Does the Bible indicate God is a deceiver?
Recently I was contacted by a reader who was looking for a response to claims made by a Muslim apologist concerning instances in Scripture where God appears to use deception.
Let’s talk about that.
What the Muslim apologist was doing
The Muslim apologist was responding to Christian apologists who have argued that in the Qur’an, God is depicted as using deception and thus the “God of the Qur’an” isn’t worth worshipping.
The Muslim apologist asserted, in essence, that if that argument works then it would equally well disqualify the God of the Bible from worship as well.
In other words, the argument would prove too much.
Frankly, the Muslim apologist has a point. Too often, Christian apologists make apples-to-oranges comparisons with Islam, where they criticize something in Islam without stopping to ask themselves if there is parallel in Christianity.
The same thing can also happen in reverse. Muslim apologists can do the same thing.
If there is a parallel to the thing an apologist wants to critique then he needs to stop and ask himself, “Am I handling the evidence in a fair or an unfair manner?”
This is a question every apologist needs to ask himself, regardless of his position—whether he is Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, atheist, or anything else.
We all need to be fair, even when debating people of another perspective.
We shouldn’t use double standards.
As someone once said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Not All About Deception
Not all of the passages the Muslim apologist brought up involved deception.
For example, he cited John 16:25, where Jesus acknowledges that he has said some things in a figurative manner.
He then cited Mark 4:10-12, where Jesus says that he uses parables so that certain people might not understand and repent.
Neither one of these passages involves deception.
Speaking figuratively isn’t deception, and while the Mark passage is puzzling, it also doesn’t involve deception. Not understanding what Jesus says when he uses a parable is not the same thing as being deceived.
For a discussion of what the passage does mean, see Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth, volume 1 or my own Mark: A Commentary.
Similarly, the apologist cites two passages from Isaiah that also do not involve deception.
The first—Isaiah 19:14—says that God has made the Egyptians confused or dizzy, not that he has deceived them.
And the second—Isaiah 37:6-7—says that God will give the Assyrian king Sennacherib a disposition such that, when he hears a certain report, he will return home, which will lead to his death, which is what then happened (see Isaiah 37:37-38).
There are some interesting questions one can ask about these passages, but they do not portray God as deceiving people.
Verses Involving Deception
The Muslim apologist does cite some verses, though, where the issue of deception is on the table, such as where Jeremiah says:
Then I said, “Ah, Lord GOD, surely thou hast utterly deceived this people and Jerusalem, saying, ‘It shall be well with you’; whereas the sword has reached their very life” (Jeremiah 4:10).
Or when the prophet Micaiah sees a vision of heaven in which:
[T]he Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’
And one [spirit] said one thing, and another said another. Then a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord, saying, ‘I will entice him.’
And the Lord said to him, ‘By what means?’
And he said, ‘I will go forth, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’
And he said, ‘You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go forth and do so’ (1 Kings 22:20-22).
Or when Ezekiel reports an oracle, saying:
And if the prophet be deceived and speak a word, I, the Lord, have deceived that prophet, and I will stretch out my hand against him, and will destroy him from the midst of my people Israel (Ezekiel 14:9).
Or when Paul says:
Therefore God sends upon them [i.e., those who “refused to love the truth”] a strong delusion, to make them believe what is false, so that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness (2 Thessalonians 2:11).
These verses do make it sound like God uses deception.
So how do we explain them?
The Christian View of God
The Christian Faith holds that God is an all-perfect Being. As a result, he is all-holy and is not capable of sinning, which I have written about before.
This has implications for God’s truthfulness. As early as the book of Numbers, we read:
God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should repent. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfil it? (Num. 23:19).
The same view is expressed in multiple other passages (e.g., 1 Sam. 15:29, 2 Tim. 2:13, Tit. 1:2). Jesus even declares himself to be “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6).
Passages like these express the fundamental conviction that God is always truthful, and they reveal that passages which appear to suggest otherwise must be taken in a different sense.
This is not surprising. Scripture often uses non-literal language when discussing God.
Thus we sometimes read about God sheltering people with his wings (Ps. 17:8, 36:7, 57:1, 64:1, 63:7) or we read about “the arm of the Lord” (Is. 53:1) or “the hand of God” (1 Sam. 5:11, 2 Chron. 30:12, Job 2:10) or “the finger of God” (Ex. 8:19, 31:18, Deut. 9:10).
These are not literal, for “God is spirit” (John 4:24) and “a spirit has not flesh and bones” (Luke 24:39).
We thus have to sort between literal statements—like God is a spirit and God does not lie—and figurative ones which portray him as having body parts or using deception.
One of the things you discover when you study the modes of language used in the Bible is that the ancient authors frequently attribute things directly to God, although their causation is actually less direct.
We may call this mode of speech “direct attribution.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church comments on it:
[W]e see the Holy Spirit, the principal author of Sacred Scripture, often attributing actions to God without mentioning any secondary causes.
This is not a “primitive mode of speech,” but a profound way of recalling God’s primacy and absolute Lordship over history and the world, and so of educating his people to trust in him [CCC 304].
A consequence of this mode of speech is that the authors of Scripture sometimes speak as if God actively caused things that he merely allowed as part of his providence.
This was, as the Catechism explains, their way of emphasizing God’s absolute Lordship, even though the figure of speech is not to be understood to mean that God literally caused something.
The literal truth is that he allowed it to happen, but this is expressed in figurative language that speaks as if he caused it.
The Key to the Deception Passages
This is the key to understanding the passages involving deception.
The literal truth is the one expressed in Numbers 23:19—“God is not man, that he should lie.”
But since God allows deception to take place on some occasions, the direct attribution mode of speech can be used in Scripture to speak as if God caused the deception.
Thus in Jeremiah’s day the people had become convinced that they would have peace when this was not the case. God allowed this to happen, but—per direct attribution—Jeremiah speaks as if God deceived them.
In 2 Kings, Ahab was deceived by false prophecies which God allowed to occur, and in Micaiah’s vision this is depicted—per direct attribution—as if God himself sent a lying spirit.
Ezekiel discusses the well-known phenomenon of false prophets, which God has allowed to appear, and—per direct attribution—speaks as if God himself deceived these prophets.
And Paul comments on those who “refused to love the truth” (2 Thess. 2:10), who God allowed to “not believe the truth but [have] pleasure in unrighteousness” (2 Thess. 2:11). God then allows them to embrace “a strong delusion,” but—per direct attribution—Paul speaks as if God sent this delusion.
The “Why” Question
A natural question is why God would allow these things, and here we are confronted by what philosophers and theologians refer to as “the problem of evil.”
If you’d like to learn more about it, check out my video on The Problem of Evil. (It’s also covered in brief in my book A Daily Defense).
In some cases, we can see why God allows evil.
For example, Ezekiel 14:10-11 indicates that God allows false prophets as part of a long-term process of purifying his people, so “that the house of Israel may go no more astray from me, nor defile themselves any more with all their transgressions, but that they may be my people and I may be their God.”
In other cases, we can’t know in this life why God allows a specific evil.
However, the Catechism, quoting St. Augustine, explains:
[A]lmighty God. . . because he is supremely good, would never allow any evil whatsoever to exist in his works if he were not so all-powerful and good as to cause good to emerge from evil itself (CCC 311).
We can thus have confidence that, no matter what evil happens he allows to occur in the world—whether it is deception or anything else—God will ultimately bring good out of it.