One of the most famous conundrum scenarios in ethics is called the Trolley Car thought experiment. Individuals are told a hypothetical situation in which a trolley car is headed towards imminent doom, off a broken track or something like that. There is a very large man standing nearby. You know that if you push the man in the way of the trolley car, he will die, but the car will be held up enough to come to a stop and save the many lives in the car. What is the moral choice? Does saving the lives of many legitimize the immorality of taking one innocent life? What if the fat man weren't innocent. What if you had him in police custody after catching him in the middle of committing a murder. Would it be ok to push a guilty man in front of the car to save lives?There are all sorts of iterations to this problem, some of which you can find here.
Even if most will agree that it is immoral to kill innocents in both of the cases above, moral clarity seems to break down when we get to our Holocaust example. If you were to imagine that you were hiding Jews in 1943 Nazi Germany, you would likely say that lying to German SS officers who were looking for the Jews would not only be ok, but would actually be the morally justified thing to do. But even if we replace a Nazi officer who is clearly an enemy with another individual (family member, friend, co-worker, etc), most would say that to protect the life of a Jew (and one's own family), lying would not only be advisable if asked about harboring Jews, but likely the moral thing to do to protect life. But what is the difference in this scenario? Why are we ok with doing something that is immoral here (lying), but we are unwilling to do something immoral in the trolley car example - killing one innocent person to save many lives? Perhaps lying is viewed as lower on the totem pole of morality. Perhaps a minor immorality (lying) becomes moral as a means when it is used to avoid a greater immorality (murder). But then why wouldn't a major immorality (murdering one innocent person) become moral if it was used to avoid a horrendous immorality (mass death or murder of innocent persons)?
At the heart of all these moral dilemmas lies a huge presupposition about morality. Either that which is immoral for an individual is always immoral, or morals can be situational, depending on the outcome certain actions produce. The first view would look at the example of harboring Jews above and say that it does not justify lying, whereas the second view would say that the great evil of giving up innocent lives makes what would normally be an evil (lying) a good. Anecdotally, I have found most Christians I know landing in the second category. Morality may be objective, but it is not absolute.
I have come to believe that a departure from holding to a more strict absolute morality has lead to a morality based on pragmatism which just doesn't resemble the teachings of Christ. To choose what is moral and what is not based on a desired outcome is far from the biblical position on the subject. I have wrestled with this a great deal over the past few years and don't want to rehash all of my conclusions here. But if you're interested, you can see some of my other posts where I wrestle with issues relating to pragmatism and morality. Beyond the moral "dilemmas" and the scary sterility with which pragmatism tends to undermine intrinsic human value, Christians face a much bigger hurdle to their faith when they throw off absolute morality. They undermine the very foundation of their faith and morality - the Word of God.
What does pragmatic morality have to do with the Word of God? Well, our faith is founded on the Bible and our belief that what God tells us is true. For Evangelicals, this plays out in infallibility (and for many, inerrancy as well). Evangelicals believe that the Bible literally contains the words (or ideas) of God.. While some believe transcription errors may have occurred after the original documents were created, Evangelicals believe that God has spoken and sustained truth in the Bible. We can trust that what we read is truly what God wished to convey, and that what God conveys is truth.
But if certain aspects of morality, like truthfulness, aren't absolute - if one can be justified in telling a lie for a greater good - we run into a very significant problem as it relates to our confidence in the Bible. The ontological argument may tell us that God is moral, but if lying can sometimes be neutral or even moral, then lying is not something that is outside of a moral God's repertoire. God can't logically sin, but if we are willing to admit that lying is sometimes not a sin, then it is conceivable that God could lie in a non-sinning way.
Why might God lie to us? As one possible example, imagine that God is really going to save everyone. God is a universalist. However, God knows all possible worlds and understands that the world in which there would be the least amount of suffering and gratuitous violence and death is in a world where his word tells people that they need to follow God or go to hell. Isn't telling this lie preserving life, pleasure, obedience, love, and a plethora of other good things? Doesn't this lie produce better results than telling the truth?
