Does God Cause Evil?

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

Reader: Is God responsible for the Lisbon earthquake? Does God cause evil, such as disease, earthquakes, tsunamis, blindness, deafness, and carnivores needing to eat other animals? It seems to me that God created the physical laws that allow for earthquakes, volcanoes, lightning, and inundations. Is God the ultimate cause since he created the laws of nature that allow for natural evils?  

Turk Hill

Rabbi:  There cannot be a cause other than God for earthquakes, volcanoes, lightning, animals of prey, deafness, etc.; He alone created Earth and man. But man has intelligence and free will, and can veer from most natural harm. With care in diet and exercise, one can also ensure a healthy life. Aging is also God's will, as is the loss of our senses, so all these physical phenomenon most target a good goal. Earth’s composition must result in earthquakes, lightning and volcanoes. If the forces creating these phenomena did not exist, Earth could not exist, and God’s goal of mankind too would not exist. Animals are necessary for man and God ensures the species sustain each other: the animal kingdom procreates and supplies its prey with their food. And as God decreed aging and death for man, often accompanied by deafness and impaired vision, it must be part of man's perfection to detach from the physical as he approaches his immortal life. This is quite sensible, although those who are attached to the physical view this as negative.

But how do we understand Torah which says God creates evil: “I form light and create darkness, I make peace and create evil. I, God, do all these things” (Isaiah 45:7). Ibn  Ezra comments:

By evil, war is meant as the opposite of peace, or the sickness under which man labors, as being at war with his constitution. These antitheses are used to indicate that in the same way God will strengthen Cyrus and weaken the king of Babylon.  

Rashi comments:

Who forms light for the righteous and creates darkness for Babylon, and the same applies to “Who makes peace and creates evil.”  

Both commentaries explain God's creation of evil as punishment for evil people.

God created an amazing habitat for mankind called Earth. This affords man all his needs, and in perfect proportions. As Maimonides teaches, God used wisdom in supplying man with his most primary need of oxygen, which is free and everywhere. Next, man needs water which is also plentiful and free. Next is vegetation which is also plentiful and very inexpensive, and man can grow it himself, again this too is free. Shelter is readily obtained from wood, which is also found everywhere. And the plentiful animals and vegetation provide us with food and clothing. Furthermore, our dependent natures are intentional; they help us focus on God. This is God’s plan. He is the source of reality and our existence. Had we been designed as independent things like rocks that need nothing, we would lose focus of God.

God then gave man Torah to guide his life in this most enjoyable pursuit of wisdom, in which is the greatest minds spent their days and years in study and happiness. They advised us to abandon material pursuits, to minimize work and maximize study, as God wants man to be happy. Therefore, God's plan for man is very good (Gen. 1:31), and it is only when man values nonsense that man misinterprets God's plan as evil. 

In addition to natural law, God provides the righteous person with protection and his needs, which we call Individual Providence.  All this illustrates God's tremendous goodness. Purim is such an expression of God's providence for individuals who lived righteously and with wisdom, as we see Esther and Mordechai's wise plans were assisted by God to make their plans succeed and save the Jews. And when certain people, including righteous people experience mishap, this can be God’s method of steering them away from poor values and actions, as we read in the book of Job, and in Proverbs 3:12, “Those whom God loves does He rebuke.” Whom does God love? These are the righteous that follow God. And when they make errors as all men do, God rebukes them with troubles to awaken them to their flaws, so they may further perfect themselves. But those whom God does not love, namely, people who do not follow God, God does not do the futile act of trying to correct them, which they would not follow. God gave Abraham 10 trials precisely to awaken him to greater perfection. The intelligent, righteous person welcomes these opportunities. They are not evil at all but a great benefit. God is good.

There is now one more crucial step. God is the cause of reality and there is no alternative reality. Our question whether God is good or evil is truly inapplicable. God determined what should be, and what should not be. As God defined what properly exists, our critique of God and His justice is foolish. There is no alternative: all that exists is proper. Rabbi Akiva embodied this acceptance and had no arguments, although he was tortured to death. We cannot suggest how God should have created reality. Instead, we should change our thinking to appreciate what God created is perfect, instead of trying to question or change it. King Solomon said, “Keep your mouth from being rash, and let not your throat be quick to bring forth speech before God. For God is in heaven and you are on earth; therefore let your words be few” (Koheles 5:1). Here, the wisest man after Moses tells us that our complaints are foolish. It is God’s will alone that determined how reality should be. Just as a painting cannot complain to the artist that the art is “wrong,” we cannot tell God how reality should operate or what should exist. 

“I form light and create darkness, I make peace and create evil. I, God, do all these things” (Isaiah 45:7). This verse teaches an equation: just as light and darkness are proper in God’s plan, goodness for the righteous and evil for sinners too are proper creations which man cannot suggest are improper. But God did  not will man to experience evil: “From God’s mouth does not come evil or good. About what shall a living man complain? Each man  [should complain] about his own sins!” (Lam. 3:38,39). Rashi comments:

But about what should a living man complain? “A man for his sins!” Every man should bemoan his sins, because they are what bring the evil upon him. (They did not emanate from the Almighty. Rabbi Yochonon said, “From the day that the Holy One, Blessed is He, said, ‘See, I have placed before you today the life and the good, death and evil…and choose life’ (Deut. 30:15) neither evil nor good has come from His will. Rather, the evil comes by itself to the one who commits evil, and the good to the one who does good.” Therefore, what should one bemoan? Why should a man be angry, if not about his sins?

Thus, when Isaiah said “I make peace and create evil,” he meant God punishes evildoers. But Lamentations teaches “From God’s mouth does not come evil or good.” Meaning, man brings evil upon himself, it is not God who does so without cause. Maimonides teaches human evils are self-inflicted (Guide, book III, chap. xi, xii).

Reality all comes from God. He made all with perfect reason and justice. All reality is good, since God is good, meaning, God acts only with perfect justice. Man’s ignorance prevents him from appreciating the good in everything. But the wisest men appreciated God’s wisdom.