Q:Was Rahab justified in lying when she said the spies had already departed?
—Randy Bishop, Lombard, Illinois

A: Rahab lied. That's the simple truth. The Bible condemns deception. That, too, is the simple truth. Even so, when Rahab's story is told in Joshua 2, and when she is celebrated for her faith in Hebrews 11:31 and for her works in James 2:25, the Bible—while not justifying her lie—does not condemn it. The same is true of the midwives' lie (Exod. 1:1521) and Elisha's lie (2 Kings 6:19). The fact is, Scripture offers no subtle philosophical distinctions to justify or to excuse such lies.

Many Christians, like Augustine and Calvin, have condemned Rahab's deception. Her lie, even though told "for a good purpose," Calvin says, is "contrary to the nature of God." Similarly, Augustine praised the midwives and Rahab for "the benignity of their intention" but condemned them for "the iniquity of their invention." Their point: It is necessary to condemn this and every deception because God is Truth. Other Christians, however, have been less ready to condemn Rahab's lie—or all other lies. Luther defended "a good hearty lie for the sake of the good and for the Christian Church, a lie in case of necessity, a useful lie." Such lies, he said, "would not be against God."

We are right to worry about Luther's readiness to accept deception. At the same time, two observations keep some Christian ethicists (including myself) from adopting Calvin and Augustine's rigorous rejection of all deception. First, God is Truth, but truth is not a second god—just as love is no god though "God is Love," and life is no god ...

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