Recently I had a discussion with a Christian friend about a social media post he shared. The content he shared was from a less-than-reputable news outlet. While the report did contain facts, it did not have all the facts. The result was a false narrative, an untrue story. When I shared with him “the rest of the story,” his response was, “You believe what you want; I’ll believe what I believe to be true.”
Is that really how it works? Is the truth based purely on what we believe to be true? At what point does what we believe end up being a lie? For those who claim to be followers of God, what obligation do we have to establish our social media posts’ truthfulness? Is the fact it aligns with our beliefs the only necessary condition for truth? At what point does the profession of our “belief” cross into the realm of lying?
What constitutes as a lie? Saint Augustine held strong convictions about lying. He spelled out his positions in a short essay entitled De mendacio (“On Lying”), written around 395 CE. The first matter he considers is how does one define a lie? For Augustine, a lie was more than merely stating something false. The person must know that what they claim is false (De mend. 3). If someone believes something to be true, even if it is not, that person has not lied. He states that a person can even lie if they express something true if they believe it to be false (De mend. 4). So, for Augustine, the intention to deceive is at the heart of what constitutes a lie.
Augustine’s prohibition against lying is absolute and all-encompassing. A passage he returns to several times is from the Wisdom of Solomon 1:11d: “a lying mouth destroys the soul.” Augustine established the foundation for his views on the premise that the survival of one’s eternal soul trumped any earthly concerns for one’s self or others. Truth is paramount. “Therefore no man can prove that it is at any time right to tell a lie, unless he be able to show that any eternal good can be obtained by a lie” (De mend. 10). He then argued that eternal good could not come through sin; therefore, no eternal good can come from lying.
However, is a lie acceptable if it accomplishes a greater good or prevents a greater evil? Augustine considers this question too. There are Old Testament examples of people telling lies and being praised for it. The Israelite midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, lie to Pharaoh to save the lives of newborn babies and are blessed because of it (Ex 1:18-21). Jacob lies to Isaac to receive Esau’s blessing (Gen 27). Samuel tells a lie to cover his reason for going to Bethlehem to anoint David (1 Sam 16:1-5). Interestingly, it is God who instructs Samuel to use this deception. Augustine acknowledges the Old Testament texts but notes that no such examples, exceptions, or provisions exist in the New Testament and early church writings. As such, Christians are not to lie—even if it might prevent evil (De mend. 8). His logic is that no earthly benefit supersedes the loss of one’s immortal soul—even the preservation of life. When faced with such a situation, Augustine argues that a Christian should not lie, but rather state their refusal to harm the person by their statements. In other words, if someone sought to kill a person, the Christian could not say, “I don’t know where they are.” Instead, they must declare, “I know where they are, but I will not tell you.” If this answer resulted in personal bodily harm, then one’s suffering should be as for the cause of Christ (De mend. 22, 24).
The Rabbinic Perspective
Rabbinic teachings about lying take a more pragmatic approach than Augustine. On a foundational level, there is general agreement with him. “The world endures on three things: justice, truth, and peace” (b. Avot 1:18). However, there is a recognition that truth has its limits and that lies can be acceptable under certain circumstances. Rabbi Nathan went so far as to state that “it is a commandment [to deviate from the truth in the interest of peace]” (b. Yebam. 65b). The Babylonian Talmud contains a rather humorous discussion about whether it is proper to lie about a bride’s beauty at her wedding. The general (but not unanimous) consensus is that in the interest of peace, it is proper to praise a bride’s beauty on her wedding day—even if she is ugly (b. Ketub. 16b-17a). Talmudic literature permits lying under the following circumstances:
- For the sake of peace, to avoid hurting another’s feelings
- To comfort someone
- In a situation where the truth might result in harm to another or one’s self
- For the sake of decency regarding intimate matters
- To protect one’s property from those that would seek to take it away
In some of these instances, lying is not merely permitted but is required.
Despite these exceptions, rabbinic literature takes lying very seriously. B. S̆habb. 55a states, “the seal of God is truth.” In other places, the rabbis affirm the Wisdom of Solomon text so admired by Augustine: “Liars will not receive the Divine Presence” (b. Soṭah 42a). “Whoever breaks his word is regarded as though he has worshipped idols” (b. Sanh. 92a).
A Royal Priesthood
In the book of Exodus, God says to the Israelites, “but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Ex 19:6). In the New Testament, the Apostle Peter echoes this passage describing Christians as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet 2:9). As a royal priesthood, the people of God are God’s representatives on Earth. Our words and actions represent the nature of God.
So what does the Bible say about God’s nature?
Truthfulness is a critical aspect of God’s nature. The people of God must give proper consideration to how they handle the truth to fulfill their duties as a holy and royal priesthood. Scripture describes God as a God of truth. God’s character is built upon the truth of the promises and covenants God establishes. “God is not a human being, that he should lie, or a mortal, that he should change his mind. Has he promised, and will he not do it? Has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?” (Num 23:19, NRSV) The Hebrew writer expresses God’s truthfulness similarly:
In the same way, when God desired to show even more clearly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it by an oath, so that through two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible that God would prove false, we who have taken refuge might be strongly encouraged to seize the hope set before us.Hebrews 6:17-18
Truth is an essential component of God’s nature. It is a pillar upon which God’s salvific acts are based. The people of God rely upon God’s truthful character as a foundation for their faith.
Likewise, the New Testament describes Jesus Christ as the incarnation of God’s truth. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Jesus attests that he is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). An oft-repeated phrase used by Jesus is, “Truly I say to you…” By his statements, Jesus seems to place a high value on the truth. According to John’s gospel, God’s glory is, in some way, embodied in Jesus’s character of truth.
