I’m watching a TV show called Criminal Minds, and the FBI agents often have to lie to serial killers to get the information they need to save other people or they lie to the general public for their own safety so as not to induce a panic or to throw the criminal off so he/she will make a mistake and they will catch them. The lying can weigh on the consciences of the agents but they do it for good – to protect, save, or catch certain people. So my question is essentially, is it ever ok for a Christian to lie? Thanks in advance.
This is a great question. Believe it or not, I have never been asked this, despite the fact that it is a fairly obvious question to ask, in my opinion. You are asking a question about what some would call “situational ethics.” Is it ever acceptable (ie not sinful) to do something which would normally be a sin in order to prevent an even greater evil? I think we all know that this is a potential slippery slope and we have heard many people use such lesser-of-two-evils arguments in ways we find to be very fishy. Yet, sincere God-loving people are occasionally put into real situations which call for a decision.
Let me begin with the common-sense answer, then I will attempt to back it up with scripture. I will use an extreme example to provide a common-sense answer to your question. If a person is in a situation in which telling the truth would result in extreme harm to another, it seems common sense that lying would not be sinful. If a terrorist, intent on raping any woman he can get his hands on, were to break into my house, asking me if there were any women in the house, and my daughter or wife was hiding somewhere, surely lying about that fact would be justified. It is not that lying is not sinful per se, but that the situation justifies a sovereign human decision that the greater harm would be done by telling the truth.
Similarly, a peace officer may find him/herself in a position in which, in order to catch a vicious criminal, some sort of deception would be called for. In both of these cases, the deception is being done, not to gain advantage by the person deceiving, but in order to help achieve a goal which is clearly and unmistakably a positive one. Lying is sinful because we use it to manipulate to our advantage. If we are deceiving in order to do good, under rather extrememe situations, then common sense says it is justified.
Then there is lying about something silly like a surprise party. Again, only the extreme legalist would call the attempt to give joy to a person by surprising them would be sinful.
Despite the common-sense argument above, you and I will feel uncomfortable without at least some biblical evidence that such situational ethics is reasonable. Let me provide two examples from the New Testament.
The first is perhaps the most famous example of a Christian applying “situational ethics”. It is in Acts 5:27-29. Here the apostles have to choose between disobeying the governing authorities, which we know is sinful under nearly any situation (Romans 13:4) and obeying that authority, but not sharing their faith, which is also sinful. Peter and the apostles seem to be caught between a rock and a hard place here, but they make the right decision that the “wrong” of not sharing their faith supersedes the “wrong” of disobeying the governmental authorities.
A second example is found in Matthew 12:1-8. To me, this is a more difficult example to explain. Here the Parisees challenged Jesus on the fact that his disciples were picking some heads of grain on the Sabbath. First of all, what they did was probably not even sinful in that it violated the Pharisees man-made rules but probably did not violate the spirit of the Sabbath laws. However, Jesus comes back to the with another example. He tells them about the time that David was in the extreme of hunger and ate some bread which had been consecrated in the temple. In this case, unlike the one the Pharisees had raised, Jesus tells us that what David did was technically unlawful. Actually I probably should not say “technically” unlawful. It was unlawful. In this case, Jesus tells the Pharisees, using scripture, that David was justified in his law breaking under the circumstances. Jesus uses a key phrase here. He says “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” This tells me that a desire to show mercy or to help a person in an extremely difficult situation can, in some cases, justify doing something which would normally be sinful and wrong.
It is worth noting here that Jesus uses a brilliant argument. This should not surprise us, because Jesus is brilliant! He did not use the lesser of two evils argument. Instead he uses the greater of two goods argument. It is good to sacrifice, but it is even better to show mercy. Therefore David was justified in showing mercy. It is good to obey the government, but the good of sharing our faith outweighs that good. This might be a helpful key to thinking about “situational ethics.” The principle is not necessarily the lesser of two evils but the greater of two goods. The good of saving my wife from rape outweighs the good of telling the truth to the rapist. This may be splitting hairs, but I think not. Either way, this is the argument used by Jesus.
Are there any clear examples of justifiable lying in the Bible? Exodus 1:15-21 appears to be such a case. The Jewish midwives “feared God” and did not obey Pharaoh’s command to kill the Jewish male children. They also lied to Pharaoh, giving the bogus excuse that the Jewish women gave birth before they arrived. God seems to have accepted thier actions, as he “was kind” to the midwives. On the other hand, Abraham is roundly condemned for his lying to Pharaoh. Ananias and Saphyra paid the ultimate price for their lies. What about the spies, including Joshua and Caleb? Did they deceive when checking out the land? Was Rahab justified in covering up for the spies in Jericho? I say probably, but these examples are not as obvious as three two above in which scripture provides a clear answer.
We need practical advice on this topic. One clearly is that wisdom is called for. When in doubt, do not justify any action by lesser-of-two-evil or greater-of-two-good arguments, as these so easily become slippery slopes. Nevertheless, we should understand that God is not sitting in judgment, looking to cut us off if we make a good-hearted mistake in such a decision. Another principle is to always think ahead. We should anticipate possible tricky decisions ahead of time. Peter did not do this as he headed into the courtyard while Jesus was on trial. Could he justify lying to those who asked? All of us would say no. Why not? Because the one to benefit from his lie was not another person, but himself. I believe that if Peter had thought through the situation ahead of time (“What will I do if I am asked why I am there?”), he would either have wisely stayed out of the courtyard, where he was very vulnerable alone, or he would have steeled himself ahead of time and given the right answer.
Lying is sinful, but we need to understand why it is sinful. It is sinful because we use the deceit to our advantage–to manipulate the one we are lying to in order to get advantage over him or her. Are there ever circumstances in which lying is, in essence, not sinful because a greater good will result from that lie? I believe common sense tells us the answer is yes. Besides, although scripture may not specifically address lying, it does address the general issue of doing something which would normally be wrong.
This brings me back to the specific example of police lying in order to move a case forward. Of course, this is just a TV show and it is highly dramtacized, but the question is real. I believe, as I said above, that this would not necessarily be wrong. The fact is that police are put in positions like this fairly often. This may be one reason a Christian might want to hesitate voluntarily choosing police work–especially criminal police work–as a career. Why choose a career in which we can anticipate many troubling ethical quandries coming up so often? Just a thought.
Hopefully, this response will address specific examples as they come up.