Q&R: Isaiah 45:7 – Does God cause evil?

Question

What do you make of Isaiah 45:7? Is seems to say that God is the cause of evil and calamity?

KJV: “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.”

NASB: “The One forming light and creating darkness, causing well-being and creating disaster; I am the LORD who does all these things.”

NIV: “I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things.”

ESV: “I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the LORD, who does all these things.

MSG: “I form light and create darkness, I make harmonies and create discords. I, God, do all these things.”

Response

The way I would read Isaiah’s prophecy is, to begin with, note the initial context, where God is speaking to Cyrus, who was the king who conquered Babylon, effectively ending that empire’s long tyranny, and liberating the Jews from their long captivity, issued a decree for the rebuilding of their temple in Jerusalem. How do we account for this surprising turn of events? God, speaking to Cyrus, reveals that the new king will fulfill God’s mandate and mission, even as a foreign emperor commissioned to serve Jerusalem’s best interests. Again, how can this be?

It is because even secondary causes, which include personal and global events, blessing or calamity, all happen within God’s sovereign consent to the universal flow of natural law and human agency. As Creator, God is ultimately responsible for all that happens in our universe but we refer to people’s choices and the basic laws of nature as secondary causes because God does not violate them through coercion. Whatever influence God exerts comes through what Socrates called “the wise persuasion of love,” which we see fulfilled ultimately in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ and the sovereign reign of love through the Cross and Resurrection.

Unfortunately, Calvinist theologians (for example) read this verse out of context and apply it literally, as if God is the primary or direct cause of evil. Reformers such as John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli went so far as to say that God even commands evil.

To read Isaiah 45 that way seems to ignore Isaiah’s immediate context and the prophetic rhetoric he’s using. It also misses the central confession of the Old Testament (that the Lord is “gracious, compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness” – Exodus 34:6). And worse, a literalist reading to assign and project the darkness of moral evil to the character and nature of God.

1 John 1:5 cuts this line of thinking off completely. He boldly proclaims that “God is light and in him, there is no darkness at all.” So too, in James 1:17 “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, with whom there is no change or shifting shadow.” So while God does indeed consent to the free play of secondary causes, and even takes ultimate responsibility for them, that responsibility is manifest in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, who both undergoes the evils involved and then, through love, overcomes them.

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