Lying is not a Sin

Truth is related to ethics, not metaphysics.

Last fall, a film called The Good Lie chronicled the events that unfolded after a boy named Theo lied to protect his siblings during the Second Sudanese Civil War which ended only ten years ago. Over sixty years ago, a Dutch Christian named Corrie ten Boom lied to protect Jews from the Gestapo during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Centuries further still, a prostitute named Rahab lied to protect two Israelite spies before the fall of Jericho. In all these cases, the advantages of lying are evident. Yet the Bible remains stubbornly troubling:
Thou shalt not lie. (or so the reductionist interpretation goes)
We all want to believe that God couldn't have faulted Theo for lying and sacrificing his life for the sake of his brothers and sisters. And that he must have been pleased with Corrie for hiding innocents doomed to certain torture if not death. In fact, Rahab is later commended in the Bible for having the faith to welcome those spies. Nevertheless, most pastors and Bible teachers today will tell you that lying is a sin.

Don't worry, they have a number of arguments to explain these ethical dilemmas. One of them we might call "The Lesser Evil" argument. When faced with a difficult situation like Theo or Corrie, the lesser of the two evils becomes the most righteous action (in those cases, lying was preferable to the loss of life).

But not only does this argument fail with Rahab's story as she was protecting spies coming to take lives, it creates a mutable divine law. God does not waver on his righteousness and as James says, stumbling on one point of the law makes us guilty of all of it. Furthermore, it suggests that God would put us in a position where evil is the only option--something with which both James and Paul would staunchly disagree.

Another even weaker explanation could be called "The Greater Truth" argument. With this, someone might say that Theo, Corrie, and even Rahab were speaking for a greater truth (that God wanted these lives spared) by covering up a lesser truth (that God wanted these lives discovered). Support for this could be found in God neglecting to tell the Israelites that their messiah was going to die before he would save them. He didn't intentionally deceive; he just didn't tell the whole truth.

As morally ambiguous as that becomes, the bigger problem is that this only works for Corrie's case as both Theo and Rahab intentionally deceived.

No matter the contrivance, we'll never be able to solve the contradiction between a God who hates lying with a God who commends liars. Either this characteristic of his is just too big for us to understand or we're trying to reconcile the wrong things. Perhaps instead of trying to justify God's inconsistent sanctioning of lies we need to realize that we're trying to justify our understanding of truth.

Truth means something very different to the modern mind than the ancient one, just not in the way you might think. For example, some might say that the moral obligations of truth have changed and that relativism is at work in God's law. While I certainly have no aversion to a progressive, divine ethic, the notion that any change in the moral standard is actual and not apparent is dangerously dualistic. A better and more humble perspective would be to say that the nature of truth hasn't changed as much as our orientation to it.

For us in this post-Enlightenment world, truth is oriented next to reality. Philosophers call this the correspondence theory of truth: a statement is true when it accurately corresponds to that which is real. The sky is blue, grass is green, I sneeze really loud--by this definition, these are all true statements, Thus, an untrue statement or lie would be to say that the sky is mustard or that grass is fuchsia. If it's not real, it's not true.

It's hard for us to perceive truth any other way because this is all we've known. But if you've watched The Matrix, you'll notice some problems with it. Consider Morpheus' questions to Neo: "What is real? How do you define real?" He goes on to say that "real" is simply electrical impulses interpreted by the brain. If that's true, then correspondence theory is circular because it defines "real" based on that which is real. So who gets to say what's real or not?

We all do. Our modern understanding of truth is based on a communal consensus of reality. Ignoring the color blind, we accept that the sky is blue because to most people, it is. However, the existence of anomalies like the color blind cast doubt on the absoluteness of common perception. In other words, it could very well be that anomalies are right and most people are wrong.

Thus, correspondence theory ultimately fails because it doesn't consider the malleability of the subject (you or me). It's nothing more than a repackaged coherence theory focused on empiricism (coherence theory bases truth on a set of beliefs). If only there was a perspective on truth that didn't place faith in finite subjects like us but rather in an infinite object.

According to the Bible, that infinite object is God. And for those in biblical times, truth was oriented next to justice, not reality. Go back to the ten commandments and read the ninth one again. The original text doesn't actually say, "do not lie," it says, "do not bear false witness." That's a legal term for perjury. To God, lying wasn't a misrepresentation of reality; it was a misrepresentation of morality. Which means truth is housed in his moral law, not our feeble perceptions.

That's the difference between our modern understanding and that of the Bible. Today, every statement is judged as true or untrue regardless of morality whereas Scripture considers the motive behind the statement. Saying the sky is mustard may falsely correspond to reality, but it's not an immoral thing to say--unless our intent is to hurt someone and make them look foolish. So when God's condemnation and commendation of lying confuses us, it's simply because we're imputing the Bible's moral understanding of truth onto our modern, amoral understanding.

And that means lying is not necessarily a sin. Theo, Corrie, and Rahab were all lying to protect people they believed didn't deserve to die, and history has since vindicated them. Yes, they misrepresented what was real, but they didn't misrepresent what was right. Biblically speaking, lying is a misrepresentation of truth which deals with right and wrong, not what's real or unreal.

Of course, lies are most often used to hurt others but sometimes they actually uphold rather than pervert justice (like those above). And sometimes they harmlessly misrepresent reality for fun. Because sarcasm is something everyone appreciates.

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