Perhaps that example isn't very weighty to you. Maybe you're fine with God lying if it makes our lives better and the end result is a better world. God maintains his justice by putting all the world's sin on Christ, whose death was sufficient for all, and therefore maintains his justice while he saves everyone,. We don't lose anything. But what if a moral God instead hid a depressing fate from us. What if, like the angels, humanity was not redeemable. Once we sin, there is no way to fix it. A sacrifice of an innocent in our place isn't really satisfying justice because such a thing is unjust in itself. We're all on our way to annihilation. However, God knows that if he doesn't give us hope in the gospel message, we'll all live as hedonists without regard for others and the world would be a much more wicked place. So, to increase pleasure, obedience, hope, and to decrease the amount of evil, God tells us that we have a hope of getting to heaven. In fact, this God of the Bible is behind many other moralistic religions. See, since lying for a better world is not immoral, this God fabricates all kinds of religions with the intention of reaching as many people as possible with an ideology that will click for them and will lead them to a more moral life, and the world to a less evil existence. In the end, we're all going to cease to exist. We may live what we think are a good 80 years of life and we may have hope for the next life, but we're really doomed. But hey, at least we had 80 years of bliss and the world wasn't as bad as it could have been.
If lying for a greater good isn't really evil - and even more, if lying for a much greater good is actually the moral thing to do - then our God has lying at his disposal. If he has lying at his disposal, we cannot trust what the Bible says. Yes, the BIble could be infallible and God could have told us only the truth, but we can have zero confidence that this is the case. If you are a hardcore consequentialist who is fine with God's lying so long as it produces better outcomes, that's fine. But you must at least be consistent, then, in acknowledging that the Bible's validity is unreliable.
The first retort I'm bound to hear is, "But the Bible says God can't lie!" (Num. 23:19, I Sam. 15:29, Heb. 6:18). I wholeheartedly believe the Bible speaks the truth about this, but that's because I believe in absolute morality. Lying is always wrong, therefore God wouldn't lie to me. However, if you don't adhere to absolute morality, you have no grounds to trust that the passages about God not lying aren't lies themselves. It is egregiously circular to argue that what the Bible says is true because it comes from God and then say that you know God can't lie because it says so in the BIble. Those who adhere to moral absolutism, however, can appeal to the many philosophical, logical, and biblical arguments about God being moral to give them the confidence, then, that lying (which is always immoral) is something God can't do.
I understand that embracing absolute morality is uncomfortable. It definitely provides some circumstances (like harboring the Jews in Nazi Germany) which can be difficult. However, undermining the assurance we can have in the Word of God seems more weighty to me than just about anything else. In the remainder of this post, then, I want to defend a view of moral absolutism and explain how I believe such a view would play out in difficult circumstances.
Two Moral Routes:
It is important to understand that there are two types of moral obligations. First, there are obligations or morals that arise from the nature of reality. Examples of these would be any observation you can make about God's nature. God is just, righteous, love, truth, etc. They are descriptions of who God is. It is important to understand that God neither observes these morals outside of himself nor decrees them. For if God would create that which is moral, then morality would be arbitrary. It would make morality subject to change. It would mean that whatever God did or decreed at any moment was good simply because God did it. It would be arbitrary. But on the other hand, if God recognized morality, that would mean there was something that existed outside of himself to which God adhered. Such a conclusion would have significant ramifications for the Christian conception of God and the obligatory nature of morality. The solution to this problem known as Euthyphro's Dilemma is to split the horns of the dilemma. God neither recognizes a moral standard outside of himself nor decrees that which is moral. Rather, morality is a description of who God is. It is grounded in who God is. Being immutably grounded in an immutable God means that these standards are secure and objective, not shifting and arbitrary.
The second type of moral obligation arises from the result of relationship. This moral obligation is easy to recognize. If another person's car hits someone, we're not responsible. If our car hits someone - even if we weren't driving - we have some responsibility. When we come into possession of property, we take on a certain sense of responsibility for others with that property. Such an obligation for others isn't new to our litigious society, but was something that God even recognized in his law when he commands people to put fences around their roofs to avoid culpability for the injury of another on their property. Beyond our relationship with inanimate objects, we also recognize the creation of moral obligations that arise when we begin relationships such as marriage, parenting, etc. As a spouse or a parent, I create moral imperatives by entering into relationship with my spouse or kids. For instance, a child morally owes their parents respect and obedience. They do not have the prerogative to create their own household expectations and standards.
Because of the mismatch of authority in relationships like those of parents and children, we may also find that there are some actions which are morally permissible for the parent, but not for the child ( don't drink alcohol, don't use the stove, don't stay up past 10, etc). Sometimes the morality of the command overlaps with morality elsewhere. For example, if parents gave their 10 year old permission to have a party with alcohol, the 10 year old isn't morally excused because they would be breaking their state or country's law. There may or may not be anything inherently wrong with a 10 year old drinking alcohol, but it goes against another authority in the child's life. There are other examples, like punching a sibling, which may be morally wrong for both the parent and the child. And still, there are other actions, like using the stove, which don't have at their core a moral component in the action, but rather in the respecting the wishes of a parent and loving them through obedience.
