1. Meaning and related words. The sin of making an untrue statement or acting in such a way as to leave a false or misleading impression, esp. with the intent to deceive. (1) “A false witness that speaketh lies” (
2. Characteristics of lying. Lying is everywhere condemned in the Scripture. Satan is designated as the source of lies: “When he [the devil] speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it” (
3. Problems. No doubt can be entertained that the Scriptures bear uniform testimony to the absolute wrong of lying. Several problems arise, however, as to the degree of condemnation of untruth under certain circumstances. Sometimes even good men become enmeshed in lies: e.g. Abraham (
Paul wrote that God will cause the deceivers to be deceived in the last days (
These examples, however, point up ethical questions relevant to present conditions. Is there such a thing as a lie of expediency? Does the situation sometimes remove the stigma of sin from the lie? Can a physician in all good conscience give temporary relief to a dying patient by telling him he will recover? Can a husband seek to protect his wife and family from the assaults of a marauding criminal by lying about their whereabouts? Do the conditions of war justify the soldiers’ or the spies’ use of untruth or the government’s misrepresentation of the facts to the world or to its own people?
Those who maintain that truth is relative, shifting with the change of time and place, are naturally inclined to deny anything absolute about the condemnation of lying. Each instance, they insist, must be judged upon its own merits, whether it is acceptable or to be condemned. The law of love and the impulse of self-defense can justify untruth in some situations is their claim. Contextual ethics (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “What Does It Mean to Tell the Truth?” in Ethics ) and koinonia ethics (Paul L. Lehmann, Ethics in a Christian Context , pp. 124ff.) oppose the absolutist’s position (Immanuel Kant, “On a Supposed Right to Lie from Altruistic Motives,” in Kant’s Ethical Writings, ed. Lewis E. Beck ); but to do so, they attempt to assume the place of God in judging the intentions and principles involved in each situation. The Scripture, however, does teach the existence of absolutes, but under extenuating circumstances allows for a middle ground between absolute right and absolute wrong where only God can declare the wrong or right of a deed. It seems obvious that He would take into consideration: (1) Is the statement of an untruth deliberate? (2) Is it given with a calculated intent to deceive? (3) Is it intended deceit for the malicious purpose of bringing misery upon another or for the selfish end of one’s own advantage? (4) Are the character and intent of the one to whom untruth is directed basis for such measures in defense? (5) Can the polite untruth demanded by etiquette be differentiated from the morally unjustifiable lie? It is impossible to say that lying is ever right, but certainly the situation may make it less wrong on some occasions than others.
4. Consequences. The penalties for lying are severe. At times there is the recoil of the evil upon the liar (
Connected with the idea of a lie are those who live a lie or convey a lie—a false brother (