Does / can God lie?

I have heard it said, in relation to evidence of an old universe, that God could create in an instant, anything he wanted, and give that thing the perfect (yet false) appearance of being very old. (For example, electromagnetic radiation that appears to have taken tens of thousands of years to reach our telescopes, but apparently was set propagating through space more recently, carefully set up to falsely look just like it originated from a source 30,000 light years away.)

To me as a new Christian this is a very unsatisfactory suggestion, because it implies in effect that God is a liar.

My impulse is to think He could (being omnipotent) but doesn’t (being the author of morality, false witness being a key issue.) But, that’s just my hunch. I ought to have a better grounding than hunches.

I am still but a babe, but I thought, one of the attributes that distinguished Jesus from all other men is that he was sinless. I thought God, possibly by definition, is is sinless. And I thought He was pretty clear that bearing false witness is a sin.

I’m guessing this is a question good people have mulled over before, and reading their thoughts on it would help me better walk with Jesus.

8 Likes

Not all Lying is Sin and it can be Good
I am not convinced every lie is evil or sinful while I do believe that in most cases, bearing false witness is a sin. Too often we take a statement and apply a wooden literalism to it. I think Jesus painfully showed that compassion and a common sense application of the law is always better than a wooden literalism. The question is why are you doing it?

If I were hiding Jews in my attic and I told the gestapo there were no Jews in my house, am I sinning or doing what is right? I mean that should end the discussion right there. Clearly a lie can be a morally good thing depending on the circumstances. But in most cases, using it to cheat a neighbor out of something, cheat on a spouse or as a witness to punish someone who doesn’t deserve it is bad.

I find the universe being created with the appearance of age unsatisfying but I don’t agree it makes God a liar. The truth is Genesis 1-3 is mythology. Trying to make a myth history forces people to make absurd apologetics harmonizations. We might as well say the earth was made two minutes ago. All this to pretty much justify the historicity of a fairy tale. There are three different creation accounts in the Old Testament that all borrow from surrounding mythology. Their truth is theological, not fact-literal scientific.

Jesus appears to have lied
Also, despite all the mental gymnastics and apologetic ingenuity, the Gospel of John does seem to present Jesus as lying. But since its virtually impossibly for most Christians to imagine this occurring, there will always be a slew of excuses or attempts to explain it away:

John 7:10 But after his brothers had gone to the festival, then he also went, not publicly but as it were in secret.

Jesus could have just said I will go alone but he didn’t and ended up going and teaching anyway IIRC. I won’t say it doesn’t bug me but in the end I am not sure what to make of it. It is John’s reframing of Jesus so I guess that softens it a bit for me. But in the end what Jesus did may be understandable. He didn’t hurt anyone. He wasn’t doing it to make money or anything like that. He just needed to do his own thing for a bit.

The OT commonly depicts God using a spirit of falsehood
Sure there are places which say that God does not lie (Numbers 23:19, 1 Sam 15:29, Tit 1:2, Heb 6:18). Many Church fathers and contemporary Christians think it is utterly impossible for God to tell a falsehood. It seems to me this philosophical reasoning is clouding our interpretation of God as the Old Testament does seemingly portray God as lying and/or engaging in deception in multiple instances:

With Moses and the Pharaoh Exodus 3:16-22. In Deuteronomistic History (usually in battle): 2 Sam 17:14, 1 Kgs 22:19-23, 2 Kgs 6:15-20, 7:6-7. Purpose to offer sacrifice or anoint a new king? Is Saul the victim of divine deception? (1 Sam 16:1-5.)

