Is there such a thing as a “righteous lie”?

Is it a always a sin to lie? Is there ever a time when it’s OK to commit a “lesser” sin—perhaps to avoid what you perceive as a much more serious sin?

I think most Christians would answer No to that question. Sin is sin, whether it’s a “big” sin or a “little” sin, right? And even if hypothetical circumstances were to force us to choose a “lesser evil,” it remains a sin and something we should repent of, right?

But does your answer hold if we apply it to one of the most difficult ethical questions imaginable: would it have been ethical for a Christian to lie to the Nazis in order to protect Jews that were being hidden?

Bodie Hodge of the Answers in Genesis ministry tackled that question recently, and you have to give AiG credit for working through what is guaranteed to be a controversial ethical dilemma. But the Christian ethical system should be strong enough to be applied to any situation, and here’s AiG’s attempt to apply it to this question:

Let’s consider again the Nazi-Holocaust situation: there seems to be a conflict in the situation to lie before God to try to save someone else’s life. The result is often called the “greater good” or “lesser of two evils.” […]

Jesus tells us that all the commandments can be summed up into these two statements [Mark 12:28-31]. But of these two, the first is to love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. So, this would trump the second. Our actions toward God should trump our actions toward men.

If we love God, we should obey Him (John 14:15). To love God first means to obey Him first—before looking at our neighbor. So, is the greater good trusting God when He says not to lie or trusting in our fallible, sinful minds about the uncertain future?

Consider this carefully. In the situation of a Nazi beating on the door, we have assumed a lie would save a life, but really we don’t know. So, one would be opting to lie and disobey God without the certainty of saving a life—keeping in mind that all are ultimately condemned to die physically. Besides, whether one lied or not may not have stopped the Nazi solders from searching the house anyway.

There’s much more to their answer than just what I’ve excerpted above, so read the full answer at Answers in Genesis. AiG is taking a beating in the blogosphere for their answer, but I think it’s never a bad thing to think through even a controversial question like this as logically as possible.

Answers in Genesis’ essay seems to boil down to this: since we never know with absolute certainty how the future will play out, it is not our place to judge that one of God’s commands (“Don’t bear false witness,” in this case) is less important than another. And secondly, if we are forced to choose, we must give priority to God’s command to serve Him above all else.

I’d like to hear your reaction to this answer, and how you personally would answer this question. But here’s a few follow-up questions to consider while you think it through:

  • Do you agree that Mark 12:28-31 establishes a hierarchy between the two “greatest commandments”?
  • Can you think of any examples in Scripture where somebody committed a sin “for the greater good,” and God indicated His approval?
  • I am guessing that most of us (well, speaking for myself, at least) instinctively feel that lying would be acceptable in this scenario. Is AiG’s answer missing the spirit of God’s commandments, or are we failing to think biblically enough when presented with this dilemma?
  • What do you think?

    32 Responses to “Is there such a thing as a “righteous lie”?”

    • Barbara says:

      Was it a righteous lie when Rahab lied to the king about the spies she was hiding? She told him they had left and she did not know where they went. They were hiding on her roof. Yet Hebrews 11 says she did not perish along with those who were disobedient because she welcomed the spies.

      • Andy says:

        That was the first thing I thought of too, Barbara. Here’s how the author of the above article addresses that:

        What’s your reaction to that essay?

        • Barbara says:

          Verrry interesting. I used to ask my students when I taught at a Christian school why God uses imperfect people. The answer: because that’s the only people he has. That includes me. I think I would have a hard time telling the authorities if I knew where innocent people were hiding. But as the first article pointed out, that wouldn’t necessarily stop them from looking. God is the only one Who can protect us in evil times. That’s a good thing to remember in the time we live in.
          I don’t know why God loves me, but I am so glad He does. That’s what I will share around the Thanksgiving table tomorrow.

    • Larry says:

      A unjust request does not require an just answer.

    • Laura Victoria says:

      I have never interpreted the 9th Commandment as a blanket prohibition against lying. It prohibits bearing false witness against your neighbor. It is a false accusation about someone else designed to either get them in trouble or place them in a false light. Is it a sin for a husband to say, “no honey, that dress doesn’t make you look fat.” The only broadening of the reading of the Ninth Commandment that makes any sense is to extend it beyond the court room. A poor argument that takes its initial assumption as a given without any analysis at all. The Nazi lie is not a false witness against anyone.

      The practical argument these justifiably excoriated folks give is equally absurd-we don’t know with certainty what the end result will be. No we don’t, but we do know it will increase the odds of success. Why should I keep my eyes open and my hands on the steering wheel when I drive since that won’t guarantee I won’t have an accident, after all, it is in God hands ultimately, right? Why should any action we take be based on a guarantee of success? That is a Barack Obama style logical fallacy of using the false alternative (the guarantee)when the real goal is to increase the chances of saving a life.

