When attempting to discuss God and the ability to lie it is first important to define the terms. A lie is quite literally a statement with intent to deceive. If the time were 3:30 and someone, knowing the actual time, would say it was 4:30 in an effort to trick someone, this would be a lie. One person is attempting to decieve another. However, if the person does not want the other person to believe him, but to understand he is joking, such as when someone says a ridiculous time in an effort to get another person to laugh, this is not a lie. No deception was intended although a falsehood was stated.
Additionally, someone can actually lie when they are telling the truth. If the time was 3:30 but the person’s watch was off and said the time was 2:30, the person would still be lying if he told another person the time was 3:30. In this case the deceiver is only accidentally correct. The fact that he happens to be correct does not pardon his deception.
A lie is a statement with intent to deceive.
This concept of lying is heightened by what the Bible calls “Bearing False Witness”. To bare false witness is to make a situation seem to be true when it is not. For example: if Sam wishes to go on a mission trip, but Bob does not want him to go and misleads Sam on purpose to think that he is supporting Sam’s mission trip, then he is a liar. Also if Bob does not like Sam, but he pretends to like him and misleads him to that affect, he is a liar. Bearing false witness is equivalent to lying.
Exo 20:16 “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
Lev 19:11 ‘You shall not steal, nor deal falsely, nor lie to one another.
These are the main Biblical verses on the prohibition on lying. Notice that both of them specifically demand that the Israelites do not lie against each other. This says nothing of their dealings with their pagan enemies.
When Corrie ten Boom lied to the Nazi’s about hiding Jews, was she sinning? When the Nazi paratrooper spies were caught in England and used to send back false information to Nazi Germany, were the British sinning? When the allies did everything they could do to trick the Nazis into thinking that they were not landing in Normandy, going as far as to send inflatable tanks to Italy, were they sinning?
Lies can sometimes be useful to protect the innocent. In the case of Germany, the Nazis were committing genocide and rightly were destroyed. This is also why lying is not only acceptable in some situations but also Godly. Let us look at a few Biblical examples:
1Sa 16:2 And Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears it, he will kill me.” But the LORD said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the LORD.’
Here Samuel is afraid of being killed by Saul for anointing a new king. The Lord tells him to tell a half-lie. Half-lies are still lies. If a man decides to go to a party to see his ex-girlfriend, and his wife asks him why he is going, it would be a lie to say “to see my friend, Bob” even if Bob was attending. This is a lie of misdirection. God commands Samuel to tell this lie of misdirection. This is the same caliber of lie as Abraham’s lie about Sarah being his sister, and forgetting to mention she was also his wife. This happened twice:
Gen 12:12 Therefore it will happen, when the Egyptians see you, that they will say, ‘This is his wife’; and they will kill me, but they will let you live.
Gen 12:13 Please say you are my sister, that it may be well with me for your sake, and that I may live because of you.”
Gen 20:2 Now Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” And Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah.
In both these situations, God gets angry at the king, not Abraham. Abraham was doing a reasonable thing in trying to save his own life. Just as with Samuel, God does not think it is sinning to lie. A lie is not a sin in and of itself.
Another situation similar to Abraham and Samuel is Rahab the prostitute:
Jos 2:4 Then the woman took the two men and hid them. So she said, “Yes, the men came to me, but I did not know where they were from.
Jos 2:5 And it happened as the gate was being shut, when it was dark, that the men went out. Where the men went I do not know; pursue them quickly, for you may overtake them.”
Jos 2:6 (But she had brought them up to the roof and hidden them with the stalks of flax, which she had laid in order on the roof.)
Jam 2:25 Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way?
Heb 11:31 By faith the harlot Rahab perished not with them that believed not, when she had received the spies with peace.
Here God blesses Rahab for lying. Lying was the Godly thing to do; it saved the lives of God’s chosen people. Unlike Samuel, Rahab was not told directly by God to lie. She was instead intelligent enough to figure out that it was the right thing to do in the situation. God even adds her to Jesus’ lineage as reward for her actions. This is reminiscent of the Hebrew midwives when they saved the lives of Hebrew babies:
Exo 1:17 But the midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the male children alive.
Exo 1:18 So the king of Egypt called for the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this thing, and saved the male children alive?”
Exo 1:19 And the midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are lively and give birth before the midwives come to them.”
Exo 1:20 Therefore God dealt well with the midwives, and the people multiplied and grew very mighty.
God blesses the midwives explicitly because they lie and save the lives of the Hebrew children. The midwives were not criticized in the least for their lies.
God, in his righteousness, also commands Israel to use deception in war. In Joshua, the Bible describes a scene in which God has communicated a feint in order to lure enemies from a city.
Jos 8:4 And he commanded them, saying, Behold, ye shall lie in wait against the city, even behind the city: go not very far from the city, but be ye all ready:
Jos 8:5 And I, and all the people that are with me, will approach unto the city: and it shall come to pass, when they come out against us, as at the first, that we will flee before them,
Jos 8:6 (For they will come out after us) till we have drawn them from the city; for they will say, They flee before us, as at the first: therefore we will flee before them.
