How can God not lie and still Deceive the Wicked?

[Revised: 6/3/96, see also More discussion of God and deceit]
Dear Friend,

Looks like one of your friends has gotten all tied up in this matter, much like a kitten in a ball of string! Let's see if we can work through this and help him see the way this stuff all fits together (but be aware, that there is a responsibility hiding in there, too!)...

The way I would like to approach this is to simply go thru his verses and points, make any relevant comments about the passages/background, and then try to 'put it all together' at the end...

Your friend begins...

POINT ONE: Dies God lie?

So far, not bad...but there are MUCH stronger verses about God's truthfulness than these two:

But the point is fairly obvious anyway...your friend's point is more that the SCRIPTURE doesn't lie--and in this he is correct. The scripture is a faithful and true record. In it, of course, are 'faithful and true records' of human lies, depravity, human sacrifice, betrayal, rape, incest, etc...

For example, when the bible records the falsehood of Ananias and his wife Sapphira (in Acts 5), it does NOT LIE--it reports it truthfully.

POINT TWO: JE 4:10, JE 20:7, EZ 14:9 God deceives some of the prophets

The above two verses actually don't affirm that God 'deceives' people; they are simply complaints from Jeremiah to God in moments of deep bitterness. These two specific passages are generally considered to be semi-emotional outbursts at God, similar to those given by other leaders in Israel's intellectual history--e.g. Moses in Ex 5.22; Num 11.11 or Job in 27.1; 30.20ff.

So W. C. Kaiser (HSOT:121): "The strong statements of Jeremiah in 4.10 and 20.7 are merely complaints of the prophet who had mistaken the promise of God's presence for the insurance that no evil or derision would come on him or his ministry. However, these verses cannot be cited as the basis for giving any credence to the charge that God is deceptive."

The 4.10 passage is uttered from Jeremiah's OWN sense of impending doom ('at OUR throats') as being himself a resident of the stubborn and about-to-be-exiled Jerusalem. OT scholars consider this to be one in a string of such 'complaints.' So J. A. Thompson (NICOT: in loc.): "Rather we must see in such an utterance not so much a considered judgment, but the spontaneous reaction of a man who felt deeply about the tragedies of life, whether his own or those of others. The same tendency recurs in Jeremiah's later outpourings of soul before God."

The 20.7 passage illustrates Kaiser's point above very well. Notice a few things about the passage and its context:

  1. In Jeremiah 1.6-8, the LORD has called Jeremiah to his prophetic ministry: "Ah, Sovereign LORD," I said, "I do not know how to speak; I am only a child." But the LORD said to me, "Do not say, 'I am only a child.' You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you," declares the LORD." Notice that Jeremiah had an expectation of 'rescue' even though God elsewhere told him that there would be difficulties (1.18).

  2. Our passage in 20.7 uses a special form of the verb (Piel of pth) that is slightly different than 'deceive' but MUCH stronger than 'persuade'--it is the form used for 'seduce' in Ex 22.16.

  3. The second verb in 20.7, 'overpowered' is the word "hazaq" which is ALSO used of seduction in the OT (Deut 22.25; 2 Sam 13.11, 14).

  4. But Jeremiah notes bitterly, that the 'rescue' is the 20.7ff text, he complains of how he is ridiculed and derided by the people.

  5. . He has accused God elsewhere of being a 'deceitful brook': Cf. 15.18: " Why is my pain unending and my wound grievous and incurable? Will you be to me like a deceptive brook, like a spring that fails?" It is obvious here that 'deceitful' means 'doesn't yield the expected results'. In other words, God convinced him to become a prophet, with promises of rescue, but no 'rescue' has been forthcoming! So J.A. Thompson: "Evidently he had thought that the word of Yahweh would lead the people to repentance. It was a shock to him that his message brought only calumny and abuse." (NICOT, in. loc.)