    • Angela says:

      1. The most memorable situation in the Bible, to me, regarding an untruth is the story of Rahab. She told a blatant lie to protect the spies and scripture says that it was counted as righteousness for Rahab. It is believed that she went forward and became part of Christ’s lineage.

      2. Isn’t what the commandment really says “Thou shalt not bear false withess against another?” That’s a big difference.

      • leo says:

        how about your son just witnessed a gang member killing someone and later that evening your son is in his room and the gang comes to the door and asks if your son is home and you know why there there? lets be honest now!

    • Patricia says:

      Rehab lied and so it goes… I dont believe she was condemed in any way for that?

    • es says:

      Before we can determine whether its a righteous lie or not, we gotta search out the word lie ; definition-a lie is anything that deviates or perverts the truth, and we as believers must know and believe that there is only One Truth and His name is Jesus. So a lie is anything that deviates or perverts the name of Jesus?

    • dustin says:

      I believe that Joshua 2 woiuld be a good example of when an outsider hides a Hebrew for the greater good. Rahab was justified according to James in James 2 by hiding the spies. She also told a lie to mislead the forces of Jericho in doing so. How is this not the same thing?

    • Bruce Rounthwaite says:

      Just 2 things;
      Tit 3:9
      Luk 12:11

    • Bruce Rounthwaite says:


    • Thomas says:

      I hear the words from Matthew telling me to let my yes be yes and my no be no. This passage reflects a trustworthy person, even if it is not a direct comment on lying. As for Rahab, think of David and Abraham who were certainly considered righteous by God. Did God approve of Davids gross sin or the lies of Abraham concerning the identity of his wife? I do not believe so. But consider that those events were not why these men were considered righteous. We generally praise the Father showing us how God saw beyond the sinful nature of David and how wonderful for us that even with such sin events David could go on to be considered righteous! I put the lie of Rahab in the same basket and agree with the essay above that her lie is not the reason for her rightousness.

      This is a fine example of how we too often read more into scripture than is actually there and miss the fine truth therein.

    • laina says:

      Exodus 1. could be beneficial to this. (:

    • yes; look at the story of Noah and how his one son saw him naked and went and told his brothers and was cursed by his father for exposing hsi father’s deed. There are times ( when led by the holy Spirit ) that we should not tell a truth to others but remain silent, which may be considered a lie…

    • Ed says:

      Well, If the author of this article opened the door and I was hiding I would be dead and he would not be guilty before the LORD? What kind of priorities are those? They sound selfish to not care for others more than yourself. I would have to try and PROTECT the people in hiding. I believe God would justify that decision, especially given the Rahab story.

      • adrian says:

        Yes we should help and protect those in need, especially those trusted to us. However we can ask for God’s help so we do that in a righteous way. Rahab could have chosen to say “i know where they are but i will no tell you”

    • Kevin says:

      Look at the difference between what God said to Moses and what God told Moses to say to Pharaoh about the children of Israel leaving Egypt. Looks like God didn’t think it was a good idea to tell Pharaoh the whole truth about the Israelites leaving Egypt forever.
      Telling Nazis that you are hiding Jews sounds like something a Pharisee would do in his misguided idea of righteousness. A BAD lie is something done to selfishly benefit yourself. Lying to get someone else in trouble would fall into that category too. To lie to save lives or prevent serious harm, especially at significant risk to yourself, would be courageous and commendable.

    • James says:

      I believe that in certain circumstances that it is ok to commit what we see as a lie. Rahab did this and the bible states in James 2 that she was considered righteous not for her relationship with God but for her treatment of the spies. Righteous in it’s simplest form is to do RIGHT in a situation, so she did what was right.

      Also i can’t for the life of me locate where it is but i do also remember in Exodus i believe that the midwives were ordered to kill every frist born male but yet they didn’t and they hid them from Pharoah and that too was part of God’s plan and he prospered them for it.

      Jesus even when confronted about healing on the sabbath said what is better that a man should be left sick just because of the sabbath or he should be healed. The spirit will always be greater than the law.

    • abel cantarell says:


    • Diane E. says:

