Unraveling the Bible’s Definition of a Lie

Is it ever okay to lie? And what is a lie, anyway?

Borrowed Light
Updated Jun 05, 2024
Unraveling the Bible’s Definition of a Lie

In one episode of Seinfeld, George Costanza instructs his friend with these words: “Jerry, just remember. It’s not a lie if ‘you’ believe it.” Does George have a point here? Of course he is being intentionally deceptive—but what if I actually believe something to be true, though it is falsehood, am I lying?

The Scripture speaks very clearly that bearing false witness is wrong. It made the 10 Commandments. And Jesus referred to Satan as the father of lies. It’s pretty clear that the Bible isn’t pro-lying. But what exactly does it mean by “telling a lie”?

Rahab was not honest when she hid spies in her home, but her act was considered to be morally upright. How do we square this with what the Bible says about not bearing false witness? Is it ever okay to lie? And what is a lie, anyway?

What types of lies do we identify?

Do you remember the Smurfs? Do you remember their language? No, I don’t mean that they were dropping expletives—I mean that they used the word “smurf” to describe about a million different things. It could be used as a verb, a noun, an adjective, and, who knows, maybe even it was an expletive. You could smurf anything.

The word “lie” is similar to the word “smurf.” It has a wide range of uses.

  • A fabrication is what a guy does when he opens up the hood on his car and pretends like he knows what he’s looking at.
  • A bold-faced lie is when everybody knows you’re lying, but you just keep going anyway.
  • A lie to children is not only when you tell them that Santa Claus is real but also when you say, “That man has a boo-boo,” when the medical workers are putting him into a body bag.
  • An emergency lie is when you tell an untruth to protect a wife from her deranged husband.
  • Bluffing is when you’re trying to sell your hand of cards as a winner even though you’re holding an off-suited 2-3-6-9 and an old Topps baseball card checklist that somehow got into the deck.
  • Puffery is when JC Penney says that this is “the biggest sale of the year.”
  • Exaggeration is what your dad does when he tells you about that fish he almost caught.
  • Perjury is when you lie under oath.
  • You can also lie by omission when you leave out a few important details that would change the story entirely.
  • You can also lie by misleading someone, like if you gave a reference for a lazy friend and said, “you’ll be lucky to get him to work for you.”

I could go on and on. As you can see, there are several categories for lying. Augustine divided them into eight categories:

  • Lies in religious teaching
  • Lies that harm others and help no one
  • Lies that harm others and help someone
  • Lies told for the pleasure of lying
  • Lies told to "please others in smooth discourse"
  • Lies that harm no one and that help someone materially
  • Lies that harm no one and that help someone spiritually
  • Lies that harm no one and that protect someone from "bodily defilement"[1]

These are listed in order of seriousness. It’s not that something isn’t a lie if you believe it—but rather, there are more serious forms of lying. Hold onto this thought. We’ll come back to it in a moment. Before we introduce some ethical quandaries, let’s look at how the word is defined in both Hebrew and Greek.

Definition of Lie in Hebrew and Greek

There is really one main word in Greek to describe a lie. The term is pseudos and refers to that which is false or deceiving. You’ve probably heard it thrown around, even in English. For example, “pseudoscience” is fake science. The base meaning is that of deception. It presents itself as something that is real, authentic, and corresponding with reality, but it is actually something else.

In Hebrew, there are a number of words which refer to lying.

  • Ramah means to deceive, and it is often related to speech or deceptive business practices. For example, Jacob’s sons were not honest with Shechem and Hamor because they had defiled Dinah.  
  • Saqar also points to deception, which is related to breaking promises and commitments. You said you’d go to the pool with me at 3 pm, but you lied and never showed up.
  • Kahas is a term that points to relationships and an undependable person. Like, you never show up at the pool when you say you are.
  • Saw is another common word often translated as “empty” or “vain.” It’s the idea of presenting something as real that is a fraud. For example, you grab a Sharpie and sign a baseball card, then try to sell it on eBay as if it’s an authentic autograph.
  • Nasa is what Eve accused the serpent of—lying to lead her astray. The fisherman employs this technique when he hides the hook and dangles the worm in front of the fish.

It might be helpful for us to go back to how the Hebrews had several different words for “lying” instead of only one. But even still, none of them are held up as good practices.

