The psalmist says, “God is just in all his ways and kind in all his doings” (145:17). St. Paul echoes this truth in Romans 8:28: “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.”
Some other verses, however, lead critics to deny God’s goodness, or even to claim that he is the author and creator of evil. Three of the passages most commonly cited in such arguments are these:
- “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things” (Isa. 45:7, KJV).
- “Does evil befall a city, unless the Lord has done it” (Amos 3:6)?
- “Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and evil come” (Lam. 3:38)?
Before we examine these verses we need a precise definition of “evil.” Evil is not a thing God created, because everything God made is good (Gen. 1:31). Evil is instead a privation or absence of good. This doesn’t mean that evil is “nothing” or that it is illusory in nature. Evil is real, but it only exists as an absence or corruption of a good—the way rust only exists as a corruption of metal and has no real existence on its own. There also different kinds of evil: moral and natural.
Moral evil refers to a rational being acting against the good, and natural evil (also called “physical evil”) refers to suffering or pain that have nothing to do with making evil choices. This kind of evil doesn’t come from someone acting against the good, but an absence of a good that is natural and due to a thing. One example of this would be the absence of sight a blind person should possess.
God cannot cause moral evil because it is impossible for God to act against what he is—goodness itself. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches,
God is in no way, directly or indirectly, the cause of moral evil. He permits it, however, because he respects the freedom of his creatures and, mysteriously, knows how to derive good from it” (311).
God can, however, directly or indirectly cause physical evils like pain or suffering. That’s because these bad things can serve God’s ultimately good ends (CCC 310). As C.S. Lewis once said, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, and shouts in our pain, it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
Do the three passages listed above describe God creating physical evils like pain, or do they describe God creating moral evils that contradict his perfectly good nature? Let’s begin with Isaiah 45:7, which reads in some English translations, “I make peace and create evil,” or, with the Hebrew words substituted, “I make shalom and create ra.”
The word shalom is a greeting that means “peace” and is used as an informal way of wishing someone well (similar to “Peace be with you”). The Hebrew word that the King James Version translates as “evil” in this passage, ra, can mean moral evil. For example, in Genesis 2:9 it refers to “the tree of the knowledge of good [tov] and evil [wa-ra].” “But this does not mean, as Dan Barker suggests, “The Hebrew word ra clearly [or only] means ‘moral evil.’”
Ra can also refer to natural evil, as in Psalm 34:19, which says, “Many are the afflictions [ra-ot] of the righteous; but the Lord delivers him out of them all.” Obviously Psalm 34:19 does not mean “many are the moral evils of the righteous.” It means instead, “many are the trials or difficulties of the righteous.” These trials can come from the moral evils of bad people who oppose the righteous or even natural evils like sickness or accidents.
Prior to this verse, Isaiah describes how God is in complete control of the universe. The Israelites’ suffering is not the result of God being unable to fend off other gods, but is part of God’s providential plan for Creation. The Catholic edition of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible (RSVCE) accurately communicates this message by rendering Isaiah 45:6–7 as the following: “There is none besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make weal (shalom) and create woe (ra), I am the Lord, who do all these things.”
Just as the opposite of light is darkness, the opposite of peace is unrest or calamity, not necessarily moral evil (though moral evil could cause calamities). Isaiah 45:7 simply describes how God is the ultimate cause of both what we enjoy and what we suffer. According to the Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture,
No distinction was made between direct causality and mere permission. The Israelites were satisfied that Yahweh was the ultimate cause of every event and did not ask how precisely he was the cause both of good and evil.
This also explains Amos 3:6, which the RSVCE renders, “Does evil befall a city, unless the Lord has done it?”
The second chapter of Amos indicts Israel for oppressing the poor (“they trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and turn aside the way of the afflicted”) and sexual immorality (“a man and his father go in to the same maiden, so that my holy name is profaned”) (Amos 2:7). The third chapter of Amos describes God delivering his judgment against Israel in the form of the invading Assyrian army. God is certainly causing a disaster in this case, and using the moral evil of others to bring it upon the Israelites, but he is not engaging in an act of moral evil by allowing these events to take place.
What about Lamentations 3:38? Do “evil and good” proceed from the mouth of God?
The book of Lamentations describes the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. The author uses poetic language to help the reader understand why a good God would allow something so terrible to happen. The author says, “The Lord is good to those who wait for him” (Lam. 3:25), but he also candidly admits, “though [the Lord] causes grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve the sons of men” (Lam. 3:32–33).
The author of Lamentations, traditionally thought to be Jeremiah, is walking a fine line between two unorthodox views of God. The first is to say there are events that happen outside of God’s control, such as the suffering of morally upright people. However, this contradicts the biblical notion of God’s sovereignty, or his complete control of the universe. According to biblical scholar John Walton,
The Israelites, along with everyone else in the ancient world, believed that every event was the act of deity – that every plant that grew, every baby born, every drop of rain and every climactic disaster was an act of God. No ‘natural’ laws governed the cosmos; deity ran the cosmos or was inherent in it.
Jeremiah avoids detracting from God’s sovereignty by admitting that the Lord causes grief. But God doesn’t just stand by and helplessly watch it happen or delight in our suffering for its own sake. Jeremiah makes that clear by saying God “does not willingly afflict or grieve” us (Lam. 3:33). Instead, God uses suffering to call us to repentance. This is the context in which Lamentations 3:38 is best understood. The text says,
Who has commanded and it came to pass, unless the Lord has ordained it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and evil come? Why should a living man complain, a man, about the punishment of his sins? Let us test and examine our ways, and return to the Lord!
Jeremiah is essentially telling his fellow Jews: Who are we to say God is evil when our own evil deeds brought this punishment upon us? Both good and evil exist by God’s will, and it is not our right to question him. We must obey God and turn away from the evil we have embraced.
It’s a lesson that’s as true for us today as it was for God’s faithful who have wrestled with evil and suffering for thousands of years before us.