Is it ever ok to lie? Bonhoeffer on Truth-telling and Deception

images-1Is it ever morally permissible to tell a lie? On one end of the spectrum we find the philosopher Immanuel Kant, who argues that it is never, under any circumstance, permissible to lie. To lie, according to Kant, would be to act in a way that is less than rational (hence, less than human) and to treat others as a means instead of an end. On the other end of the spectrum, the situational ethicist, the relativist, and the ethical egoist, may argue that lying is morally permissible at anytime and in any situation, given the desired outcome.

Add God into the mix, and it would seem that we ought to side with Kant on this, albeit for different reasons. In the gospel of John we learn that Jesus is “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14) and that lies come from the pit of hell: Satan himself is described as the Father of lies (John 8:44).

The Christian then, it would seem, should not lie.

The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer disagrees.

Bonhoeffer thinks God’s standard of truth entails more than merely “not lying.” Rather, to be true to God in the deepest way means being obedient to God, not merely conforming to “rules”—a kind of blind legalism. He believes there are situations where it is not only morally permissible to lie, but obedience to God requires it. And so he lied, involving himself in deception after deception as he conspired against Hitler and the Nazi’s in WWII.  (For an excellent book on the life of Bonhoeffer, see here; for an exploration of the implications of Bonhoeffer’s theological convictions for our culture, see here).

Many agree that Bonhoeffer was right to lie, given the circumstances. Our intuition is that it is morally permissible to lie in order to save an innocent life. But, how do we make sense of this ethically? Does this mean all moral judgments are relative?

I don’t think so. Rather, we need to realize that there is a hierarchy of values that is relevant to moral decision-making. Truth telling is a high value, a value that entails we ought not to lie. Unless a higher value trumps it. And in Bonhoeffer’s case, there was a higher value: saving innocent lives. Thus, lying was morally permissible for Bonhoeffer. And in following God’s call, it was a mark of his obedience to a God who cares for the well-being of all.










9 Responses to Is it ever ok to lie? Bonhoeffer on Truth-telling and Deception

  1. You should give consideration to other passages of Scripture which speak about lying such as: Proverbs 22:12, Proverbs 6:16-17, Proverbs 17:7 and Proverbs 19:5 & 9.

    • says:

      Hello Bill,

      I don’t think that Bonhoeffer would, nor would I, argue that lying is permissible in normal circumstances. It is morally wrong…except when it comes into conflict with a value that is higher than truth-telling, such as the saving of an innocent life. I am sure we could list passages in Scripture that command Christians to care for the oppressed, and to protect innocent life. So, the question is, what to we do when these two commands (not to lie, to protect innocent life) come into conflict? I think the view I suggest is a plausible way to deal with those times. I hope that helps a bit! warmly, Paul

  2. I guess the problem I would have with this is how it can be abused.

    I’m a Mormon Studies Scholar and I’ve seen Mormon Leaders use this type of situational ethics, or if you prefer ” hierarchy of values” to justify lying to members of their own church and those investigating their church as a “higher value”. The examples of this are seemingly endless in Mormon culture, encompassing nearly every strata of Mormonism.

    So while this may sound good in theory, in practice it’s problematic.

    Thank you.

    • says:

      Hello Fred,

      This is interesting! I think that you are right, the view can (and unfortunately, has) been abused. I am sure this is the case with any ethical system or ethical decision making procedure, however. What that shows is we must humbly seek God and his word as we deliberate about how we should live. Thanks for sharing, I am saddened to hear how the Mormon leaders have used this kind of thinking to justify deceiving their members, etc. warmly, Paul

  3. Dragonsage says:

    I believe the “Christian” response to this would be that you should NOT lie…ever.

    From the Pagan point of view, go ahead and do it if it harms none.

    This guy seems to be taking the idea from the Pagan perspective, but omitting the very important part of “harm none.”

    To call yourself a “Christian” and still go about telling lies is quite hypocritical.

    • says:

      Hello Dragonsage,

      I think the point at issue is just what the Christian position is. Bonhoeffer and other Christians who lied to protect Jews and defeat Nazism during WWII are only hypocritical if they go against Christian teaching. I suggest that Bonhoeffer did not in fact do so. Then again, the Christian will be the first to admit that we are often hypocritical. Speaking for myself, I often do the thing I know I should not do. This is exactly why we need God’s grace and mercy. warmly, Paul

    • Rob says:

      @ Dragonsage

      I think you might be missing the point that Christianity isn’t always about rules but the intent of the heart (both Jesus and Paul taught this). We can sin ignorantly and God will not charge us (also taught in the Old Testament). Also, we can commit a “wrong” act and mean it for good and God judge us according to our intent and not our action. With Bonhoeffer it was keep rule A and break rule B or keep rule B and break rule A. Whichever way he turned he would have been sinning. You could say he chose the lesser of the two evils. He hated lying, he repented of it, but it was for the greater good. Loving his fellow man trumped any other rule in Christianity or Judaism.

  4. Jonathan Covington says:

    Thank you, Mr. Gould, for bearing out Bonhoeffer’s dilemma and subsequent choice. He was in a pressure-cooker indeed. Is not God’s grace promised for such situations?

    I would remind detractors of Jesus’s admonition to the Pharisees – rule-keepers if ever there were – that they “pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith … ” (Matthew 23)

    Further, the Ten Commandments prohibit false witness, not lying per se. The matter is perfectly clear when we consider that it is the well being of the neighbor at the heart of it.

    As I see it, the Mosaic Law is less about what not to do than it is about whom not to hurt.

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