It is important to understand this last category of actions and recognize how it is distinct. A parent who allows their child to have alcohol infused parties or to punch their sibling is involved in immorality. They are sinning. But a parent who tells their child that they can use the stove to make lunch- a normally off-limits action - is fully justified in doing so. The parent has the authority to use the stove and decide who uses the stove, and are free to rescind restrictions on the action.
Similarly, God gives commands to us that do extend in some form from outside of his nature, though they maintain his nature at the core. Life, sexuality, land, and everything created comes from God, but they are not part of God. God is not sexual. God is not physical. Naturally, when God says something like "thou shalt not kill" (or "thou shalt not harm another human I have created), it is a commandment that results from his authority rather than solely from who he is. At its core, the commandment embodies notions of love. How many times has someone killed another person out of love? It's rare, I'm sure. Yet God's command to us in no way prohibits him from taking life or in telling Moses and Joshua that they were permitted to take life in certain situations. Likewise, while we are to be stewards of nature, should God one day decide to destroy the earth, it is within his right to do so. While we have a command we must obey due to God's authority over that which he has created, God is not bound to such commands because they are decrees from him about that which he has created and has all rights.
Understanding this structure of morality is important when addressing the topic of absolute morality. When we look at something like the sin of lying (or not telling the truth), we have to ask ourselves which category truth falls in. The dilemma one faces with morality - deciding whether it's created or recognized - is also faced with truth. Does God create truth, does he recognize it, or is it something that is at the core of the very nature of God and an immutable obligation that not even God could rescind because it is a part of his very nature. Or, is truth something that authority can allow us to put to the side for greater goods? I would argue that truth is at the core of who God is. He doesn't decree truth. He can't just declare that 1+1 = 3. At the same time, God doesn't recognize truth outside of himself. All things and all truth have their being and sustenance in the nature of who God is. All truth exudes from God. If I am right, this means that God cannot lie, nor would he command another to lie even for what they believe to be a greater good.
I know the push-back that will come from this. The very first example people attempt to use in order to refute my point is that God commanded killing in the Old Testament. Killing is wrong, yet God permitted it in various circumstances. God told the Israelites to kill many people, and most Christians are fine with that because the Canaanites were committing horrendously egregious sins like child sacrifice. While we could have the debate about justified killing and God's judgment of the Canaanites (overlooking that God judged and killed children who were innocent of the crimes for which their parents were being so harshly judged), I think there's an even better example we can use to discuss this rebuttal - God's command to Abraham to kill his innocent son, Isaac. This is an even better example than the Canaanite children since one can't even argue that Isaac was inheriting any of his society's judgment. How could God give such a command to Abraham? Sure, God knew he would eventually stop Abraham from killing Isaac, but doesn't the Bible say that God doesn't tempt us to do evil? God's command here in Genesis is by no means a test. If killing Isaac would be immoral, than God was tempting Abraham to sin. But beyond that, Abraham is commended by God for his willingness to obey even in killing his son. Abraham's commendation comes not from withholding the knife from Isaac, but from his willingness to actually take life. Hebrews explicitly tells us that Abraham's faith was not in God stopping the knife from slaying Isaac, but rather that God would bring Isaac back to life after he was killed. Was Abraham right to obey God's command to murder? We need to go back to the question from the beginning of this section. Is taking human life more akin to some attribute God has within him, or is it a prerogative of his authority? I would argue the latter. Romans, Job, and other books make it clear that God created us and has the prerogative over our lives and our deaths. He is the author of life and can bring that life to an end as he sees fit. If God has authority over life and death and there is no moral authority higher than God, then surely he is morally justified in commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his "innocent" son.
Problem Passages: Deceit vs. Lying
The first time I read I Samuel 16 blew my mind because it appeared that God was commanding someone to be deceitful. But even worse, a few years later I came across John 7. In that passage it seems like Christ's brothers are asking Jesus to go with them to the festival. Jesus basically tells them that he's not ready to go, the brothers leave, then Jesus goes. While the text doesn't indicate how much time passed between Jesus's response to his brothers and his trip, it seems to be rather short. Jesus doesn't lie, but what he does certainly seems a little shady and at least boarders on deceit. If God blatantly commands deceit in I Samuel, and apparently (arguably) uses it in John, how can we defend absolute morality - and more importantly, God's upright character?