      There are times that we don’t owe an explanation to others and it can be considered personal or for protection of a person’s life. It isn’t necessarily a sin of ommision to not tell everything you know about everything asked of you. It also may not be a way around the truth to get a certain result. We don’t always need to tell everyone everything because it isn’t always necessary or even right to tell all things. I just have a sense that some things can be said in a way that is all that needs to be said and it isn’t always considered a lie or a sin of ommision. If we told the truth about everything that would not be logical. We would never leave anything out and we would be talking forever about one situation and it just isn’t always expected to tell everything that we know depending on personal or maybe other reasons we haven’t even thought of yet. It’s not wrong to protect someone from being killed. Don’t forget about, Thou shalt not kill. Saying certain things aren’t necessarily a person’s business. The German’s were doing wrong and does anyone consider that what they were doing were wrong? We look at what they do as not wrong. It is wrong to ask someone to give information so they can go ahead and kill the people you are protecting. I’m not saying that I’m correct about this. I’m using what may be right and I thought I’d put it in here for others to consider. I don’t believe anyone should ever deny Christ if asked to do that. That is one thing we should be boldly and upfront about because the Lord loves us and we should not deny him by saying we don’t believe or love or worship him because someone will kill us if we do. We should be humbly glad to boast of our love and loyalty and being a child of God and trusting in him for our salvation. We should not give a moments hesitation to tell someone we trust in him even if they will kill us if we do. Peter denied the Lord, but Peter was forgiven. We will fail many times. The Lord makes good happen from bad things. It’s not necessarily right to do some of the things that we do and it may not be wrong. Sometimes the mind of the Lord can go past our understanding and before we go to Heaven, we will never understand everything and we will mess up till that day we join our Lord in Heaven. I want to say again, I don’t know if I’m totally correct about everything I’m saying here. I’m just giving my thoughts on this particular subject.

    • Daniel says:

      I agree with Barbara’s example of Rahab!

    • rachael says:

      i understand that there is a wise lie and a lie. but wisdom is important if we lie with wisdom then is it cinsidered a lie?

    • Josh says:

      Someone else already pointed it out.

      Exodus 1:15Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16″When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.” 17But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live. 18So the king of Egypt called the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and let the male children live?” 19The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” 20 So God dealt well with the midwives. And the people multiplied and grew very strong. 21And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families.

      Because the midwives feared God, they lied to Pharaoh and God dealt well with them and blessed them with families because they did the right thing. God certainly didn’t bless them because they sinned.

    • L Doyer says:

      Does anyone remember reading the book called “The Hiding Place” by Corrie Ten Boom? It dealt with this very topic. A family was hiding Jews and one sister said she would hide them, but would refuse to tell a lie. A special trap door was built in her kitchen and when the Nazis came, the Jews hid there. A solder asked her if there were Jews in her house and she said “yes they are under the table” The solders looked, didn’t see anyone, and she just laughed. The soldiers went away annoyed, and the people were saved. The rest of the family (who had special rooms built as well) were angry with her for not lying, but she replied that she prayed for protection and could not lie. She knew God would take care of all of them. Some of these other family members ended up in concentration camps for helping Jews after they were caught telling lies, others were not.Corrie was the only one captured to make it out of the camps alive, but she was a powerful witness for Christ while she was there. I feel God wants us to obey His laws and there are consequences when we don’t, but He also forgives our sin when we ask Him. He even uses our disobedience to bring about a greater good in many situations, and for all this, I give him all the praise and honor I am able to offer!

    • John C. says:

      I don’t think God really cares too much unless it hurts other people. Otherwise “I’ve got your nose.” would be a sin, and I think that a loving God would not condemn fathers to hell for playing with their children. In the case of Nazis and Jews, I take more of a Deist idea than most, I don’t think that God actively protects us,but rather that he helps those who help themselves and helps us through other people who have received his love and message.

    • James says:

      Does the Bible say specifically “thou shalt not lie?” It says “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” So isn’t the whole premise of this discussion based on a misconception of God’s commandment which when propogated becomes a LIE?

      • Leisa says:

        Revelations 21:8 says “…all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone;” I think that pretty much says that God doesn’t like lying.

    • Neil says:

      How about simply we try to be like God, and it says: “God, who cannot lie?”

      i’ve wrestled with this a lot; we’re supposed to have childlike faith, not be legalistic, trust in God, etc.

    • dave says:

      I would lie if you call it lying because it is not a lie but if I say “yes they are here” it is committing murder! Why do I say it is not lying because they were looking for “Jews” which is to say “not a person” but I have a Jew/s a person/people in my house, you understand. I ask you : If your WIFE is here tell me & I will kill you & rape her & kill her with your children watching then cut they eyes out so the last thing they see is that. So are they there? So YES or no?
      Yes lying is WRONG yes but stuid is WRONG. So if you are in a war you tell the enemy your plans if they ask? Please THINK!

      Hebrews31 By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient. (this is not a lie to her people?)

    • korvin says:

      So many thoughtful responses! I still wrestle with this question after more than 30 years. Some Scriptures comes to mind. Firstly Jesus instructs us to be “as wise as serpents, harmless as doves”. We might draw an example of this from the way He often answered questions with questions etc. The examples cited above: L. Doyer’s ref to Corrie’s “truth” telling (is lying a sin but deceiving not? did not Corrie deliberately “deceive” with her laughter?), Rahab, the Jewish midwives – to my mind are all examples of God-given wisdom to Spirit led people. And then there is Jesus’ explanation (right to do good) for healing (working) on a sabbath.