Lying to save life and biblical morality (Part I)

Imagine yourself a Christian in Nazi Germany in the 1940s. Against the law, you’ve decided to give asylum in your home to an innocent Jewish family fleeing death. Without warning gestapo agents arrive at your door and confront you with a direct question: “Are there any Jews on your premises?” What would you say? What would you do?1 Thus begins a captivating but controversial article in a recent Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) magazine. “In Defense of Rahab” stirred up a passionate debate on the virtues and vices of lying to save life. While there were some letters expressing concern,2 others showed strong support.3 As a now retired professor of religion stated: “In one brief article [the author] laid out the big picture of Rahab’s ‘lie – not only with common sense but with a biblical setting that should put to rest the porcelain argument that no one should lie under any condition.”4

Though some may feel that these issues have no relevance for life in the “real world,” our magazine author rightly reminds us that “the issue is far from theoretical.”5 Exploring the story of Rahab in Joshua 2, he comes to the following conclusions:

  1. Morality can be learned from Scripture stories where the Bible does not directly condemn the activities engaged in in the actual narrative.6
  2. Motives are vital for determining an action’s moral validity. In other words, misleading a potential murderer is in “perfect conformity” to the “spirit” of God’s law.7
  3. “Christians (and everyone else, for that matter) are sometimes forced to choose between two or more evils. In those cases [just as in Rahab’s], we are not condemned by God for choosing the best of the bad options.”8
  4. Potential consequences of any action must be carefully considered, and rigorously avoided if life-threatening.9 Since human life is considered most important, it needs to be protected even at the cost of truth.10

In a subsequent article, “Rahab Revisited,” the author attempted to clarify some theories promulgated in the first document. Since these articles on Rahab have so well articulated the major concepts in this debate on lying to save life, they will become the main springboard for discussion in this study, though other works will be utilized and examined as needed.

But wait! Before going further, note this urgent caution:

Without the guidance of the Holy Spirit we shall be continually liable to wrest the Scriptures or to misinterpret them.11 Never should the Bible be studied without prayer. Before opening its pages we should ask for the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit, and it will be given.12

In addition to the vital necessity of prayer (see Matt 7:7; John 16:13; Jas 1:5), one other warning needs to be contemplated: Articulate writers who are committed to bringing conviction to their readers, may be easily tempted to employ strongly emotive expressions which tend to manipulate the mind. However, in order to consider this contentious issue of lying to save life as open-mindedly and dispassionately as possible, a concerted effort will be made in this article to conscientiously avoid all forms of sarcasm,13 blunt language,14 any crafty caricatures,15 harsh rhetoric,16 or unkind remarks. Since God’s word summons all believers to meditate on only that which is pure, true, lovely, and worthy of praise (Phil 4:8), and since we are called to faithfully “speak the truth with love” (Eph 4:15 ERV), it is vital that the “conversation” concerning truth and falsehood be done in a compassionate and Christlike manner.

Critical Biblical Principles

In 1997 one third of all adults in the United States of America believed that in our contemporary society “‘lying is sometimes necessary.’”17 Just the year before it was reported that “‘ninety-one percent confess that they regularly don’t tell the truth.”18 As a result of a nationwide survey, a well-respected researcher concluded that, “‘America appears to be drowning in a sea of relativistic, nonbiblical theology. We are living amid the dilution of traditional, Bible-based Christian faith.’”19 It is against this backdrop of living in a non-absolutistic culture, that the Scriptures portray a community of believers “who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus” (Rev 14:12).20

Therefore, if we are to accurately ascertain whether or not it is ever appropriate to lie to save life, it is absolutely imperative that a hermeneutically reliable investigation be done of this issue in the Bible. The Psalmist says that, as a “lamp on my path” (Ps 119:105 CJB), God’s Word provides guidance for making correct ethical decisions. In parallel fashion, the well-known passage in 2 Timothy 3:16, 17 indicates that “all Scripture is given by God and is useful” for “showing people what is wrong in their lives,” and “for teaching how to live right” (NCV).21 As Ellen White observed: “God will have a people upon the earth to maintain the Bible, and the Bible only, as the standard of all doctrines and the basis of all reforms.”22

Furthermore, while all doctrinal truths are to be found in Scripture, its central focus is Jesus Christ; for as He Himself noted, the “Scriptures tell about me!” (John 5:39 ERV). Indeed, John the Beloved, reminds us that the very reason he recorded the story of Jesus, was so that “you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:31). This is ultimately the central purpose of all of the Bible, including the narrative portions – to point to Jesus Christ, who is the Savior of the world, as well as the Lord of all life; One, who not only reclaims and redeems from sin (John 1:29), but One who also reforms and transforms the sinner (2 Cor 5:17). Thus, only when all of Scripture is seen as focusing on the Savior, can it be appropriately understood and correctly applied.

In almost every discussion of ethical issues the question of “legalism” is raised. Thus, we must briefly consider the matter of obedience here. In his theological treatise to the Christians in Rome, Paul categorically declares that human beings are “justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law” (Rom 3:28). Then, he asks: “Does this mean that we do away with the Law when we put our trust in Christ?” (Rom 3:31a NLV). Compellingly Paul states: “Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law” (Rom 3:31b NIV). This identical concept can be recognized from the manner in which the Ten Commandments are articulated in the book of Exodus. First, and foremost, God reminded His people: “I am the Lord your God. I led you out of the land of Egypt where you were slaves” (Exod 20:2 ERV). Only then, after God had established that it was He who had freed them from bondage, did He lay down His ethical expectations. Thus, God first redeems, then He requires; He saves people, then tells them how to serve Him and others. Clearly, this is not legalism! The one who has been delivered from sin, will live in conformity to God’s moral mandates. As Jesus noted in John 14:15 (NIV): “If you love me, you will obey what I command.” This precise sequence of “love” preceding obedience is already evident in the Decalogue itself, where God promises to show mercy to those “who love Me and keep My commandments” (Exod 20:6). Ellen White concurs, saying:

We do not earn salvation by our obedience; for salvation is the free gift of God, to be received by faith. But obedience is the fruit of faith. . . . If we abide in Christ, if the love of God dwells in us, our feelings, our thoughts, our purposes, our actions, will be in harmony with the will of God as expressed in the precepts of His holy law.23

Before addressing the specific concern of truthtelling in exceptional situations, one other vital element needs to be highlighted, and that is, the issue of Scripture stories. Even a casual review of the Old and New Testaments reveals irrefutably that “biblical narrative is replete with realistic figures seen in all their human frailty.”24 For example:

Literary scholars have long noted the amazing transparency of biblical portraits. Samson’s carnality, David’s lust, Solomon’s political and religious compromise or Elijah’s cowardice in running from Jezebel are all presented with remarkable forthrightness. . . . There was no attempt to hide the human frailty of biblical heroes.25

While it is true that characters such as Elisha and Daniel model perseverance and faithfulness in the face of tremendous pressure,26 “God, not the biblical heroes, is magnified throughout.”27 This adoration is nowhere better exhibited than in the book of Judges, where “every victory wrought is a triumph of God and of the faith of those who place their trust in Him.”28 Thus, rightly understood, Bible stories are to bring praise and honor to the God of the universe. In brief then, special care needs to be taken in the reading and interpretation of the chronicles of the Word of God, so that God is glorified, and not frail and often faulty human beings.

Having thus established that all deliberations on moral matters must be thoroughly Christ-centered, solidly Bible-based, and appropriately applied, we will now proceed to examine the question of using deception in order to avert death.

Exerpt from Ron du Preez's book Morals for Mortals. See book for end notes.