(Isa. 45:7) Does God create evil? (cf. Lam. 3:38; Jer. 18:8; Amos 3:6; 1 Sam. 16:14; 18:10)

CLAIM: Isaiah writes that God is the one who “[causes] well-being and creating calamity” (Isa. 45:7). Older translations render this Hebrew ra’ as “evil” (ASV). Is God the author of evil?

RESPONSE: No! God does not cause evil. The psalmist writes, “You are not a God who takes pleasure in wickedness; no evil dwells with You” (Ps. 5:4). He also writes, “There is no unrighteousness in Him” (Ps. 92:15). Paul writes, “What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be!” (Rom. 9:14). James writes, “Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow” (Jas. 1:17). More passages could be offered, but clearly, the Bible teaches that God is morally flawless and incapable of committing evil.

The Hebrew word for “evil” is ra’. While older translations render this as “evil,” newer translations render it “disaster” or “calamity.” Context determines its usage. Motyer writes, “Out of about 640 occurrences of the word ra (which ranges in meaning from a ‘nasty’ taste to full moral evil) there are 275 instances where ‘trouble’ or ‘calamity’ is the meaning.”[1] Since the context of Isaiah 45 is disaster or calamity that Cyrus is bringing on Israel’s enemies, God is saying that he is bringing judgment. Grogan writes that God “brings disaster as a punishment for sin [and] is supreme over all. Isaiah has already shown that God brings calamitous judgment on men because of their sins (cf., e.g., 10:5–12).”[2] While Cyrus is the free moral agent, God is the sovereign Lord over history.

Good things come from God’s moral will (Jas. 1:17), while evil things come from his permissive will. Thus God doesn’t create evil, but he does allow it. Of course, while these categories exist in God’s character, Scripture often blurs the lines in explaining events. We agree with OT scholar Walter Kaiser who observes, “Scriptural language frequently attributes directly to God what he merely permits.”[3] Sometimes the Bible will claim that an act is the freewill decision of an individual; other times it will say the act was caused by God. Since God is sovereign (or in control) over all things, nothing occurs without him either causing or permitting it.

Several examples can be found in Scripture that state God as the direct cause of an event, while others explain that (behind the scenes), he is merely permitting this activity:

Who crucified Jesus? The Bible explains that Satan and evil men were the reason for Jesus being put on the Cross (Jn. 13:2). However, it explains that this was also due to “the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). Likewise, the freewill decisions of Pontius Pilate, Herod, and the people were all according to “whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur” (Acts 4:28).

Who killed Saul? Both 1 Samuel 31 and 1 Chronicles 10 make it clear that Saul committed suicide, killing himself (1 Sam. 31:4; 1 Chron. 10:4). Yet, we read, “The LORD put [Saul] to death and turned the kingdom over to David son of Jesse” (1 Chron. 10:14 NIV).

Samson wanted a Philistine girl, lusted after her, and took her. This was his free moral decision, which is morally prohibited by God. And yet, the author of Judges writes, “However, his father and mother did not know that it was of the Lord, for He was seeking an occasion against the Philistines” (Judg. 14:4). Here we see that Samson’s choice was evil, and yet, it was “of the Lord.” God had a plan in using this decision—even though Samson and his family were unaware of this (cf. Rom. 8:28; Gen. 50:20).

2 Samuel 24:1 explains that God caused David to number the people, but 1 Chronicles 21:1 explains that it was Satan who moved him.

1 Kings 22:23 explains, “The Lord has put a deceiving spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets.” This passage attributes the coming of an evil spirit directly and solely to God. However, when we read the context, we see that the evil spirit actually volunteered to do this (v.21), and God gave him permission to do it (v.22). While God does command the demon to “Go and do it,” this doesn’t necessarily mean that this is his active will. God also commands the people of Israel, “Go to Bethel and sin” (Amos 4:4 NIV). Clearly, God would never desire us to do this (i.e. his moral will), but he does permit this (i.e. his permissive will), because this is exactly what the people “loved to do” (Amos 4:5 NIV).

Job 1-2 state that Satan was the one to afflict Job, but at the end of the book, Job’s friends are said to comfort him “for all the adversities that the Lord had brought on him” (Job 42:11).

Exodus 12:23-24 states, “For the Lord will pass through to smite the Egyptians; and when He sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over the door and will not allow the destroyer to come in to your houses to smite you. 24 And you shall observe this event as an ordinance for you and your children forever.” However, the psalmist writes that this was actually—not the Lord—but “a band of destroying angels” (Ps. 78:49). No contradiction is warranted, when we realize that first and second causes are not distinguished in Hebrew thinking.

Other passages explain that Satan has to ask “permission” to attack humans (Lk. 22:31). Thus demonic activity (which is clearly evil) is still not God’s active will, but his permissive will. This language of causation is meant to communicate that God is sovereign. Nothing happens without him signing off on it. To the original audience (who was terrified of the demonic), this was probably a comforting message—even if it is difficult for modern people to comprehend, as we may take for granted the sovereignty of God over the demonic.

[1] Motyer, J. A. The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction & Commentary. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996, Isaiah 45:7.

[2] Grogan, G. W. (1986). Isaiah. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel (Vol. 6, p. 271). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[3] Kaiser, Walter C. More Hard Sayings of the Old Testament. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1992. 132.