God Created Evil

God Created Evil

Isaiah 45:7

Editor’s note: This piece comes from an upcoming book by Gary Yates and David Croteau, Urban Legends of the Old Testament, a sequel to Urban Legends of the New Testament.

The Legendary Teaching on Isaiah 45:7

Isaiah 45:7 teaches that God is the cause of moral evil in our world. The KJV of Isaiah 45:7 reads: “I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create evil, I am the Lord who does all these things.” On his blog “Daylight Atheism,” Adam Lee refers to Isaiah 45:7 as one of “the most shocking” passages in the Bible because it reminds us that, “Evil exists because God created it.”[1] Theologians attempting to resolve the dilemma of how and why evil exists in a world under the control of an all-loving, omnipotent, and omniscient deity “can pack it in and go home now,” because this text (and others like it) inform us that evil comes directly from God.[2] Christians mistakenly believe that God is pure and holy when their own Scriptures teach the opposite.

 

Introduction and Countering the Legend

A rather simple matter of translation corrects the mistaken idea that Isaiah 45:7 views God as the source and creator of evil in the world. The majority of modern translations do not follow the KJV in translating the Hebrew word ra`ah in verse 7 as “evil” but instead offer the translation “calamity” (ESV, NAS, NET, NKJV) or “disaster” (CSB, NIV). The point of the passage then is that God brings or causes “disaster” when he acts in judgment. The blog mentioned above accuses the modern translations of attempting to soften the actual teaching of Isaiah 45:7, but the fact that the Hebrew word ra`ah can refer both to moral “evil” and “disaster/calamity” is recognized in all Hebrew lexicons and easily demonstrated from the biblical text.[3] John Oswalt notes that the range of meaning for the Hebrew word ra`ah  is similar to that of the English word “bad” in that it can refer to moral evil, misfortune, or that which does not conform to a real or imagined standard.[4]      

The Old Testament prophets often made word plays based on the semantic range of ra`ah. On more than one occasion, the Lord commands the people through the prophet Jeremiah to turn from their “evil” (ra`ah) way so that he might relent from bringing upon them the “disaster” (ra`ah) he had planned for them (cf. Jer 26:3; 36:3, 7). The word play effectively communicated how the Lord’s punishments would fit their crimes and justly correspond to the people’s actions. The same idea is found in Jonah 3:10, which states that when God saw that the Ninevites had turned from their “evil” (ra`ah) ways, he did not bring upon them the “disaster” (ra`ah) he had threatened to bring against their city.

              The translation of ra`ah as “calamity” or “disaster” in Isaiah 45:7 also makes sense in light of the message of the entire oracle found in 45:1–7. In verses 1–4, the Lord promises to raise up the pagan ruler Cyrus, the future king of Persia, and to enable him to subdue nations as a means of gaining Israel’s release from exile in Babylon. The Lord would remove every obstacle that stood in the way of Cyrus and would give to him the treasures of the peoples he conquered. Cyrus conquered Babylon in 539 B.C. and issued a decree allowing the Jews to return to their homeland in 538 B.C. The Lord would accomplish his purposes through Cyrus because he is the one true God over all of history (v. 5). Yahweh’s ability to announce his plans in advance and then to carry them out would demonstrate his sovereignty and incomparability to all peoples (vv. 6-7). Verse 7 concludes the oracle with a powerful assertion of the Lord’s control over both nature and history. He is the one who created the light and darkness, and as the creator, he is also the one who uses both “success” (shalom) and “disaster” (ra`ah) in the working out of his plans within history.

The fact that ra`ah carries the meaning of “disaster” or “calamity” is further reflected by how it is contrasted here to shalom, which means “peace, health, or well-being.” As Ben Witherington explains, the text is not saying that God created good and evil, but rather that “he brings both blessing and curse, even on his own people.” [5] The Lord had brought “disaster” on his people in the judgment of exile, but he would also bring the shalom of restoration and return. Israel’s shalom would also mean “disaster” for Babylon. This understanding of Isaiah 45:7 also accords with the clear teaching of James 1:13–17 that God is not the author of evil.

Rather than attributing the origin of moral evil to God, Isaiah 45:7 instead offers a strong affirmation of God’s sovereignty. Gary Smith comments, “Everything that happens in the world is connected to God’s activity, whether it appears to be good or bad. It all works together to fulfill God’s purposes, even if people do not understand or accept these things as the work of God.”[6] God is sovereign over all things but not in a mechanistic way that removes human ethical choices and responsibility. Even when the Lord “raises” or “stirs up” kings and armies to carry out his divine judgments (cf. Isa 9:11; Jer 51:1), these entities acted because of their own evil desires rather than divine compulsion and were fully culpable for their crimes (cf. Isa 10:5–14; Jer 50:29; 51:7, 33–39). In Zechariah 1:15, the Lord states that he is “fiercely angry” at the nations who had gone too far in executing punishment on his own people with whom he was only “a little angry.” The fact that God holds these nations responsible for their actions reflects that they acted on their own accord and that they exceeded God’s intentions. Terence Fretheim comments, “The exercise of divine wrath against their excessiveness shows that the nations were not puppets in the hand of God. They retained their power to make decisions and execute policies that flew in the face of the will of God.”[7]

 

By David A. Croteau, Gary Yates

Proverbs 16:4: Has God Created Wicked People to Destroy Them?

