There is no universally accepted definition of lying. Trying to come up with a definition of lying can prove to be challenging depending on who you ask. In Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, lying is defined as not conveying the truth. It goes on to state, “biblically and ethically, lying is regarded as sinful (Col. 3:9) since God does not lie (Titus 1:2) and God forbids it (Exod. 20:16).” Deep down I feel that most people believe that lying is wrong. It goes against what we know to be right. However, most people have been faced with a situation in which they had the choice of telling the truth but instead chosen to lie. Most can argue that there are good reasons for telling a lie. There is no doubt of the general evil of lying: it destroys the basis of human association and is in the end stultifying. Christian thought, however, has been much concerned down the centuries as to whether it is ever right to tell a lie.
In the Bible, truth is rooted in the being and nature of God himself. We are called to live the truth as well as to tell it; truth is moral as well as factual. By contrast with God, Satan is a ‘liar and the father of lies’ (Jn. 8:44). Those who live and speak truth demonstrate the character of God, and enable trusting relationships to be built up, without which life in community would be impossible. It is clear that there are ethical reasons that point to the harms of lying.
One example of who might be harmed by telling a lie is the person who is lied to. The lie that is told to the person, leads them into error and denies them the right to know the truth. People have dignity based on their ability to choose freely what they will do with their lives, and they have a fundamental moral right to have these choices respected. People are not objects to be manipulated; it is a violation of human dignity to use people in ways they do not freely choose.
Another example of who might be harmed by telling a lie is the person telling the lie. The liar is hurt because he has to remember the lies he’s told. As a result, this will lead to telling more lies. There can be potentially no stopping point if the person telling the lie believes that they are doing it for a good cause. If they believe that they are justified in lying they will continue finding justification for future lies. This pattern of lying can eventually lead to other evils.
The third example of harm is that is done by lying is that society is damaged. Society is hurt because, the general level of truthfulness falls, other people may be encouraged to lie. The stability of human society really depends on the good will that ought to exist among individuals, and that common good can only be realized by truthfulness. Social cohesion is also weakened. Some philosophers, most famously the German Immanuel Kant, believed that that lying was always wrong. Kant also taught ‘Act so that the maxim of thy will can always at the same time hold good as a principle of universal legislation.’ This roughly means that something is only good if it could become a universal law. If there was a universal law that it was generally OK to tell lies, then life would rapidly become very difficult as everyone would feel free to lie or tell the truth as they chose, it would be impossible to take any statement seriously without corroboration, and society would collapse.
Christian theologian Augustine’s Trinitarian theology identifies God the Father as Truth and God the Son as the communicated Word of the Truth. Augustine taught that lying was always wrong but accepted that this would be very difficult to live up to and that in real life people needed a get-out clause. St Augustine said that: “God gave human beings speech so that they could make their thoughts known to each other; therefore, using speech to deceive people is a sin, because it’s using speech to do the opposite of what God intended.” The true sin of lying is contained in the desire to deceive. With that in mind, I want to look at a couple of Christian ethical concepts, beneficence and justice, that I could use to evaluate an example of a serious situation in which lying might be considered permissible.
An example of a serious situation in which lying might be considered permissible could be a situation involving protecting someone’s life. For example, a person comes to the church seeking protection from an angry partner. They tell the me that they had a fight with their partner and are afraid of what they may do if they found them. The partner shows up to the church and asks the me if I know where the partner is. At that point, I must be decided whether or not to tell the truth. Through the lens of beneficence, an obligation to do go and not harm to other people, I may deem it necessary to lie to protect the person seeking help. Telling the truth in this situation may lead to more violence. While I do know the truth is the right thing to do, lying in this situation could ensure that no harm come to either person.
In addition, the other ethical concept of justice, the ethical principle showing fairness to everyone, could also justify telling a lie in this situation. Through this concept I could feel that telling the lie will allow the aggressive partner time to calm down and think rationally. It would be easy for me to put myself in the same situation and ask myself if the shoe were on the other foot how would I want to be treated. I feel that I could justify that telling the truth in this situation, which is the right thing to do, would not be fair to either person.
Depending on what side of the argument you stand lying can be both absolutely wrong or in some cases justifiable. In a society where deceit and falsehood have apparently become an essential part of personal living, trade and industry, advertising, politics and international relationships, Christians are called to demonstrate, in life and word, truth that reflect the nature of God himself.
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Childress, James F., and John MacQuarrie, eds. 1986. The Westminster Dictionary of Christian
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McKim, Donald K. 2014. The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, Second Edition:
Revised and Expanded. Revised, Expanded edition. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press.
Tollefsen, Christopher O. 2018. Lying and Christian Ethics. Reprint edition. New York, NY: \
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