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Lying is a sin. It is a violation of one of the Ten Commandments, and a disobeying of God.

However, there are many instances in the Bible where someone may lie (usually to protect someone), and God does not punish it as he would a sin, thus meaning that the act was not a sin.

When, if ever, is it morally acceptable to lie?

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    I'm pretty sure there is a question about this already but I can't find it. Apr 23 at 1:32
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    This question lacks clarity and detail. It needs to list the occasions when lying is supposed to have occurred so that they can be examined in detail. Sarah denied she laughed but that was true for she did not laugh out loud. Only God knew that she had laughed inside herself.
    – Nigel J
    Apr 23 at 6:25
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    @Nigel It's "lying by omission" (see wikipedia Lie -> Types and associated terms). Calling it a lie or not is a technicality. The main point is in each of all 3 examples there was a deception and misdirection; the speech's effect was instrumental for this deception to work. Apr 23 at 12:52
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    @NigelJ Basically you and I disagree on the definition of a "lie" and you have successfully defended your "never" position by reclassing the 3 Bible examples as deceptions, and justify deceptions as morally defensible because some people (villains, for example) have no right to the truth. I respect that. Apr 26 at 5:33
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The 9th commandment (Ex 20:16) is about being a false witness (perjury) which implicates others to be judged guilty in a court setting. The commandment does not prohibit all types of lying. Being a false witness is a much more specific type of lying that is harmful to another person. It is especially pernicious because it causes an innocent person to suffer great harm.

The obvious example you cited is lying to protect someone, for example lying to a villain in order protect someone hiding in your house. The Bible provided at least 2 examples where the LORD in fact rewarded them for lying in order to protect others:

  • The midwives who protected the Hebrew babies: Ex 1:19
  • Rahab in protecting the two Israelite spies: Joshua 2:5

The core of Christian morality is love. Therefore, a helpful frame to evaluate when it is morally acceptable to lie is whether in NOT lying we will be unloving. Lying should be done as a last resort, after every other option has been considered (including not saying anything). Or to put it in a positive and precise terms, ask yourself

In this particular circumstances where I am forced to say something about X, should I fib or even blatantly lie in order to promote X's well being while causing the least harm to everything else, including my own reputation?

For more resources:

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  • The Hebrew women carefully worded their statement before the midwife cometh in, they have borne [Young's Literal]. The midwives could be standing outside in the yard, quite truthfully. And Rahab I have not known whither the men have gone (She left them somewhere, yes, but she has no knowledge of where they are now, of a certainty. ) Thus also the men in the well They passed over the brook of water (Indeed, they were suspended over it.) Nobody is 'lying'. They are stating facts, on a need to know basis. The proposition (that people are lying) has not been proven.
    – Nigel J
    Apr 23 at 6:46
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    @Nigel It's "lying by omission" (see wikipedia Lie -> Types and associated terms). Calling it a lie or not is a technicality. The main point is in each of all 3 examples there was a deception and misdirection; the speech's effect was instrumental for this deception to work. Apr 23 at 12:49
  • All liars, Revelation 21:8, shall have their part in the lake of fire (not just some liars). It is never morally acceptable to lie and it is a falsehood to justify lying because (supposedly) some people in the bible did it to protect other people.
    – Nigel J
    Apr 25 at 15:57
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    @NigelJ Liars in Rev 21:8 are contrasted with the people of God (vv. 3,7), similar to how the liars in Ps 120:1-4 are contrasted with those who cry out to the LORD (also the people of God). My answer explicitly says that lying should be done as the last resort, done in love for example to protect the people of God from mortal danger. Obviously they should be differentiated from the wicked habitual liars in Ps 120 and Rev 21:8? Apr 26 at 3:23
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It is never morally acceptable to lie.

But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death. [Revelation 21:8 KJV]

Not just 'some liars' but 'all liars', will have their part in the lake of fire.

Some justify telling lies because (they claim) 'people in the bible told lies' in order, they say, to protect others.

They are mistaken.

There are examples in scripture of people who chose very carefully what they uttered when they needed to protect other people.

Careful examination of the literal meaning of the recorded words in scripture reveals that no lie was told, during certain events.

The Hebrew midwives (later rewarded by the Almighty) carefully worded their statement :

before the midwife cometh in, they have borne [Young's Literal : Exodus 1:19].

The midwives could be standing outside in the yard, quite truthfully.

And Rahab :

I have not known whither the men have gone [Young's Literal : Joshua 2:5]

She left them somewhere, yes, but she has no knowledge of where they are now, of a certainty.

So also the woman who covered the well and hid the men :

They passed over the brook of water [Young's Literal 2 Samuel 17:20 ]

Indeed, they were suspended over it.

Nobody is 'lying'. They are stating facts, on a need to know basis. The proposition (that people are lying) has not been proven.

It is quite proper to be discrete , to withhold information from someone whose motive is to use that information in order to commit murder, for example.

That is no sin. It is not a lie. They do not have a right to such information if they are going to use that information to murder people.

