The careful reader of sacred Scripture cannot help but notice some passages that seem to conflict with one another. One of these apparent conflicts can be found in comparing Genesis 1, in which everything that God creates is called “good,” with the prophet Isaiah’s claim on God’s behalf: “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.” (Is. 45:7, King James Version). Not only does this verse cause a problem for biblical interpretation, it also has ramifications concerning the Problem of Evil.
Briefly, the Problem of Evil arises when we consider how an all-powerful and all-good God could create a world filled with evil. Now, there are varying responses to this question depending on what motivates it. If we’re looking for a logical answer to the question, Alvin Plantinga’s “God, Freedom, and Evil” is a good place to start. If a friend is seeking comfort during a time of suffering, it’s probably not the time for the logical argument.
Some blame God for evil because, after all, God made everything and unless we want to deny that evil exists, it seems God has to answer for it. St. Thomas Aquinas responds to this claim by arguing that God did not create evil and so cannot be blamed for it (Summa Theologiae I. Q.49, A.2). Evil, the Angelic Doctor argues, is real – but it is not a “thing” that exists in the way a rock or an angel exist. Rather, evil is a description of an absence of goodness – kind of like how darkness (a real but not existing thing) is what we call the absence of light (an existing thing). So, although evil is real it is not a created thing.
This is where the King James Version’s translation of Isaiah 45:7 becomes an issue.
First, we need to remember that even the KJV Bible is a translation. In it, according to the Englishman’s Concordance, the Hebrew word (Ra’), translated in this passage as “evil,” has a wide range of meanings. In the KJV Bible itself, Ra’ is translated over fifteen different ways: “wickedness” (59), “wicked” (25), “mischief” (21), “hurt” (20), “bad” (13), “trouble” (10), “sore” (9), “affliction” (6), “ill” (5), “adversity” (4), “favoured” (3), “harm” (3), “naught” (3), “noisome” (2), “grievous” (2), “sad” (2), and other miscellaneous terms (34). So, the apparent contradiction between Genesis 1 and Isaiah 45 can be addressed in part by noting the varying understanding of the original Hebrew.
Someone might counter that even if the precise contradiction is avoided, it might seem to be splitting hairs to avoid the difficulty. After all, some of the above terms might be seen as synonymous with “evil.” Notice, however, that in Isaiah 45:7 we also find the matched pair of light and darkness. In Genesis 1 God creates light, while merely separating it from its opposite, darkness. So, we find no claim to “creation” of darkness in the exact place where its opposite is created. The analogy to good and evil is in this case precise.
If someone objects to the analogy and insists that evil be understood as existing in itself, “evil” is used to describe many different kinds of immorality and suffering. So which is God speaking of here? Just as the text contrasts the opposites of light and darkness, it does the same with evil: it is contrasted in the KJV with “peace,” whose opposite can be anything from disharmony to war. In the Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition, the translation is “I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe, I am the Lord, who do all these things.” Now, God certainly can cause or allow situations that result in woe—indeed, he does so throughout Scripture as punishment or as a trial. However, this in no way proves that he created evil per se.
Further, even situations that involve suffering can lead to others that are objectively good. Exercise can cause a certain amount of suffering without any evil intent, yet it results in the good of improved health. Or consider Joseph’s brothers, whose evil actions ultimately resulted in good, by the grace of God and faithfulness of Joseph (Gen. 50:20). The same fire that cooks our food and purifies our water can also burn our skin or destroy our homes. It doesn’t make fire, which God created, evil.
God “created all things that they might exist, and the generative forces of the world are wholesome” (Wis. 1:14). God only “creates” evil in the way that a donut maker “creates” a hole—not by giving a non-existing thing existence, but by creating a substance whose absence is named. In the metaphysical sense, evil does not exist in itself, so it is not accurate to claim that God created it.