Should we always tell the truth, even when life is at stake?

She was a Christian—a Seventh-day Adventist Christian. She believed Jesus loved all people. She wanted to be like Him, and loved nothing more than to live a quiet life and be of loving service to those who needed it most. But it was no ordinary time. Hitler’s army was marching across Austria, and his Gestapo was hunting for the Jews. Her love put on wings of compassion and gave shelter to Fritz, a 12-year-old boy. Nothing wrong with that, except he was a Jew. One day, the dreaded Gestapo knocked at her door and confronted her with a direct question: “Mrs. Hasel, do you have Fritz in your house?”

What should she say? Should she tell the truth and let the boy be sacrificed? Or should she mislead these murderers? The life of an innocent child was at stake! What would you say if you were in that situation?

The predicament may seem remote, but everyone is frequently confronted with the temptation to be less than honest: to exaggerate an athletic accomplishment; to submit a “book report” based on merely a fraction of the required reading; to plagiarize material for a research assignment; to utter innuendos intended to impugn another’s character; or to doctor numbers to enhance one’s status.

To some, this question of truth-telling has become a troubling issue. For example, what should a professor do when a former student who was not very reliable requests a recommendation? To avoid being sued by either side, Robert Thornton suggests a totally ambiguous response. If someone was constantly negative, one could say: “His input was always critical.” If the person was best suited for janitorial work, one could state: “If I were you, I wouldn’t hesitate to give him sweeping responsibilities.” To describe a candidate likely to foul up any project, one could say: “Whatever he undertakes—no matter how small—he will be fired with enthusiasm.”1 William Lutz refers to this form of communication as “doublespeak”—a language that is “designed to make lies sound truthful.…to distort reality.…[to] make the bad seem good, the negative appear positive.”2 Jerry White astutely observes: “We practice deceit when we lead someone to believe a lie, even though we may be speaking true words.”3

Telling the truth: What does it mean?

What does it mean to “tell the truth”? As a high school student I understood this phrase in a rather narrow and strictly “literal” sense. I was careful never to utter a lie (“lying lips are an abomination to the Lord,” Proverbs 12:22, NKJV4), but I had no qualms about misleading someone by a well-timed shrug of the shoulders, or by the question, “How should I know?” Later I learned that the same book that condemned verbal dishonesty also castigated non-verbal deception. A liar is one “who goes about with a corrupt mouth, who winks with his eye, signals with his feet and motions with his fingers, who plots evil with deceit in his heart” (Proverbs 6:12-14, NIV). Sissela Bok notes that this “intentional manipulation of information” can be done “through gesture, through disguise, by means of action or inaction, even through silence.”5

It is true that the ninth commandment, “’You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor’” (Exodus 20:16, NIV) is legal in nature, specifically forbidding malicious perjury. However, the Bible throughout its pages repeatedly condemns deception in a broad sense, thus indicating that this prohibition should not be limited to merely judicial cases. For example, Leviticus 19:11: “’”You shall not steal, nor deal falsely, nor lie to one another.”’” Or Zephaniah 3:13, speaking of the remnant: they will “’speak no lies, nor shall a deceitful tongue be found in their mouths.’” Or Paul’s admonition to put away lying (Ephesians 4:25), and speak “the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). Or John’s emphasis that there will be no liars in the New Earth (Revelation 21:8, 27; 22:15).6

Absolute honesty: Is it necessary?

As one reads through the Bible, it becomes evident that the Scriptures insist on total truthfulness and absolute honesty under all circumstances. John Murray states, “The Bible throughout requires veracity; we may never lie.”7 Augustine cautions, “Nor are we to suppose that there is any lie that is not a sin.”8 And Ellen White warns, “Falsehood and deception of every cast is sin against the God of truth and verity.”9

Furthermore, truth-telling is not merely an external issue. The Bible says: “Deceit is in the heart” (Proverbs 12:20; cf. 6:14, NIV; 23:7; Jeremiah 17:9). Jesus points out in the Sermon on the Mount that all sin really begins in the mind, before it finds expression in acts (see Matthew 5:21, 22, 27, 28). Therefore, as Bok rightly notes, deception is “that which is done with the intention to mislead”10 Thus, “an intention to deceive is what constitutes falsehood.”11

Bible stories: What do they tell?