              The fact that the Hebrew word ra`ah can be translated both as “evil” and “disaster” is not only the key to a proper understanding of Isaiah 45:7, but also helps to clarify the meaning of Proverbs 16:4, another passage dealing with God’s sovereignty over humans and the world he has created. The verse reads, “The Lord has prepared everything for his purpose—even the wicked for the day of ‘disaster’ (ra`ah).” The verse does not mean that God causes wicked people to do evil things, and it is not teaching that God creates the wicked to accomplish his purposes or that he predestines them to do evil so that he might glorify himself by their destruction, as some have claimed.[8] The verse does not explain why God creates wicked people but rather states that God governs his world by making sure that deeds and consequences correspond.[9] The verb “to do” (pa`al) means “to work out, bring about, accomplish,” and most English translations reflect the idea of God working out everything “for its purpose” or “for his purpose.” The word “purpose” (ma`aneh) actually means “answer” (cf. “answer [ma`aneh] of the tongue” in v. 1), and “for its answer” actually refers to how God causes every action to the appropriate consequence as its “answer” or counterpart. God operates his world so that the wicked will ultimately experience their “day of disaster” as punishment for their deeds.[10] Even when judgment is delayed, this ultimate time or reckoning is inevitable and unavoidable. No one is exempt from judgment or accountability to God.             

              This interpretation of Proverbs 16:4 fits with the larger message of Proverbs that the path of wisdom and righteousness leads to life and blessing, while the path of folly and wickedness leads to cursing and death. This understanding also fits with the contextual focus in Proverbs 16:1–7 on how God administers justice to the righteous and the wicked. The Lord “weighs motives” to determine a person’s true nature (16:2), he will not allow the arrogant to go unpunished (16:5), and he causes others to be at peace with a righteous man (16:7).

 

Application

God’s people can trust that even when evil appears to be winning the day, the Lord remains in control and directs the course of history. If God used the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians to accomplish his purposes in the ancient world, we can rest assured that God remains sovereign over the chaotic world that we live in today. Injustice, violence, terrorism, and even the threat of nuclear war will not prevent God from bringing history to its desired end when he rules over all in the new heavens and new earth. God’s sovereignty is such that he uses even the evil plans and actions of sinful humans to accomplish his purposes without in any way being the cause or source of that evil. God is not only all-powerful; he is also perfectly good and holy with no taint of evil in his character. Believers can trust that the one in charge of human history is “too pure” to even look at evil (Hab 1:13).

 

Bibliography

 

Commentaries

Oswalt, John N., The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40-66. NICOT. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998. Scholarly evangelical commentary with clear explanation of meaning of Isaiah 45:7 and why this verse does not teach that God is the creator of moral evil.

 

Websites

Witherington, Ben. “Mistranslated and Misquoted Verses-Isaiah 45:7.” February 20, 2016. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/bibleandculture/2016/02/20/mistranslated-and-misquoted-verses-isaiah-45-7/. Accessed December 20, 2016. Evangelical NT scholar provides brief explanation refuting idea that Isaiah 45:7 presents God as the creator of evil.

 

 

 


[1] Adam Lee, “Little-Bible Verses V: God Creates Evil,” January 21, 2007. Accessed December 20, 2016. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/2007/01/little-known-bible-verses-v-god-creates-evil/

 

[2] Ibid.

[3] See the entries on ra`ah in BDB, 949 (categories 2 and 3); and HALOT Study Edition, 2:1262–64 (categories 4 and 5).

 

[4] John Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40–66, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 204–5.

[5] Ben Witherington, “Mistranslated and Misquoted Verses—Isaiah 45:7,” February 20, 2016. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/bibleandculture/2016/02/20/mistranslated-and-misquoted-verses-isaiah-45-7/.. Accessed December 20, 2016.

 

[6] Gary V. Smith, Isaiah 40–66, NAC 15B (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009), 258.

 

[7] Terence E. Fretheim, “’I Was Only a Little Angry’: Divine Violence in the Prophets,” in What Kind of God? Collected Essays of Terence E. Fretheim, Siphrut 14, ed. M. J. Chan and B. A. Strawn (Winona Lake, Ind: Eisenbrauns, 2015), 173–74.

 

[8] John Calvin (Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries: The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Romans and the Thessalonians, trans. Ross Mackenzie [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960, 1995], 207–8] writes on this verse: “Solomon also teaches us that not only was the destruction of the ungodly foreknown, but the ungodly themselves have been created for the specific purpose of perishing.”

 

[9] Allen P. Ross, “Proverbs,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 6, rev. ed., ed. T. Longman and D. E. Garland (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 144.

 

[10] Ibid.