Lies Told to Bad People
If, as a general rule, it is not a good practice to lie even for the good of others, then is it a good practice to keep the truth from bad people? Is it all right to lie to, to deceive, and generally to keep truth from those who are bad? When two countries are at war, for instance, military messages are encoded for the preservation of secrecy. Keeping the truth from the enemy might save lives. Few of us would argue against such practices. But in our daily lives we might get confused about who is or is not bad. This kind of argument can deteriorate into “anyone is bad who keeps me from getting what I want.” Biblical revelation as our basis for ethics keeps us from such an extreme position, but even Christians can be tempted to justify selfish actions, i.e., others are bad and we are good because God is on our side.
Nations whose goal is the survival, growth and prosperity of their own people will at all costs institutionalize the keeping of truth from other nations. The only exception to this rule occurs when truth telling is beneficial to the survival, growth and prosperity of the nation. Strongly nationalistic countries feel no obligation to speak truth for truth’s sake. In fact, speaking truth for truth’s sake may be considered akin to fraternizing with the “enemy.” All other nations are considered to be to some extent enemies or potential enemies if they have the ability to threaten national security or economic prosperity. Therefore lying or deceit is totally justified. They reserve the right as sovereign nations to preserve their freedom at all costs. So if lying is necessary they will of course do so. But this is growing more difficult in light of the growth of an entwined and entangled international economy.
Lies to Save Lives
If I tell a lie in order to save another’s life, am I justified? Can I lie to save my own life? After all, saving a life seems much more important than telling a lie. Dr. Smedes concludes in Mere Morality, “The value of a person’s life…is so overwhelming that we should lie when lying has a reasonable chance of actually saving the life.” As a rule this appears to be the right course to follow. But there may be exceptions. For example, many Christian martyrs refused to lie about their faith in Christ, thereby choosing death. Should a witness to a murder deny in court what he really saw because he knows his testimony will lead to the conviction and execution of the perpetrator? Sometimes telling the truth will be the only right thing to do even when it will knowingly result in death.
When Dietrich Bonhoeffer set aside his pacifism and conspired as a member of the resistance to assassinate Adolf Hitler, he knew it might cost him his life. But under the circumstances he believed that the death of Hitler would save many lives. Lies and conspiracy resulting in the death of Hitler would be preferable to the way things were. He described the justification of his position in the resistance movement with an allegory: “It is not only my task to look after the victims of madmen who drive a motor car in a crowded street, but to do all in my power to stop their driving at all.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship) Instead of merely caring for the victims of the Madman would it not be wiser to get rid of the Hitler?
All lying and truth telling must be placed in the larger context of God and his interaction with this fallen world. According to Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
“The essential character of the lie is to be found at a far deeper level than in the discrepancy between thought and speech.”
“The lie is primarily the denial of God as He has evidenced Himself to the world. ‘Who is a liar but he that denieth that Jesus is the Christ?’ (I John 2.22). The lie is a contradiction of the word of God, which God has spoken in Christ, and upon which creation is founded. Consequently the lie is the denial, the negation and the conscious and deliberate destruction of the reality which is created by God and which consists in God, no matter whether this purpose is achieved by speech or silence. The assigned purpose of our words, in unity with the word of God, is to express the real, as it exists in God; and the assigned purpose of our silence is to signify the limit which is imposed upon our words by the real as it exists in God.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics)
Bonhoeffer’s participation in conspiracy against Hitler was an attempt to dispel the greatest lie in Germany at that time — the lie of Nazism which was “the denial, the negation and the conscious and deliberate destruction of the reality which is created by God and which consists in God.”