Is There Any Such Thing As a “Good Lie?”

Christians are called upon to be truthLie of necessity-tellers even when it is to our disadvantage to do so. In fact, being scrupulously truthful should be a mark of a Christian heart. As Dutch Theologian Wilhelmus A’Brakel put it: “If the heart is truthful and loves the truth, it will bring forth truth, and man will be prevented from lying—be it that this is either to our advantage or disadvantage, or that the person is either friendly or hostile toward us.”

 So with that in mind it is easy to see that in most cases deception in order to save yourself or another from danger is not commended in the Bible.

For instance, In Genesis 20 Abraham was fearful that the men of Gerar would see the beauty of his wife Sarah and would kill him and take her, so Abraham persuaded Sarah to lie and say she was his sister. Abimelech the king of Gerar did take Sarah to be his wife, and God himself had to warn Abimelech not to touch her. Following her restoration to Abraham, Abimelech’s “integrity of heart” is commended and Sarah is “rebuked” for lying to him.

However, there are a handful of cases where it could be argued that deceiving an enemy by lying to them was not a violation of the Ninth Commandment, the most famous example being “Rahab’s Lie” in Joshua Chapter 2:

Joshua 2:3 So the king of Jericho sent to Rahab, saying, “Bring out the men who have come to you, who have entered your house, for they have come to search out all the country.”

 4 Then the woman took the two men and hid them. So she said, “Yes, the men came to me, but I did not know where they were from.

 5 “And it happened as the gate was being shut, when it was dark, that the men went out. Where the men went I do not know; pursue them quickly, for you may overtake them.”

 6 (But she had brought them up to the roof and hidden them with the stalks of flax, which she had laid in order on the roof.)

By means of this lie, both the lives of the spies and her family were preserved and we know that Rahab and her family went on to become a part of the nation of Israel and amazingly enough, one of the ancestors of our Lord Jesus Christ. Nowhere in the bible is Rahab’s lie explicitly condemned and in several places her actions are implicitly commended. For instance, in James 2:25 we read:

“Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?”

This clearly seems to indicate that Rahab’s actions were good works that flowed from an active and lively faith.

Some modern exegetes see these cases of Mendacium Offciosium – that is a lie (mendacium) told while rendering a service (officiosium) to a neighbor – as examples of the higher law (preserving life) taking precedence over the lower law (telling the truth). So for instance John Jefferson Davis writes:

“It could be argued that Rahab, living in the context of war (the invasion of Canaan), and having shifted her allegiance from the king of Jericho to the God of Israel as her true King, had no obligation to make full disclosure to the soldiers. Her higher duty to protect the lives of the servants of God suspended the prima facie duty to tell the truth, and her course of action was acceptable to God. In the New Testa¬ment, Rahab is cited as an example of faith for receiving the spies and sending them out another way (James 2:25). Nowhere in Scripture is Rahab condemned for her action. On this construction Rahab fulfilled the moral absolute that applied in this wartime context, namely, to save the lives of God’s people; and her actions, rather than being the lesser of two evils, were actually good.” (Davis, Evangelical Ethics)

But against this, we have to admit that the majority of older commentators felt that while God used Rahab’s lie for good, the lie itself was still sinful. In his commentary on the Shorter Catechism, Westminster Divine Thomas Vincent wrote:

 QUESTION 8: May a lie be made use of to preserve the life of others, especially if they are God’s people, and their life is unjustly sought by God’s enemies; as Rahab by a lie, saved the lives of the Israelites in her house, for which she is recorded with commendation, and herself and house were saved, when all the city beside were destroyed?

ANSWER: 1. No lie must be used on this or any account; the loss of the lives of the most righteous not being so evil as the least evil of sin. 2. Rahab was commended and spared for her faith, and because of the promise which theIsraelites had made to her, not because of her lie. Her lie was her sin, which without pardon, would have been punished in hell. “By faith the harlot Rahab perished not with them that believed not when she had received the spies with peace” (Heb. 11:31).

So Vincent clearly believed that while Rahab taking the spies in, protecting them and directing them which way to go where all righteous acts, the telling of the lie was still properly a sin. In this Vincent is following earlier Reformed exegetes such as Calvin who wrote:

“As to the falsehood, we must admit that though it was done for a good purpose, it was not free from fault. For those who hold what is called a dutiful lie to be altogether excusable, do not sufficiently consider how precious truth is in the sight of God. Therefore, although our purpose, be to assist our brethren, to consult for their safety and relieve them, it never can be lawful to lie, because that cannot be right which is contrary to the nature of God. And God is truth. And still the act of Rahab is not devoid of the praise of virtue, although it was not spotlessly pure. For it often happens that while the saints study to hold the right path, they deviate into circuitous courses.” (John Calvin, Commentary on Joshua)

And it should be remembered that Calvin and his Reformation compatriots often found themselves fleeing for their own lives from kings and magistrates and sheltered by people who could have been executed for harboring traitors. On one occasion, Calvin had to dress as a farmer in order to walk past a sentry and escape from a city without arousing suspicion, so clearly they did not object to ALL deception, just outright lying.