John Anderson in Jacob and the Divine Tricker wrote the following (pg 20):

“Esther Hamori has recently argued for the presence of a much more robust tradition in the Hebrew Bible associated with the ‘spirit of falsehood’. She isolates a complex of eight texts–five of which directly refer to the tradition (1 kgs 22:19-23; 1 Sam 16:14-23; 18:10-12; 19:9-10; Judg 9:23-24; 2 kgs 19:7; Isa 19:13-14) and three of which evoke the tradition or display knowledge of its existence (Isa 29:9-10; Job 4:12-21; Hose 4:12-5:4)–that depict the ‘spirit of falsehood’ as coming from YHWH, often in the form of a deceiving messenger from the heavenly court. Out of this aggregate of texts, seven of the eight see the spirit of falsehood as originating from God. Hamori has deftly shown that the biblical tradition equating the deity with falsehood and deception is more widespread than many interpreters have recognized.”

I grabbed Harmoni’s article from the Catholic Biblical Quarterly (2010) and it states that all eight instances show God bringing “destructive justice through deception to those who are already in the wrong.”

Maybe that softens it a bit but apparently divine deception can have altruistic motives and may fit into Divine Justice. Much of the OT does not have a problem with God using deception to serve his purposes if he so desires.

I have no issue with God lying if He thinks it serves His will. If Jesus felt he needed to go somewhere in secret for a while and thought his brothers would have gave him away, that is his prerogative.

Vinnie

2 Likes

And Rahab lied to protect the Hebrew spies from their pursuers. And for that, she ends up commended in the Hebrews “hall-of-fame”.

2 Likes

Mmm, yes, sounds familiar.

I’m still not clear why God would fake an old universe.

Scientists and the Gestapo… I’m not sure it’s valid to draw a comparison… :thinking:

1 Like

I agree with you. The only exception I can think of is accommodation. My daughter is 7, but when she was 4, I would say, “The sun is coming up!”. That’s a lie–it’s not coming up–our Earth is spinning toward it. However, I accommodated to communicate what was the same thing, functionally. The Creation story is a myth that communicates some truths and accommodates to the science of the day. I am not comfortable with it, but it’s pretty skint on details. It would be useless and confusing for God to explain, “the Earth is billions of years old, and I created it this way.” Rachel Held Evans adapts this accommodationist view in “Inspired.” Again, I’m not comfortable with it, and I have a lot of questions to ask God some day about the mess we got into with this nowadays, with good people getting het up about things that don’t matter–but maybe patience will figure things out for me eventually.

2 Likes

Whether it is a valid comparison or not is irrelevant. It provides an answer to the title of this thread and to your statement that “I thought God, possibly by definition, is is sinless. And I thought He was pretty clear that bearing false witness is a sin.”

Lying clearly isn’t always wrong or sinful.

Second, how does creating a universe with an appearance of age constitute lying? Where did God ever say the universe was old but created it with only the appearance of age? That would be lying. You are choosing to see a universe with an appearance of age, due to modern science, as a deception or lie. Maybe God wanted us to have something to discover so though he made the earth in 6 days he made it have the appearance of developing over billions of years. If God chose to create the universe like he theoretically did Adam, that is his business. If God built me a house right now instantaneously I assume it will have a foundation, a frame, wiring and all the other things a house has that are constructed sequentially by humans. I mean, how else do you make it? How do you see the light from very distant galaxies if he didn’t create it in transit? The answer is we wouldn’t. Our ancestors would have barely seen any stars. The closest one to us would have taken four years to show up in the night time sky. God wasn’t lying, he was giving us a beautiful starry host that proclaims his glory. he was giving us an ordered earth with something to study in his great providence. You are choosing to see a lie that does not exist.

Of course I don’t think Adam or the three creation narratives have any claim to historical truth outside the theological realm. I don’t think he did create the universe with an appearance of age and I think the evidence shows otherwise despite hypothetical “what ifs” that no one can verify or falsity directly. But I am not fully convinced it presents God as a liar. I think people can’t otherwise answer the hypothetical “what if” and our desire for certainty forces us to dismiss it as a lie, something impossible for God. I don’t think lying is an impossibility for God nor do I think a universe created in 6 days with the appearance of age is a sin or a lie by definition. Rather, its horrible apologetics trying to justify primitive mythology as fact-literal history and its horrible exegesis, trying to find the purpose of these accommodated narratives outside their theological meaning. Lying it is not.

