Is It Ever Morally Permissible to Deceive? (Or Is It OK to Lie to Nazis?)
There are three main conditions under which deception is morally permissible.
by Paul Copan
About 12 years ago I was lecturing in a philosophy class at a university in Indiana, and a student asked me: “Is it morally permissible to deceive Nazis at your door if you are hiding Jews in your basement?”
He continued: “If you say ‘yes,’ then this means that, on your view, ethics is relative and based on circumstances. On the one hand, Christians like you say it’s wrong to deceive, but then in this situation a lot of Christians will say it’s okay to deceive to save a life. But if you take that perspective, you are basically undermining universal morality — a view that insists on objective moral standards that are true for all people regardless of the circumstances.”
Was this student on track in his thinking? How should we respond to this kind of question? Does the Bible — in addition to rational reflection — give us any guidance about dealing with ethical conflicts like this? Is deception ever permissible? If it is, does this undermine universal moral truths?
Getting Our Bearings
From the outset, let’s consider some important points.
First, Scripture affirms the trustworthiness of God. God is true (Romans 3:4). He is faithful and keeps His promises (Deuteronomy 7:9). And He hates lying lips (Proverbs 12:22). Jesus calls himself “the truth” (John 14:6). Indeed, the being who qualifies as God would have to be worship-worthy and, therefore, trustworthy rather than faithless.
Second, some duties are absolute and inviolable — that we should love and worship God — and God would never command us to hate Him or to worship a God-substitute. Nor would God command us to rape someone or torture babies for fun. Although God’s commands in Scripture are sometimes difficult, God would never order us to do what is intrinsically evil (Jeremiah 19:5).
Third, philosophers make a distinction between absolute duties and prima facie (Latin: “on first appearance”) duties. This is helpful as we read Scripture as well. All things being equal, moral demands — such as, “Keep your promises” or, “Do not deceive” — are generally binding for all people (prima facie). We are generally to tell the truth and “not withhold good from those to whom it is due” (Proverbs 3:27).
But — note well — such duties are not absolute and without exception. For example, it is generally wrong to take innocent human life. However, what if terrorists hijack a plane to use as a destructive weapon to fly into a building full of innocent civilians? Is a president who orders the passenger plane with innocent people on board shot down morally justified?
If a woman has an ectopic pregnancy (a fertilized egg trapped in a fallopian tube), both she and the unborn baby will die unless this young human life is removed. Unfortunately, the child will not survive either way. In this case, is it better to spare one human life rather than lose two?
Fourth, deception, which is generally wrong, is likewise morally permissible in cases of supreme emergency, as when Nazis are hunting down innocent Jews. Not all Christians agree on this point. However, I believe we can make a reasonable, biblical case. In my forthcoming book An Introduction to Biblical Ethics: Walking in the Way of Wisdom (IVP Academic, May 2014), my co-author and I go into more detail on this topic. For this article, I’ll sketch out the case for why deception is morally permissible under certain specific conditions warranted by Scripture.
Fifth, this view assumes that there is a hierarchy or an ordering of moral duties. For example, some loves are more important than others. Loving God is more central than loving family members, and when loving family members comes into conflict with Christian discipleship, the follower of Christ should express greater allegiance to Christ (Matthew 10:37). And while we should love the stranger in our midst, we have a greater obligation to care for family members, whom God has entrusted to our care (1 Timothy 5:8).
When is deception permissible? There are three main conditions under which deception is morally permissible.
1. Inconsequential Social Arrangements
After a long walk with two unknowing friends to Emmaus, Jesus acted as though He would go on, though He did not intend to do so (Luke 24:28,29). This was not deception. Rather, Jesus was displaying modesty; He didn’t force His presence on His two friends. Rather, He gave them opportunity freely to invite Him in.1
Also, Jesus instructed His disciples to use “makeup” of sorts so as not to appear as though they had been fasting (Matthew 6:17,18). Keeping such information private — between you and God — is not sinful.
We also assume a degree of deception in light, everyday social arrangements. When we tell jokes, deception is often involved — deception that makes the punch line especially funny. Quarterbacks in football and pitchers in baseball routinely deceive; the better they are at deception, the better they perform in a game. This is simply part of the mutually agreed upon arrangement in participating in such sports.
