Morality Ch. 22: Can You Ever Tell a Lie?

Do we criticize the magi for not telling Herod about the baby, as they’d promised? Ananias and Sapphira’s lie got them killed. Is perjury different? Must your yes always mean yes?

I have a personal problem that causes suffering for all my family. They sometimes face endless interrogations and questions of clarification from me, often with increasing exasperation. The problem is that my mind can’t be at peace with conflicting assertions – that is, I have an almost visceral reaction against inconsistencies. I know this isn’t normal, and most people can’t understand what the fuss is about. One side effect of this curious (dis)ability is that I can see how frequently people lie to themselves. However, I have discovered that helping them recognize this fact is rarely welcomed!

We all lie, and this is a normal aspect of being human. Our bodies even highlight our lies to help listeners recognize them. Our blink rate rises, tiny blushes and microexpressions furrow our face, and our vocal cords tighten a little. None of these are distinct enough for certainty, but we subconsciously register any accompanying statements as questionable.

Schools now teach children how to judge the reliability of websites and other sources of information. But sometimes even our cherished guardians of truth fail us. The UK’s communications regulator, Ofcom, fined the BBC for various offenses including rigging elections: the children’s program “Blue Peter” had a cat that should have been called “Cookie” because this got more votes from children than the proclaimed winning name “Socks”; and the vote for the best Bollywood actress was rigged because the winner wasn’t available for an interview.1

President Trump has made us all aware that some people have different concepts of truth. We have gradually realized that he simply isn’t ashamed to be caught lying and even boasted that he made up “facts” during international negotiations.2 But we should admit that he merely does candidly what most leaders do with more subtlety. When official government papers are released after a few decades, they often reveal truths that couldn’t be admitted previously.

Sometimes we just have to lie. Rahab lies to save the lives of the Israelite spies (Josh 2:4-6), but sometimes we feel the need to lie in much less serious situations. A friend of mine met a colleague at a college dinner who appeared to be heavily pregnant, so he said: “Congratulations!” She asked: “What for?” He suddenly realized that she must have simply put on a lot of weight, so he said: “I heard you were offered a lectureship. ... No? Oh, I must have been mistaken.” As he said to me, what else could he do?

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Legal lies and social lies

God clearly takes lies seriously in the Bible. Even pagan prophet Balaam recognizes that God’s very nature is truthful (“God is not human, that he should lie”), and the prophet Samuel agrees with almost identical words (Num 23:19; 1 Sam 15:29). God seems to be incapable of lies, because when he wants to give some prophets a false message, he has to use a lying spirit to do so. That’s how the prophet Micaiah explains the contrary message of his rivals (see 1 Kgs 22:19-23).

Lying is criticized throughout the Old Testament, though there is a clear distinction between social lies (Hebrew kazav) and legal lies (sheqer). The psalmist concludes that all humanity tells social lies, that is, untruths to family or neighbors (“Everyone is a liar”; Ps 116:11). However, legal lies are much more serious, that is, lying as a witness on oath or officially reporting someone’s words wrongly – as when a prophet misreports God’s message (e.g., Jer 5:31; 14:14).

Punishments for lies depend on their motive and effect. If you defrauded someone, you paid back 120 percent of the value, plus a guilt offering for having sworn falsely (Lev 6:1-7). And if you accused someone falsely, then you suffered the punishment they would have received (Deut 19:16-21). So if you lied about them killing someone, you’d get the death penalty. Most seriously, if you lied in a legal setting by making a vow in God’s name, or even by keeping silent, there was no sin offering that could remove your guilt: “he shall bear his iniquity” and “the Lord will not hold him guiltless” (Lev 5:1; Exod 20:7 ESV).

But there is no punishment for social lies. Actually, they aren’t even singled out for criticism in the Old Testament. All the laws and moral injunctions are aimed at legal lies. For example, the ninth commandment outlaws “false witness” – the word translated “false” is sheqer, which refers to legal lies, and this meaning is emphasized by adding the word “witness.” These legal lies are criticized very frequently, but there aren’t any texts that specifically criticize social lies.3 Personally, I find this perplexing.

The New Testament takes lies much more seriously. When Ananias and Sapphira promise to donate to the church money that they receive for a property they sold and lie about the amount, they drop dead. We can see this as a special case because the Holy Spirit has just been given, and it says they had “lied to the Holy Spirit” rather than to church leaders (Acts 5:3). However, it does suggest that truthfulness was being raised to a higher level in the early church. When we get to the end of the New Testament, liars are listed among the murderers and rapists (Rev 21:8; 22:15).

Jesus establishes higher standards with regard to lies, as with many other morals. He warns against anger because it can lead to murder, and against sexual fantasy because it can lead to adultery (Matt 5:21-22, 27-28). In the same chapter Jesus warns against affirming truth with an oath, because this implies you allow yourself to lie on other occasions. “All you need to say is simply ‘Yes,’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one” (Matt 5:37).