Charles Spurgeon was also sensitive to the difficulties involved in Rahab’s case, but still felt it was the blunder of a redeemed individual who had not yet been taught how precious truth telling is:

 “I am not going to excuse Rahab’s lie. A lie in Rahab, or in Abraham, is as bad as in anyone else; but in this case there is this to be said, she had not been taught, as most of us have been, that a lie is a degrading sin. Nobody had ever said to her, “To deceive is contrary to the law of God, for his Spirit teaches us not to lie one to another, seeing we have put off the old man with his deeds.” There is one thing else to be said. I have often tried to put myself in Rahab’s place, and have said, “Now, suppose I had been hiding two servants of God during the old days of Claverhouse’s dragoons; for instance, if I had Alexander Peden and Cameron in the back room, and two dragoons should ride up to my door and demand, “Are the ministers here?” I have tried to imagine what I should say and I have never yet been able to make up my mind. I suppose I have more light than Rahab, and certainly I have had more leisure to consider the case, and yet I do not see my way. I do not wonder, therefore, that she blundered. And I am not much astonished that she said what she did say, for it would most readily suggest itself to her ignorant and anxious mind. I have turned over a great many schemes of what I would have said. I do not see how I could have said, “Yes, they are indoors.” That would be to betray God’s servants, and that I would not do. I have concocted a great many pretty-looking plans, but I confess that, upon examination, they appear to be more or less tinctured with the deceit which tries to justify or conceal deceit, and therefore I have had to abandon them, as being no better than falsehood and perhaps not quite so good. I am not sure whether Rahab’s lie was not more honest and outspoken than many an evasion which has suggested itself to very clever people; in fact, as a rule, things which are not obvious, and need cleverness to suggest them, are rather suspicious.” (Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Rahab, A Sermon on Heb. 11:31)

 Against this reasoning some modern commentators such as J. Douma believe that it is impossible to separate the biblical commendation from the lie of necessity:

 “To us it seems impossible to claim (as many have claimed) that the midwives and Rahab were praised for their faith, but not for their lies. For their faith was expressed precisely in their works. It is an abstraction to disconnect the effect of their acts from the path they took to achieve that effect. Clearly all of these women performed a service to their neighbors by means of the mendacium officiosum” (J. Douma, The Ten Commandments)

 Douma believes that the lie of necessity is a borderline case, and that the application of a hard and fast “no lying – ever” rule would be just as dangerous as a “lie when you want to” rule:

 “Indeed, it would be sad if everybody took the law into his own hands, so that we could no longer trust one another’s spoken word. Agreeing that lying is sometimes permissible is dangerous. Soon we may be sliding down the slippery slope. But other things are dangerous, too. Saying that we may never lie, so that we cannot help Jews or other fugitives because we will have to speak the truth to those pursuing them, is also dangerous.” (Ibid.)

 Therefore he says boldly, “We must not condemn the lie of necessity.”

 Other Christian ethicists however have pointed out the danger of the lie of necessity, namely that it quickly becomes a broader and broader vehicle to excuse us from lying, and creates the equivalent of an ethical ski slope from necessity to utility. Andrew Bowling writes:

“Circumstances force Rahab to choose between loyalty to her own people and commitment to the God of the Hebrews (2:3–7). Having hidden the spies, Rahab lies to her own people. The account seems to presuppose that it is proper to lie to God’s enemies in advancing his purposes. Some argue that truth is obligatory only to those who have a right to it; conversely, lying to those who have no just claim on the truth is morally acceptable. However, this view risks opening the way to a casuistic justification of any and all lying.”  (Andrew Bowling, Baker Commentary on the Bible)

 What Bowling is hinting at is the tendency to take the exception clause and create justifications that make every case fit the exception. For instance, these days within the PCA many cases of divorce are being justified by stretching the definition of “desertion” well beyond the biblical standard – so that even when the husband is still living with his wife at home he is said to have “emotionally deserted her.” When one considers that almost everyone seeking a divorce feels emotionally estranged from their spouse, one soon realizes that the desertion clause, which once only covered the extreme circumstance of permanent physical desertion, is now applicable to virtually EVERY divorce.

