Is God the Cause of Evil in the World?
Based upon the rendering of Isaiah 45:7 in the KJV, ASV, and other translations,1 skeptics have maintained that God is the author of evil. The verse reads: “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.” But is God the cause of evil in the world?
In order to answer that question, one must first define terms and, more specifically, ascertain the meaning behind the original word from which an English translation is taken. After all, the current state of English is such that we use the word “evil” to refer to spiritual, moral evil, i.e., sin or wickedness. But is that the meaning of the Hebrew word that lies behind the word “evil” in this verse?
As a matter of fact, the Hebrew word translated “evil” (rah) has various shades of meaning. It often has the meaning of distress, misery, injury, calamity, and adversity.2 For example, consider its use in Amos 6:3—“Woe to you who put far off the day of doom” (NKJV). The NASB has “the day of calamity.” Jeremiah 42:6 reads in the ESV: “Whether it is good or bad, we will obey the voice of the Lord our God.” The NKJV has: “Whether it is pleasing or displeasing, we will obey the voice of the LORD our God.” Isaiah 31:2 renders the word “disaster” in the NKJV: “Yet He also is wise and will bring disaster.” In Micah 1:12 “good” is contrasted with “disaster.”
Ahab complained to Jehoshaphat that the prophet Micaiah never prophesied “good” concerning him, but only “evil” (1 Kings 22:8,18). He was referring to the misfortune that came upon himself.3 In the great admonition that Moses issued to the younger generation near the end of his life, he urged: “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil” (NKJV). The NASB rightly renders the verse: “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and adversity” (Deuteronomy 30:15). “Good” and “evil” here refer, not to sin or moral evil, but to “prosperity” vs. “adversity.” The previous generation grumbled against Moses in the desert: “And why have you made us come up out of Egypt, to bring us to this evil place?” (Numbers 20:5). They did not mean that the desert was immoral or sinful. They meant it was a “wretched place” (NASB/NRSV), a “terrible place” (CJB/ISV/NIV), a “horrible place” (EHV).
The NKJV renders Job 31:29 as: “If I have rejoiced at the destruction of him who hated me, or lifted myself up when evil found him.” A clearer rendering is: “If I have rejoiced at my enemy’s misfortune or gloated over the trouble that came to him” (NIV). What did Jacob mean when he explained to Pharaoh “few and evil have the days of the years of my life been” (Genesis 47:9)? He used the word to mean “poor, not beneficial.”4 The CJB renders it: “they have been few and difficult.” The NCV has: “short and filled with trouble.” Many additional verses manifest similar meanings for rah that have nothing to do with sin, moral evil, or wickedness.
One final observation regarding Isaiah 45:7. Based on the way Hebrew parallelism functions, the verse itself offers assistance in defining its use of the word “evil.” It is placed in antithesis to the word “peace.” The opposite of “peace” is not moral evil or wickedness—but physical disturbance, trouble, and adversity. The same is true in verse 11:
Therefore evil shall come upon you;
You shall not know from where it arises.
And trouble shall fall upon you;
You will not be able to put it off.
And desolation shall come upon you suddenly,
Which you shall not know.”
Hebrew parallelism in this verse demonstrates that “evil” = “trouble” = “desolation.”
Returning to verse 7, the NKJV reflects the parallelism nicely:
“I form the light and create darkness,
I make peace and create calamity;
I, the LORD, do all these things.”
God is not the author of evil. Intrinsic evil, by definition, refers to violations of God’s will, i.e., sin (1 John 3:4). Sin is committed when human beings5 exercise their free will and choose to transgress God’s laws, thus committing evil. Humans are the source of evil in the world—not God.6
1 In addition to the KJV and ASV, these translations also render the Hebrew term “evil”: BRG, DARBY, DRA, GNV, JUB, LEB, WYC, and YLT.
2 Francis Brown, S.R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs (1906), The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2000 reprint), p. 948.
3 L. Koehler, W. Baumgartner, M.E.J. Richardson, & J.J. Stamm (1994-2000), The Hebrew and Aramaic lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: E.J. Brill, electronic ed.), p. 1252.
5 Satan and other angelic beings also chose to violate God’s will (e.g., John 8:44).
6 God’s allowance of suffering to exist in the world is likewise not evil. See Dave Miller (2015), Why People Suffer (Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press); Dave Miller and Kyle Butt (2009), “The Problem of Human Suffering,” Apologetics Press, https://apologeticspress.org/APContent.aspx?category=12&article=890&topic=330.