What the Bible Says About the Origin of Evil

Did God create evil? Some people say no. They argue that man's free will is the source of evil. But didn't God create free will? And doesn't that make Him the ultimate source of evil? Doesn't that make Him responsible for our sins? Is that why the Lord says in Isaiah 45:7 (KJV), "I make peace and create evil"? If God isn't the source of evil, what can the Bible possibly mean when it tells us that "an evil spirit from God" came upon King Saul (I Samuel 18:10)?

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To begin with, it’s misleading to think of evil as a “thing.” Evil isn’t a “substance” that has a traceable “source.” Biblically speaking, evil is an aspect of relationship.

As your question implies, the real issue is not “How could God create evil?” It’s “How could God create another self separate from and independent of His own Self?” This is the real miracle of Creation, especially the creation of mankind. Man had to be an entity entirely separate from God. He had to be a creature with a genuine will of his own. Otherwise, there could be no such thing as relationship or love. The possibility of love between man and God springs directly out of man’s freedom to choose. But this possibility also entails an element of risk. It includes the potential for pain. Through the exercise of free will, man has broken his relationship with God. That’s what evil is all about.

What about Isaiah 45:7? Let’s take a closer look at this passage. There are two different words for “evil” used in the pages of the Old Testament. First, there is “evil” in the sense of “calamity,” “disaster,” “misfortune,” or “hardship” – in other words, those aspects of existence in this world that we consider “bad” because they hurt us or inconvenience us in some way. The Hebrew word for this type of “evil” is ra’ah. It should be sharply distinguished from the second word for “evil,” rasha’ – “wickedness” or evil in the moral sense.

When the Lord says (in the King James Version), “I make peace, and create evil,” the Hebrew word employed is ra’ah. The New King James Version makes this explicit with the translation, “I make peace and create calamity.” The same word is used in Lamentations 3:38 (KJV), where the prophet Jeremiah declares that both “evil and good proceed out of the mouth of the host High.”

By way of contrast, the Bible never attributes the creation of rasha’ or “moral wickedness” to God. On the contrary, it tells us over and over again that He alone is good (Mark 10:18). It says that all the works of His hands “are verity and justice” (Psalm 111:7). He is light, says the apostle John, “and in Him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). If He creates ra’ah, or “calamity,” it is always for a good and righteous purpose within the all-embracing scheme of His eternal and sovereign plan. For example, He sometimes uses affliction to compel people to seek His face (Hosea 5:15). Similarly, He works all things, including trials and troubles, “together for good to those who love [Him]” (Romans 8:28, NKJV). God may have any number of reasons for weaving ra’ah, or hardships and difficulties, into the fabric of human experience. But He is not and cannot be the author of rasha’.

So far so good. Now let’s move on to your final question. In light of everything we’ve said, we know that when I Samuel 18:10 asserts that “an evil spirit from God came upon Saul,” it cannot possibly mean that God is the source of wickedness or sin. What, then, is this verse saying? Let’s find out.

The Hebrew text states that ruach elohim ra’ah came upon Saul. Ruach elohim is the phrase normally used in the Old Testament to denote the Holy Spirit – see, for example, Genesis 1:2. The word for “evil” here is ra’ah – “unfortunate,” “disastrous,” “hurtful.” The New King James version translates this as ” … a distressing spirit from God came upon Saul.” It might also be translated, “The Spirit of God came upon Saul in a distressing or troubling way.”

Why would the Spirit of God come upon Saul “in a distressing way?” The answer should be obvious. Saul was locked in a profound inner conflict. He was wrestling with the Lord and with his own bitterness and resentment toward David. In the midst of this crisis, the Spirit of God was prodding him, pricking him, stirring him up, and driving him to deal with his emotions and his misguided quest for personal significance. His response was unfortunate. Instead of yielding to the convicting influence of the Spirit, he snapped under the pressure and gave vent to his hatred.

It might be fair to say that God pushed Saul to this point. After all, the Bible affirms that He also hardened the heart of Pharaoh (Exodus 7:3). But it’s equally clear that Saul, like Pharaoh, was responsible and accountable for his reaction to the situation. Herein lies yet another illustration of the mysterious relationship between human free will and the sovereignty of God. As The Westminster Confession of Faith puts it, the Lord “freely and unchangeably ordain[s] whatsoever comes to pass: yet so as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established” (Chapter III, section 1).

If you’d like to discuss this subject at greater length, call us. Focus on the Family has a staff of pastoral counselors who would love to speak with you over the phone.


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