 Douma is no doubt aware of this tendency so he immediately hurries to try to stop us from expanding our definition of “necessity” to encompass every situation where we feel it is necessary to lie:

 “However, a lie of necessity may be used only in dire circumstances, that is to say, only in situations where life is at stake, either our neighbor’s or ours. This does not refer to various difficult situations, where we can escape our problems by speaking a falsehood. Even though we incur no guilt when we tell a lie of necessity, we do make use of a sinister and dangerous means.

 It is also better not to smooth things over by saying that lies of necessity may be used against people who have no right to the truth. Or, to put it more strongly: Lies of necessity may be used against people I need not view as my neighbor. More than once the lie of necessity has been called a poisonous remedy, compared by John Cassian (died ca. 430) to a kind of sneezing powder that was beneficial as an antidote for a deadly disease, but quite fatal if used unnecessarily.

 Situations where the lie of necessity may be used are rare, if we deal honestly with the ninth commandment. Our examples involve situations in times of war or extreme need, circumstances where life itself is at stake. W. Geesink mentions the situation of a deranged man who is bent on murder and demands to know the location of his victim. The number of cases requiring use of the lie of necessity is not large.” (Douma, The Ten Commandments, italics mine)

Against this however, some modern commentators, such a Cornelius Van Til have still felt that the lie of necessity must be avoided and that the greater evil really is the lie itself:

“But some one will say that we do this because it is useful for society. On this basis many moralists have defended the mendacium officiousum, i.e. the lie of necessity. The reasons for the defense are (a) that such lies are done for a good purpose, (b) that they avoid a greater evil, and (c) must sometimes be employed when one faces a collision of duties.  … Now as to the reasons given they are not conclusive. As to the good intention we reply that the end does not justify the means. That they avoid greater evil we cannot accept. They may avoid what seems to us a greater evil. But even Socrates knew that to lose life is not as great an evil as to court the disfavor of the gods. Nor are we ever really placed before a collision of duties. Our thinking that we are is usually due to lack of prayer and Scripture study. And if we have been faithful in these matters there remains for the Christian little doubt but that he is walking in the Lord’s ways.” (Cornelius Van Til, The Ten Commandments, Syllabus)

So, in conclusion, we have to admit that Reformed theologians are divided as to whether there ever is any such thing as a “Good Lie.” If there is, they are agreed that it can only be a lie told to preserve the life of another. But even if it is not altogether clear whether the lie of necessity is permissible, we have to see that this debate brings the ninth commandment into even sharper relief. If lying is such an abomination that there is a serious question as to whether it is acceptable even when told to a wicked enemy to preserve the lives of God’s people, how much more obvious should the heinousness of lying be to us, especially when we must admit that few of us will ever have occasion to tell the kind of lie that Rahab told!

Our lying is usually the petty, everyday kind, used to conceal sins, or gain something unrighteously. We usually don’t have the temerity to fool ourselves that it was acceptable or not a sin. We just do it. Oh but how foolish this is, for at least two reasons:

1)         The reasons that you tell the lie for never outweigh the sinfulness of telling the lie in the first place. For instance, perhaps we hope to enrich ourselves by lying on our resumes, we should remember that not only is that a sin but a hollow hope: Prov. 21:6  6 Getting treasures by a lying tongue Is the fleeting fantasy of those who seek death. And we forget it is better to be poor and honest than a rich liar

2)         You have the Lord’s assurance that these lies will most probably be detected. If I say to you, “think of a liar” you can all conjure up an individual in your mind. What should that tell you? Men and women become known as either truthful or liars, because men quickly discern their nature. God of course knows it from the beginning :

Gal. 6:7 Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap.

Num. 32:23 ” 23 But if ye will not do so, behold, ye have sinned against the LORD: and be sure your sin will find you out.”

 Prov. 12:19 The truthful lip shall be established forever, But a lying tongue is but for a moment.


About Andrew Webb

I was converted out of paganism and the occult in 1993 and while I was initially Charismatic/Arminian in my theology, I became Reformed and Presbyterian through bible study and the influence of ministries like RC Sproul's. After teaching in local bible studies, and taking seminary courses part time, I began to feel called to the ministry in 1997. I was Ordained as an RE at Christ Covenant PCA in Hatboro, PA in 2000 and as a TE by Central Carolina Presbytery in 2001 when I was called to be the Organizing Pastor/Church Planter for Providence PCA Mission, Cross Creek PCA's church plant in Fayetteville, NC (home to Ft. Bragg and Pope Airforce Base). In 2005 when the Providence PCA Particularized I was blessed to be called by the congregation to be their Pastor
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