Jos 8:7 Then ye shall rise up from the ambush, and seize upon the city: for the LORD your God will deliver it into your hand.
Jos 8:8 And it shall be, when ye have taken the city, that ye shall set the city on fire: according to the commandment of the LORD shall ye do. See, I have commanded you.
The feint works and the city is taken. God specifically works through Joshua to take this city of Ai. The story is intertwined with credit to God and accounts of Israel following God’s commandments. This was a Godly and glorious battle.
1 Kings 22 describes an even more interesting scene. Walter Brueggeman describes it as thus:
In 1 Kgs 22:20-22, surely a “primitive” prophetic tale, the reader of the text is imagined into a discussion in “the divine council,” a cabinet meeting of Yahweh’s heavenly government (see parallels in Job 1-2). The discussion turns on the way in which King Ahab can be “enticed” to a military maneuver that will cause his death. The purpose of the narrative, and the purpose of the discussion in the divine council, is to assert Yahweh’s decisive hostility toward Ahab and the dynasty of Omri and to assert Yahweh’s hand in the governance of history–even royal history.
What interests us is the conversation in the government of Yahweh… The strategy is to entice Ahab into foolish policy by a prophet who is credentialed by Yahweh to give bad advice to the King… The conversation is unambiguous. What is being planned is a massive deception of the king.
We read in 1 Kings 22:
1Ki 22:19 Then Micaiah said, “Therefore hear the word of the LORD: I saw the LORD sitting on His throne, and all the host of heaven standing by, on His right hand and on His left.
1Ki 22:20 And the LORD said, ‘Who will persuade Ahab to go up, that he may fall at Ramoth Gilead?’ So one spoke in this manner, and another spoke in that manner.
1Ki 22:21 Then a spirit came forward and stood before the LORD, and said, ‘I will persuade him.’
1Ki 22:22 The LORD said to him, ‘In what way?’ So he said, ‘I will go out and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ And the LORD said, ‘You shall persuade him, and also prevail. Go out and do so.’
1Ki 22:23 Therefore look! The LORD has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these prophets of yours, and the LORD has declared disaster against you.”
Of course, King Ahab does not believe Micaiah and ends up dying in battle. God’s purpose was fulfilled. This story is repeated in 2 Chronicles 18:18-22.
Christians naturally struggle with verses like this. All lies, in any circumstance, in any setting (they claim), is a sin. This would be like claiming when Corrie ten Boom lied to the Nazis to save some Jews, she was sinning (she personally struggled with this “sin”). Rahab was sinning. The Hebrew midwives were sinning. Joshua was sinning. Gideon sined. Even God sinned (according to the “all lies are sins” theory). If all lies are sins, God is made into a sinner. The Bible explicitly condemns “making him a liar”:
1Jn 1:10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.
It should be hoped that all Christians understand this verse is not literal in the sense that anything we can do would make God a liar. Lies are statements with the intent to deceive, a third party cannot make someone lie. The use is figurative, “we portray God as a liar”. Understanding figurative statements in the Bible, or understanding the context brings to light the meaning.
While most Christians will take 1 John 1:10 as a idiom, they refuse to take other verses in the same fashion:
Heb 6:17 Thus God, determining to show more abundantly to the heirs of promise the immutability of His counsel, confirmed it by an oath,
Heb 6:18 that by two immutable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we might have strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before us.
Christians tweak this verse to mean “it is impossible for God to lie”, as opposed to the clear text “in which it is impossible for God to lie”, referring to God’s oath (that it is a strong oath that God would never violate). If the text means the later, then the implication is that God is able to (if he so wants) to lie. In fact it has been demonstrated that God has used lies and deception throughout the Bible to destroy his enemies. Christians will latch onto Heb 6:18 and then turn it into a universal and proceed to reinterpret the entire Bible based on this concept. This is an intellectually dishonest way to treat the text. The text is better understood that God has doubly reassured us that his oath is true.
When Paul declares to Titus that God “cannot lie” (Tit 1:2), the word he uses is a simple negation of “pseudo” meaning “false”, Paul is actually declaring that God is not false. Paul is implying that God chooses truth over falsehood. Calvinist translators have morphed a declaration of God’s righteousness into a Platonic concept. In fact, every time the Bible declares Jesus was without sin or that God is good, implicit is the fact that this was a choice. Why would the authors point out that Jesus did not sin or lie if the alternative was not even possible?
God can lie, and has used lies strategically throughout the Bible against his enemies. Lying to our neighbor is a sin. It is a sin for me to tell my children that Santa is coming for Christmas. It is a sin to tell a dying friend that they will make it. It is a sin for a man to tell his wife that he is going to grab a bite to eat when he is meeting another woman at a restaurant. It is NOT a sin to tell murderous Nazis that you are “not hiding Jews”.
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Isn’t God a deceiver then?
Sometimes yes. 1 Kings 22 is very clear on this. Also see this paper: https://christopherfisher.files.wordpress.com/2014/12/lies-by-prophets-and-other-lies-in-the-bible.pdf