Forbidden Lies by Anthony Esolen


Forbidden Lies

Speaking Truth About the Sexes Is Not Optional

“Let your yes be yes and your no be no,” says Jesus. “Anything more than this comes from the evil one” (Matt. 5:37). For Satan was “a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks what is false, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). Recall the primal lie, uttered that death might be brought into the world: “You shall not die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes shall be opened, and you shall be as gods, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:4–5).

Should one small taste cost us paradise? One small offense, a technicality perhaps, a feint, a tactical gesture? Surely not, says Milton’s Satan:

Will God incense his ire
For such a petty trespass, and not praise
Rather your dauntless virtue, whom the pain
Of Death denounced, whatever thing Death be,
Deterred not from achieving what might lead
To happier life, knowledge of good and evil?
(Paradise Lost 9.692–697)

Surely Daniel was a fool for falling to his knees to pray to God when the emperor had forbidden it (Dan. 6:10), and his three companions were fools for not falling before Nebuchadnezzar’s idol (Dan. 3:12), and the seven brothers were fools for not eating just a little bit of swine’s flesh (2 Macc. 7:1). So we must conclude when Christians give way on the one petty trespass of our time, saying that they are not really lying, but only speaking as they must so that they will continue in relationship with those they want to bring to Christ. “This little lie of mine,” they sing, “I’m going to let it shine.”

Lying About Reality

A personal name is in the determination of the person or his parents. A boy can be named Gail (Goodrich) or Lynn (Swann). A woman can be named Michael (Learned). I tell no lie when I call them by their names. But if I call a man a woman or a woman a man, as I do in English if I call Lynn Swann a she or Michael Learned a he, I do tell a lie, nor does it matter if I am not the lie’s originator. Nor are we talking about the hard case of a lie told to send a murderer in the wrong direction, looking for his intended victim. We are talking about a lie about created reality itself, uttered when no one is pointing a gun at your head, or threatening you with a den of lions.

A man is not a woman and can never become a woman. A woman is not a man and can never become a man. What an offense it is against the beauty showered upon us by the Creator who made us male and female in the beginning, to mutilate the body and mar the face, all in the vain pretense that we can do the impossible! There is no such thing as a “trans-man” or a “trans-woman.” There are only men or women pretending to be what they are not, and insisting that others participate in the pretense or delusion. 

The beginning of wisdom, said the sage Confucius, is to call things by their right names. The beginning of folly, cowardice, capitulation, or treason is to allow confused or wicked people to prevail upon you, so that you call things by their wrong names.

No Light Matter

It is no small thing we insist upon here. The whole creation hangs in the balance. Saint Paul tells us that the invisible God is in part known by the visible things he has created. But men and women now claim the right to uncreate. “This at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh,” says Adam when he first beholds Eve (Gen. 2:23). The sexual madness of our time would choke Adam’s words in his mouth. The marriage of man and woman is an image of Christ’s union with his bride the Church (Eph. 5:32, Rev. 21:2), and that is meant as no mere poetry. The madness of our time would reduce the Bible’s most exalted revelation of the nature of the divine image in man and of the union of God with man to a figure of speech. 

“It is not good for the man to be alone,” says God (Gen. 2:18), but now we must all be alone, with the whole universe collapsed into the fantasy of each individual person. Still we persist at the impossible, even the inconceivable: to found a society upon solipsism.

Never make light of the lie. A little cancer can kill. “I never thought it would come to that,” says Judge Janning in Judgment at Nuremberg, pleading to be understood by the American judge who has convicted and sentenced him for cooperating with the Nazis in their crimes against humanity. He never thought that millions would die. Janning is not by nature a bad man. But Judge Haywood, for all his sympathy with Janning, will not budge. “Herr Janning, it came to that the first time you sentenced to death a man you knew to be innocent.”

The lie gnaws at the soul, hollowing it out. And what about those who stand by to witness it? They see that you do not really believe what both nature and the word of God say. They conclude that you are a coward, a fool, or a hypocrite. Go evangelize the world that way. Your very children will believe the lie. But God will brook no excuses. “I tell you,” says the Lord, “on the day of judgment men will render account for every idle word they utter” (Matt. 12:36).

Speak the truth, always.

Anthony Esolen is a professor at Magdalene College of the Liberal Arts in Warner, New Hampshire, and the author of many books, including Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books), Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan, with a CD), Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Regnery), and The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord (Ignatius Press, 2019). He has also translated Dante's Divine Comedy (Random House). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.