Exceptions to Truthtelling in the Bible

Article / Produced by TOW Project
Exceptions to truthtelling in the bible

God holds truth and love together in a perfect marriage. When they are married, there is no conflict. When they are sundered, we face dilemmas; for example, when love requires deception (e.g., Corrie Ten Boom lying to the Nazis about hiding Jews in her house) or when truth causes harm (e.g., telling a child a truth he or she is not prepared to understand). This is not because there is something wrong with God, but because of the fallen nature of our world. Until God’s kingdom is fulfilled, those who would follow God will experience periodic conflicts as they try to love in truth and tell the truth in love.

In other words, the fact that truthtelling is a biblical principle does not necessarily mean that it is an absolute to be always followed in every circumstance. There are at least two occasions in the bible in which deception seems to be allowed, if not praised. For example, the midwives who were charged with caring for the infant Moses carried out an elaborate deception in order to safeguard the life and well-being of Moses, hiding his Hebrew origins and leading the Pharaoh to believe that he was actually one of his own sons (Exodus 2:1-10). In addition, Rahab deceived the soldiers of Jericho in order to safeguard the lives of the Israelite spies who came to serve as advance scouts of the promised land (Joshua 2:1-24). She actually ends up in God’s Hall of Faith in Hebrews 11 on account of her faith, exercised in protecting the lives of the spies (of which the deception was an integral part).

One classic example of this kind of exception to the general principle of truthtelling occurred during World War II in the well-publicized story of Corrie Ten Boom, later written in The Hiding Place. For some time, she and her sister hid Jews and enabled them to escape from the Nazis and certain trips to concentration camps. Repeatedly she was asked point-blank by the Gestapo if she was hiding Jews, and she routinely lied to the authorities in order to protect their lives.

This was a genuine moral conflict, one in which two or more moral values and virtues come into conflict, and the Ten Booms were in the difficult position of having to weight competing values. They correctly weighted the obligation to protect the lives of Jews more heavily than the obligation to tell the truth, especially to those who had no right to it.

These conflicts are not common, nor do they suggest that God’s commands are intrinsically contradictory. Rather they reflect our fallen world in which these demands of morality work themselves out, sometimes in conflicting ways. In addition, God’s commands are given through human concepts and language, and thus the way we comprehend God’s commands is subject to the limitations of human conception. Human language is not capable of covering all situations without mutual contradiction,[1] so even things expressed as absolutes have exceptions. We should expect that at times we should have to weigh competing values and we should also expect that God would direct us in doing so. Thus, rather than saying that truthtelling is inviolable, it is more accurate to suggest that it is a general rule that admits periodic exceptions when in conflict with other important moral values.

In fact, even God is described as working in ways that border on deception in the fallen world. There are some examples, particularly in the Old Testament, where God uses deception, and they seem to be a puzzling contradiction to the notion that God does not lie (see for example, 1 Kings 22:23; Jeremiah 4:10, 20:7). But in all these cases, the people of Israel are firmly entrenched in idolatry and awaiting God’s judgment in the coming exile. God has already made the truth clear to the people and they have rejected it and their judgment is forthcoming. It is clear that God is not deceiving the people as a means of instruction but as a means of judgment. When people reject truth, even God’s character becomes a deception to them. However, in deceiving the self-deceived, God’s actions do not contradict his character of truth.

A New Testament parallel occurs in Paul’s teaching in 2 Thessalonians 2:11-12: “For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but delighted in wickedness.” Here, Paul describes how at the end times the “man of lawlessness” sets himself up to be God. To counter this self-deception, God uses deception not to mislead the people, but to judge those who have abandoned the truth. Thus, when Paul speaks of the “God, who never lies” (Titus 1:2), he is stating the character of God, yet recognizing that in a fallen world, the deepest truth at times must be cloaked in deception for the sake of love. Corrie ten Boom is not a justifiable exception to the truthful character of God’s image in humanity, but a fulfillment of a deeper truth in love.

Viewing truthtelling as a prima facie moral principle also appeals to our common sense intuitions about certain professions that make regular use of deception. Take for example, intelligence gathering. There is little doubt that the intelligence apparatus of most countries uses deceit in order to gain critical intelligence information about one’s enemies. In addition, undercover police work requires that officers disguise their identity and create entirely new personas in order to infiltrate organizations effectively. Few questions are raised about the necessary use of deception in these occupations.[2] And, of course, virtually no one questions the validity of bluffing in poker games or the use of elaborate faking in sports, because they are considered part of the game—acceptable within the rules of the game.

However, none of the above scenarios are entirely analogous to business and other arenas in which most work occurs. We will discuss later whether ends-justifies-the-means exceptions exist beyond national security and public safety. And situations in which truth is not expected, such as in poker, are very rare and can hardly serve as the norm for conduct in work.[3] This raises important questions about what criteria should guide us when it comes to truthtelling in our work.