Scripture describes the Holy Spirit as the “Spirit of truth.” The Spirit of truth testifies about the nature of Jesus Christ and the resurrection (John 15:26). It guides the people of God “into all truth” (John 16:13). Furthermore, the Spirit of truth dwells within the people of God (John 14:17). So if this Spirit of truth is within the people of God, then our character must be built upon truth. To disregard the truth is tantamount to a rejection of the indwelling Holy Spirit, or at the very least, its influence.
Why is truthfulness so important? As stated earlier, our actions reflect upon the character of God to the world. We have a responsibility to live by that character to the best of our ability. This is especially important for the mission of the church. The church is to bear witness to the risen Christ—a claim that defies logic. God’s Messiah was crucified on a cross and was raised on the third day, and is now at the Father’s right hand. If we’re honest, it’s a remarkable claim—nearly unbelievable! This means that truthfulness among the people of God is essential for this mission. If we do not tell the truth in small matters, why would anyone take this extraordinary claim seriously? If Christians are not known for honesty and integrity in their words and actions, the church’s witness falls apart as just another lie perpetuated by religious fanatics.
In our modern, connected world, the people of God face new responsibilities when it comes to protecting the truth. The speed and reach with which information travels are unprecedented. As such, a Christian’s responsibility towards representing the truth is even more significant. At the same time, we live in a time when data and facts are viewed by many with suspicion. When people believe that facts and data are immaterial, they are prone to believe whatever they choose, regardless of their truthfulness. In essence, the truth becomes whatever they want it to be.
Within the realm of social media, all manner of sources with the appearance of credibility and truthfulness make claims. Regardless of one’s political leanings or beliefs, it is possible to find posts, articles, and factoids purporting to represent the truth about the opposing party’s evil motivations or viewpoint. These articles often include data that might have some kernel of truth or half-truth but withhold context to draw false conclusions. It is the societal equivalent of Biblical proof-texting. Their aim is not dialogue but division. By failing to represent an issue objectively, the goal is to support a position by denigrating the opposing views. Facts are weaponized to tear down rather than build up. These claims rely upon emotional outrage rather than objective evaluation and critical thinking. What makes these articles so insidious is the ease with which they are shareable with others. Sharing on social media platforms perpetuates false claims; thus, the person sharing the information is guilty of lying through their complicity. They are bearing false witness.
Back to the original issue: Augustine’s premise is that a person does not lie if they believe what they claim to be true. In our modern connected world, is this condition sufficient? What responsibility do the people of God have to validate the claims they make or share? Is it enough to state that one believed it to be accurate and, therefore, is not sinning when spreading deception? Is there a responsibility towards due diligence? 1 John 4:1 indicates that more is required. “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” While this passage refers to prophecy (probably preaching) within the church, the same principle should also apply to the importance of testing what we share on social media as truth. If Christians are a royal priesthood, we must check our social media posts’ veracity since God has put a spirit of truth within us.
This need for validation is not onerous. One of the advantages of our information age is that checking the veracity of claims is straightforward. A simple Google search is often all that is required to evaluate its truthfulness. Another simple check is the sensational nature of the claim. Do the context and facts support the extreme position? The glut of false claims spread via social media—even by Christians—indicates that too few people perform even the most minimal checks on their social media posts. As such, in the modern information age, Augustine’s premises of belief and intent are insufficient. It is possible to be guilty of lying when one fails to perform reasonable due diligence on their social media posts. Ignorance resulting from laziness is no excuse. Furthermore, when it becomes clear that a post is false, the people of God have a responsibility to retract their error as a demonstration of their commitment to the truth.
In recent months, many have decried social media platforms’ apparent censorship. These companies seek to establish community standards related to truth, facts, and false claims. One would think that promoting the pursuit of truth would be something upon which everyone could agree, especially people of God. However, within my own social media network, the most vocal opponents to these restrictions are conservative, evangelical Christians. Rather than applauding the pursuit of truth, they view these standards as persecution of Christian ideals. Some have elected to leave social platforms like Facebook and Twitter for unregulated applications. Rather than pursue truth, they pursue freedom of speech. They would prefer to immerse themselves in an alternative reality where the full context of facts and data has no value. Rather than engaging with those who have experienced the world differently, they seek an echo chamber with others who refuse to evaluate the veracity of their claims. One cannot spread the gospel to the world if one chooses to disengage from its reality.
As a royal priesthood, God’s people have a responsibility to test and validate claims before stating them as truth. If a Christian is known for posting false information or dubious claims on social media, they do more than damage their reputation. They damage the church’s reputation, and they bear false witness against the character of God and Jesus Christ. They do just the opposite of what God calls His people to do. Why would someone desire to become a follower of Christ if his disciples have a reputation for spreading half-truths or weaponizing information for their self-interest? Paul stresses the importance of this to the Ephesian church. “So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another” (Eph 4:25). Deceit through social media is a failure to love your neighbor as yourself. Because if we do not consider our neighbor important enough to engage with them truthfully, then it reflects upon our desire and ability to share the love of God with them through the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Within Judaism, the importance of truth for God’s people is summed up in a short analogy about the final judgment. According to the Babylonian Talmud, the first question asked in the final judgment is, “have you been honest in your dealings?” (b. S̆abb. 31a) I think this is a sobering reminder of the importance of truthfulness for God’s people. What if we treated each claim that we make with this sort of eternal significance? I suspect that for all of us, we would take the truth a little more seriously.