In the Jewish world of Jesus’ day, similar oaths to “on my mother’s life” were used, but much more commonly. Making an oath in God’s name was risky – because you had to keep it (see Deut 23:21), so instead they made oaths “by the Temple,” or “by my head” (that is, by my life).4 But Jesus, like some other Jews, thought this was wrong.5 For example, Simeon ben Antipatris (who lived roughly at the time of Jesus) had some visitors and invited them to stay for a meal. They said something like: “By the Torah, we certainly won’t impose on you” – that is, they made an oath on the Bible. However, when Simeon asked a second time, they acquiesced and stayed. So Simeon gave them a meal, and then beat them with a rod for misusing a sacred vow.6

Some people interpret Jesus’ teaching to mean that you shouldn’t take an oath in court. But Jesus wasn’t denigrating oaths – he was teaching that every oath is serious, because it is a promise before God to speak the truth. He was teaching his followers against using unnecessary oaths. They probably asked Jesus: “So how will people know that we are telling the truth?” He said: “All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’” (Matt 5:37). In modern times he would say: “Don’t add ‘really’ or ‘honestly’; just tell the truth every time.”

Everybody lies

The sad truth is that humans do lie, both to others and often to ourselves. We even tell ourselves that we never lie, and yet we compliment an old person on how young they look, an ill person on how well they look, and a young child on how grown up they look. No one is harmed or fooled, and they are pleased with these social lies. We also tell lies to ourselves: we deserve a treat or a rest because we have worked harder than normal, when actually it has been an average day. Depending on whether we are generally optimistic or pessimistic, we tell ourselves that we have certainly done well or done badly, or we are better or worse looking than someone else – when really we can’t know. We are just fooling ourselves.

Social lies can, of course, be harmful, and often intentionally. Our lies can undermine someone’s reputation or confidence and can ruin friendships with others, or they can promote our own reputation higher than warranted. But truths can also be used maliciously and be just as harmful as a lie. The evil of social lies comes not from the lack of truth but from the motive of malice or selfishness with which they are made. And when truth is spoken with that same motive, it is just as evil.

By contrast, legal lies are always harmful. If you tell a lie in court, it is always wrong.

Might an occasion arise when you have to lie to prevent greater harm? The rabbis thought this through and concluded that all the commandments can be broken in order to save someone from death, sexual assault, or forced idolatry.7 So the wise men were right to break their promise to report back to Herod, and you can lie to terrorists and rapists to protect potential victims. This isn’t stated in the Bible, but I think it is very wise.

The command against legal lies (false testimony) is changeless through the Bible, and although it is culture reflecting, it is a universal command. No society could function without it. Surprisingly, there is no command in the Bible against social lies, though I wish there were, because I find any lies difficult to cope with. Instead, humans are contrasted with God: although he is true, everyone else is a liar at some time or other (Rom 3:4).

My problem is that I have difficulty distinguishing between the legal lies and social lies, or harmful lies and harmless lies, without thinking hard. So personally, I recommend an easy practice: simply speak the truth. There are times, of course, when honesty can cause as much harm as a lie, so as an older generation wisely taught: if you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all.

1^ “BBC Fined over Contest Deceptions” (
2^ Trump asserted the US has a trade deficit with Canada and later boasted at a rally that he’d made it up – see Josh Dawsey, Damian Paletta, and Erica Werner, “In Fundraising Speech, Trump Says He Made Up Trade Claim in Meeting with Justin Trudeau” (
3^ Legal lies (sheqer) are criticized in Exod 20:16; 23:1, 7; Lev 6:3, 5; 19:12; Deut 5:20; 19:18; Pss 63:11; 101:7; Prov 12:22; 14:5; 19:5; 30:6; Jer 20:6; 23:32; 27:15; Zech 5:4; 8:17; 13:3; Mal 3:5. There are no specific criticisms of social lies (Hebrew kastav) except on the couple of occasions where the word describes legal lies – i.e., Prov 14:5; Ezek 13:19; Mic 2:11.
4^ See Mishnah Keritoth 1:7 for “by the Temple” (; Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 3a for “By your head” ( For more details, see Jacob Mann, “Oaths and Vows in the Synoptic Gospels,” American Journal of Theology 21 (1917): 260-74 (
5^ Josephus reports that the Essenes thought this way in War 2.8.6 (, and 2 Enoch 49:1 says something very similar to Matt 5:33-37.
6^ Babylonian Talmud Derekh Eretz Rabba 6 (
7^ All commands can be broken in order to save a life except the commands against idolatry, sexual immorality, or murder. See, e.g., Babylonian Talmud Ketuvot 19a (

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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