Naturally, the question arises: What about all those Bible stories where people used deception for so-called worthy causes? Shiphrah and Puah, the two Hebrew midwives, misled the Pharaoh concerning the baby boys they had been commanded to kill (Exodus 1). Rahab lied about hiding two Israelite spies (Joshua 2). Are these stories “examples,… written for our admonition” (1 Corinthians 10:11a; cf. Romans 15:4)? Some have claimed that “it seems difficult to avoid the conclusion that these were God-approved examples of how He wants us to behave in similar moral conflicts.”12 If that is so, lying to save life is perfectly legitimate, and is morally the right thing to do.13

But is this what 1 Corinthians 10:11 is actually saying? The verse is really a summary of the preceding passage, in which Paul reminds the Corinthian Christians, “Now these things became our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted” (1 Corinthians 10:6). Then Paul selectively enumerates some of these evils, such as idolatry and sexual immorality (vss. 7, 8), together with some of the judgments meted out by God (vss. 8-10). Clearly, then, far from suggesting that people should emulate the actions of Bible characters uncritically, 1 Corinthians 10:11 is calling on all to avoid the transgression of God’s moral requirements, which includes the command to refrain from all deception.

Some have noted that the Bible nowhere directly condemns Rahab or the Hebrew midwives for their falsehoods. However, careful study of the Scriptures reveals that a lack of any direct condemnation of actions is no indication of the rightness of the deeds performed. For example, there is no recorded condemnation of the incest involving Lot’s daughters. Since the older daughter had a son named Moab, who became the ancestor of Ruth, and ultimately of Jesus, should one conclude that this incestuous act was a good thing?

God is faithful: He keeps His own

It is vital to note that, immediately following 1 Corinthians 10:11 comes Paul’s reminder that “God is faithful,” and He “will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it” (vs. 13). In other words, God will never permit anyone to be in a situation where that person is forced to practice deception; there will always be a morally correct way out of the problem. Ellen White tells us that, though each person is a free moral agent whose loyalty must be tested, “he is never brought into such a position that yielding to evil becomes a matter of necessity. No temptation or trial is permitted to come to him which he is unable to resist.”14 Indeed, God’s summons is, “’that they would fear Me and always keep all My commandments’” (Deuteronomy 5:29); for, “His commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3), and the believer “can do all things through Christ” (Philippians 4:13).

So, what is a Christian to do when faced with a life or death emergency? What did Mrs. Hasel say when asked whether she had Fritz in her house? Trusting in God to bring about the best results, she looked the soldier straight in the eye and said: “As an officer of the German army you know what your responsibility is, and you are welcome to carry it out.” With the culpability of the evil of his action now fully on his shoulders, the Nazi turned on his heel and left that home undisturbed.15

Such accounts of uncompromising faith linked with radical obedience can be multiplied. Consider for instance, another World War II story—this one from Poland. Mrs. Knapiuk and her daughter Marion were living in a room when a Jewish girl being chased by German soldiers dashed in and hid under the bed. Now, they were well aware of how dangerous this could be, for in the adjacent house a bakery owner and his daughter had been arrested and taken to a concentration camp because he had sold bread to a Jew. Mrs. Knapiuk was a woman of great faith, but since things happened so fast, she had had no time to think about what to do. So she sat down at the table, opened her Bible, and started to pray and read. When a German soldier barged in, he immediately recognized what she was reading. He uttered only two words—“good woman”—and promptly left the room.

Consequences: Are they to be weighed in?

Twentieth-century stories such as these remind one of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and their uncompromising loyalty. While these three Hebrews knew that God had the power to deliver them from the fiery furnace, they informed King Nebuchadnezzar that, even if God chose not to rescue them, they would still remain faithful to Him (Daniel 3:16-18). Commenting on such unswerving allegiance, Ellen White observes: “True Christian principle will not stop to weigh consequences.”16

That seems to be our problem when confronted with life or death dilemmas—we attempt to project what would happen, if…, and then we make decisions based on these speculations. Erwin Lutzer perceptively states: “We want to be like the Most High, subject to none. But can we calculate the eternal results or the rightness of our actions? We cannot predict even the next five minutes, much less the future.”17 Ellen White counsels: “Christ’s ambassadors have nothing to do with consequences. They must perform their duty and leave results with God.”18

How then should we make moral decisions? In the book of Revelation, Christ states: “Do not be afraid of what will happen to you.…But be faithful, even if you have to die. If you are faithful, I will give you the crown of life” (Rev. 2:10, ICB). “In deciding upon any course of action,” says Ellen White, “we are not to ask whether we can see that harm will result from it, but whether it is in keeping with the will of God.”19 Chuck Colson is right: “What God wants from His people is obedience, no matter what the circumstances, no matter how unknown the outcome.”20 In short, we must make all moral decisions, not out of fear of the future, but by faith in the Father!