  6. A good summary of this verse is afforded by Feinberg in EBC: "The verb 'deceived' is so bold and offensive to religious sensibilities that some have tried to soften it by translating it 'persuaded' or 'enticed' so that the verse does not seem to verge on blasphemy. In its intensive form (as here), the verb 'patah' means 'to seduce,' as a virgin is seduced (cf. Exod 22.16; I Kings 22.20-22). To be sure, Jeremiah is not accusing God of lying or misrepresentation; but what he calls seduction is the divine compulsion on his spirit. He is claiming that the Lord overpersuaded him to be a prophet. He pleads that, though the Lord overcame his resistance to the call (1.4-10) and he believed the Lord's promises, he has now been abandoned to shame."

Important Point A: Notice also that the rulers were not really interested in TRUE messages from God--they WANTED 'lies'. Thier prophets did falsehood and they "LOVED it that way" (5.31). The rulers actually told Jeremiah to NOT speak in the name of Yahweh(11.21)! They told the people to 'pay no attention to him' (18.18). When he did prophesy, instead of paying attention to something that just MIGHT BE TRUE, instead they had Jeremiah beaten (20.1) and tried to execute him (26.7). This is the book that has the famous scene (chapter 36) when the king burns the prophecies of Jeremiah AS HE READS THEM! These rulers were not interested in truth AT ALL--they wanted and LOVED the lies of the false prophets.

Important Point B: Notice also that the rulers STILL HAD A CHOICE. By the very fact that Jeremiah was ALERTING them to the false prophets, they STILL were confronted with BOTH SIDES! God did NOT just leave them to the 'lies'--He stayed in there and witnessed to truth TO THEM to the end.

Now this passage is closer to what your friend is trying to get at--although there is a BETTER passage which I will bring up in a moment..So, let's look at the context of this text (Ezek 14:1-11):

Some of the elders of Israel came to me and sat down in front of me. 2 Then the word of the LORD came to me: 3 "Son of man, these men have set up idols in their hearts and put wicked stumbling blocks before their faces. Should I let them inquire of me at all? 4 Therefore speak to them and tell them, 'This is what the Sovereign LORD says: When any Israelite sets up idols in his heart and puts a wicked stumbling block before his face and then goes to a prophet, I the LORD will answer him myself in keeping with his great idolatry. 5 I will do this to recapture the hearts of the people of Israel, who have all deserted me for their idols.'
"Therefore say to the house of Israel, 'This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Repent! Turn from your idols and renounce all your detestable practices!
"'When any Israelite or any alien living in Israel separates himself from me and sets up idols in his heart and puts a wicked stumbling block before his face and then goes to a prophet to inquire of me, I the LORD will answer him myself. 8 I will set my face against that man and make him an example and a byword. I will cut him off from my people. Then you will know that I am the LORD.
"'And if the prophet is enticed to utter a prophecy, I the LORD have enticed that prophet, and I will stretch out my hand against him and destroy him from among my people Israel. 10 They will bear their guilt -- the prophet will be as guilty as the one who consults him. 11 Then the people of Israel will no longer stray from me, nor will they defile themselves anymore with all their sins. They will be my people, and I will be their God, declares the Sovereign LORD.'"

Notice a couple of things about the passage in its entirety:

  1. Verse 5 says that God will answer the idolater "in keeping with his great idolatry." (The punishment will fit/match the crime.)

  2. One answer is that the people will be 'cut off' (v8) if they seek a message from the false prophet, and that they will become an 'example and a byword' (this latter phrase is a punishment clause in Deut 28.37, specified for radical rejection of the covenant agreement made between God and Israel as they entered Canaan.)

  3. Some false prophets God would stimulate to speak, apparently so that God could judge them as well--by 'destroying' them from among the people of Israel.

  4. Curiously, there is no actual mention of DECEPTION in the passage. We have no actual 'hard data' (from the passage itself) to assume that these prophets uttered falsehoods. We have an abundance of data from other passages in Ezek that many of their prophecies were NOT from Yahweh (chapter 13) and even that they 'whitewashed' the evil done by the oppressive rulers of the land (22.28ff).