Once again I want to argue that we need to identify what sort of moral we're talking about. Is this an issue that stems from the character of God or one that stems from his authority? I want to argue that in the case of deceit, it is one that stems from authority. When you look at both cases of deceit mentioned above, neither contains an untruth. God did not author untruth. Instead, he provides a truth to individuals without sufficient information or qualification to give them the answer they're really seeking. In I Samuel 16, God tells Samuel to say that he is going to make a sacrifice. While this is true, Samuel's larger purpose in sacrificing and gathering is to anoint David as king. God doesn't have Samuel tell an untruth, but rather a partial truth. Similarly, when Jesus tells his brothers that it's not his time to go to the feast, he isn't lying. He allows his brothers to go first and then he himself goes later.
Some may also point to God's hiddenness as deceit. Atheists love to use the hiddenness of God as an argument against him, as they criticize him for not revealing himself more. Couldn't he show up to each of us in a burning bush? Couldn't we all experience a vision like Saul of Tarsus? Couldn't God write the gospel in the stars or clouds? Couldn't God have created a Bible that is much clearer? Even worse, doesn't Jesus say quite frequently that he purposefully concealed the truth from some groups to which he spoke - and that only those whose eyes were opened by God could see? This all sounds like a whole lot of deceit - giving a limited amount of information - and even purposefully concealing a more full viewing of the information at times. God's choice to withhold information requires some serious consideration.
Perhaps God's greatest deception of all was his deception in unraveling the gospel of Christ. I Corinthians 2:7-8 says, "No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory." Have you ever wondered why God's plan for the Messiah and his death were so veiled in the Old Testament? Why didn't God just spell out his plan and make the prophecies of the Messiah clearly messianic? Why did the gospel only become clear after the crucifixion - even to the disciples who spent three years with Christ? I Corinthians 2 seems to say that had the evil powers known God's plan, they wouldn't have pursued the death of Christ. They would have prevented the crucifixion. God had to speak in riddles. Most messianic passages are not clearly messianic until you have the revelation of the crucifixion. And even passages which are clearly messianic, like Isaiah 53, are surrounded by ideas which would make one think that the suffering and wounds were a result of battle, not necessarily passively laying down one's life. Isiah 52 speaks in victorious language and uses the picture of God going before his people and being their rearguard - the same imagery used in the Exodus. Isaiah 54 continues with notions of God's people dispossessing nations and living in their desolate cities. The true gospel was perhaps the biggest ruse and use of deceit in cosmic history.
I am willing to concede God's direct use of deceit here for two main reasons. First, when we see deceit used by God, it is used in regard to the quantity of information and not the quality. Lying, however, relates to the quality rather than the quantity. God is the ultimate authority and owes no one information. This is seen most clearly in Job, but can be seen in other passages of the Bible, as well as through logic. God in his ultimate authority can divvy out as much information as he sees fit. For us, deceit usually comes up in different circumstances - either subordinate to superior relationships (e.g. child/parent) or peer to peer relationships (e.g. husband/wife). We recognize that there is a distinction between a child deceiving their parents about their inappropriate whereabouts last Friday night and a parent using deception through giving limited information in order to protect their kids in a dangerous situation. Parents might tell their young children that Jimmy is hurt, when in reality, Jimmy is probably going to bleed out before the ambulance arrives. Would we say that the parents owe their children the greatest quantity of information? Beyond situations of danger, parents and other authority figures have the prerogative to regulate information for other reasons as well, based solely on their authority. The distinction lies in that certain relationships allow for authority to have discretion over what information they present and withhold. This is exactly what we see in both of the deceit passages mentioned above. God does not lie and only divvies out the amount of information he desires.
Second, I am not a Greek or Hebrew scholar, but from my limited research on the word used for deceit in the Bible, the word "deceit" always seems to convey the notion of treachery when used negatively. Deceit in scripture is infused with nefarious intent. When used in a negative light, deceit in the Bible almost always carries with it notions of untruth. A robber who poses as an injured traveler to lure someone into an ambush is using deceit. But that deceit is not only treacherous in that it seeks to harm the innocent, it also creates a lie (the robber was not really a helpless, hurt traveler) to skew the perception of a victim. As far as I can see, God's use of deceit in both I Samuel and John had neither of these negative aspects that the Bible tends to condemn in its concept of inappropriate deceit.
