Is deception the hallmark of our times?

As I write, the Dyson Report has just laid bare the deception used by Martin Bashir to obtain the interview with Diana.

But actually this is symptomatic of the whole realm of public and political life, where lies and deceit are commonplace. Truth has indeed stumbled in the public squares (Isa. 59:14), as Chris Wright reminded us in his article ‘The Modern War on Truth’ (en January 2020).

And it is no longer just in the public square! Deception now reaches down to every layer in society, as technology opens up all sorts of possibilities to counterfeit reality in a whole range of human experiences and activity. Our slightest acquaintance with social media makes us aware of its capacity to deceive, as people ignite rumours of one sort or another, or create false identities for themselves.

Meanwhile we endure a constant stream of scam phonecalls, emails and texts, as devious individuals scheme to separate us from our savings using every trick available to them in the digital book; everywhere we turn we are surrounded by a world of fake and deceit. In 2016, ‘post-truth’ was Oxford Dictionaries international word of the year; will ‘deepfake’ take its place in 2021?

But we must be careful not to throw stones in glass houses! We are galled, I expect, to discover that deception has infiltrated our own ranks, as we learn of Christian leaders who have been living double lives, fooling us, it seems, with their gospel rhetoric, while indulging their own sinful nature. They promise … freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity (2 Pet. 2: 2-3).

No surprise

None of this should surprise us. Deception actually forms the Bible’s ‘bookends’ – a pointer to its primary significance in the whole narrative: two chapters in, we read of Satan’s great deception practised against the man and woman in Eden; two chapters from the end, there is an account of Satan’s final great deception, when he is released to deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth (Rev. 20:8). Although this final deception only takes up one verse on this occasion, it is developed elsewhere more fully – it features prominently in Jesus’s account of the end of the age (Matt. 24:4-5, 11, 23-26) and it is described in graphic detail by Paul in 2 Thessalonians 2:9-12. It is possible that this crescendo of deception is what we are witnessing today.

If we look back at the Old Testament, we see how deception has been a ruling characteristic in human affairs, even among God’s people, from the Fall onwards. It was a regular failing of the patriarchs – the very name Jacob, which often substitutes for Israel, is itself synonymous with deception (Gen. 25:26)! Despite the injunctions of the law (ninth commandment) and the rebuke of the prophets, the history of Israel as a nation continued to be one of a descent into ever greater duplicity and deceit.

This reaches its climax just before the exile, as we see in Jeremiah’s prophecy: ‘From the least to the greatest, all are greedy for gain; prophets and priests alike, all practice deceit. They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. “Peace, peace,” they say, when there is no peace’ (Jer. 6:13-14; 8:10-11).

Jeremiah’s conclusion is damning: ‘The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?’ (Jer. 17:9). It wasn’t just that the Jews in his time were practising deceit – they had fallen prey to self-deception, where they were no longer capable of recognising truth from error; they actually preferred to believe the lie (Jer. 28:15) – scarily reminiscent of 2 Thessalonians 2:11 – and were rendered ripe for judgment.

So what about us? What confidence can we have, especially in the light of the recent evidence of deception within the church, that our fate as God’s people of the New Testament will be any different from what happened to Jerusalem?

To be concluded in the next issue.

Lee N. Emerson

Lee N. Emerson is the Pastor of Scott Drive Church, Exmouth, and has recently published Deception! The Craft of Satan, the Folly of Man, the Wisdom of God.