I am the one who forms light and creates darkness; the one who brings about peace and creates calamity. I am the Lord, who accomplishes all these things. (Is 45:7 NET)
Quite often, the theist asserts that God doesn’t create evil, but he allows it to happen for reasons his own. Some atheists, however, throw Isaiah 45:7 back at the theist. They inevitably use an older translation, usually the King James Version, where instead of using "calamity," as the NET Bible does above, we read that God "brings peace and creates evil."
In 2007, the website Daylight Atheism brought that verse to light in its series on little-known Bible verses:
The problem of evil has vexed Christian theologians for nearly two millennia, burdening them with the impossible task of explaining how so much evil and suffering could exist in a cosmos overseen by an omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good deity. A wide variety of answers have been proposed to this problem, all of which are as imaginative as they are insufficient. But all this scholarly ink need not have been spilled: the Bible itself tells Jews and Christians exactly where evil comes from.
Then, Isaiah 45:7 from some unspecified version where "evil" instead of "calamity" appears is presented, followed by:
There you have it, folks - straight, as it were, from the horse's mouth. Evil exists because God created it. All you theologians can pack it in and go home now.
But is that really the case? As we’re about to find out, no. The atheist totally mishandles the original text. In fact, the "proof" offered by Daylight Atheism that evil (rather than calamity) is the correct translation only proves that "calamity" is the correct translation.
It’s all Hebrew to Me!
I’m not a Hebrew scholar by any stretch of the imagination, but I can play one on the Internet thanks to easy access to a lot of relevant research. The NET Bible helps immensely. Let’s take a quick peek at the Hebrew word that has sparked this debate.
The word in question is rah, and is a Hebrew word that typically means bad, evil, disagreeable, or malignant. However, "calamity" or "disaster" are both alternate meanings, and we shall shortly see why I believe that calamity is the correct translation in the verse from Isaiah.
Let’s notice something else about rah for the moment. It appears 663 times in the Old Testament, and (in the NET Bible) is usually translated "evil" (236 times). However, it is translated "disaster" 78 times and "calamity" 17 times. Though the primary sense of the word is evil, it does have other senses and calamity or disaster both are clearly such a sense.
Calamity or Evil?
Isaiah 45:7 has three divisions. The third is simply a declaration that the Lord is God and he accomplishes all of these things. The first two divisions are more germane to the argument. The first division, which is noncontroversial, sheds some light on the second, the one that Daylight Atheism scrutinizes.
The first portion says, "I am the one who forms light and creates darkness." Notice the dichotomous form. God "forms light" and "creates darkness." Polar opposites. This sets the context for the next portion—we are expecting two polar opposite terms to appear together.
God is "the one who brings about peace (shalowm) and creates calamity (rah)." The question is how should we understand rah. Context is important here. In the first part of the verse, God "forms light" and "creates darkness" (opposites). Now, he "brings about peace" and "creates calamity" (opposites).
"Evil" is not the opposite of "peace." Social upheaval and war are the opposites of peace. Therefore, "calamity" fits better, and for that reason modern translators prefer it over "evil."
Does Daylight Atheism Have a Case?
Daylight Atheism has already anticipated the obvious objection: the Christian will simply assert that "calamity" is the correct translation. I did not simply assert this, I have offered excellent justification for preferring "calamity."
To make the case that "evil" is the correct translation, Daylight Atheism cites six verses using rah and shows that "evil" is the natural understanding of the term. Since the primary meaning of rah is evil, quoting six verses and showing that translators (both ancient and modern) rendered the word "evil" is worthless. We expect the word to be translated "evil," so showing that it is in a majority of uses isn’t surprising or scandalous.
However, one of the six verses cited actually hurts their case and proves mine. Let’s see:
In Genesis 2:17, God instructs Adam and Eve not to eat from "the tree of good and ra". The tree of good and disaster? The tree of good and calamity? Clearly not: it is the tree of good and evil.
Using the same dichotomous structure as Isaiah 45:7, this verse sets rah in opposition to towb rather than to shalowm. In Isaiah, translating rah as "calamity" rather than "evil" makes sense because it is set in opposition to the Hebrew for peace (shalowm). Here, with rah in opposition to the Hebrew for good (towb), translating it as "evil" makes perfect sense. Since the passage under fire in Isaiah follows that same structure, raising this point is actually detrimental to the case Daylight Atheism hopes to make.