Problem Passage: Rahab Commended for Her Lies?
Hebrews 11 gives us a long list of ancestors who are commended for their faith in God. Of those mentioned, Rahab is most notable here. Many claim that her presence in Hebrews 11 proves that her lying was a moral expression of her faith in God. But I have to disagree.
First, if you look at why Rahab is commended, she is commended for welcoming the spies. She took them in and received them at risk to her own life because she believed in their God. Rahab is not explicitly commended for lying. Second, to claim that Rahab's presence in Hebrews 11 proves that all her actions in relation to her faith were moral undermines Christian morality. Is Jephtah's sacrifice of his daughter moral? What about Gideon's idolatry? What about all of Samson's escapades? Of course not. Being recognized for great faith does not at all legitimize all of the methodology used by faithful believers.
Some people also point to the Hebrew midwives in Exodus 1 as an example of God's approval of lying. The midwives were tasked with killing baby boys who were born in their care, but they did not. When Pharoah interrogated them they told him that the Hebrew women were more robust than Egyptian women and gave birth before midwives arrived. God blessed the midwives for fearing him. So does this prove God wants us to lie to save lives? Maybe, but not necessarily.
1) We don't know that the midwives were lying. What they said could have been deceit (which I argued earlier is defensible). While we know that the Midwives disobeyed Pharaoh, we don't know that the Hebrew women weren't statistically made more robust by God and that some/many didn't deliver before the midwives came. We don't know if the midwives told Pharaoh's decree to all of the families so they would only call on the midwives after the child was born. The midwives didn't tell Pharaoh that they never disobeyed his command or that all Hebrew women gave birth before they could arrive. They simply provided a general statement that implied certain things, but it may not have been lying.
2) God blessed the midwives for their fear of him, not explicitly for lying. It's likely that God blessed the midwives for not killing rather than for their methodology. I would argue that lying is a much lesser sin than murder, but that doesn't make it right.
3) The Bible often tells of of individuals who imperfectly followed God. Abraham trusted God for his life and progeny, yet he failed to trust God's methodology three times, trying to have a child through Hagar and not revealing that Sarah was his wife two times. Yet his faith is commended and accounted to him as righteousness. Just because something is presented in the Bible doesn't mean it's approved. This is especially true in the Old Testament when there was a much greater amount of ignorance as to God's law.
Problem Passage: God Sends the Lying Spirit
This passage, on its face, seems to be very difficult to explain. It is the passage of which I am least certain. Nevertheless, because I think losing absolute morality creates too many other problems, I can put up with one lone passage that still leaves me a little uneasy. There are a number of potential routes to offer an alternative explanation, such as looking at the word "lie" here in Hebrew (which may possibly have alternate, less harsh meanings), looking at this vision the prophet sees as a parable rather than a true depiction, etc. However, I find the most compelling route one that weaves in other difficult passages which we interpret as upholding God's moral purity in the face of permitting sin.
I Kings 22 grants us a glimpse into God's divine council, as he asks around for suggestions on how to bring Ahab to destruction. He gets a bunch of different suggestions until one spirit says that he will be a lying spirit in all of the mouths of the false prophets. God is fine with the spirit's plan and declares that he'll succeed in his enticement of Ahab. So is God complicit in lying?
There are many different stories I could reference, but I want to choose three particular stories I think will highlight what I think is one possible explanation that gets God off the hook for lying here. The first story is found in Job one. We see Satan come before the throne of God, accuse Job of having it too easy, and requesting permission to test Job. Much gratuitous pain and suffering ensues. In one sense, God is responsible because he could have prevented the pain and suffering. But permitting free will creatures to act and giving them dominion to make choices is God's prerogative.
The second story I think helps us is that of Joseph. The evil that was done to Joseph was reprehensible, as his own brothers sold him into slavery. But at the same time, Joseph recognizes in Genesis 50 that what his brothers intended for evil, God intended for good. Such a statement is breathtaking. How is it possible that an action which was intended to be evil by one group, was also intended by God and was good?
The final story that I think pulls everything together is that of the crucifixion. Acts two summarizes the situation nicely when it says," This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross." We find out in Acts 2 that the crucifiction of Christ was the deliberate plan of God. However, God did not put his son on the cross. Wicked men chose to do it. God, in his foreknowledge and sovereignty, sent Jesus into the world knowing full well how the individuals of his day would make free-will choices to commit evil against him. But while evil people intended to kill Jesus for evil, God permitted the evil to occur for good.
