Is All Deception Unjust And Therefore Lying?

The Bible says God hates “lying lips,” but there are also stories, such as Rahab helping the Israelite spies, where lying seems to be a good thing. So is lying sometimes okay?

If lying is defined as “unjust deception,” then it is always wrong. David sings against “lying lips” since such are connected with “pride and contempt” and are “against the righteous” (Psalm 31:18), and in Proverbs, “a lying tongue” is connected with things like “hands that shed innocent blood” (Prov. 6:17). In both cases of lying, we have deception paired with a selfish motive or a motive that elevates the self’s interest more than it should be elevated. Since the elevation of the self above its proper place is against justice, it is something God, as the source of justice, obviously hates (Prov. 12:22).  

Nevertheless, is all deception—every instance of actively or passively communicating what is not true—unjust and therefore lying? Rahab deceives the men of Jericho in order to save the lives of the Israelite spies, and certainly the outcome of this is good; indeed, she is praised not once but twice in the New Testament for helping the spies (Heb. 11:31 and James 2:25). Since her motivation here seems to be in service of justice (to save innocent lives and help those who are of the LORD’s party), one could argue that this is an example of “just deception”—what Plato calls gennaion pseudos (“a noble lie”) or what some in the Latin Christian tradition have called mendacium officiosum (“a dutiful lie”).

Following Augustine, Calvin argued against many classic cases of “just deception,” largely on the ground that truth—which is intimately connected to God—is always a good thing. Yet unless we assume that all deception is lying, we may have instances where, at the very least, communicating the truth conflicts with righteousness. Could we plausibly imagine God allowing basketball players to “fake out” their opponents? Authors using pseudonyms? Actors playing a part? If yes, then we might have instances of deception—communicating what is not the case—without necessarily having instances of injustice. If no, then we are still in good company with Augustine and Calvin.

About the Author

Adam Barkman is a professor of philosophy at Redeemer University College.

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