  5. The punishment image from Deut 28 above (#2) has some interesting implications. One of the punishments for Israel's rebellion mentioned in the 'Punishment/Curses' chapter of Deut 28 is that of 'confusion' (28.20, 28). CONFUSION is seen as a punishment from God! "Confusion" is part of God's promised judgment on the nations of Canaan (Ex 23.27; Dt 23.27); it is used as a 'weapon' in God's judgment of armies that fought against Israel in the Exodus and Conquest (Egypt--Ex 14.24; Amorites--Josh 10.9; Philistines--I Sam 14.20); it is sought by the Psalmist as a personal judgment from God on those seeking to harm him (Ps 71.24; 35.26; 40.14; 70.2); and it is prophesied as a judgment on Israel in the messianic age (Is 6.9ff)...more on this in the summary.

  6. So W.H. Brownlee (WBC: in loc.): "In the present passage, God punishes the apostate nation by granting them false prophets who lead them to their doom."

Important Point A (again): But notice one other thing--the people, as in the time of Jeremiah, were simply NOT INTERESTED in TRUTH!--cf. the alarming passage in 33.30f: "As for you, son of man, your countrymen are talking together about you by the walls and at the doors of the houses, saying to each other, 'Come and hear the message that has come from the LORD.' 31 My people come to you, as they usually do, and sit before you to listen to your words, but they do not put them into practice. With their mouths they express devotion, but their hearts are greedy for unjust gain. 32 Indeed, to them you are nothing more than one who sings love songs with a beautiful voice and plays an instrument well, for they hear your words but do not put them into practice." Pure performance art at best--not a passion or commitment to truth!

Important Point B (again): Notice also that the rulers STILL HAD A CHOICE. By the very fact that Ezekiel was ALERTING them to the false prophets, they STILL were confronted with BOTH SIDES! God did NOT just leave them to the 'lies'--He stayed in there and witnessed to truth TO THEM to the end.

BUT THE REALLY JUICY PASSAGE has not been raised by your friend! Let's look at the REALLY TOUGH ONE--I Kings 22.20-23:

And the LORD said, 'Who will entice Ahab into attacking Ramoth Gilead and going to his death there?'
"One suggested this, and another that. 21 Finally, a spirit came forward, stood before the LORD and said, 'I will entice him.' "
'By what means?' the LORD asked.
" 'I will go out and be a lying spirit in the mouths of all his prophets,' he said.
" 'You will succeed in enticing him,' said the LORD. 'Go and do it.'
"So now the LORD has put a lying spirit in the mouths of all these prophets of yours. The LORD has decreed disaster for you."

Let's notice a few things about this passage and its context.

  1. The prophesy is 'against' Ahab, a particularly evil king of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. He typically gathered false prophets around him (as "Yes" men) and complained about the prophet Micaiah (who uttered the above) that he only 'spoke bad things about him' so Ahab did not consult with him much! (I Kgs 22.8,18)

  2. As we have seen in the later case of Jeremiah and Ezek, this pattern of the rulers only listening to 'politically acceptable' prophets started early. (Remember the "IMPORTANT POINT A" above?) Compare the case of the prophet Isaiah, chronologically between Micaiah and Jeremiah, in 30.10ff:
    " They say to the seers, "See no more visions!"
    and to the prophets, "Give us no more visions of what is right!
    Tell us pleasant things, prophesy illusions.
    Leave this way, get off this path, and stop confronting us
    with the Holy One of Israel!"
  3. God had already judged Ahab and decreed his death in 21.19, for , among other things, the innocent death of Naboth (22.1-19).

  4. The sending of the 'lying spirits' is to EVENTUATE Ahab's judgment (22.20).

  5. The actual word for 'entice' is the 'seduce' word we saw in Jeremiah. God asks who will 'seduce/overpower' Ahab in going to his death (no mention of 'deception' yet). A spirit volunteers to be a 'lying spirit' and God grants permission, with a "go and do it". Seduction DOES NOT necessarily include deception. There were OTHER forms of the verb, and other words that could have brought that meaning out--if so intended, but they are not used in this passage.

  6. This 'putting of the lying spirit' is called part of a 'disaster decree (judgment)' in 22.23.

    This is a clear case of 'confusion' or false decisions AS A JUDGMENT.