So let's go back to I Kings 22. God throws out a desire he has - the judgment of Ahab. Ahab has been horrendously evil and God wants him judged immediately. But God is open to how this judgment can come about so he asks spirit beings for suggestions. One spirit, quite possibly an evil spirit which may be similar to the one we see in Job, either wants to help God for some reason or he likes the idea of bringing chaos and death, especially to God's people. Whatever the reason, God knows this plan to send a lying spirit will work. God permits (he does not command or outright condone) the spirit to do as he said. Just as we see God use Assyria for Israel's judgment in Isaiah 10, yet God condemns Assyria for their actions, so it might be with this lying spirit and its methodology. When I Kings 22 says that God placed a lying spirit in the mouths of the prophets, it is akin to Genesis 50 saying God intended the evil against Joseph for good or that God deliberately planned the crucifixion of Jesus in Acts 2. While the phrases sound active, they simply indicate that in God's sovereignty, even actions that are allowed and not done directly by his hand will not prevent God from accomplishing his will and bringing about good (read more about the distinction between proximate and efficient causes). If such an explanation is possible, then God neither lies or commands another to lie for him, but rather permits the evil of one being and allows that evil to bring about a good. If such an explanation is deemed impossible, then one would have to explain how God is not then morally culpable for all sorts of evil, namely the evil of the crucifixion and the evil of Joseph's slavery as mentioned in this section. One would then also have to explain how we can have confidence in the infallibility of the BIble if God can use lying as a personal tool.
The Letter vs. the Heart of the Law:
Most Christians today and many throughout history have approved of lying in certain circumstances. However, I take my stand with men like Augustine, Aquinas, and Calvin in believing that lying is always wrong. I say this because I want to make sure you realize that while this may currently be a minority view (though technically the Catholic church adheres to it on paper), it isn't a view lacking thoughtful adherents. There is good company on both side of the argument, and for good reason. Everyone can understand that the preservation of innocent life is a good thing, and it seems that lying is such a small act in comparison. It can seem like an adherence to the morality of truth-telling in the face of an innocent's death is rigid and unloving. I understand that, and ultimately, I think one will be judged less harshly for lying to Nazis about harboring Jews than one who refused to harbor them. But we can't say that in telling a lie we won't be judged. Our job is to obey God.
Naturally, many Christians will invoke the "heart of the law" at this point. They will acknowledge that lying is usually bad, but we must obviously do it to preserve life. Unfortunately, these Christians are missing two important aspects about this "heart of the law" notion. First, Jesus always made the heart of the law more difficult. We see Jesus's "you have heard it said" statements in Matthew 5, where he quotes the letter of the law, but then heaps up obligation on top of it. We're all familiar with the instances where Jesus turns the sins of adultery and murder into lust and hatred. The heart of the law is rarely easier.
Second, the "heart of the law" argument only overturns rigid barriers added to the core of God's being. Matthew 12 shows us the perfect example. At the heart of the command to sabbath was God's desire to bless humanity with rest, community, and a focus on him. Hebrews 10:24-25 helps us to see this very explicitly. We are not to forsake assembling together as believers because in our assembling we receive encouragement and a focus on God and good deeds. The Sabbath was never supposed to be about being lazy and just taking a nap all day. It's about community, fellowship, encouragement, worship, reliance, thankfulness, etc. But in Matthew 12 we see Jesus pushing back against Pharisees who are criticizing him for healing someone. How could taking care of someone in the community be construed as against the Sabbath? That's ridiculous! Jesus's breaking of the Pharisaical letter of the law kept the heart of God's institution of the Sabbath, which was community. God is community, and to forsake community is to forsake the Sabbath.
While God is community and while God is love, he is also truth. And if God is truth, then this is the heart of any laws that spring forth from the concept of truth. To compromise truth is to compromise the heart of God's law. We may have the leeway to play around with the amount of truth we give. We don't have to go around telling everyone all the terrible things we think about them. We don't have to make known all our critical thoughts to our children. We don't have to give subordinates every ounce of information they may desire. None of those uses or withholdings of truth break truth. But lying to save lives does.
God created humanity to image him. We are to have dominion over the earth. We have been given dominion in order to make the earth like Eden - an extension of God's Kingdom which is in subjection to him. We are subjects of the Kingdom and we are to spread the Kingdom. That means our allegiance is to God and his standards. We are to bring all things into subjection to our King.
