Can God Lie?

An interesting article on Medieval and Early Modern inquiries into the question of whether the divine might lie.
There was one problem with these philosophically-minded defences of God’s essentially honest and transparent nature: scripture suggested otherwise. Robert Holkot, a 14th century Dominican theologian, popular in his day, now unjustly neglected, suggested there were any number of places in the Bible where God deceived demons, sinners and even the faithful. He deceived Abraham, father of the Jewish people, when he ordered him to sacrifice his son Isaac, only to revoke that order at the last moment, as Abraham held the knife over his rope-bound and trembling son.

Two centuries later, John Calvin reached the same conclusion while reflecting on the passage in I Kings in which God ‘wills that the false king Ahab be deceived’, sending the Devil to fulfill this wish ‘with a definite command to be a lying spirit in the mouth of all the prophets’.
What do you think? Can God lie? If he can, would God lie? If he would, why?


MikeD said...

Can the Omnipotent not do something? Sounds like a clear paradox to me. I think it may be more along the lines of "doesn't" than "can't", but I'm no theologian. They cite specific examples in Scripture (all Old Testament), but as to the question "can God lie?" I think the answer is quite likely yes.

Grim said...

Good, although there's a little more to it than that. Since God is eternal and unchanging, you still have to deal with the 'would he?' question. If the answer is no, it complicates the idea that he could. It turns out to be for reasons of the character of God rather than what powers he has, but to say that he would never is in some sense to say that he could not (given his goodness).

Of course, we could accept from Scripture that he would and does, sometimes. Or we can say that these parts of Scripture need interpretation, if we are committed to God's goodness. Or we can find a way to align goodness and deception.

Anonymous said...

How can God convey anything at all to us without lying? We are limited creatures, with limited understanding. In order to communicate with us, God would have to tell limited versions of the truth. We all recognize "limited versions of the truth" as being a potent form of lying.

For example:
Assume for the moment that the Bible is the "inerrant Word of God."

Assume that the story of creation came from God.

We all know how Darwin's Theory of Evolution hit and shook the faith of people who insisted that the world had been created in six days.

And yet, a physicist today might point out that He got the order right: first, He said, "Let there be Light." That is, he created the laws of energy. And then the physicist might ask, "Why would a primitive people place light first?"

A theologian might ask, "How do you explain the creation of the world to a people who do not even have a word for "million" much less "billion" and have no idea what the lights in the sky really are?"

I submit that the ONLY way to tell of story of creation is to simplify it, or oversimplify it, and thereby introduce inaccuracy.

I'm going to chase a rabbit, now.

A core difference between us and Islamists is that Islamists actually preach that there is no understanding God, and therefore no validity to human decisions about morality. They assume God lies, and they assume that, because God lies, it is ok for them to lie, too.

Indeed, they actually preach to their cannon fodder that any sin is instantly forgiven, if the person dies in the course of their idea of "jihad" -- that is, the indiscriminate murder of anybody, so long as it is done at a cleric's behest.

Thus, we have 9/11 hijacker visiting a strip joint the night before the attack, and a whole slew of "fatwas" justifying murder, torture, rape, slavery, and even "anal jihad."

In the past, I have argued that Islamists clearly do not accept the Second Commandment, "Love your neighbor." Their actions and writings show a profound disrespect for other people, even people of their own faith.

Now I submit that Islamists also have a profound disrespect for God. They argue that any immoral, evil act done at their kind of cleric's behest is pleasing to God, because despite all the teachings from their own traditions, God is essentialy immoral.

I don't buy it. I don't think God is immoral, but He has oversimplified from time to time, out of necessity. He has left us the task of figuring out how creation works, and given us plenty of clues about how to make our societies work.


Grim said...

An excellent argument, Valerie (although I think the Islamic law concept you are chasing is limited to Shi'a Islam; the similar Sunni concept is limited to lies denying one's faith under duress).

Anonymous said...

I don't think the Islamist perversion is either limited to or coextensive with either Shia or Sunni Islam. I do think it is a heresy rooted in Islam.

Anonymous said...

That anonymous was me.


jaed said...

This is reminding me of Benedict's Regensburg address, concerning the reasonableness of God. The point there is basically that God is reasonable, not because he is somehow unable to be unreasonable or restricted in this way, but because reasonableness is part of the nature of the Divine.

It seems to me the same logic applies to deception. Is truthfulness part of the divine nature? If it is, what kind of truthfulness? There's the simple kind - "I cannot tell a lie no matter how trivial, I cannot risk misleading anyone" - but there's also the idea that telling an untruth might be strategically necessary when ultimately revealing the full truth.

In other words, it may not be as simple a question as we think. Truthfulness may not be the heart of the matter; maybe the correct question is a little different. For example, "Can God commit a fraud?"

I also am reminded of a verse: The glory of God to conceal a thing, the honor of kings to search out a matter. Is concealment a deception?

Grim said...

It usually is, yes; but if one is concealing a gift from one's wife, so that you might better surprise her with it on her birthday, it is not a bad thing to deceive.

These are interesting answers. I'm glad I posted the article for discussion.

Tom said...

This is really a fascinating article. I'll have to give it some thought.

There's a couple of nits I'd like to pick, though.

Near the end, Denery writes:

The next chapter in this story – the chapter in which we live – starts with Darwin and natural selection, and continues with evangelical and fundamentalist Christians rejecting the truths of science and calling for a return to the literal truths of scripture. If science and religion are not at war with each other today, they certainly seem incompatible.

Actually, he misunderstands the fundamentalist reaction to Darwin, which was not to reject the "truths of science," but was to insist on an older methodology of science that demanded demonstration. Darwin never could demonstrate evolution, so they refused to recognize his theory as true.

Also, the bit about science and religion being at war or incompatible goes against the normal interpretation of events in the field of history of science. And, why does he say, 'religion,' since he has only talked about Christianity? Does he somehow also think he has addressed the long history of the world's other religions with science?

Those nits aside, it really does give me something to think about. And it's kind of disturbing, I have to say.