Important Point B (again): In this passage it is even MORE obvious than in the cases of Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Notice that this passage 20-23 is BEING GIVEN face to face to AHAB! Micaiah, in the presence of the other prophets and even the king of the Southern Kingdom, is describing this vision IN DETAIL to AHAB! Ahab has every opportunity to reject the lying spirits and accept the true message from YAHWEH! Kaiser makes this point clearly (HSOT:120f): "This principle is further confirmed when we note that the passage in question is a vision that Micaiah reveals to Ahab. God is telling Ahab, 'Wise up. I am allowing your prophets to lie to you." In a sense, God is revealing further truth to Ahab rather than lying to him. If God were truly trying to entrap Ahab into a life-threatening situation, he would not have revealed the plan to Ahab! Even so, Ahab refuses to heed God's truth and follows his prophets' advice anyway." Notice that this same dynamic of "if God were REALLY trying to deceive, why would he TELL the people?!" is operative in ALL of the OTHER CASES we have seen!

POINT THREE: JE 8:8 The scribes falsify the word

JE 8:8 - "'How can you say, "We are wise, for we have the law of the LORD," when actually the lying pen of the scribes has handled it falsely?

This verse probably has no bearing on the issue your friend is concerned about. His obvious assumption is that the scribes are TRANSCRIBING the Law incorrectly, giving us MAJOR reason to doubt the fidelity of the OT manuscripts we have today. Although some of the scribes probably had this function, the vast majority of the ones under address here did not. Rather, they were interpreters of the Law to the common folk, and the 'lawyers' of the day. Their 'pens' completed deeds, and testaments, and contracts. And, along with all the OTHER religious figures of the day (e.g. prophets, kings, priests) they abused this power (23.10-14) and were 'greedy for gain' (6.13)--in contradiction to the Law of Yahweh.

In all likelihood, this verse refers to the practice of NOT ENFORCING the ethical directives of the Law in the day-to-day life of Judah. By doing 'illegal' contracts (e.g. oppressing the poor), they basically 'made the Law into a falsehood' (the preferred translation for the phrase)--see J. A. Thompson: NICOT, in. loc. The scribes of the day had immense power--in military, government, and commerce. (Consult ANY good bible background works under 'scribes' for this information: e.g. ISBE, ZPEB, DNTT.)

Many commentators, however, consider this to be a reference to their TEACHING function, as opposed to the scribal understanding I have described above, and focus on how they were TEACHING the Law to the people in OPPOSITION to the 'punishments/warnings' coming from Jeremiah.

Under either understanding, textual transmission of the early OT documents in probably not in view. The general issue of to what extent we can have confidence in our OT documents is discussed in numerous other documents, but strictly speaking, is NOT CENTRAL to your friend's issue of DECEPTION.

POINT FOUR: 2TH 2:11-12 God deceives the wicked (to be able to condemn them).

2TH 2:11-12 - 11 For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.

This is the first NT passage the guy brings up, and is a VERY illustrative one. But, practically speaking, it won't add much to the discussion, because most of the points are simply repeats of the earlier points.

Let's look at it in the larger context of the passage:

And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendor of his coming. 9 The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with the work of Satan displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders, 10 and in every sort of evil that deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. 11 For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie 12 and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.
Let's notice a few things about this:

  1. This has to do with the End-times and the Anti-Christ, who appears with 'all kinds' of epistemologically-powerful evidences. All sorts of 'extraordinary evidence' will accompany this evil one. (v.9)

  2. This power also shows up in every 'sort of evil' that deceives those who are perishing. Notice that this 'deceives' applies to people who are ALREADY perishing somehow. They have ALREADY been confronted with truth and rejected it apparently. Now this 'new' deception comes ON TOP OF that previous rejection (sorta like the OT rulers, eh?). (v.10)

  3. The reason for their perishing is NOT said to be 'God' but 'because they refused to love the truth'. This fits PERFECTLY with the OT rulers--who 'loved deceit'! It was rejection of truth that caused 'perishing'. (v.10)

  4. IF they had loved the truth, then they would have 'been saved'--and these verses would not have applied to them, and the powerful epistemic forces of Satan (although VERY convincing) would NOT have 'convinced them' (see Jesus' prophecy about this aspect--Mt 24:24: "For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect -- if that were possible. 25 See, I have told you ahead of time.")