If what I said is true, then whatever we do is Kingdom oriented. If Nazis are killing Jews, then I am going to harbor and protect Jews. There should not be murder and injustice in the Kingdom. If a law tells me to turn in Jews for death, I must disobey because to obey that command of my government would be to disobey my King. Governments are not owed my obedience when their laws conflict with my higher authority. There will be no dissention from the King in the Kingdom. But when Nazis come to my door and I am faced with the choice to lie or not lie, how could I choose lying and argue that this action is an extension of the Kingdom? Yes, I may be preventing the horror of death, but I am using a fallen means to do so. I am not bringing the Kingdom in a lie, but perpetuating the fall. Yes, my failure to lie may lead to my family's death or the deaths of the Jews I am harboring, but my job is not to be a consequentialist who determines morality based on what I think the outcome will be. I determine morality based on the Kingdom and my King. The most loving thing to do is not to preserve life at all costs. My kids can learn that truth by watching the witch in the children's cartoon, "Tangled" (Rapunzel) who kidnaps, murders, and lies in order to sustain her source of everlasting life. Sustaining life is a great good, but it is not the only good. In fact, it can turn into an idol and a compromiser of good.that warrants moral compromise. No good warrants moral compromise. Just look at the martyrs of the first century to see that truth. Preservation of life at all costs is the consequentialist thing to do. The most loving thing to do, however, is to display the Kingdom to all parties involved - family, friends, and enemies. Give them a glimpse of God's way lived out even in the face of severe consequences to oneself. The loving thing to do is show that there is a true King and a true Kingdom which has your allegiance, and which is worth embracing now, even at the cost of one's own life.
Real Life Examples:
If I'm right about absolute morality, and if truthfulness is a moral standard that originates in God, then what would that mean for Christians who chose to harbor Jews during the Holocaust? From an emotional perspective, I'd say "who cares if you lie in order to save innocent lives." But on a logical/theological level, what is the right thing to do? How do we value life if we can't lie here?
I think we need to recognize that we have more than two choices available. Those who want to avoid moral truths in difficult circumstances love to use false dichotomies. It's just the natural thing to do for us in our consequentialist culture. We're very black and white, all or nothing sorts of people. But one doesn't have to choose between lying to Nazi officers or telling the truth in this scenario. One might choose silence. Sure, silence may imply wrongdoing and it may lead to negative consequences, but if it's the only moral option on the table, as the other option involves being an accomplice to murder and the other lying, then suffering consequences for doing right may just be what you ought to do. Suffering for doing right is something the Bible hints may in fact be a possibility for Christians...
But there may even be more options on the table. If I am right about the nature of non-treacherous deceit as explained earlier (Aquinas and I would part ways here), then deceit may be on the table as well. If I am subject to God's laws and the government is asking me to break those laws by becoming an accomplice to murder, then their right to information may be superseded by God's law. I can choose which information I give and in what manner I give it to influence them. Finally, I think it's important to undercut the notion that being silent or telling the truth is so much worse than lying as far as results are concerned. Consequentialism and pragmatism always assume that their methodology is actually the best at achieving the right end. But would lying to Nazis really be better than alternatives? Perhaps, but you can make a good case that it isn't much better at achieving the desired ends.
Regardless of lying's efficiency, lying is not a moral option on the table for Christians. At best, it's a lesser of two evils which one would need to repent of, and at worst, it is the breaking of God's law which he expects us never to use.
Permitting evil seems like the last thing the Bible would have us do. How in the world could I advocate for a refusal to lie in the face of great evil? Doesn't the Bible tell us that a refusal to do good is sin? Yes, it does. But the Bible also teaches us to have integrity and do the right thing at all times, and not to fight evil with evil. We are to trust and obey God, which are the greatest goods which demonstrate our love and allegiance to him. Agreeing with me here is vital, not only because moral integrity even in the face of evil is biblical, but because to refuse the legitimacy in one's permitting of evil when it might be stopped is to make God's actions inexcusable sins. How many millenia of sin and how many trillions of evils has God permitted when he certainly could have stopped them all - including the most immoral act of all time, his innocent son's death. Yes, God is omniscient and knows the good that will result from his permission. We do not know what our permission will lead to. But it isn't our job to determine the ends. It is our job to trust that our omniscient and omnipotent God who has shown us obedience and prescribed for us suffering unto conformity, will uphold his Word, his nature, and his promises. Our job is not to play God and determine the ends, but rather to submit to our God and his means.
