(Josh. 2:4-14) Is it morally right to lie?

CLAIM: The Bible condemns lying (Lev. 19:11; Prov. 12:22; Eph. 4:25). However, God blesses Rahab for lying to the Canaanites that were trying to capture the Hebrew spies. Theologian Wayne Grudem writes,

Nowhere in Scripture is there any verse like this, an explicit approval of a lie, even one told to protect innocent life. There are dozens of statements in Scripture about lies, and they always condemn them.[1]

John Calvin writes of this passage,

As to the falsehood, we must admit that though it was done for a good purpose, it was not free from fault. For those who hold what is called a dutiful lie to be altogether excusable, do not sufficiently consider how precious truth is in the sight of God. Therefore, although our purpose be to assist our brethren… it can never be lawful to lie, because that cannot be right which is contrary to the nature of God. And God is truth.[2]

Augustine writes of this passage,

Therefore, touching Rahab in Jericho, because she entertained strangers, men of God, because in entertaining of them she put herself in peril, because she believed on their God, because she diligently hid them where she could, because she gave them most faithful counsel of returning by another way, let her be praised as meet to be imitated… But in that she lied… yet not as meet to be imitated… albeit that God hath those things memorably honored, this evil thing mercifully overlooked.[3]

Was it wrong for Rahab to lie?

RESPONSE: A number of points can be made:

First, the NT authors believed that Rahab was righteous for this action. James asks, “Was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?” (Jas. 2:25) Grudem notes that James conspicuously omits the portion about lying. However, this passage as well as others (Heb. 11:31) does say that she was justified for this act of faith. By sending “them out by another way,” this implicitly states that she was justified for her strategy.

Second, this moral dilemma was unavoidable. God doesn’t hold us responsible, if we cannot choose otherwise. In cases like these, it is better to pursue the higher good.

Third, the Bible teaches prioritized ethics. Some moral actions are more important than others. Peter and John chose to preach the gospel, rather than obey the human government (Acts 4:19; 5:29). Jesus allowed his disciples to eat on the Sabbath, and he healed on the Sabbath (Mt. 12:1-12; Mk. 2:27-28). Jesus also taught that some virtues are more important than others (Mt. 23:23-24). Moreover, we are told to honor our parents (Eph. 6:1), but we need to honor God above our parents (Mt. 10:37).

Fourth, the reason lying is wrong is because it seeks to hide evil. If lying didn’t hide or promote evil, it wouldn’t be wrong. However, Rahab was not trying to hide evil; she was trying to promote good (i.e. protecting the spies). Therefore, God blessed her for showing incredible bravery and faith. It would be cowardly to tell the Nazis about the Jews—not honest.

We are disappointed with the perspective of these interpreters above. It seems that the focus here is more about the personal righteousness of ourselves, rather than doing what’s helpful for others. This is the height of pious religiosity: Being more concerned about telling a lie, rather than the lives of two other men. Of course, we admire the scholarship of Grudem, Augustine, and Calvin. So, we hope that this critique would not be taken as disrespect, but rather disagreement.

[2] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Book of Joshua, trans. by Henry Beveridge (reprint: Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 47. Wayne Grudem, “Why It Is Never Right To Lie?”

[3] Augustine, Against Lying, 34 (p. 497). Wayne Grudem, “Why It Is Never Right To Lie?”