Even in our greetings, we don’t tell everything about our psychological condition to people who ask us, “How are you?” Typically, there’s no expectation on the part of the friendly greeter to receive from us a detailed clinical description of our inner state. And we shouldn’t assume full disclosure in such circumstances is essential to maintaining our integrity. In fact, if we did tell everything, people would simply stop asking, “How are you?”
So we have some biblical evidence — as well as the support of common sense considerations — that furtiveness is permissible when it comes to such inconsequential social arrangements.
2. Deception in War
War, by its very nature, calls for an array of available weapons, including psychology and stealth. God himself waged war this way. In Joshua 8:2, God told Joshua to set an ambush. God also set an ambush in 2 Chronicles 20:22.
God instructed Moses to send spies — the quintessential form of stealth — into the land of Canaan (Numbers 13:2). Likewise, two Israelite spies went to Jericho, where Rahab hid the spies and deceived the local troops (Joshua 2:2–6). Yet God commended and rewarded her for this act (Hebrews 11:31; James 2:25).
Some argue that God commended Rahab for her faith, not her deceptive activity. Apart from the fact that all three of the relevant passages commend her actions, how is it possible to divorce faith from works?
Paul himself condemns the dangerous mindset of sinning that grace might increase (Romans 6:1,2). It is morally and theologically misguided to say that we may commit a sinful act for a good cause and be rewarded for such “faith.” Don’t sinful acts deserve reprimands rather than rewards — especially when the motivation is as ignoble as self-preservation?
By contrast, Rahab acted in the faith that the God who was with Israel was mightier than the gods of Jericho. In response, she did the right thing by siding with God’s people. In what we might properly call an act of war, her actions and words deceived others. Some argue that the hiding of the spies was acceptable but that she sinned when she spoke untrue words. However, this dubious description of “the sin of deception,” in which words are sacrosanct but actions are not, is both theologically vague and morally inconsistent.
If there can be just wars (and my co-authored book An Introduction to Biblical Ethics defends this view), then ambushes, camouflage, spying, deceptive strategy, communicating in code, as integral parts of such wars, would also be legitimate.
3. Deception in Opposing Criminals
Another area where deception is biblically (and perhaps philosophically) permissible is in resisting a criminal or an enemy in war.
Here we come to the classic question: Are you morally obligated to tell the Gestapo at the door that you are harboring Jews in your cellar?
We answer, “No.”
Consider Sophie Scholl, a committed Christian and university student who was an active participant in “The White Rose,” a German resistance movement during World War II.2 She and her friends devoted their lives to exposing Nazi propaganda and lies by quietly publicizing the truth to her fellow Germans. The Nazis captured Scholl and her brother on February 18, 1943. Under interrogation, she sought to deceive her captors to protect her innocent comrades-in-arms. She refused to say anything that might endanger her friends. Few would question whether she did the right thing.
We have similar scenarios in Scripture. The Hebrew midwives resisted an ungodly and oppressive regime through civil disobedience and deception. The result was that “God was kind to the midwives” and “gave them families of their own” (Exodus 1:20,21). How can it be said that their faith was good and their subversive activity bad? Or how can it be said that their disobedience was good and their deception bad? The Bible does not make those distinctions. It simply says that God rewarded them.
The philosopher Immanuel Kant insisted that if an ax murderer is running after someone and asks where the threatened person went, you are morally obligated to tell the would-be murderer the truth if you know it. If the criminal finds his target and kills him, you bear no guilt in the matter, according to Kant.
Kant argued that if we universalized deception, and everyone did it, lying would be pointless. Because of this, Kant concluded deception is always wrong. Philosophizing aside, it makes good biblical and rational sense to allow deception in certain exceptional contexts — when thwarting criminal activity, for instance.
God suggested diversion could be used if necessary (1 Samuel 16:1–5). God had told Samuel to anoint a king, and Samuel replied that if the jealous, ruthless, and irrational King Saul heard of it, he would kill Samuel. So God gave this advice to him: “Take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord’ ” (verse 2).
