It’s never right to deceive someone or some persons with malicious intent. Exodus 20:16 reads, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (ESV). And so you should never provide false legal testimony against your countrymen. It hurts society and dishonors God.
But what about hiding someone’s surprise birthday party? What about pretending Santa is real? What about feints in warfare (2 Sam 2:22–25)? What about protecting someone from a murderous mob, that is, to hide a Jewish person from the SS in WWII Europe? Is it ever right to mislead another person?
Added to this, is it a lie to be wrong? In other words, if you give directions and say “turn left” but you should actually turn right. Did you lie? In this case, we use the category of mistake. But this opens up an interesting possibility: You can speak an untruth (go left) that misleads someone (they go to the wrong location) and yet not be a liar, a sinner. You just made a mistake.
So, are there other occasions when it is okay to mislead someone?
God as the Standard
Our ethics must be grounded in the character of God as he is revealed in Scripture. Otherwise, we will fall victim to cultural consensus. So, does God ever deceive? And if so, how does he remain sinless if all kinds of deception are sin?
Part of the answer to these questions involves distinguishing between wicked deception and divine delusion. In 2 Thessalonians (vv. 9–12), the apostle Paul distinguishes between “wicked deception” and divine “delusion”:
The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness. (ESV; italics added)
The lawless one by the activity of Satan uses “wicked deception,” and this deception works on those who “refused to love the truth.” As a consequence, “God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false.” But God is not simply deluding people without cause. Here, he confirms the unbelief of those who refuse the truth. To those who refuse, he deludes. He does not first delude, causing people to refuse the truth. They did this first.
So, God appears to confirm someone’s incorrect appraisal of truth. But that doesn’t quite equal God deceiving people who would otherwise be neutral. He seems more like he lets people go off their own way. He hardens their heart after they harden it themselves.
How Does God Delude?
If God deludes people who already reject the truth, how exactly does this happen exactly? The book of Kings provides a great illustration of what this looks like in practice. The prophet Micaiah tells king Ahab that God has sent deceiving spirits to inhabit the king’s prophets to send Ahab to his doom. 1 Kings 22:19–23 reads:
And Micaiah said, “Therefore hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left; and the Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ And one said one thing, and another said another. Then a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord, saying, ‘I will entice him.’ And the Lord said to him, ‘By what means?’ And he said, ‘I will go out, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ And he said, ‘You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do so.’ Now therefore behold, the Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the Lord has declared disaster for you.” (ESV)
Ahab was a bad king who rejected God’s prophet, and in 2 Kings 22 he put Micaiah into prison. So God allows a spirit to carry out his will by becoming a lying spirit. And this lying spirit empowered false prophets that sent Ahab to his doom (2 Kings 22:35).
Again, God does not initiate harmful action against some good person. Instead, God uses delusions (in this case, a lying spirit) to judge those who reject the truth.
When someone denies reality long enough, God uses that denial and enforces it as a form of judgment.
Is This Lying?
Is what God does lying? Categorically not. We believe in a God “who never lies” according to Paul (Titus 1:2). So how do we resolve the seeming conflict between a God who never lies yet deludes and sends lying spirits?
The answer is that you need to define the sin of lying scripturally. According to Exodus 20:16, bearing false witness is wrong. It is therefore wrong to legally harm another person falsely. According to 2 Thessalonians wicked deceptions are, ahem, wicked. This means that you should never teach a false Gospel when you know the truth. You should never intentionally deceive people who have yet to make up their mind about the truth.
It seems clear that lying is a malicious action that harms others. But it seems okay to mislead evil people for a good end (see 1 Sam 16:1–5). This is not lying. God does it, and he never lies. It therefore cannot be lying.
The Nazi at Your Door
You have three jewish children hiding in your home. The SS guard comes to your door and asks, “Are you hiding Jewish persons?” What do you answer? To me, it’s clear. You somehow mislead them. You say, “Come and see” even though you know that they are hiding in the walls of your home. You let the Nazi see the household but never mention the secret hiding place within the walls. You do something.
If you say, “Yes, and I will show you where they are” and do so. You are an accomplice to murder. And that’s bad. So don’t do that.
Lying includes malicious intent. So, go ahead and hide the surprise birthday party from your spouse and pretend Santa is real. Military feints where you intentionally deceive the enemy falls outside of the category of lying (2 Sam 2:22–25) but requires a robust understanding of just war theory to know when it’s okay to go to war and do a feint!
In the end, you need to ensure that your definition of lying doesn’t make God a sinner. That’s blasphemous. God can delude and allow people to be mislead. We can do likewise, but we must never lie. Truth is a cardinal Christian virtue. And lying is always wrong, always a sin. God never lies. Neither should we.