Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
While reading the Bible I found this passage: “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil” (Isa. 45:7). Is God the author of evil?
Your question is easy to answer, but the issues raised by it are important and difficult ones. Evil could be morally based on the decisions of free beings that result in the infliction of pain and suffering on themselves, others, and nature; or as the result of disasters in the natural world. The question of God’s involvement in those expressions of evil has been debated by Christians for centuries, and I cannot begin to discuss them here. I will simply deal with three aspects of the problem.
1. Evil Created by God: The English term evil tends to designate moral evil, that is, moral wickedness. Accordingly, Isaiah 45:7 would be stating that God is the cause of immoral actions performed by sinful human beings. But the Hebrew term rac has a much broader usage. It can designate moral evil, misfortune (Prov. 13:17), or harm (Jer. 7:6). In Isaiah 45:7 the context suggests the meaning “misfortune, disaster.” The whole phrase reads “I bring prosperity [shalom] and create disaster (NIV).” The opposite of “evil” in this sense is peace, prosperity, personal safety. The issue here is not moral integrity versus immoral behavior but well-being versus misfortune. The “evil/misfortune” here refers to the bitter Israelite experience of the exile, and the “peace” to their restoration through the work of Cyrus. The evil God created was the exile, the destruction of Jerusalem.
In Amos 3:6 the Lord announced Israel’s fall through a rhetorical question: “When disaster [rac] comes to a city, has not the Lord caused it?” (NIV). The idea is that the collapse of Israel was not the result of the victory of the pagan gods over the God of Israel; the Lord Himself brought this disaster on His people. God is not the creator of moral evil.
2. Evil as Punishment: God seems to relate to evil in several ways. He can use it to punish or correct His people. This presupposes a covenant relationship between Him and them. The Israelites chose God as their Lord, and He accepted them as His people. Faithfulness was indispensable in the preservation of the covenant relationship. But the covenant itself made provision for God to bring back His people to covenant loyalty if they violated it. This was to occur through the covenant curses (Lev. 26:14-45): particular disasters/evils the Lord promised to bring upon Israel in order to provoke His people to listen (verse 18), to accept correction (verse 23), to confess their sins (verse 40), to return to covenant faithfulness.
In some cases the Scripture describes God Himself as the agent of those misfortunes (verse 16). At other times God used the evil nature and intentions of other nations to correct His people (Deut. 28:25). At a deeper theological level the covenant curses revealed that shalom was a possibility for Israel only within the parameters of union with God in a faith relationship, and that outside the covenant sphere one would find and experience only chaos, disaster, evil. That God Himself would bring those disasters upon the Israelites meant that He had not yet totally handed them over to evil; He had not given them up.
3. Evil as a Consequence of Sin: In other cases God related to evil/misfortune in terms of allowing individuals to experience the natural consequences of their sins. The principle is stated in Proverbs 26:27: “If a man digs a pit, he will fall into it” (NIV) (cf. 28:10). We must be careful not to visualize this phenomenon as a mechanical one in which the wicked automatically receive back the evil results of their actions and the righteous ones the automatic benefits of their obedience. It is God Himself who sets in motion the correlation between deeds and consequences. “Your wickedness will punish you; your backsliding will rebuke you,” He says (Jer. 2:19, NIV); “I am bringing disaster on this people, the fruit of their schemes” (Jer. 6:19, NIV).
God is not the originator of evil, but He has accepted responsibility for it in Christ. He is able to use it in the fulfillment of His purpose without being its cause. And He is able to exterminate it from the universe.