This discussion is difficult, and I by no means want to be a self-righteous moralist who thinks I have it all together while others are damned for their waywardness. I am preaching to myself more than anyone else, as God has only begun to reveal my sin of pragmatic morality over the past two years. While I think my conclusion about the wrongness of lying is correct, I wholeheartedly sympathize with anyone who would lie to save innocent lives. In fact, I don't know what I would do if put in such a situation. God's expectations and truths are often difficult, and the conclusions and convictions he lays on our hearts are often extremely weighty. I am speaking first and foremost to myself in this post. Having this discussion during peace is important for us to have both so that we can prepare for such times, and so we can better understand who God is and what he expects. It is an important pushback against a cultural filter we have taken on and rarely critique.
I fully understand that what I am saying is not palatable to most Evangelicals. We are a pragmatic bunch. We often say that the ends don't justify the means, yet conclude that efficiency and outcome determine morals through our actions and what we promote. We feel that we have the prerogative to throw off moral obligations based on this metric. Rather than obeying God and trusting that he can provide for us even in our seemingly foolish obedience, we assess situations on our terms and attempt to figure out how we can most pragmatically accomplish the greatest good for God. Who do we need to lie to in order to preserve life? Which refugees, orphans, and widows in need should we advocate rejecting or not helping in order to protect our jobs, our disposable income, and our physical safety? Which morally compromised individual should we vote for who can give us political power? Which groups should we be willing to kill in order to bring peace? But God doesn't call us to be pragmatic. He calls us to be obedient, not to political, economic, or moralistic systems which have particular ends for which we cannot compromise. No, he calls us to obedience to our Lord and his ends. In our obedience, God will prevail. God's prevailing may not save us from our sufferings, but those sufferings will be evidence of our allegiance and faith, and tools God uses to conform us to the image of Christ.
Our society is full of people willing to make moral compromises because they're willing to say that morality is not absolute. Instead, we believe that it is ends which are absolute, and we will accomplish those ends by whatever means we deem necessary. But that is not the biblical model. The biblical model is that we are to submit to the means of God and trust that he will accomplish his ends. I've found that when morality is not absolute, interestingly enough, it always ends up being flexible exactly where individuals need it to be in order to affirm the actions they desire. But for the Christian, this willingness to waver morally does much more than mar one's soul. It has the potential to completely undermine the faith and therefore our allegiance. For if we can call moral wavering moral good, then our God who is morally good can morally waver as well. If lying can be a good, our God can lie. If it is possible that God can lie, then we can have no certainty that the faith preached to us through the Word of God is worth trusting. So if you want to say that you'd lie to save innocent lives, I'm good with that so long as you acknowledge that this is still sin and something from which you'd need to repent. It may be a lesser evil, but it's still an evil.
*For more on this topic from an actual theologian, check out this short paper.
Parting Questions to Ponder:
1. How could something always be wrong for God (e.g. lying) yet right for us to use?
2. Will lying be part of the future Kingdom of God? If not, how can we embrace it in the Kingdom Christ already brought, began, and currently expanding? Are you saying that Christ isn't yet our King, or that we don't yet owe him Kingdom allegiance until he fully brings the Kingdom?
3. If lying is a lesser of two evils, isn't it still evil? If we do choose to lie to save lives then shouldn't we still repent of it?
4. If lying to save a life is a lesser evil, then killing one innocent life to save a hundred innocent lives is also a lesser evil. Why do Christians say lying is permissible as a lesser evil, but not murder?
5. Where would such a pragmatic ethic of determining good based on perceived outcomes take us? What evils couldn't be at our disposal to accomplish something we calculate to be a "greater good" if obedience isn't the metric of loyalty to God, but rather efficiency?
6. If God's law says not to lie, isn't it better to obey and trust him for deliverance if he desires rather than break his law? How would you argue your consequentialist position to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego? Is their situation different because you deem commandment 2 as morally valid, but commandment 9 not so much? Doesn't it seem like lying as an excuse for disobedience is really just a way for us to not have to face the difficult consequences of doing the right thing, and the faith we must have in God for sustaining and/or saving us from the repercussions of evil people who harm us for choosing good?
7. If lying can be moral, how can you say "God can't lie?" How can we trust the Bible if it could be moral for God to lie?