Situations Where Lying Is Condemned

The Bible unequivocally condemns lying in its various contexts. Proverbs 6:16-19 lists lying among the seven things the Lord detests, highlighting its severity. And in Revelation 21:8, liars are among those destined for the second death, grouping them with murderers and idolaters. The destiny of liars is not a good one.

Lying is also condemned in legal and social contexts. The ninth commandment, "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor" (Exodus 20:16), was to be central to the fabric of Hebrew society. This is why the Proverbs speak often of the danger of false balances. And this was one of the things that the prophets spoke so strongly against (just look at how Amos talks about this). Without truth, a society will crumble. This is why, in the New Testament, Paul connects lying to the old man and truth-telling to the one who has been redeemed by Christ.

This unequivocal stance on lying and the unchanging nature of God’s character makes for an interesting ethical discussion.

Does the Bible Ever Condone Lying? 

There are certainly a few instances in Scripture where the Bible doesn’t seem even to consider something a “lie,” which we might consider as such. If you extend that definition too far, you’ll have God encouraging Samuel to tell a lie. Consider 1 Samuel 16:2-3, here God instructs Samuel to be a bit covert—not telling the full truth of his intentions—when he goes to anoint Saul as king.

Similarly, some have really been tripped up over Jesus telling his brothers that he wasn’t going to Jerusalem and then turning around and doing exactly what he said he wasn’t going to do. How is this not a lie? Well, for one, he might have just changed his mind. That’s not really a lie. But it may have more to do with the way in which the brothers wanted him to go. He wasn’t going their way, but it didn’t mean he wouldn’t go at all.

But there is one story that might really trip us up: Rahab and the spies. She is clearly rewarded for her behavior. When they asked her about the spies, she flat-out lied. You cannot get around her saying, “I do not know where they went,” when she knew precisely where they were. To try to escape this reality you’ll need to spin your own yarn to do so.

The Bible clearly rewards Rahab for her lying.

How Do We Answer This Conundrum? 

Part of the answer is to go back to Augustine. And also to understand Hebrew thought. I’m going to open up a can of worms and then just kind of leave it there, though. There is in the OT (and NT) clearly an ordering of sins. As a quick example, notice that Jesus uses this argumentation when He picks grain on the Sabbath (Mt 12:1-8). Or when he heals someone on the Sabbath (Mt. 12:9-14). Something similar is happening here.

You can break a lesser commandment if it means adhering to a greater commandment. But also consider what Jesus says in these sections. As he often does, he goes back to the issues of the heart. It is out of the overflow of the heart that the mouth speaks.

Think about why we might lie. We lie to impress people, to get what we want, to escape consequences, and to keep the peace. Sometimes, we might even lie for false intimacy, obscuring the truth in order to fit in. Or we might have become so accustomed to lying that it is now a calloused habit, and we’re as entrenched as George Costanza in untruth. In such a case we might say that it’s not false because I believe my own lie.

When Jesus confronted the religious leaders he had some pretty sharp words for them.  On one such occasion, he said, “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires.  He was a murderer from the beginning and has nothing to do with the truth because there is no truth in him.  When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”

The only way Satan can be the father of lies is by knowing the truth so well.  What separates the devil from truth is not information but a happy embracing of the truth.  It was true of the religious leaders, and it can be true of us as well. Lying is not a problem of information.  It is a problem of knowing the truth but not liking it.  Lying is an attempt to change reality; and that is to believe the age old lie that we are the center of reality, we are self-sufficient, and that we are in control.  

That is why if you look at all of those definitions of “lying,” you might say that Rahab was a liar. But look at what is happening in her heart. Hebrews 11 tells us. It was a heart of faith that believed in reality. Her heart was true as she spoke words to deceive evil people. The issue is the heart. Her words and actions correspond to reality.

What Is the Biblical Definition of a Lie? 

I have framed all of these questions to get us to this point. How, then, might we define a lie? A lie is when we knowingly say or do something that does not correspond to reality with the intention to harmfully deceive or with the intention of exalting ourselves. The heart is central to defining a lie.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lie
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/stevanovicigor

Mike Leake is husband to Nikki and father to Isaiah and Hannah. He is also the lead pastor at Calvary of Neosho, MO. Mike is the author of Torn to Heal and Jesus Is All You Need. His writing home is http://mikeleake.net and you can connect with him on Twitter @mikeleake. Mike has a new writing project at Proverbs4Today.


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