  5. "For this reason" applies backward to the rejection of truth; the "so that" applies forward to the condemnation. What this basically does is tie the 'delusion' CAUSALLY to the 'refusal to love the truth' (like in the OT--"we love deceit") and tie it JUDICIALLY to the 'judgment/condemnation' (like in the OT--"confusion")

  6. However, we should note that the delusion itself is VERY SPECIFIC in this case--it is "The Lie"--NOT just general falsehood (which we will see in the next verse).

  7. In verse 12 we see again that the condemnation/delusion is for those who have ALREADY NOT believed the truth. This is simply not your basic 'open-minded seekers' but rather those who have rejected both TRUTH AND "love for truth". It is not just people who are mistaken (no-truth), but people who are HAPPILY MISTAKEN(!)--the "no truth for me, buddy" crowd.

So basically we have the same dynamics as in the OT passages.


Let's try to summarize the various threads so far.

  1. If you reject truth and don't even really want the truth, then you will get (i.e. God will give you) EXACTLY what you want! (The old "be careful what you wish for, you just might get it")

  2. Some confusion (not all, by any means!) may be a judgment from God, in keeping with #1 above--cf. Rom 1.25 ("They exchanged the truth of God for a lie") and 1.28 ("Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind"). But it is ALWAYS in line with what we WANT.

  3. God uses a 'permission' ethic to achieve this. In some cases He allowed false messages and false messengers to have access to the 'hearer' (e.g. Ahab, Jeremiah's audience); in some cases He will allow strong epistemic evidences to accompany said messages (2 Thess 2). He permits deceptive influences into someone's life because (1) they ASK for them; AND often (2) as judgment for prior rejection of truth and honesty-values.

    Note: When the demons in Matt 8.30 asked for permission to enter the animals, Jesus simply said 'Go' (.31). This does NOT make Him the active sponsor of evil. When he told Judas to do his betrayal "quickly," this did not implicate Him in His own betrayal. God allows us to choose ignorance. He seems to stall it off for a while, but if we become increasingly dishonest in how we deal with information about Him and other truth, eventually He will ethically be driven to 'punish us'--to allow our character to BECOME like the character of our most recent choices (e.g. to reject obvious truth).

  4. BUT--by the goodness of God somehow--in each of the cases we have seen, God has along with the deceptive forces, provided INFORMATION about those forces. He has provided truth even about the 'confusion' SO THAT WE might accept truth and change the path of our character. In this act of providing insight and explanation as to the nature and aberrant truth-status of the deceptive messages, God seems to attempt to thwart His judicial actions Himself! He really does want us to know Him.


HIS CONCLUSION: (Note: Every word of God cannot prove true if God deceives anyone at all; the Bible cannot be trusted if the scribes falsify the word. The first reference is mutually exclusive with the other three.

Thus, the Bible cannot be the perfect work of a perfect and loving God since one or more of the above references is obviously untrue.)

(Note: Some versions use the word "persuade." The context makes clear, however, that deception is involved.)


Hopefully your friend will be able to see how this all fits together nicely...

God permits deceptive forces to enter someone's life if they are COMMITTED to deception already, and if they have demonstrated a culpable history of that destructive dishonesty (and so deserving censure--hopefully 2 Tim 2.25-26). But even with that permission, God often sends a counter-balancing message of truth--alerting the recipient of the danger of deception.

What is important for ALL OF US to realize is that--Christian or non-Christian--our basic attitude of openness and honesty to the 'data' around us has HUGE consequences for our future access to truth.

I would sincerely hope that your friend will consider this last point carefully, as he evaluates the above evidence.


I know I'm asking a lot, but if you could e-mail the response back to me as well as posting it I would be really grateful. I wish to send my reply back to this young man as soon as possible. And BTW....I saw this same thing (word for word in fact) posted on an atheistic "think tank", but I haven't seen the Christian refutation.

Thank you!

Hope this helps...

glenn miller 6/3/96
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