The passage that today’s edition of “Little-Known Bible Verses” will examine is, if I say so myself, one of the most shocking in the entire Bible. In a book that contains talking snakes and donkeys, a man taking two of every living species to survive a flood in a wooden boat, and a god who hates pillows, shrimp, mixed fabrics, and fig trees for some reason, that is no mean feat, but I believe this verse lives up to that promise.
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.
I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.
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.
Of course, the story does not end there. The translators of many modern Bible editions, aware of the unsettling implications this verse holds for their faith, have attempted to soften the blow by translating it in a more palatable way. The New International Version, for example, has this passage say that God creates “disaster”, while the English Standard Version has it as “calamity”, and the Revised Standard Version says “woe”. The Message translation creatively renders this verse as “I make harmonies and create discords”.
Although these alternate translations wouldn’t seem to solve much, they are still not as faithful to the original Hebrew than the KJV’s unflinching translation. The Hebrew word translated by the KJV writers as “evil” in Isaiah 45:7 is “ra“, and from textual evidence, it is clear that in the Bible this word does mean evil in a moral sense. Here are some of the other contexts in which it is used:
- 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.
- In Genesis 6:5, God resolves to destroy humankind in the great flood because “the wickedness (ra) of man was great in the earth”.
- In Genesis 13:13, the men of Sodom were “wicked (ra) and sinners before the Lord exceedingly”.
- In Deuteronomy 1:35, a furious God threatens the Israelites, “Surely there shall not one of these men of this evil (ra) generation see that good land, which I sware to give unto your fathers.”
- In Judges 2:11, “the children of Israel did evil (ra) in the sight of the Lord, and served Baalim”.
- In 1 Kings 16:30, the wicked king Ahab (husband of the infamous Jezebel) “did evil (ra) in the sight of the Lord above all that were before him”.
These and many other references make it clear that the primary meaning of ra is indeed evil in the sense of wickedness or sin. For believers who hold to the textual inerrancy of the Bible, therefore, there is no choice but to admit that God created evil. And in a way, this makes a great deal of sense. If an all-powerful, all-knowing god created everything, what other explanation for evil could there be, other than that he caused it?
Even the Bible’s theology bears this out. The text offers numerous occasions where God could have intervened to turn events to good and chose not to. He could, for example, have obliterated Satan and the rebel angels entirely, or at the very least confined them to Hell and not allowed them to escape, so that they could never have escaped to lead humanity into temptation. And God’s behavior in the whole Eden affair, in any case, smacks strongly of either extreme incompetence or deliberate malice – not least, his choice to transmit the curse of original sin to all subsequent generations rather than letting every human start off with a morally clean slate.
Less-literalist believers might say that the imputation of evil to God is just textual corruption in the Bible, the product of fallible humans and not a divine revelation. And while this explanation might help the cause of theodicy, it can only do so at the cost of hugely undermining the Bible itself. After all, if God would allow as basic and fundamental a distortion of his nature as this, for what reason should we believe that the Bible reflects any of his words? If the biography of some great human being contained a distortion as blatantly slanderous as this, by attributing to that person an attitude that is totally contrary to all they believed and stood for, would it be wise or prudent to simply disregard that passage and then continue to trust the rest of the book as accurate?
The attribution of evil to God’s handiwork, while it may solve the problem of theodicy, raises an even more difficult question for Jews and Christians in its place. Namely, why would such a deity be worthy of our belief? Why would any believer want to worship a god who accepts responsibility for evil and suffering? Because he’s the most powerful and will punish people who don’t do what he says? But what assurance would we have that the afterlife is not also a place of torment and sorrow, even for the good?
This is a nightmare of a dilemma for anyone to have to face. Fortunately, there is another way out: the door that opens onto atheism. It is in our power to cast aside these bleak and malevolent fantasies, and to recognize that the specters that menace us are illusions of our own imagination. They have no more reality or substance than shadows, and are just as easily dispelled by the light.
For those who wish to cease the futile obsession with the words of ancient texts and face reality as it truly is, the gate is open and the path is clear. There are no gods, no devils or angels, no heaven or hell. There is only us, human beings, living together in the natural world. Once we recognize this, the next step – a lifelong step – is to forsake fantasy, treat others with kindness and make the most of the one life we are fortunate to have.
Other posts in this series: