What’s The Deal With Lying?

The other day I saw Gervais’ The Invention of Lying and it raised questions in my mind. The story, says the narrator (Gervais) occurs in a world where no one ever lied and that the protagonist eventually tells the first lie. In this world, whenever someone asked “how are you?” one would answer with the facts. People married because they wanted genetically desirable offspring. Movies consisted of historical narration of facts (which is part of the question that the movie raised). One of the major lies Gervais told was that there was an afterlife with a Man-In-The-Sky who was preparing mansions for everyone as long as they were good; but he had a bad place for those who were bad. I thought it was a bit wonky that this “lie” was in contrast to the professed “truth” of the people which was that when on dies, there is nothing. Doesn’t matter though since eventually everyone was professing Gervais’ lie that there was an afterlife.

So the questions were raised. Is lying always wrong? Are we obligated to always tell the truth? What about fiction? What is lying anyway? Is there fiction in eternity?

Scripture makes some hefty statements against lying: demarcating Satan as the Father of lies (John 8:44); one shouldn’t bear false witness (Ex 20:16); God is the God of truth (Heb 6:17-18); no lie is of truth (1 John 2:21); a prophet that lies about God is to die (Deut 13:1-18); God hates a lying tongue (Prov 6:17, 12:22, 19:5); Paul demands truth speaking among the local assembly (Eph 4:25); the deceitful are marked out as the wicked (Rev 21:27).

Well, then is lying always wrong? We see some situations in Scripture where lying plays a favorable role in the story: like Exodus 1:15-21 where the Jewish midwives lied to Pharaoh (or if you’re generous, told a half-truth); where Rahab deceives her countrymen by hiding the Jewish spies (Joh 2:3-6, James 2:25); Jael’s deception of Sisera so as to kill him (Judges 4:18-21; 5:24-27); David pretending he’s insane (1 Sam 21:13); Jesus acts as if he intends to go further engendering a response (Luke 24:28); Jesus’ ministry is full of parables; Jesus telling his brothers that he is not going to this feast because his time hasn’t arrived (John 7:8); God sends a powerful delusion against those who reject the truth (2 Thes 2:11); God tells Joshua a battle plan that consists of deceiving the army of Ai (Josh 8:3-8); God sends a lying spirit against Ahab (1 Kings 22:19-23).

Are we obligated to always tell the truth? When examining a situation we have to wonder if this is one of those tragic moral choices that is part of a world enveloped in Sin, another example being Christians hiding Jews in Nazi Germany. Are they obligated to tell the truth because they’re told to not-lie or are they obligated to lie so that People aren’t murdered? Either way, it’s tragic, right?

Well, I don’t know. In Rahab’s situation the deception doesn’t seem to be wrong; it seems that in that situation the wrong thing was actually standing up against God’s army. Even in the situation with Ahab, it looks like the man was already rejecting God’s truth so that when the prophet comes he truthfully tells Ahab that his prophets have been lying to him—which Ahab rejects and believes his prophets anyway. Indeed, in 2 Thessalonians the people to whom God sends the great deception are the people who don’t have a love of the truth in them.

So it would seem to me that the truth isn’t always necessarily an obligation if what’s going on is a rejection of a fundamental truth. So if people are rejecting the life of another (like in the case of genocide) they have appropriated a world view that is actually a lie; feeding that view with the truth (yes, Jews are in the house) is harmful to the truth, the Jews in the house, and the people doing the killing.

Is telling a story necessarily lying? Nathan employed a story, probably not true, to teach David a lesson which David was ignoring (as a King) but could be easily seen as a shepherd (2 Samuel 12). He had appropriated another man’s wife—an obvious evil—but only saw it when he heard the story of a shepherd appropriating another shepherd’s single sheep. The point of the story was to underscore truth even if the story wasn’t true.

Some folk like to say that the parables Jesus told were all factual stories but I don’t know why they should be. If he had a point in telling a parable then the story wouldn’t have to be true (something that I think the audience would be cognizant of since the Disciples asked why he spoke to them in parables—Matt 13:10) it would just have to convey the truth. Interestingly enough, Christ’s response for giving them the parables (Matt 13:13) was to obscure understanding.

So what is lying anyway? If we have all of these qualifications throughout Scripture then, some might assume, it can’t do much good to have statements that stand in opposition to lying. Plus, considering Gervais’ movie, not-lying covers a wide area. Gervais had posters with a bottle of Coke that read “We’re famous”. I imagine this world would also have people signing letters only with their names instead of “Sincerely Yours”. Websters says that a lie it is an untrue statement with the intent of causing deception. I’d up that by adding “harm”. So lying on one’s taxes is an untrue action which steals from the government. Lying to a Nazi is actually doing good! I’d have to think about how to formulate that better since lying for matters of self-preservation (ie: David acting insane) seems okay but might be evil (ie: Judas or Peter).

So, is there fiction in eternity? I don’t know but I can’t see why not when examining fiction alone. Of course people might just be too busy for fiction in general so there’s no way to substantiate that, but I can’t imagine a reason why having fiction in eternity would be deemed an evil thing. And honestly, there’s fiction in the Bible which I think will still be around in eternity so there should be some, at least.

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5 replies on “What’s The Deal With Lying?”

Yeah, I would think then that telling kids about Santa Claus isn’t necessarily wrong or even evil but it might be confusing. If a person thinks they can navigate those waters then they could traverse them if they wanted to.

Wow, this has been a very insighful post. Kudos to you, my friend. I’m not so sure about lying, however, being ok for self-preservation. Sounds kinda selfish. But what about for the sole purpose of upholding the truth: (i.e., I am to do good to all men. Doesn’t that involve protecting them? Same goes for our God-given responsibility of protecting our family.) So then, if this is the case, does Santa really fit into upholding the truth or am I missing something?

It seems to me that it depends on one’s motives as to whether a lie is wrong. The continuous strand that I see running through the Holy pages is that we ought to uphold and preserve THE truth (God, His word, etc.). Therefore it makes sense that Peter’s selfishly motivated lie was wrong, while Rahab’s (causiously said) was not. If this is true then, does Santa really fit into preservation of the truth?

The case of David and Achish in 1 Samuel 21 is a case where a person acts insane to save their own life but I don’t know if it’s evil. It could be on account of him fleeing there. But there’s other cases of lying for self-preservation like the midwives in Exodus who said that the Jewish women gave birth before the midwives even got there. Surely they were doing it to preserve the lives of others, but the lie was preserving their own lives.

Remove Santa for a bit. If a child tells another child “come have tea with me and Emily.” and then points at at two empty chairs next to her, is she lying? What if she starts speaking to “emily” and thanking her for pouring out tea? Bringing back the Santa bit, it might be confusing when that information comes from Dad and Mom (trying to differentiate between what’s actual and what’s make-believe) but it doesn’t seem to be lying or even inherently evil.

Of course, there’s another way that the whole Santa business might be wrong and that’s if the intention is to get the kid to believe in something that really isn’t there. It’s not a game but you’re intentionally doing this for some reason. That seems wrong to me.

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