One does not need to lie. One can be discrete about what information to give them.

I repeat, 'all liars' shall find their place in a lake of fire.

It is never 'morally acceptable' to tell a lie.

Ever.

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    I appreciate your zeal for the truth, but cannot agree with your definition of lying. Both of us agree lying is morally unacceptable. So a definition of lying is needed which maintains it is immoral to lie but which does not find the falsehoods of Rahab or the midwives immoral. Your def., to me, flies in the face of the Scriptures you are quoting. -1. Apr 25 at 18:57
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    The way you excuse Rahab and the midwives.. they did not actually lie, but they were perfectly willing to allow their words to be misconstrued.. actually opens the door to more deceit in a Christian's daily life than the contextual absolutism I speak of. Why? Because your explanation does not lay down any rules where language which can be misconstrued is permissible. Is it not natural to conclude that, in your view, it is permissible at all times? Apr 25 at 19:15
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    @AndrewShanks To Nigel's credit, I now see why he correctly differentiates the 3 cases from the kind of lying that God condemns; let's call it "just deception" to people who "don't have the right to know the truth", the same class that Ken Graham's answer is talking about. It's a workable principle to use, and it DOES exclude using those 3 cases from excusing lying. In other words, deception to those don't have the right to know the truth is morally acceptable. Therefore, for those wanting to answer the OP's question with something other than "never" there is more homework to do :-) Apr 26 at 5:28
  • @Nigel Would you side with Nollie in saying "Why, they’re under the table." in this Nazi raid incident, relying on the then unknown protection from God that the Nazi would be deceived? What would you say if you were Nollie? Apr 26 at 5:57
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    @GratefulDisciple - I still think Nigel's definition of morally reprehensible lying leaves Corrie Ten Boom guilty of sin. It isn't the use of words which can be misconstrued that makes these cases morally acceptable. It is, I think, the fact that a higher moral law needs to be obeyed. Further in the unusual case of a time of war the Ten Commandments impose a different set of obligations to the usual. Our enemy is no longer entitled to expect us to obey "Thou shalt not kill", "Thou shalt not steal" or "To speak the truth". But he is entitled to expect us not to be sadistic just for fun. Apr 26 at 6:04
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The Hebrew midwives lied (Exodus 1:15-19) or should we rather say “lied” to or misled Pharaoh. For it they were blessed by God (Ex 1:20-21). Also, Rahab misled (Joshua 2:3-6). She “lied” because of her faith... according to the New Testament she is one of the heroines of faith in the Old Testament (Hebrews 11:31).

In these cases there is no hint the “lies” were morally wrong. Quite the opposite: it is already pointed out the midwives were blessed for what they did; the behaviour of Rahab also is specifically picked out, not for condemnation, but, for commendation (James 2:25).

In more recent times Corrie Ten Boom “lied”. Nazis knock on her door and would ask her if she was hiding any Jews. You can read the book and watch the film "The Hiding Place".

Some theologians have argued in favour of situational ethics where “the end justifies the means” and where "love" is the only moral absolute and the only guiding principle of Christian ethics, where the Decalogue is superseded. Such an approach does not do justice to the significance the Ten Commandments are given in Scripture.

I shall quote exclusively from “Evangelical Ethics – Issues Facing the Church Today” by John Jefferson Davis (2nd edition, 1993). The author is Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. On the issue in question he follows in the footsteps of Charles Hodge (“Systematic Theology”) and Norman Geisler (“Options in Contemporary Christian Ethics”, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981, pages 81-101).

Davis calls the ethical approach he holds to as “contextual absolutism”. It is, he says, very similar to the approach Geisler calls “graded absolutism”.

The term “contextual absolutism” contains the implicit reminder that the moral absolutes of Scripture need to be understood and applied within their proper context. Some normal or prima facie duties may not be actual duties when all things are taken into consideration. As Charles Hodge, the famous conservative theologian of the previous century, has noted, occasionally a HIGHER OBLIGATION SUSPENDS a LOWER one [AJS: Emphasis mine]. Several examples may help to make this point clear.

There are a number of illustrations in Scripture of the principle that obedience to God takes precedence over the normal obligation to obey government (Romans 13:1). The Hebrew midwives refused to obey the command of the Pharaoh to kill the male Hebrew infants, and God blessed them for their courage (Ex 1:15-17). In the early church the apostles refused to obey the orders of the Jewish authorities to refrain from preaching the gospel, replying, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Daniel and his friends were willing to face martyrdom rather than obey Nebuchadnezzar’s command to worship the idol (Dan 3:17-18). When the laws of God conflict with the laws of men, human laws must yield to the higher authority of God.

The Bible endorses the principle that one human life is of far greater value than physical property or possessions. One human life or soul is more valuable in God’s sight than the entire physical world (cf Matt 16:26: “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?”). A fireman who breaks down the door of a burning home in order to save a child’s life is not guilty of breaking the eighth commandment’s prohibition of stealing, which normally applies to the wilful destruction of another’s property. In such an emergency, any reasonable person, if asked, would give permission for the destruction of property in order to save a life. One can suppose that an implied consent justifies the fireman’s action.

