Most people probably want to be told the truth when someone is communicating with them. However, when some of these same people are themselves communicating with someone, they sometimes – or, perhaps, often – make statements that are not true (i.e., they lie).
Before continuing, we think it would be worthwhile to make clear what we mean when we use the term lie or lying in this article. Our definition is essentially the same as that of Webster’s Dictionary, which defines a lie as “a false statement or action, especially one made with intent to deceive.”
Now, we will consider how the Bible regards lying. [Note: When we quote Scripture in this article, we use the wording in the New King James Version of the Bible. And, when bold print is shown in the scriptures that we quote in this article, it is to focus on certain words that we will be addressing in our subsequent discussion.]
Exodus 20:16, states, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” [Note: This is the ninth of the Ten Commandments.]
Leviticus 19:11 instructs the Hebrews to not “lie to one another.”
Psalm 31:18 specifically condemns lies against righteous people, stating, “Let the lying lips be put to silence, which speak insolent things proudly and contemptuously against the righteous.”
Proverbs 6:16-17, 19 declares that among the things that the Lord hates and that are an abomination to Him are “a lying tongue” and “a false witness who speaks lies.”
Proverbs 12:22a indicates that lying is hated by God: “Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord.”
Ephesians 4:24-25 tells Christians to “put on the new man which was created according to God, in righteousness and true holiness. Therefore, putting away lying, each one speak truth with his neighbor. . . .”
Colossians 3:9 instructs Christians, “Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds.”
1 John 2:21: I have not written to you because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and that no lie is of the truth.
Revelation 21:8: [T]he cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.
Whereas in the cited Old Testament scriptures the term false witness implies lying while testifying as a witness, Strong’s Concordance indicates that the terms lie and lying are not specific (i.e., no distinction is made as to the nature of the lies). And, the terms lies, liars, and lying in the aforementioned New Testament scriptures involve deceit, according to Strong.
Regardless, the previously cited scriptures indicate that lying is, at best, inappropriate, and the last scripture implies that people who lie (i.e., make deceitful statements) will ultimately be punished severely. However, other scriptures suggest that there are exceptions, particularly with regard to several incidents that involve lies intended to protect someone’s life.
For example, Genesis 20 indicates that Abraham, a man known for his strong faith in God, was deceptive when he failed to inform King Abimelech that Sarah was his wife, but the Bible does not criticize Abraham’s deception and, therefore, it seems to tacitly approve of his deception in this circumstance.
However, just because the Bible does not condemn the behavior of certain people this does not mean that it condones such behavior. Throughout the Old Testament, the behavior of a number of people is reported without comment as to the propriety of that behavior.
In this regard, Gleason L. Archer, on page 175 of his book entitled Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, says, “Even though Scripture records the dishonesty of men, this does not necessarily mean that it approves. . . .” In other words, the Bible often just reports what occurred, without editorializing.
What about lies that are intended to keep innocent people from being harmed? Consider, for example, Exodus 1:15-21. In this scripture passage, two Hebrew midwives were instructed by the king of Egypt to kill Hebrew male children as they were helping to deliver them. Because these two women feared God, they did not obey the Egyptian king. Then, when the king asked them why they had not done as he told them to do, the midwives apparently lied when they told him that the Hebrew women were giving birth before they arrived to assist with the childbirths. And, the Bible says that God subsequently “dealt well with the midwives.” This seems to indicate that when attempting to protect innocent people from serious harm, lying to protect them is justified.
Another example of a person who lied to protect others is found in Joshua 2:1-21. This scripture tells how a prostitute named Rahab lied to protect two Hebrew spies who had come to her house to stay while they were scouting that area, including the city of Jericho where she resided. Despite the fact that she lied, James 2:25 indicates that she was justified (i.e., considered righteous) for her actions.
Even with regard to these last two examples, it is questionable if the lying by the midwives or the lying by Rahab is condoned in the Bible. Both incidents are examples of God honoring people because their efforts to protect others was the right thing for them to do. In other words, although their lying may otherwise have been wrong, it apparently was justified, because they were trying to do what they believed was right.
Nevertheless, it can legitimately be argued that telling a lie with the intention of protecting an innocent person’s life – either that of themselves or someone else – seems to reflect a lack of faith in God’s ability to provide protection or to otherwise use the situation for His glory. Therefore, it is uncertain if telling a lie or being deceptive is the best alternative under any circumstance.
However, there does not seem to be a logical reason to believe that God would punish someone who lies in an attempt to prevent an innocent person from being seriously harmed in situations similar to those that we have already mentioned or to situations such as those that occurred during the 1930s and 1940s when the Nazis were searching for people to imprison or kill just because those people were of the “wrong” ethnicity or because they opposed the Nazi dogma.
And, there are also other types of lies that are told with righteous intentions. This includes lies that are told to encourage someone, such as a person who is discouraged or depressed.
Consider, for example, a situation in which a person wants to encourage someone with a terminal illness. In an effort to offer encouragement to the ill person, that person may be told that he (or she) can expect to recover, although the person making that statement knows that a recovery is very unlikely. Be that as it may, the terminally ill person may want to know the seriousness of their situation, so that he (or she) can use whatever time remains to try to deal with the matter as he (or she) prefers in light of the known circumstances. Therefore, it may be better to tell such a person the truth so that he (or she) can decide for themselves how they want to deal with their situation, assuming that they are capable of doing so.
Another type of circumstance to consider involves lies that are told for a selfish reason, but which are not intended to harm anyone. For example, lies by someone who is embellishing his (or her) past achievements may be intended to enhance that person’s status, but if the lies are not meant to be detrimental to anyone else, it can be argued that such lies do not deserve to be punished – at least, not severely. This type of lies probably includes so-called “white lies.” However, a lie that is perceived as a white lie by the person telling it may inadvertently be detrimental to one or more other people, so it may be punished.
Lying is wrong and punishable if it is intentionally – and probably even unintentionally – detrimental to other people. [Note: For a discussion of unintentional sins, click on the title of our article “Unintentional Sins.”]
On the other hand, the Bible indicates that telling a lie is not wrong if the intention for the lie is righteous, as indicated by several instances in the Bible that seem to support this belief. For example, lying may not be wrong if it is done with the sincere intention of trying to keep innocent people from being harmed in some way. Therefore, it seems unlikely that God would punish a person for telling a lie that is told with a rightful intention. Thus, there seems to be cogent reason to believe that the motive of the person telling a lie is the most important factor in determining whether or not God will punish someone for telling a lie.
Nevertheless, it can be argued that all lying indicates a lack of trust in God. Even if it seems to be alright to tell a lie if it is told with a righteous intention, God may want us to always tell the truth, regardless of the possible resulting adverse consequences that are likely to otherwise result, and trust Him as to the outcome. Then, if we do tell the truth, but the outcome is not what we would prefer, we still can have solace in knowing that we have done what we believe God wanted us to do and that He will reward us for having done so.