Jesus: Our ultimate model

Our ultimate model of morality is Jesus Christ. Peter not only points out that we are “to follow in His steps,” but specifically notes, “nor was any deceit found in His mouth” (1 Peter 2:21, 22, NASB). To put it more directly, Rahab is not our ethical example. That status must forever be reserved for our sinless Saviour. Indeed, believers “must live as Jesus lived” (1 John 2:6, NCV).

Thus the answer to the initial question, “Should we always tell the truth?” is found in one unequivocal scriptural proclamation: “Never lie to one another” (Colossians 3:9, CJB). For, “lying is of the devil; it is the work of darkness” (See John 8:44).21 This uncompromising commitment to veracity is possible only “because you have stripped away the old self, with its ways, and you have put on a new self which will progress toward true knowledge the more it is renewed in the image of its Creator” (Colossians 3:9, CJB, 10, NJB). Echoing this perspective of the indispensability of a dynamic relationship with Jesus Christ, Ellen White notes that “we cannot speak the truth unless our minds are continually guided by Him who is truth.”22

Jesus is really the “secret” to this entire issue of truth-telling! For, “those who have the mind of Christ will keep all of God’s commandments, irrespective of circumstances.”23

Ron du Preez (D.Min., Andrews University, Th.D., University of South Africa) teaches theology and ethics at Solusi University, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. He is the author of Polygamy in the Bible (Adventist Theological Society, 1998) and of many articles. His e-mail address:

Notes and references

  1. See Robert Thornton, Lexicon of Intentionally Ambiguous Recommendations (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988).
  2. William Lutz, Doublespeak (New York: Harper & Row, 1989), pp. 18-20.
  3. Jerry White, Honesty, Morality & Conscience (Colorado Springs, Colorado: NavPress, 1979), p. 56.
  4. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture passages are taken from the New King James Version (NKJV). Other versions used are as follows: New International Version (NIV); International Children’s Bible (ICB); New American Standard Bible (NASB); New Century Version (NCV); Complete Jewish Bible (CJB); New Jerusalem Bible (NJB).
  5. Sissela Bok, Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life (New York: Vintage Books, 1978), pp. 9, 14.
  6. For more on the biblical definition of deception, see Ron du Preez, “A Holocaust of Deception: Lying to Save Life and Biblical Morality,” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 9 (1998)1-2:202-205.
  7. John Murray, Principles of Conduct: Aspects of Biblical Ethics (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 1957), p. 132 (emphasis added).
  8. Quoted in Bok, p. 34.
  9. Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1948), 4:336.
  10. Bok, p. 9; cf. pp. 6, 17.
  11. Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1958), p. 309.
  12. Norman L. Geisler and Paul D. Feinberg, Introduction to Philosophy: A Christian Perspective (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980), p. 417.
  13. See, for example, Ibid., p. 425; Norman L. Geisler, The Christian Ethic of Love (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1973), p. 75; Geisler, Ethics: Alternatives and Issues (Grand Rapids: Zondervan , 1971), p. 136. For a comprehensive response to these theories see Ronald A. G. du Preez, “A Critical Study of Norman L. Geisler’s Ethical Hierarchicalism” (Th.D. dissertation, University of South Africa, 1997).
  14. White, Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 332.
  15. Dr. Gerhard F. Hasel shared this story at an Adventist Theological Society meeting in November 1994.
  16. Ellen G. White, The Sanctified Life (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 1937), p. 39.
  17. Erwin Lutzer, The Necessity of Ethical Absolutes (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1981), p. 75.
  18. Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1950), pp. 609, 610.
  19. White, Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 634.
  20. Chuck Colson, Loving God (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1983), p. 36.
  21. Murray, p. 128.
  22. Ellen G. White, Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing (Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1956), p. 68.
  23. White, The Sanctified Life, p. 67.