I think the 8th commandment (to not bear false witness) has a moral dimension to it that can - even should - be considered separately from a “technical” or informational dimension.

I’ll suggest it is a modern perspective to view communication as some sort of neutral transfer of information between two or more people. As such, there are different ways that such communication can be inaccurate. Somebody can be innocently mistaken through no fault of their own (perhaps they were lied to or misled by somebody else whom they trusted). Perhaps they are simply in error from a miscalculation, faulty reasoning, or insufficiently precise communication. Or they can be mistaken through negligence (they didn’t exercise due diligence of checking information, but are otherwise innocent of any malicious intent). Or they can be deliberately misleading for morally culpable purposes (to perhaps cause a miscarriage of justice in their own favor or against someone else.) Or perhaps they are being deliberately misleading for morally laudible reasons, e.g. to save the Jews in their attic from the Gestapo.

I think the 8th commandment does not apply to all those things - but only to the morally culpable sort. For most of us, our consciences have no trouble sorting out which is which - though we initially may manage to deceive ourselves about our own motives. And that is probably the danger that causes the more pious among us to insist that all deliberate misinformation should be condemned. Because we are such masters at crafting self-justifications for ourselves, we cannot be trusted to rightly judge ourselves as to when our inaccuracies and falsehoods are self-serving or not. That is a legitimate concern, hence the conservatively safe “fence” raised to just safely keep us out of the realm of any disinformation entirely. But I still think the difference exists, and what is meant by “lying” (the morally culpable spread of disinformation) is a different and more specific consideration than what our wider net might capture as wrong information today.

1 Like

Very well said!

It’s all so pathetically geocentric isn’t it? Did the trillions of inhabited worlds throughout the universe for the last hundred million years all think the same? I’m afraid so. That God lies for just them, like a populist president.

I guess it depends on what do you mean by a lie. In general with God lying i think it comes down to this.

Did God say something that was not true in order to cover up something he did that was evil or wrong? No I don’t think so.

Did God use fiction? Yes. Fiction is used differently from a lie.
Did God accommodate ancient people by working with what they knew? Yeah. But that’s also different from a lie.

Did God create a young world and give it a old appearance in order to deceive people? I doubt it. There is no theological reason to believe that.

3 Likes

Another point for me is that there are multiple scriptures saying the the nature of God is evident in creation (Psalm 19, Romans 1:19-20) and to have a deceptive Creation would place both God and Scripture in question.

1 Like

Yes, it is. Lying is intentionally hiding the truth for selfish reasons.

Well if you want to redefine the word “lying” or restrict it narrowly that would change things. I am not interested in semantics. Though we could certainly wonder if the spirit of falsehood in the OT meets this definition .

Vinnie

You do not think that intentionality plays any role in sin?

That was my whole point of my hiding Jews analogy. Of course intention matters. I was using lying per the dictionary. You are using a different definition. That would change the nuance of all my comments. Again, semantics.

Can God lie? of course.
Does God lie? I don’t think so.

Lying is an easy solution to a difficult problem. Most bad habits are like this. Taking a short cut and doing things an easy way, which then becomes an addictive pattern of behavior.

A simple alternative is to remain silent and say nothing at all. I reject the notion that staying silent in this way should be considered a form of lying. I see this notion in literature frequently. That when someone hasn’t told you something even for the briefest period, then it is complained that they have been lied to. What nonsense! Where in the world comes this preposterous notion that we have to share everything we know and think with another person if we love and respect them. I think that is ridiculous!

God does not lie because He simply doesn’t have to. He can say nothing at all. After all that is what He does nearly all of the time anyway.

