The Segregation of Evil

Essays

Does God love the Devil? It was an honest question directed at my friend, a student of theology. After all, God is so often touted by evangelicals, missionaries, and Sunday school teachers as not only all powerful but all loving – an omnibenevolent deity. When realities arise in the world that challenge this view, such as lust, violence or greed, Satan gets the credit, allowing God to remain pure. But if God created everything and loves everything, does he love Satan? The question so posed caused an immediate, visceral reaction from my friend. “No!” he shouted emphatically. Though we continued the discussion, my mind was stuck on how automatically he recoiled from the idea, as if I had thrown a viper at his feet. Conversely, I had no problem entertaining the idea. It seemed to shore up the logical argument of an all loving God. The alternative could only be that He is not all loving. Cognitive dissonance hung in the air like a sulphorous haze. The contradiction was quickly dismissed by my friend, but I could not shake it. So, I dove into the Bible, searching for a clue, a hint, anything that could resolve the disparity. And then it happened. I stumbled upon an unremembered verse that shook the core of my being: Isaiah 45:7. The verse reads, “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I am the Lord that doeth these things.” (English Revised Bible, Isaiah 45.7) It was not the answer I expected to find – in fact it raised more concerns than it alleviated – but it helped explain my friend’s unwillingness to let God’s love anywhere near the Devil. As I would come to discover, Isaiah 45:7 generally, and the word evil specifically, have undergone a euphemistic white-washing in many recent translations. The English language translations of Isaiah 45:7 have used progressively softer terms to replace the word evil, affecting both the interpretation of the text and the nature of God as understood by many.

PROCESSION OF ENGLISH TRANSLATIONS

English Christians in 1611 forthrightly printed the word evil in the newly translated King James Version of the Bible. The entire verse read, “I forme the light, and create darkenesse: I make peace, and create euill: I the Lord do all these things” (King James Bible, Isaiah 45.7). The Modern English equivalent is: I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things. For nearly 300 years, readers of the Bible in English were able to read that it is God who creates evil. When a new major translation, the English Revised Version, arrived on the scene in 1885, the verse remained more or less the same (English Revised Bible, Isaiah 45.7). In that version, Isaiah 45:7 reads, “I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil; I am the LORD, that doeth all these things” (English Revised Bible). Shortly thereafter, the American Standard Version was created in 1901. Still the word evil remained (American Standard Bible, Isaiah 45.7).

In the latter half of the twentieth century the book of Isaiah began to change quite radically. A complete revision of the American Standard was printed in 1971. (American Standard Bible) The resulting New American Standard changed the aforementioned verse to, “The One forming light and creating darkness, causing well-being and creating calamity; I am the Lord who does all these” (New American Standard Bible, Isaiah 45.7). Evil suddenly yielded to calamity. The frequency of new translations accelerated further and seven short years later the New International Version changed evil to disaster. (New International Bible, Isaiah 45.7) Not to be out softened, The New Century Version was released roughly a decade later, in 1987, and replaced calamity with troubles (New Century Bible, Isaiah 45.7). A final example of semantic watering-down comes from the New Living Translation which in 1996 put bad times in evil’s place (New Living Translation Bible, Isaiah 45.7).

THE SOFT LANGUAGE TREND

The short list above is not exhaustive but sufficiently displays a trend of ever softer mutations of the original 1611 language. Any contemporary lay person could undoubtedly note the qualitative difference between evil and bad times. The former evokes deeds like murder and rape while the latter has the feeling of lost car keys or a rain delay at the ball park. However, the claim that this progression of terms is directionally softer requires etymological proof to thoroughly demonstrate the lack of equivalence.

