews lists Rahab as a hero of the faith. Not only that, Rahab herself married into the nation of Israel and is one of the few women mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus in the book of Matthew.
Rahab is also an example of “civil disobedience”. Her government wanted her to assist them in rounding up the Hebrew spies. But, like Peter when he stood before the Sanhedrin in Acts 4, she determined that she must obey God rather than man. Rahab’s lie saved lives, was good for the cause of the kingdom of God, and she is commended.
A second prominent example is the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, in Exodus 1. The Pharaoh had a wicked plan to have the Hebrew baby boys killed to keep the Jewish population from multiplying. The midwives were instructed to let baby girls live and kill the boys. The midwives feared God and would not carry out this diabolical plan. When questioned about it, they lied to Pharaoh, explaining that the Hebrew women were “vigorous” and would give birth to their babies before the midwives could arrive. Far from being displeased with them over this lying, the text says God blessed them and gave them families of their own.
As was the case with Rahab, the midwives also serve as an example of “civil disobedience”. They disobeyed Pharaoh and lied to him about after the fact. Were they wrong? One might just as well say that in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia story Mr. Tumnus was wrong to not rush off and turn Lucy Pevensie in to the White Witch. Clearly, the midwives were obeying God when they disobeyed Pharaoh. Obeying God required they disobey Pharaoh, just as the protectors of Jews in Nazi Germany had to, of necessity, disobey their government in order to obey God. The midwives’ lie saved lives, was good for the cause of the kingdom of God, and they were commended.
A third prominent example is David in 1 Samuel 21. Fleeing from Saul, who was obsessively trying to kill him, David came to Ahimelech the priest. Rather than tell the priest the truth—that he was escaping from Saul—David said he was on a secret mission from Saul. The priest gave David and his men bread to refresh themselves—sacred bread, normally only allowable for priests to eat—as well as a sword. Jesus recounts this story in the New Testament (Mark 2:23-28), and there is no hint anywhere that the Lord disapproved of David’s actions. As with the first two examples, David’s lie saved a life—namely his own.
This was actually not the only instance of David using deception to save his life. David left Israel and sought safety in other lands. On one occasion, the ruler of the people he was dwelling among was potentially going to hand him over to Saul. David’s solution? He pretended to be insane, or “feigned madness” as some translations say, so that the king, instead of handing him over, would simply drive him out of the land. Psalm 34—“I will bless the LORD at all times; his praise shall continually be on my lips”—is David’s song of praise when the scheme worked.
What about “Thou shalt not bear false witness”?
Granted, these Biblical examples may be a bit extreme. Not everyone is presented with such a black and white scenario where telling the truth would endanger lives and lying would save lives. How do we determine when lying is permissible, or even necessary?
If evil people are demanding you tell the truth (as in the example of the Nazis and the Hebrew midwives) and providing them with the truth would surely cause great harm to people, then the well-being of your neighbor is your highest priority. In his Small Catechism, Martin Luther explained, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” to mean, “We should fear and love God as not to belie (i.e. lie about), betray, or slander our neighbor, nor injure his character.” To the contrary, Luther said we should “defend” our neighbor, “speak well of him, and make the best of all he does.” For Luther, the heart of the command is not a prohibition of all falsehood whatsoever, even in cases when deception would save lies (as in the World War II Germany example). Rather, the emphasis is on the words “against your neighbor”.
The command prohibits telling lies that hurt your neighbor. Slander and false accusations, especially in a court setting, is what is forbidden first and foremost. Read through the psalms and notice just how many of them are preoccupied with being falsely accused and you get a sense of how important it is to God for people to never falsely accuse each other. Consider Psalm 35, for instance. In fact, under Mosaic Law, if someone leveled a false accusation and was found out, he or she would bear whatever penalty the accused stood to face had he or she been wrongly convicted.
This is the focus of Question 112 in the Heidelberg Catechism as well, which explains this commandment to mean, “that I bear false witness against no one, wrest no one’s words, be no backbiter or slanderer, join in condemning no one unheard and rashly.” Rahab, in lying to save the lives of the Jewish spies, the Hebrew midwives, in lying to save Hebrew babies, and David, lying in order to save his own life, all obeyed God’s will and none of them can be accused of slander of perjury, which is specifically what is forbidden in the Ten Commandments. Not all lying is a violation of the Ten Commandments any more so than all killing is murder or all sex is adultery. The Bible indicates that lying, when it is done for the safety and well-being of one’s neighbor, is acceptable to God.
R.C. Sproul, in defending the legitimacy of “just war”, once pointed out the fact that all war by necessity involves trying to deceive your enemy. If you could never lie to your opponent during war, you could never win the battle. The fact that lying is sometimes necessary is indicative of the fact that we live in a fallen world. Had Adam and Eve never rebelled against God, one can’t imagine a scenario where they would have had to tell each other anything untrue in the Garden of Eden to ward off catastrophe. Rahab herself didn’t sin, but her action testifies to the fact that we live in a world contaminated by sin. In an unfallen world, lying (and war) would be non-existent.
The importance of truth telling
In Proverbs 26:28, Solomon says, “A lying tongue hates those it hurts, and a flattering mouth works ruin.” The most fundamental reason lying is wrong is that it, under normal circumstances, involves treating your neighbor in a way that you yourself do not wish to be treated. Capriciously lying to your neighbor and neighborly love are mutually exclusive. That’s why Solomon says lying, at bottom, is an expression of hatred.
Of course, in the World War II example, the Golden Rule clearly mandated lying. If you were hiding from wicked monsters, trying to save your life, how would you want your protectors to treat you? Would you prefer them to lie and save your life or tell the truth and hand you over to die?
In Colossians 3:9-10, Paul says, “Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices, and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the Image of him who created him.” Lying as a way of life, as a means of hypocritically making yourself look good, as a means of evading responsibility for your actions—all of this is manifestly forbidden by Scripture. This is all part of the “old self” which we put away when we belong to Christ. Belonging to Christ means that we put away falsehood and speak truth to one another because we no longer belong to our old way of life, but to Christ, who is himself the Truth.