Monday, May 02, 2016

The father of lies

In objection to a post of mine, a commenter said:

"According to Scripture, liars–among others–are cast into hell. And Satan is portrayed as the arch-deceiver, and the father of lies."

Let's examine that. Let's run through some examples:

8 But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death (Rev 21:8). 
44 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 does not stand in 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 (Jn 8:44). 
10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us (1 Jn 1:10). 
4 Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him (1 Jn 2:4). 
22 Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son (1 Jn 2:22). 
20 If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar (1 Jn 4:20). 
Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son (1 Jn 5:10).

1. The Bible doesn't formally define what constitutes a lie. Therefore, readers typically plug into these statements their own rule of thumb definition. The traditional definition of lying has at least two conditions:

i) The statement is false

ii) The communicator makes a false statement with the intention that others mistakenly believe the falsehood is true.

The purpose of (ii) is to distinguish unintentional falsehoods from intentional falsehoods. 

My immediate objection is not to assess the merits of that definition. But in my experience, that's the operative definition Christians use who think lying is always wrong. 

2. Lying is a recurrent motif in the Johannine writings. In Rev 21:8, does John mean that Rahab and the Hebrew midwives will burn in hell? I seriously doubt that. 

Counterfeit religion is a major theme in Revelation. In the context of the narrative, "liars" are pagans or apostates who practice or promote idolatry. Indeed, there can be a twofold deception. Take the False prophet who uses deceit to facilitate false worship. The methods are deceptive and the object is spurious. 

To construe Rev 21:8 as a statement about "liars" in general rips the statement out of the specific setting in which John frames that conduct. 

3. Why does Jesus call the devil a liar? I assume he's alluding to Gen 3, where the Tempter brazenly said God's prohibition was an idle threat. 

4. That dovetails with what John says in his first epistle. When the apostle talks about "liars" or making God out to be a liar in 1 John, he isn't using the traditional definition of a lie. He doesn't operate with the twofold condition. For John, a "lie" is a statement or action at variance with God's testimony. It isn't confined to false propositions. It can include behavior that's inconsistent with divine testimony. 

Moreover, John doesn't make the intention to deceive a necessary condition of lying. Rather, it's sufficient that the liar, in word or deed, contradicts God's testimony. 

Presumably, John's heretical opponents don't intend to call God a liar. They don't consciously deny the truth, as they understand it. 

But John doesn't distinguish between intent and implication. For him, it's s enough that their teaching or conduct is objectively at odds with God's testimony. There is, of course, an element of willfulness here. 

That's because, for John, the deceivers are self-deceived. False teachers may be sincere, but self-deluded. A Satanic self-deception. Their minds are enslaved by sin. 

5. The upshot is that John isn't referring to "liars" in general. He doesn't have in mind cases like Christians who lie to Nazis to shield Jews. He is using a "lie" or "liar" in a narrow theological context, in reference to those who blindly and willfully deny God's self-witness, or the Father's witness to the Son, or the Spirit's witness to the Son. 

6. To generalize from John's usage would be counterproductive for those who think lying is intrinsically wrong, because John doesn't distinguish between intentional and unintentional falsehood. That would make any false statement, or any action that's inconsistent with the facts, to be a lie. But surely that's too strong. If someone unwittingly makes a statement that deviates from the truth, we don't automatically brand them a liar. If someone acts under the misimpression of what is true, we don't automatically brand them a liar. It's slipshod reasoning to ignore or overlook the framework in which John uses this terminology. 


  1. It's probably also slipshod reasoning to riff off Johannine usage while ignoring or overlooking the Pauline framework in which he uses the terminology. Col. 3:9 and Eph. 4:25 immediately come to mind with the attendant putting off/putting on exhortations.

    There’s also the positive command for Christians to speak the truth in love.

    It's a little difficult to grasp what in the world Paul is talking about if we're unable to conclude what constitutes a lie, and it absolutely turns the aforementioned texts into mush if lying isn't a sin.

    1. i) You used a Johannine framework. I responded to you on your own grounds. Paul isn't the framework in which John uses that terminology.

      It's underhanded of you to move the goalpost, then accuse me of ignoring or overlooking something. Maybe you need to try a little harder to be honest instead of talking about it.

      ii) The Pauline injunctions have reference to discourse within the community of faith. You are ripping that out of context.

      iii) Can you demonstrate where Scripture lays out the necessary and sufficient conditions of lying? If not, on what basis do you define it? For instance::

      Tell me which of these definitions matches what Bible writers had in mind. Explain how you arrive at that conclusion.

    2. You needn't play your intellectual bully card steve, I'm not ine of your RTS students worried about a grade.

      I replied to a blog post with a comment, then I replied to another blog post with another comment, apparently you don't appreciate dialogue, at least in the present case, so I'll just move along.

      Somehow I think I'd really enjoy a discussion about this subject, among many others, with you over coffee, but not so much in this forum. You tend to get a little testy and crorchety I think. And I mean that in kindness and a tad of humor.

      Have a great Tuesday in the Lord!

    3. 1. Respectfully, CR, your behavior toward Steve is hardly blameless.

      Your original comment accused Steve of "casting God as a deceiver is probably the most troubling tactic I think I've seen you deploy...and frankly I think that's a disingenous characterization, and probably spiritually reckless."

      Now, despite Steve's replies to your original comment, not to mention his recent posts on the topic, you continue to accuse Steve. You accuse him of "slipshod reasoning," turning the biblical text into "mush," call him a "bully," etc.

      I suppose all that's fine and good if there's evidence for it.

      However, the problem is you don't cite any evidence for any of your accusations against Steve. At this point they're unjustified accusations from you against Steve.

      It's easy to make accusations (e.g. Trump does it all the time), but where's the evidence for the accusations?

      2. More importantly, you don't attempt to rebut or reason with a single one of Steve's points about lying and deception.

      At best, you engage in some proof-texting, which has its limitations.

      I think what would be most "appreciated" is if you simply addressed where and why you disagree with Steve's reasoning. For example, why not answer his third point above, which was a question specifically addressed to you (i.e. "Can you demonstrate where Scripture lays out the necessary and sufficient conditions of lying? If not, on what basis do you define it?...Tell me which of these definitions matches what Bible writers had in mind. Explain how you arrive at that conclusion.")?

      It seems like a fair and honest question. And a good debate between Steve and you on the topic could be beneficial to others.

    4. Thanks for sharing your thoughts rwh, fwiw I usually enjoy seeing your comments here, and I think you usually make valid points, including some in the comment above.

      I may mull this over and post something in reply. But as I mentioned early on in the other thread, I'm not very hopeful on presenting a case more compelling than those steve rejects by Christian thinkers far above my level.

    5. CR,

      You're not offering "dialogue". You fail to engage the argument. Instead, you make off-topic comments about how I justify sin.

      You and others comment at the indulgence of the Tblog admins. If a commenter wishes to criticize a post, he's required to use reason and evidence. You're not entitled to ignore all my arguments and derail the post into off-topic irrelevances about my allegedly suspect motives. If you can't abide by the rules of rational discourse, you will be banned.

    6. I'll save you the trouble, goodbye.

  2. The ethics of lying parallels the ethics of killing. Killing is normally wrong, but there are situations in which killing is permissible or even obligatory. Same thing with respect to lying.

    Quoting two Pauline injunctions from his ecclesiastical household code to prove that lying is inherently sinful is no better than prooftexting pacifism by quoting passages that prohibit murder.

    1. Aren't there also parallels with not casting pearls before swine and answering fools according to their folly? Could one not sayt that, under some conditions, certain people (eg holding bloody axes wondering where your kids are) aren't entitled to the truth?