Telling the truth versus telling a lie is oftentimes presented as a black and white issue: one either speaks truth or a lie, there is no in between. With this tertium non datur comes the inherent morality behind it: truth is always good and lies are always bad. While this simplistic model may serve pedagogical purposes, it does not hold water in the real–world practicum. Truth–telling can, in certain contexts (e.g. betrayal), do as much harm as telling a lie.

Nontruth–telling is morally permissible and sometimes the morally good thing to do depending on the context, motives, and intended consequences of the action.[1] Although this is partly situation–dependent, this is not situational ethics—the idea that laws can change depending on situations. The thesis will be established by examining Norman Giesler’s overview of ethical systems, gleaning from the biblical witness on lying, and gaining insights from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s unfinished essay on the topic.

Norman Giesler actually uses lying as the illustrative ethic when defining various systems. He begins the discussion by considering two ethical situations involving lying: Nazi Germany while Corrie ten Boom is hiding Jews and the Hebrew midwives lying to protect Hebrew babies (Ex. 1:15-19). He lists the various perspectives on the issue as: “Lying is always wrong: there are many nonconflicting laws,” (unqualified absolutism); “Lying is forgivable: there are many conflicting laws,” (conflicting absolutism); “Lying is sometimes right: there are higher laws,” (graded absolutism).[2]

Giesler then turns to Augustine, Kant, and Murray’s unqualified absolutism and notes positives and negatives. One positive behind unqualified absolutism (lying is always wrong) is that it trusts in God’s providence. Their thought is God will always provide a third way out in ethical dilemmas.[3] Giesler critiques that a lie cannot be defined without intention.[4] His critique of conflicting absolutism (lying is wrong, but forgivable) focuses on the life of Christ. Christ must have faced moral dilemmas where, “both alternatives were sinful.” He argues that if Christ never sinned then either Heb. 4:15 is incorrect or disobeying a lesser law (when two conflict) is not sinful.[5]

This settles Giesler in graded absolutism—lying is sometimes right when obeying a higher law. John and Paul Fienberg also commend this graded system in Ethics for a Brave New World. They agree with Giesler that in conflicting situations disobeying the lesser law is not sin. However, they disagree with Giesler that the hierarchical structure of the law is set in stone, “Nor are we certain that if one did construct a hierarchy, it would be applicable to every situation, regardless of the factors involves in each case.”[6]

The above systems lack nuance by assuming nontruth–telling is always wrong. This would be like assuming sexual intercourse or killing is always wrong in any context. Christians do not have to justify a sexual relationship in the confines of marriage as being justified because of some “higher law.” Rather, this act within the right boundaries is ontologically good. Human behaviors and appetites have boundaries in which they are good and can transgress those boundaries to become immoral. Nontruth–telling is another behavior that can exist within good boundaries (e.g. writing a fiction novel) or transgress those boundaries (e.g. bearing false witness against your neighbor).[7]

The ninth commandment prohibits bearing false witness against your neighbor. The text does not say, “Do not lie,” or, “Always tell the truth.” Rather this is set specifically in a courtroom, “Where another’s well–being is at stake.”[8] David Jones lists numerous examples when nontruth–telling is presented as wrong and just as many where it is not explicitly condemned. He concludes, “The ninth commandment addresses malicious nontruth–telling, not the telling of all nontruths.”[9]

Dietrich Bonhoeffer adds important considerations in his unfinished essay What is meant by “Telling the Truth”?. He maintains that truth is absolute, “A truthfulness which is not concrete is not truthful before God.”[10] He states that telling the truth—the real expressed in words—is something that must be taught rather than assumed. Paul himself qualifies telling the truth by a love ethic (Eph. 4:15). Bonhoeffer further qualifies truth–telling by differing boundaries within different human relationships. Just as the sexual relationship is confined to marriage, truth–telling is graduated by differing human relationships. “Speech between parents and children is, in the nature of the case, different between speech between man and wife, between friends, between teacher and pupil, government and subject. . .”[11]

Bonhoeffer critiques the unqualified absolutists by presenting a hypothetical cynic who claims always to speak the truth:

He dons the halo of the fanatical devotee of truth who can make no allowances for human weaknesses; but, in fact, he is destroying the living truth between men. He wounds shame, desecrates mystery, breaks confidence, betrays the community in which he lives, and laughs arrogantly at the devastation he has wrought and at the human weakness which “cannot bear the truth.” He says truth is destructive and demands its victims, and he feels like a god above these feeble creatures and does not know that he is serving Satan.[12]

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics

In certain contexts, truth–telling can be just as harmful as nontruth–telling. Nontruth–telling is morally justifiable within proper boundaries. Unjustifiable lying is that which contradicts, “the word of God, which God has spoken in Christ, and upon which creation is founded.”[13] Although this definition sounds purely theological, its implications are far more practical. God has created the world with metaphysical, ontological, and ethical realities (i.e. natural law). Unjustifiable lying is nontruth–telling which destroys God’s intended creational realities; whereas, nontruth–telling is justified when it seeks to uphold and affirm these same realities.

[1] Because the term “lie” is oftentimes associated with sin, rather than attempting to redefine or reorient the semantic range, this paper will use “nontruth–telling” when affirming the ethical practice.

[2] Norman L. Geisler, Christian Ethics: Contemporary Issues and Options, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2010), 20. Given the space and scope of this essay, only absolutism positions will be considered because of the Christian’s commitment to the Word of God. Moral relativism is rejected by evangelical presuppositions. Cf. Steven B. Cowan, The Love of Wisdom: A Christian Introduction to Philosophy Steven B. Cowan, James S. Spiegel (Nashville, Tenn.: B&H Academic, 2009), 369.

[3] Norman L. Geisler, Christian Ethics, 72.

[4] Norman L. Geisler, Christian Ethics, 75.

[5] Norman L. Geisler, Christian Ethics, 94.

[6] John S. Feinberg and Paul D. Feinberg, Ethics for a Brave New World, 2nd ed. (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2010), 36-7.

[7] This argumentation while taking some different nuances essentially follows the argumentation from David Jones. David W. Jones and Daniel R. Heimbach, An Introduction to Biblical Ethics, B and H Studies in Biblical Ethics (Nashville, Tennessee: B&H Academic, 2013), 192.

[8] Jones and Heimbach, An Introduction to Biblical Ethics, 190.

[9] Jones and Heimbach, An Introduction to Biblical Ethics, 192. Emphasis added.

[10] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, Touchstone ed. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 359.

[11] Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 358.

[12] Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 361.

[13] Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 364.