Or how about when you say something which is true but know that those you speak to will understand it incorrectly. Is it lying when you don’t correct them and make sure they understand it correctly. Again… I don’t think so! Isn’t that a deliberate failure to communicate correctly? Not always. Sometimes it is a form of conditional communication… where you only want to communicate something when the person hearing has the understanding and choices required for it.

There is a VERY clear Biblical example of this.

Matthew 13:10 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” 11 And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 12 For to him who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 13 This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. 14 With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah which says:

‘You shall indeed hear but never understand,
and you shall indeed see but never perceive.
15 For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and their ears are heavy of hearing,
and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should perceive with their eyes,
and hear with their ears,
and understand with their heart,
and turn for me to heal them.’

16 But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.

Jesus is making it perfectly clear He not only knows that people will understand Him incorrectly but He is speaking to them in this way because of it. Is He lying? No. It is conditional communication.

some old manuscripts of John’s Gospel have the word yet in John 7:8: “I am not yet going up to this festival”

The immediate context is Jesus’ response to His unbelieving brothers’ sarcastic taunts. As John mentions, His brothers were unbelievers at that time (John 7:5). They were issuing a similar challenge as other nonbelievers (see John 10:24; Matthew 12:38; 27:40) and even Satan (Matthew 4:3–6). Jesus’ brothers told Him to go to Jerusalem, where the crowds were, and put Himself on public display. They were saying, in effect, “If You are who You say You are, prove it in the way we say you should.”

Jesus response to His half-brothers was clear: He was not going to the Feast of Tabernacles with them. Twice, Jesus uses the words not yet (John 7:6, 8). Jesus then makes the point to His brothers that God’s timing is precise. Jesus’ actions are not based on whatever time they seem to think appropriate: “For you any time will do,” He tells them (verse 6). The Messiah will accomplish God’s will in God’s time, not theirs: “My time has not yet fully come” (verse 8).

1 Like

Of utmost importance for believers in Christ is to know our enemy. I know a guy who sells cars like he’s giving away candy to first graders. His secret? He says he knows his competition better than they do.

We have several categories of enemies. The world, the flesh and satan. You are smart. You ask an important question to involve others to seek out their wisdom. There is safety in numbers.

I think it’s more, “to me as a logical person.” It appears the same way to people who have been Christians for a long time.

I’m cool with the idea that not all deception is “bearing false witness” and lying can be morally justified in some contexts. But the idea that God would create a deceptive universe and then insist people not believe the truth that is right in front of their face as some sort of test of faithfulness is ridiculous. It’s the main complaint against “appearance of age” arguments, also known as the “omphalos hypothesis” or “last-Thursdayism” if you feel like searching for prior discussions of the topic here.

Here’s an article by a pastor on the topic:

4 Likes

Thanks everyone for so many insightful and helpful answers.

Well, I don’t know, how far up is the firmament? Only at the height of the clouds? The light travel time would be less than a millisecond.

The premise of my question is the YEC worldview. I reject it, but in my question I entertain it, purely for the purposes of the reductio.

If God thought it good to furnish the heavens with the appearance of deep time (falsely or not), why did He also think it was good to tell a conflicting story in Scripture?

The difficulty I have with that is, I view the physical world along with our capacity to understand aspects of it, as a kind of parallel revelation. Because, God created that world, and He created us, and He endowed us with the capacity to understand (which perhaps is an aspect of being image-bearers).

If His material revelation appears to conflict with His revelation through Scripture, we are faced with only two options. The first option is to take God for a liar, assuming that one or both of His two revelations is not a revelation at all, but a deception. The second option is to gather that human error has corrupted our interpretation of one or both of his two revelations.

Humility, to me, demands the latter option. And, since the material revelation is far more detailed and specific, while Scripture in large part doesn’t actually appear to be trying to teach us about how God Created, the answer seems clear: quit reading the Bible as a science textbook. You’d think we would have learnt that lesson from the Galileo saga, but nope!

1 Like

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

This is a place for gracious dialogue about science and faith. Please read our FAQ/Guidelines before posting.