By Spencer Gear
At a Christian Witness Ministries recent outreach men's breakfast, I spoke on the topic, "Can you believe in God after September 11 and the tsunami? Which 'monster' created evil?" At question time, a thoughtful Christian asked: "How does your view of the creation of evil line up with God who said in Isaiah, 'I created evil.'" My response was inadequate, so I have investigated further. The following is my understanding of this verse from Isaiah.
Isaiah 45:7 in the KJV states,
I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.
In the NIV it reads:
I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things.
In the ESV, the translation is:
I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the LORD, who does all these things.
The NASB translation is:
The One forming light and creating darkness, causing well-being and creating calamity; I am the LORD who does all these.
Here is the contrast:
I make peace, and I create evil (KJV);
I bring prosperity and create disaster (NIV);
I make well-being and create calamity (ESV);
Causing well-being and creating calamity; I am the LORD who does these (NASB).
Does God, the Lord, create moral evil, i.e. does God create sin, or does he create calamity or disaster? There is quite a difference in the meaning. If God creates all the evil in the world, from the beginning of time until the end of this world, what kind of a God is He? If he creates calamities or disasters what kind of God is He?
The word translated "evil" or "disaster/calamity" is the Hebrew, ra. It is true that the word can be used to refer to natural disasters or calamities. It is a very common word for evil as a general description in the OT. The "tree of the knowledge of good and evil" in Gen. 2:9 uses this word, as the evil of the people that brought the judgment of Noah's flood (Genesis 6:5). The evil of the men of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 13:13 uses this word (Grudem 1994, p. 326 n7).
Psalms 34:14 reads, “Turn away from evil and do good.” There's that word, ra, again. We read of it again in Isaiah 59:7, speaking of those whose “feet run to evil.” You can read it also in other passages in Isaiah (see Isaiah 47:10, 11; 56:2; 57:1; 59:15; 65:12; 66:4)
There are many other OT passages that use ra to refer to moral evil (i.e. sin) and to disaster/calamity. How do we know how to translate? The context will tell us. Does God create evil/sin, or does God create disaster?
As Gordon Lewis and Bruce Demarest put it:
Isaiah does not teach the blasphemous idea that the Lord creates sin! (1987, p. 312).
If we look to the context of Isa. 45:7, this is what we find:
Thus says the Lord, the Holy One of Israel. - Isaiah 45:11
He is the God of holiness. So, God could not be the creator of sin. Sin is incompatible with God's holiness.
Isaiah predicted that sudden disaster would come to Babylon:
But evil shall come upon you, which you will not know how to charm away; disaster shall fall upon you, for which you will not be able to atone; and ruin shall come upon you suddenly, of which you know nothing - Isaiah 47:11 (ESV).
You can read a similar emphasis in Amos 3:6, which the KJV translates as:
Shall a trumpet be blown in the city, and the people not be afraid? Shall there be evil in a city, and the LORD has not done it?
The NIV translates as:
When a trumpet sounds in a city, do not the people tremble? When disaster comes to a city, has not the LORD caused it?
It is only when there is judgment for sin that the prophets write as in Isaiah 45:7,
I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things" (NIV).
Like a just judge, God decrees punishment for sin but he does not decree acts of sin (Lewis and Demarest 1987, p. 312).
Remember Jonah who was thrown overboard by men on that ship travelling to Tarshish?
Then they [the men on the boat] took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm - Jonah 1:15 (NIV).
However, five verses later, in Jonah 2:3, Jonah is praying to God,
You hurled me into the deep, into the very heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me; all your waves and breakers swept over me (NIV).
How is it that the men on the boat threw Jonah overboard and that God hurled Jonah into the deep? The Bible can affirm that men did it and that it was God in action. God brought about His plan by using the men on the boat. In a way that we don't quite understand,
God caused [the men] to make a willing choice to do what they did (Grudem 1994, p. 326).
Alec Motyer observes:
Prosperity … disaster: the older, literal rendering 'peace … evil' caused unnecessary difficulties. Can the Lord 'create evil'? Out of about 640 occurrences of the word ra', which range in meaning from a 'nasty' taste to a full moral evil, there are about 275 cases where it refers to trouble or calamity. Each case must be judged by its context and NIV has done so correctly here. Cyrus was 'bad news' to the kings he conquered and the cities he overthrew. But Isaiah's (and the Bible's) view of divine providence is rigorous – and for that reason full of comfort. Sinful minds want the comfort of a sovereign God but jib at saying with Job (2:10), 'Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble (ra)?' (1999, p. 287).
How does this relate to Isa. 45:7? God used people in Jonah's day to perform an evil action. In Isaiah's day, God brought disaster on Babylon through the use of human means.
God does not create all of the sinful evil in the world, but God does bring disaster or calamity as His judgment. It was God who created "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil" (Gen. 2:9).
About the Author
Spencer Gear is a counselling co-ordinator with a national agency, an active apologist & Bible teacher, and is a doctoral student in New Testament. He may be contacted at PO Box 3107, Hervey Bay, Qld 4655, Australia.