Lying and the Erosion of Truth

The biblical background

The appointment to the Supreme Court in the USA to fill its final vacancy last month brought to the attention of the World a moral sickness at the heart of modern Western, culture – namely lying. An ethicist writes:

"In a society where deceit and falsehood have apparently become an essential part of personal living, trade and industry, advertising, politics and international relationships, Christians are called to demonstrate, in life and word, truth that reflects the nature of God."

So how are we to think about this problem? What for a start is the nature of God? Well, in the Old Testament Isaiah speaks of "the God of truth" (65.16). In the New Testament in John's gospel we read of Jesus saying: "I am … the truth" (14.6). And in the same gospel we read that the Holy Spirit is called "the Spirit of truth" (15.26). Our Trinitarian God is, therefore, the very opposite of the evil one, the devil. For also in John's gospel Jesus describes the devil as having "nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies" (8.44). So we need to resist the temptation to lie. Genesis says the very first sin was the serpent lying to Eve in the Garden of Eden (3.4). Proverbs says: "Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord" (12.22). Paul writes to the Colossians: "Do not lie to one another" (3.9). And in Revelation lying is the very last sin mentioned in the Bible: "as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death" (21.8).

The erosion of truth

This current erosion particularly started in the second half of the 20th century with a secular utilitarian ethic, namely "if it works, it is justifiable". But is it? For example, a lawyer, Charles Curtis thinks so: "I don't see why we should not come out roundly and say that one of the functions of the lawyer is to lie for his client." Hitler, of course, earlier had this ethic in justifying the 'big lie': "the great masses of the people … will more easily fall victims to a big lie than to a small one." Today, of course, the "big lie" comes from the media, not least mainstream broadcasting. This often is by broadcasting or writing just one side of a story, thus communicating a distorted and false message. This is the Pinsky Principle, named after an American Journalist, Walter Pinsky. It says: "if my research and journalistic instincts tell me one thing, my political instincts another … I won't fudge it, I won't bend it, but I won't write it!" But such a culture of lying and misinformation results in a dangerous brainwashing. The remarkable philosopher Hannah Arendt writes as follows:

"It has frequently been noted that the surest result of brainwashing in the long run is a peculiar kind of cynicism, the absolute refusal to believe the truth of anything, no matter how well it may be established. In other words, the result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lie will now be accepted as truth, and truth be defamed as lie, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world – and the categories of truth versus falsehood is among the mental means to this end – is being destroyed."

That is undoubtedly happening in Britain. For, according to opinion polls there is an increase in terms of belief in the "nones" – the people who don't want to commit themselves to any definite worldview including the Christian worldview, in spite of all the evidence for it. But only one-third of those are positively atheist. That is after the media generally, and the government in particular, in health and education, have been pushing an atheistic secularist worldview.

Augustine of Hippo

So with this biblical and historical background, what is the classical Christian doctrine regarding lying? Answer: it comes from Augustine, an early church theologian and bishop. And it was strict. These are his words:

"every liar says the opposite of what he thinks in his heart, with purpose to deceive. Now it is evident that speech was given to man, not that men might therewith deceive one another, but that one man might make known his thoughts to another. To use speech, then, for the purpose of deception, and not for its appointed end, is a sin. Nor are we to suppose that there is any lie that is not a sin, because it is sometimes possible, by telling a lie, to do service to another."

However, there were a few, like Jerome in the early church, who thought there were exceptions to save lives – a lie "is sometimes possible". People, then and since, have pointed to Old Testament examples like the prostitute Rahab hiding the Israelite spies in her roof and lying to protect them (Jos 2.4-6, cf Heb 11.31). However, John Wesley wrote this in support of Augustine:

"If any, in fact, do this – either teach men to do evil that good may come or do so themselves, their damnation is just. This is particularly applicable to those who tell lies in order to do good thereby. It follows, that officious lies, as well as all others, are an abomination to the God of Truth. Therefore, there is no absurdity, however strange it may sound, in that saying of the ancient Father, 'I would not tell a sinful lie to save the souls of the whole world'."

Corrie ten Boom

This was also the view of the 18th century, philosopher Kant. It was also the view during World War II of Corrie ten Boom's sister Nollie. Corrie ten Boom and her two sisters, Betsie and Nollie were remarkable women. They helped in the Dutch resistance movement protect Jews from the occupying Nazis. Both Corrie and Betsie ended up in Ravensbruck concentration camp, but not Nollie. Unlike her sister Nollie, Corrie believed it was right to lie to help the cause. She tells us in her book The Hiding Place that the first time she did so was lying over the possession of radios. She wrote: "I had known from childhood that the earth opened and the heavens rained fire upon liars … But only as I walked out of the building [where she was being interrogated] did I begin to tremble. Not because for the first time in my life I had told a conscious lie. But because it had been so dreadfully easy." Nollie, however, had amazing experiences of God's protection as recorded by Corrie when, against the odds, she told the truth.

Augustine knew of these problem cases. He knew his Old Testament, where deception seemed to achieve good results. He denied, however, that there was such a thing as justifiable falsehood. True, he argued that some lies are worse than others. He had, in fact, an eightfold distinction worked out, with the worst being lies in teaching about God and the least being lies that do no harm but seem to help someone:

"It cannot be denied that they have attained a very high standard of goodness who never lie except to save a man from injury; but in the case of men who have reached this standard, it is not the deceit, but their good intention that is justly praised, and sometimes even rewarded. It is quite enough that the deception should be pardoned, without its being made an object of laudation."

Interesting change

The "new" Roman Catholic Catechism that came out in 1994 included this sentence: "To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead into error someone who has the right to know the truth." However, the 1999 "Definitive Edition" (revised) reads in an Augustinian manner: "To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error." That has omitted the qualification (in italics above). I am sure that is right. Augustine knew that if a good person does lie in an impossible situation, it is not to be seen as a "right action". Rather the whole situation is to be seen as a tragedy. The person should feel guilty, if they lie to save the life of another. But God will forgive the lie, if there is repentance. Augustine thought as he did because he had a clear belief that this life is not all there is. Heaven and hell await. He knew that death kills the body, but lying kills the soul. He argued, therefore, that to lie to save the life of another is a foolish bargain: "Therefore, does he not speak most perversely who says that one person ought to die spiritually so that another may live corporally?" Also Augustine believed in the sovereignty of God. To lie in the hope of helping another presupposes that you are right and there is no other way out.

Nor was it an academic exercise for Augustine. Many of the early Christians were given the opportunity to lie to save their own lives. The question the authorities asked them was: "Do you believe in Jesus Christ?" If they admitted it, they were martyred, often cruelly. If they said, "No!" they were freed. Should they tell or act a lie? Some did. Many did not. They refused to give in to Caesar and the enemies of Jesus. Through their commitment to the truth, the Christian world has enjoyed a culture of truth for centuries. In time this has allowed much to develop and evolve in the West in terms of scientific achievement and democratic institutions. These can only work on a basis of truthfulness.

How, therefore, we need to witness to the truth as it is in Jesus, if we are not to see this legacy unravel because of a new secular tradition of lying.

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