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God Squad: For heaven's sake, don't cheat

It seems the world is full of deceit. It's hard to find people who are truly honest. Integrity and adherence to moral and ethical principles are lacking in today's society. This hurts many people in many ways. I also realize even honest people fib occasionally, usually in an effort to not hurt someone's feelings. What I wonder is: Do chronic liars and cheats go to heaven? If so, what's the point of being honest?

-- M., via email

All religious traditions have laws against lying and cheating. All secular ethical systems also echo the value of honesty.

Lying is not telling what you know to be true. Saying or writing something untrue when you're uninformed about the truth is not lying; lying involves an intentional distortion of the truth. There are, however, some instances where lying is the moral and religiously proper thing to do.

If you were hiding someone from the Nazis, and a band of SS officers came to your door and asked you if you were hiding Jews, the proper response would obviously be to lie. At a wedding, you should always say when asked that "The bride is beautiful." The difference between white lies and morally unacceptable lies is that white lies are not told to deceive but to protect. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, lying is speaking falsehood with the intention to deceive, and white lies are not self-serving but other-serving (those fibs you refer to). They're not moral failings but are compassionate acts in a cruel world.

Of course, some lies are intended to deceive. Most of the lies kids tell their parents about drinking, smoking, or drugs are this type. They break the bond of trust between parents and children and habituate children to a life of deception.

Cheating, on the other hand, is always wrong. Cheating, according to Christianity, Judaism and Islam, is actually a derivative sin. It's a type of stealing -- the theft of knowledge. It's a deliberate deception for some personal gain. Cheating on a test, cheating on one's spouse or cheating at work are all ways we pretend to possess a virtue that in fact has eluded us.

Many forms of advertising are forms of stealing knowledge. When a manufacturer misleads potential customers by making false claims or dressing up a product to make it appear more attractive than it really is, that at its root, is cheating. Such acts contribute to a culture where mistrust is the norm and honesty foolish. But honesty is never foolish, and regardless of the short-term advantages of cheating, its long-term effects on our moral life are deeply corrosive.

As for whether liars and cheats go to heaven, the final true answer will have to wait until we meet again at the pearly gates.

For Christianity, salvation is by faith, not works. The key to salvation is holding fast to the belief in Jesus as the Messiah, whose death and resurrection was a gift from God to atone for human sins and the sins of the world. Belief in Christ will grant access to heaven for the sinner who repents, according to Christianity. Obviously, this doesn't mean Christians condone cheating. However, they hold a profound belief in the power of faith to open the doors to heaven for even those sunk in sin.

For Judaism, the judgment of God upon our souls depends upon God's judgment of the entire fabric of our moral lives. The same is true for Islam.

My view is that if we live our lives trying to do no harm, or at least trying to do as little harm as possible, we'll be OK with The Boss after we die. The point of honesty, however, is to be OK with our fellow human beings on Earth. Doing or not doing anything just to avoid punishment or earn a reward is not nearly as noble a motivation as doing good simply because it is good. Religious beliefs can be mind-numbingly complex, but it pleases me that religious and secular ethics are both identical and bracingly simple: Do the good!

Wisdom from Plainview

Thanks to my readers for sending in their lists of the three most important things to teach children. Here's a great example from R., of Plainview:

1. Think before you speak, and think TWICE before you act.

2. Say what you mean, and, more importantly, MEAN what you say.

3. Always make NEW mistakes!

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