Cases involving possible conflicts between telling the truth and saving lives are more difficult to analyze. When Rahab the harlot (Joshua 2:1-7), for example, spoke falsehood to protect the Israelite spies, was she choosing “the lesser of two evils”, or a course of action that was acceptable to God?

Charles Hodge has pointed out that in such cases one’s definition of a lie is crucial. Not every act of deception is the moral equivalent of a lie; a lie involves “an intention to deceive when we are expected and bound to speak the truth.” In certain contexts full disclosure is not expected. In [American] football, for example, a quarterback is not expected to reveal his plays to the opposition; he intentionally tries to deceive the opposing defence when he fakes to the fullback but passes to the wide receiver. In warfare … deception by camouflage and other means is the “name of the game”.

It could be argued that Rahab, living in the context of war … and having shifted her allegiance … to the God of Israel … had no obligation to make full disclosure to the soldiers of Jericho. Her higher duty to protect the lives of the soldiers suspended the prima facie duty to tell the truth, and her course of action was acceptable to God … her actions rather than being the lesser of two evils were actually good.

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  • +1 "a HIGHER OBLIGATION SUSPENDS a LOWER one" Very important - worth the upper caps. Sep 3 at 17:34
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When is it morally acceptable to lie?

My initial response to this question question was: It is complicated!

I am not going to regurgitate the information posted in the excellent answers of Grateful Disciple, Andrew Shanks or Nigel J, but rather give a response with a twist.

Many Christians believe that all lying is morally sinful. Even St. Thomas states this, although he admits that the gravity of the sin will vary according to the situation.

Lying with words in jest are certainly not as serious as about lying with deliberate intentions of deception.

Funny how in a court of law we have uphold the truth, yet in some countries like the USA, it is morally acceptable for detectives to lie to suspects in order to find the truth. I really never understood the reasoning behind it, but the law allows it.

The moral question of lying is one of the most interesting and most difficult to resolve perfectly and precisely. It has occupied the attention of moral theologians since the Patristic Age, yet we still don’t have a complete understanding of what “lying” means. Most of us have a deep intuition that it is morally acceptable to speak falsely in some circumstances, but the Church has not yet offered an official explanation as to why this is the case. Presumably, there is room for doctrinal development here, and I find the question fascinating.

Well in the Catechism of the Catholic Church we have a definition of lying that has a loophole of sorts.

2483 Lying is the most direct offense against the truth. To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead into error someone who has the right to know the truth. By injuring man's relation to truth and to his neighbor, a lie offends against the fundamental relation of man and of his word to the Lord.*

Obviously we must try never never to lie, but if we know that the person we are engaged in conversation has no moral right to know the truth, we may be permitted to deceive the person in question!

I know this will not fly with some Christians, but if believers hiding Jews from the Nazis during WWII, would really have a dilemma if the Germans nocked at their doors and asked them if they were housing Jews.

The vast majority of well-formed Catholics would answer this question in the negative. Under these circumstances, it is perfectly permissible to deceive the Nazis at the door. But even well-formed Catholics can’t explain why this is the case, or at least they can’t explain it in a way which is universally-accepted by sound moral theologians down through the ages, nor in a way that has yet been endorsed by the Magisterium of the Church. Most of us believe we can and indeed should lie under these circumstances, but we don’t know exactly why. This problem so agitated Catholic thinkers during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries that their less subtle Protestant brethren began to question whether Catholics even believe in telling the truth in all situations.

Not everyone has the right to know the truth.

For further information, the following may be of interest:

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    The Catholic Encyclopedia article is really good, providing patristic, medieval, and magisterial opinions while being aware of borderline cases that provoke the conscience. That is why I deliberately avoided from giving a more concrete rationale beyond the most general "loving" criteria since I'm aware how even principles that moral theologians propose often come up short, preventing one from using casuistry to decide specific cases for lying / deception. So I definitely agree with you: it's complicated! +1 Apr 26 at 3:55
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    @GratefulDisciple Thanks for the reassurance of your comment. Can not tell you how many times I read of stories where people lied to the Germans in WWII in order to save innocent lives. Strange as it is that I can not recall one case on beatification of a martyr lying to the Nazis. On the other hand St. Maximillian Marie Kolbe actually hind Jews in his convent dressed as Franciscan priests! He even taught them to bless objects using the Catholic Rituale Romanum in Latin. The Germans were genuinely deceived. Deo Gratias.
    – Ken Graham
    Apr 26 at 4:14
  • @KenGraham It might be valuable to mention that the CCC was edited to drop "someone who has the right to know the truth" in the second edition. So in fact, both sides of the debate on lying can point to the CCC for support of their view, and do! Not that this gives us any clarity, rather it re-emphasizes how undecided the question is.
    – workerjoe
    Apr 26 at 12:45
  • @workerjoe Wow, thanks for the heads up. Found this list of changes and an article specifically addressing the clause here. Apr 26 at 17:54

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