Other Calamities in the Old Testament
Rah appears 663 times in the Old Testament. Why, then, did Daylight Atheism only give us six additional verses? Because in the six given, there is no controversy that rah should be translated "evil." Had they given other examples, that would have weakened their case still further. A few other verses have rah uncontroversially rendered "disaster" or "calamity." Here are some examples:
I will increase their disasters, I will use up my arrows on them. (Deut 32:23)
Ten thousand men, well-trained soldiers from all Israel, then made a frontal assault against Gibeah – the battle was fierce. But the Benjaminites did not realize that disaster was at their doorstep. (Jdg 20:37)
They will not be ashamed when hard times come, when famine comes they will have enough to eat. (Ps 37:19)
Why should I be afraid in times of trouble, when the sinful deeds of deceptive men threaten to overwhelm me? (Ps 49:5)
Calamity pursues sinners, but prosperity rewards the righteous. (Prv 13:21)
This is what the sovereign Lord says: A disaster – a one-of-a-kind disaster – is coming! An end comes – the end comes! It has awakened against you – the end is upon you! Look, it is coming! Doom is coming upon you who live in the land! The time is coming, the day is near. There are sounds of tumult, not shouts of joy, on the mountains. (Ezk 7:5-7)
In all these cases, it is undeniable that the proper sense of rah is disaster rather than evil.
Lest I am accused of the same thing that I accused Daylight Atheism of doing, let me repeat that I acknowledge that rah is translated "evil" in a majority of cases. These verses are handpicked only to show it is possible and sometimes even uncontroversial to use rah as "calamity" or "disaster." I am not trying to selectively bolster my case by ignoring the majority of verses that translate rah as "evil."
Further Illumination: God Speaks to Jeremiah
There’s a fascinating passage in Jeremiah that deserves some attention because it uses rah in both senses: "evil" when it is talking about people, but "calamity" when it speaks of what God promises to visit upon the people. This appears similar to the intended use in Isaiah.
There are times, Jeremiah, when I threaten to uproot, tear down, and destroy a nation or kingdom. But if that nation I threatened stops doing wrong, (rah) I will cancel the destruction (rah) I intended to do to it And there are times when I promise to build up and establish a nation or kingdom. But (rah) if that nation does what displeases me and does not obey me, then I will cancel the good I promised to do to it. So now, tell the people of Judah and the citizens of Jerusalem this: The Lord says, ‘I am preparing to bring disaster (rah) on you! I am making plans to punish you. So, every one of you, stop the evil (rah) things you have been doing. Correct the way you have been living and do what is right.’ But they just keep saying, ‘We do not care what you say! We will do whatever we want to do! We will continue to behave wickedly (rah) and stubbornly!’ (Jer 18:7-12)
I hope that we can agree that, given the context of v. 7 ("uproot, tear down, and destroy"), God is promising disaster on the nations. So, when we see rah used subsequently to refer to God’s actions, disaster is the most natural understanding. This passage further illuminates the use of rah to mean calamity or disaster when referencing God’s actions--which the verse in Isaiah clearly does.
Problem: Why not Eyd?
The Hebrew word eyd means disaster, and has no other sense. So why didn’t Isaiah use this word instead of rah?
Despite the heroic efforts of Daylight Atheism to pigeonhole rah as always meaning evil, it just doesn’t. Numerous uncontroversial passages show this. Moreover, the dichotomous structure of the verse in Isaiah makes sense to understand rah as a calamity because it sets it opposite shalowm (peace). Therefore, Daylight Atheism’s challenge to the translation of rah is a nonstarter.
The real challenge, then, is eyd, the Hebrew word that only gives us a sense of disaster. At first blush, it would make more sense for Isaiah to use this word because then there would be no controversy all these years later.
But, when comparing the way the authors of the Bible use eyd as opposed to rah, rah almost always denotes a divinely appointed disaster, calamity, or destruction while eyd speaks of either a natural end or a man-made catastrophe. There are exceptions (such as Job 31:23), but that formula seems to hold for the most part.
It is also worth noting that rah is far more frequently used for disaster than eyd, even though the latter actually means disaster. This fact alone is makes a strong case against Daylight Atheism’s attempt to make God into the author of evil.
I hope to have set a good philosophical case for God not being the author of evil. Though I concede that Daylight Atheism is right in stating that evil is the best sense of the Hebrew word rah, it is undeniable that calamity is a valid alternate sense. I believe, in this case, I have shown conclusively that calamity is the best sense to understand Isaiah 45:7 due to the dichotomy presented in both sections of the verse (first light to darkness, then peace to calamity). Therefore, the case presented by the skeptic misrepresents and mishandles the biblical text and is of no consequence to theodicy.
Cory Tucholski is a passionate defender of the Christian faith, a husband, and proud father of two. Cory blogs about philosophy and theology at Josiah Concept Ministries). The blog post critiqued here can be found at http://www.daylightatheism.org/2007/01/little-known-bible-verses-v-god-c...-evil.html.