John 7—Is It Ever OK To Lie?

In John 7, Jesus’ brothers urge him to go to the feast in Judaea. He declines, stating he will not go. His brothers set off without him. But then Jesus *does* go. Secretly. Halfway through the feast, he makes himself quite public by teaching in the temple.

What’s up with this? Why did he lie to his brothers? He’s Jesus, so he must have known he was going to attend the feast, and that what he was saying to his brothers wasn’t true. And why did he keep a low profile there, around everyone, if he was just going to end up teaching in the temple anyway?


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3 thoughts on “John 7—Is It Ever OK To Lie?

  1. Hmmm. I don’t think I quite agree with your way of drawing the distinction, Alastair, between truth as accurate representation of reality or formal accuracy, on the one hand, and this emphasis on the fabric of relationships, on the other–telling the truth versus being true to people. Maybe that works if you include, but not so much under the heading of relationship, being true to yourself. That comes across to me as a bit fuzzy, though. I suspect it’s better to say that words are explicitly about one segment of reality, and it’s important for words to faithfully reflect the segment of reality to which they correspond. But they should also be at home with the larger reality within which that narrow cross section is embedded. The larger reality, the context, is implicitly involved, and our words should be responsive to those wider aspects of reality as well, rather than being out of joint with them. That’s simply to say, truthful words are words on target. They’re appropriate to the situation. They well depict that which they purport to depict, but they also resonate with more besides.

    Importantly, that includes the relationships of the people involved, which is what you emphasize. So I think you’re right that the nature of relationships is usually what’s a stake. It’s often the most significant aspect of reality implicitly involved in questions of truthful speech. But the larger reality also includes the kind of creature I am. Say I’m hiding Jews from a Nazi officer, and I have no idea who they are and have no relationship with them beyond that moment of decision and have no expectation that I will afterwards. Sure, the word “relationship” could be pressed into service here. However, you could just as easily say that my words have to honor the value of their lives (I think you might have said that), and words that fail to do that are profoundly untruthful, even though they may faithfully reflect one narrow aspect of the larger reality: the physical location of a small group of people at that moment.

    This way of putting it seems to stick a bit closer to common sense notions of truth, while still being expansive and supple enough to deal with the difficulties. Maybe more importantly–and even less in step with your comments–this way of putting the matter seems more capable of recognizing the wrongness of the lie as such. Unusual circumstances aside, people unfortunately lie all of the time. It’s very difficult not to lie. We don’t usually do it for the sake of the fabric of relationships, either. We do it to save face, to wrongly flatter people, to save a little money. And those little lies, because the issue of accuracy or correspondence is more closely ties to those other interlocking realities to which a statement might not explicitly refer, have the effect of alienating the liar’s words (and life) from reality in a deeper way.

    So a question I would ask to bring rubber to road: do you think your account, with the related suggestion that sometimes it’s right to lie, can account for moral injury? Stanley Hauerwas once said that when a married, Jewish woman slept with a Nazi officer in order to save her family, we should still say that she committed adultery. His reason for that is, if you don’t say she committed adultery, then you can’t adequately describe the wrong that’s been done to her. It seems that there are just such things as moral tragedies. People can be put in a double-bind, so that, on the one hand, a person really should lie in order to save the family hiding in the basement. It’s a different matter, though, whether a person should lie in order to save themselves. Maybe sometimes (“Did you hide people last week?” with guns drawn). Sometimes not (“Are you a Christian?” with guns drawn). If a person does lie, though, it’s still a lie. It’s still likely to be harmful to that person in all the ways that lying is harmful to a person. It’s easy enough to consider other double-binds that are much more extreme, so that the analogy to self-defense clearly fails and both courses of action are straightforwardly wrong.

    Nevertheless, I appreciate your comments in relation to John 7. I’ll only add that the enemy doesn’t only work against Jesus through lies and deception, but tries to bring “the truth” into the open prematurely in ways that would ultimately violate reality, rather than faithfully revealing reality.


  2. Dang. I spent too long writing a careful response that I think could be helpful. And then it doesn’t seem to have successfully posted. Rats. Ah well, maybe it’ll come through in a minute …


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