In order of chronological progression, the terms requiring examination are evil, calamity, disaster, troubles, and bad times. Evil, the term that survived for three centuries in multiple translations, originated in Old English as yfel or yfil (Partridge 189). The basic idea conveyed by yfel is transgression (Partridge 189). However, The Oxford English Dictionary from 1971 contains a more detailed description. (It is important to note that 1971 represents one of the first times Isaiah’s meaning was softened.) The entry for evil reads, “the antithesis of GOOD in all its principal senses.” (Oxford University 909) It continues, “in [Old English], . . . this word is the most comprehensive adjectival expression of disapproval, dislike, or disparagement. In [modern] colloquial [English] it is little used, such currency as it has being due to literary influence. In quite familiar speech the adj. is commonly superseded by bad.” (Oxford University 909) Thus, a gradation is evident. Evil once encompassed all ills, but literary and popular usage eventually divided the general into the specific with evil representing a harsher, harder degree of transgression.

The replacement terms – calamity, disaster, troubles, and bad times – trend ever softer. The first, calamity, finds its root in the Latin word incolumis which means unharmed (Partridge 70). Removing the negation, calamity essentially translates to harm. By no means pleasant, harm need not result from malice, whereas evil does carry that semantic weight.  Disaster is softer yet. Its root is found in the Greek word astron, meaning star (Partridge 665). When modified by the prefix dis- which connotes deviation, disaster means “an event unfavorable to one’s stars.” (Partridge 665) Today, one might use the word unlucky. The next replacement word, troubles, comes from Vulgate Latin’s turbulus (Partridge 743). Turbulus means “to render cloudy, to confuse” (Partridge 743). This term is even softer than disaster, a fact illustrated by the English idiom silver lining, referring to the fact that clouds can be viewed with optimism. Finally, the softness of bad times is illustrated by the Oxford English Dictionary’s explanation of bad as a term differentiated from evil. (Oxford University 909) Moreover, as a colloquial term, bad is applied to all manner of events and misfortunes lacking malevolence. Milk goes bad; it never goes evil.

THE SCHISM OF EUPHEMISM

Alan Watts

The implications of these euphemisms in Isaiah 45:7 are not trivial in the context of theology. Philosopher and theologian Alan Watts explored this schism in his book Myth and Ritual in Christianity. Watts wrote:

“the tragedy of Christian history is that it is a consistent failure to draw the life from the Christian myth and unlock its wisdom. This whole failure is epitomized in the problem of Lucifer, who should have remained the symbol, not of deliberate ‘malice’, but of the necessary ‘dark side’ of life, of shadow revealing light by contrast, of darkness as the Light (luci-) bearer (fer)” (82).

Fundamentalist Christians would surely object to Watts’ description of Christianity as myth. But doing so makes the issue more acute. If the word is the word, literal and inescapable, how can the continual replacement of evil in Isaiah 45:7 be justified? The softening of the language is a direct alteration of God’s nature. If God, as He said, created peace and evil, then He is whole – responsible for the totality of creation. If, on the other hand, God’s responsibility for evil is euphemistically erased, Satan becomes increasingly independent, powerful, and deified. Therefore, it could be argued that the trend of soft language in modern translations of the Bible is a trend toward polytheistic Christianity.

 

CONCLUSION

My exploration of Isaiah 45:7 was a quest to know God. My friend’s cognitive dissonance, caused by the thought of a God who loves evil, was never acknowledged by him. He sidestepped with the aid of blind faith. I was incapable of the same dodge, needing intellectual reconciliation instead. Of course, had I stuck to more recent biblical translations, the matter may never have been settled. I would have found the God of bad times, creator of minor annoyances and momentary disappointments. Or the God of cloudy days, perhaps leading me to follow the theology of Annie, betting my bottom dollar that the sun will come out tomorrow! However, the progression of English language translations sufficiently reversed showed me a universal God. The theologians of 1611 understood this. To them, the semantics they employed in Isaiah were meant to be all-encompassing. They did not deal in soft terms but understood that evil, as the sum of all ills, could only be wrought by the creator. Rather than frighteningly incomprehensible, this understanding of God’s nature is entirely logical. As Allan Watts pointed out, a thing’s opposite is necessary for the existence of the thing itself. One cannot help but conceptualize peace as the absence of war. There is no light but for the darkness. And freewill cannot choose good without knowing that evil is an equally accessible choice. A God who offers both is truly omnipotent. So, I ask myself again, having studied the language of Isaiah: Does God love the Devil? I believe he does and, by extension, loves and forgives the evil in me for it is He who created it.