“I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things” (Isaiah 45:7 KJV).
In the King James version of the Bible quoted above, this verse from the Book of Isaiah is one that has puzzled countless people over the centuries since that translation was made. If God is good, we might naturally ask, how can he create evil? But three lines of evidence show that the KJV translation is not accurate in this instance and must be revised in order to properly understand what Isaiah wrote. We will look at the three factors individually.
First, the Hebrew word ra translated “evil” in the KJV of Isaiah 45:7 can mean moral evil, and it is often rightly translated that way in the Old Testament; but the word also has the meanings of physical adversity, calamity, disaster, injury, ruin, or even misery. So while evil is a possible translation in Isaiah 45:7, it is only one of many and we must look at the immediate context of the scripture and the context of the whole Bible to see which meaning would be most appropriate in this verse.
Second, the immediate context of Isaiah 45:7 indicates that Isaiah did not have moral evil in mind when he composed this verse. Chapter 45 has a clear context in which God says he rewards obedience (for example, vss. 8, 17) and punishes disobedience, rebellion and sin (for example, vss. 9, 16). This immediate context makes it far more likely that Isaiah 45:7 is using the Hebrew word ra in the sense of calamity or disaster that comes upon the wicked as a result of their own actions. We can see this in the exact wording of the verse – notice how “light and darkness” (two direct opposites) are compared with “peace and evil.” But evil is not the opposite of peace – this second pair of words should clearly be “peace and calamity.”
Finally, everything we are told throughout the Bible about the goodness and righteousness of God indicates that God does not himself create that which is wrong or morally evil. The prophet Habakkuk tells us of God: “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil” (Habakkuk 1:13); the Psalms tell us: “The LORD is upright…there is no wickedness in him” (Psalm 92:15); Isaiah himself tells us that “Those who walk righteously … shut their eyes against contemplating evil” (Isaiah 33:15). These and a great many other biblical verses show that God clearly does not and cannot contemplate evil.
The fact that the Hebrew word translated “evil” has many other meanings, the fact that the immediate context of Isaiah 45:7 is one of the calamities of punishment for sin rather than the creation of moral evil, and the fact that the Bible is consistent in showing that God does not even look at evil all indicate that it is not moral evil that God creates, but the punishment that comes as a result of sin.
That is why English translations made since the King James was translated in 1611 have almost all chosen to translate the Hebrew ra not as “evil” but with a word reflecting some kind of punishment. The New International Version, for example, translates the word “disaster,” as does the Holman Bible. The English Standard Version translates it “calamity,” as does the New King James Version which brings the English of the King James Version up to date. God does not ever directly create evil, though he creates beings that may of their own will turn to evil and bring punishment upon themselves.
R. Herbert (a pen name), holds an earned doctorate in biblical studies and ancient Near Eastern languages and archaeology. He writes for a number of Christian venues as well as for his websites at LivingWithFaith.org and TacticalChristianity.org where you can also find his free e-books.