Question from a reader:
If God created all things, then doesn’t that mean he created evil? Isaiah 45:7 “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.”
Answer from Randy’s book If God is Good:
The Bible attributes the origin of human evil to people exercising their free will; when they choose to disobey God’s standards, it brings suffering.
God said “You can eat the fruit of every other tree, but if you eat from this one, you will surely die” (Gen. 2:16-17). The Bible says “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). We are free to choose, but there will be severe consequences if we choose to disobey. The first man and woman chose that path, and when they did evil, death and suffering kicked in.
Scripture does not distance God from disasters and secondary evils the way his children often do. God makes an unapologetic statement about himself: “I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things” (Isaiah 45:7).
As we see in Jeremiah 11:17 and 32:23, so in Isaiah 45 God brings ra, disastrous consequences, to deal with people’s ra, moral evil. God righteously brings terrible judgment upon human evil.
Amos 3:6 says, “When disaster [ra] comes to a city, has not the LORD caused it?” A description of natural disasters follows in Amos 4:6–12, where God says he brought hunger, drought, blight, mildew, locusts, pestilence, and the death of men and horses, “yet you have not returned to me” (verse 11). God intended these disasters not only as punishment, but as discipline designed to draw his people back to himself.
Scripture sometimes speaks of primary and secondary evils in the same context, explaining how God uses secondary evils as judgments that may produce ultimate good. Jeremiah 11:17 uses the same Hebrew word for evil (ra) in both the primary sense (moral evil) and the secondary sense (adverse consequences of moral evil): “The LORD of hosts, who planted you, has pronounced evil against you because of the evil of the house of Israel and of the house of Judah, which they have done to provoke Me by offering up sacrifices to Baal” (NASB).
Other versions, including the ESV and NIV, translate the first use of ra as “disaster.” Are these scholars wrong to render it disaster instead of evil? I don’t think so. The translators correctly recognize that the “evil” God brings is a consequence—a judgment upon Israel’s actions—not a moral evil, as is the evil committed by Israel. God is righteous and just in bringing this disaster.
For good reason, most translators normally render ra as “evil” when used of people disobeying God, but “disaster” or “calamity” when used of God bringing judgment on sinful people. The original Hebrew readers, knowing the elasticity of the word, could contextually discern the difference in meaning. But the English word evil is for most a synonym for moral wickedness, making it a narrower word than the Hebrew ra. (There can be righteous ra but not righteous evil.)
In Jeremiah 32 the prophet speaks of God giving the land to Israel: “They came in and took possession of it, but they did not obey you or follow your law; they did not do what you commanded them to do. So you brought all this disaster upon them” (verse 23). The word translated “disaster” is again ra. Israel brought the sin; God righteously brought sin’s disastrous consequences.
After promising judgment, God also promised he would bring good to his people—good that ultimately would outweigh the evil. Note the repetition of the word “good” in the following. God says,
They will be my people, and I will be their God. I will give them singleness of heart and action, so that they will always fear me for their own good and the good of their children after them. I will make an everlasting covenant with them: I will never stop doing good to them, and I will inspire them to fear me, so that they will never turn away from me. I will rejoice in doing them good and will assuredly plant them in this land with all my heart and soul. (Jeremiah 32:38–41)
God’s people endure temporary judgments for their sin. But God makes an “everlasting covenant,” promising, “I will never stop doing good to them.”
Evils, whether moral or natural, will not have the final say. God will replace both with everlasting good.
The passage continues, “For thus says the LORD: Just as I have brought all this great disaster upon this people, so I will bring upon them all the good that I promise them” (verse 42, ESV)
Howard Hendricks tells of visiting a leprosy center in India. The morning he arrived, the residents were gathered for a praise service. One of the women with leprosy hobbled to the platform. Hendricks said that even though she was partially blind and badly disfigured, she was one of the most beautiful women he’d ever seen.
Raising both of her nearly fingerless hands toward Heaven, she said in a clear voice, “I want to praise God that I am a leper because it was through my leprosy that I came to know Jesus Christ as my Savior. And I would rather be a leper who knows Christ than be completely whole and a stranger to His grace.”
The surgeon inflicts suffering on the patient and the parent disciplines the child, but they do good, not evil. Likewise, God can permit and even bring suffering upon his children without being morally evil. God hates moral evil and is committed to utterly destroying it. Yet for now he allows evil and suffering, and can providentially use them for his own good purposes.
God condemns the human choices that have brought the great majority of suffering. Men blame God. But God blames men. Jesus looked at the suffering of Jerusalem, and wept over it. He longs for people to live by his standards. If we did there would not be evil and suffering. As we’ll see, God did not stay at a distance, but did something startling to deal with the problem of evil and suffering.