“Jesus said to him, ”I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)
Quantified estimates of lying range from 2 per day to 200! Perhaps some lie about lying. Regardless, lying is prevalent. The basic evil of deception is that it denies the character of God who is truth (Heb. 6:18). Jesus said, “I am the truth” (John 14:6). He also said the word of God is the embodiment of truth (John 17:17). God is utterly reliable. This is the foundation of a coherent universe.
If God may be described as “the truth,” Satan may be described as “the father of lies” (John 8:44). He is the original lie incarnate, and his use of deceit is for the purpose of destruction. It is ideally designed to achieve that end, for every break with reality is inherently destructive. Destruction is what every liar achieves and finally experiences, first in himself, then in his relationships, and finally in the judgment he receives from a holy God.
There is no more sure method to destroy character than to deceive. But are there in fact no biblical exceptions to the law against deception? Before examining the biblical texts, let us review two important facts.
The basic sin is deception, not merely the deliberate verbal expression of falsehood. Words can be in conformity to facts and still be designed to deceive. Words can be apparently out of conformity with the facts and be true. The other ground rule we follow is to recognize that Scripture alone must be our guide, and that cuts both ways. If Scripture truly allows no exceptions, then we must allow none, no matter how poignant the circumstances. But if Scripture justifies exceptions to any law or principle, then we must not try to be “more spiritual” than Scripture.
My contention is that the Bible does justify deception in three categories: inconsequential social arrangements, war, and in opposing criminal activity. If these exceptions are valid biblically, then to deceive in these circumstances in any way, including verbally, is no evil to be confessed, but legitimate moral behavior.
- Inconsequential Social Arrangements. When Christ acted as if he would go on, but did not intend to (Luke 24:28 ff.), or when he instructed his disciples to use a little “makeup,” so as not to appear as if they had been fasting (Matt. 6:17-18), he apparently did not consider these sinful deception.
Many of our greetings and social expressions are of this nature. Those who lay heavy burdens of explicit veracity on casual social exchange do not help the cause of truth.
If the biblical evidence for legitimate deception in inconsequential social arrangements is not abundant, either for or against (possibly for the very reason that it is inconsequential), this lack cannot be alleged against the case for deception in war.
- Deception in War. War by its very nature is waged with all available weapons, including psychology and deception. God himself wages war this way. He not only told Joshua to set an ambush (Joshua 8:2), a very deadly deception, he himself set an ambush on at least one occasion (2 Chron. 20:22). Elisha and God worked together on a project in which the prophet told the enemy troops, “This is not the way and this is not the city,” when in fact it was the city.
Some have argued that Rahab was commended for her faith, not for her activity. Apart from the fact that three passages say explicitly that it was because of what she did, how is it possible so to divorce faith and works? In fact, James, who emphasized not divorcing faith and works, said explicitly of Rahab that she was justified for what she did (as evidence of her faith) (James 2:25).
If war is legitimate, then ambushes, camouflage, spying, deceptive strategy, communicating in code, as integral parts of war, are also legitimate.
- Deception in Opposing Criminals. Deception is apparently one form of resistance that, like physical resistance, is ordinarily wrong, but not wrong in resisting a criminal or an enemy in war.
The Hebrew midwives resisted an ungodly and oppressive regime by disobedience and lying. For this “God dealt well with the midwives” (Exod. 1:15-21). How can it be said that their faith was good and their subversive activity bad? Or how can it be said that their disobedience was good and their lie bad? The Bible does not make such distinctions. It just says that God approved.
If a homeowner, away on a trip, leaves a timer on his light system to deceive potential robbers into believing a lie (that he is home), surely he does not sin. Deceptive police activity is a good thing when needed to apprehend a criminal.
One does not make exception to any biblical law on the basis of what may appear reasonable or loving. If exceptions are made, they are made on the basis of exceptions sanctioned by Scripture. In this way any exception is guaranteed by Scripture and cannot spill out and contaminate the rest of life with deception whenever it seems to the deceiver to be reasonable, loving, worthy, or necessary to achieve some good end.
I conclude, then, that it is a sin, a violation of the ninth commandment, to deliberately deceive someone whom Scripture gives no right to deceive. And though I am not under obligation to enlighten everyone on every subject on which I may have knowledge, I have no right deliberately to attempt to deceive in any manner anyone except in mutually agreed upon social arrangements, an enemy in war, and in resisting criminal activity.
We have dealt in some detail with possible exceptions to the law of truth because these matters are of such crucial importance to our daily lives and are so hotly debated among equally learned and committed believers.
God is the ultimate reality, and his reliability is what enables the world to hold together and make sense. If he were unstable and random, let alone deliberately deceptive and capricious, the world would be not simply an erratic rogue world—it would not cohere at all. It could not exist.
And so it is with our lives. To the extent we conform to reality, to that extent we live. To the extent we split from reality, especially when we consciously choose the untrue, to that extent we destroy and are destroyed. That is why God demands integrity and hates every form of dishonesty. To love the truth is to hate the lie. May we find our way out into the bright light and pure beauty of God, the trustworthy one, that we may be re-created by his Spirit into his own likeness, into people who are trustworthy.