Because Saul was a standing threat to various innocent lives, he had forfeited the right to full or even partial disclosure of what Samuel was doing.
King Ahab’s own steward Obadiah, whom the Bible describes as a devout believer in the Lord, foiled Jezebel’s plan to kill all the prophets by hiding 100 of them in caves (1 Kings 18:3,4). Through civil disobedience, he spared the lives of these men of God.
What about in today’s world? If a homeowner, away on a trip, has left a timer hooked up to his light system to deceive potential robbers into thinking that he is home, surely he isn’t sinning. And deceptive police activity is a good thing when needed to apprehend a criminal (for example, sting operations to break up drug or prostitution rings).
When a robber demands entrance to a home or access to possessions or people within, and he can be deflected by deception, the deceiver has not chosen the “lesser of two evils,” for which he must repent. Rather, he has done what is morally permissible.
Note that this isn’t some version of “situation ethics” — that acts are right or wrong based solely on “the loving thing to do” in the situation. Nor is this a matter of making a tragic moral choice — as if somehow both courses of action (deceiving versus letting an innocent person be murdered) are wrong. Rather, deception is generally wrong except where Scripture permits or advocates it, which is also very much in keeping with reason. These three reasons are inconsequential social arrangements, war, and criminal resistance. In the instances cited, God himself took such action, commanded it, or is said to have approved of those who did.
Some Concluding Remarks
As we make moral judgments, we must think holistically about them. Not only can acts themselves be right or wrong (e.g., the act of rape or baby torture is always wrong), motives can render an act good or evil. For example, two acts can be identical, such as two grandchildren visiting their grandmother in a nursing home. However, their motives for visiting may be quite different: One grandchild visits his grandmother out of love, while the other wants to have her name included in Grandma’s will.
Another consideration about moral actions is the character of a person, which is the fountain from which virtuous (or vicious) actions flow. Good trees produce good fruit, and bad ones produce bad fruit (Matthew 7:16–20). And as we have seen, the Scriptures cite examples of God-fearing persons whose lives are marked by integrity, out of which comes an occasional deception to protect innocent life. Deception does not characterize their lives, but evil persons can undermine the proper place for truth telling.
In the wise words of ethicists Glen Stassen and David Gushee: “Those … who are threatened and oppressed may be permitted in times of moral emergency to suspend truth telling temporarily in some contexts in order to honor central covenant obligations — and to work clandestinely, if necessary, for a just and peaceful public square in which truth may be freely spoken once again.”3
Note that I am not making exceptions here based on what is merely “loving and reasonable”; rather, these exceptions come from Scripture itself, which serves as a safeguard against rationalization and corruption of character.
We have also seen that when it comes to truth telling and deception, we must not only consider the act itself, but the character, motive, and context (such as warfare or criminal activity) involved.
Now, in defending deception in certain circumstances, I’m not inviting loopholes to, say, justify lying when you’ve gotten yourself into trouble. An adulterer who rationalizes that he is preserving his marriage by not telling his wife of his betrayal is misguided. As the late Christian ethicist and theologian Lewis Smedes pointed out: “[This] would turn adultery itself into its own justification for lying. Since adultery always threatens to destroy a marriage, lying about it is almost always required to save the marriage. So the offense itself guarantees the ‘right to lie.’ The irony is too great.”4
Again, this topic of the moral permissibility of deception is certainly a debated one; godly, fair-minded believers may understandably disagree. The fundamental issue here is that the triune God is the ultimate reality that holds all else together. Departing from the truth and living according to a self-distorted reality destroys our own personal integrity and our relationships and leads to death now and in the hereafter. Yet in a fallen world of thug nations and criminals, we see from Scripture itself that deception may be necessary to protect innocent lives — until this is no longer an issue when Christ returns, our mortal bodies are raised, and we share in the new heaven and earth in which righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:13).
1. I. Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 897.
2. Film Sophie Scholl: The Last Days (Zeitgeist Films, 2005), starring Julia Jentsch, directed by Marc Rothemund.
3. Glen Stassen and David Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2003), 388.
4. Lewis B. Smedes, Mere Morality: What God Expects from Ordinary People (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 236–7.