Why did God allow my three-year-old baby to die a horrible death? a distraught mother recently asked, prompting Pat Robertson to suggest that God may have done so for a good reason, like to spare the child a more horrible fate later in life. His answer, appalling to many, masks a more fundamental misunderstanding. The question itself blindly and simplistically assumes that God was involved — both here and more generally when people suffer.
But the issue of God's role is more nuanced, more enlightening, and potentially more comforting.
According to the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy, good people thrive and bad people perish, but according to the book of Job — also in the Old Testament — the question of suffering is too complex for humans. Job asks God why he suffered so much even though he was a thoroughly righteous man. God reminds Job that he doesn't even know how the earth was constructed. What makes him think he could possibly understand good and evil?
According to Job, we are like a dog trying to grasp calculus when we try to understand suffering. We don't even know what we don't know.
So in addition to Deuteronomy's reward and punishment, we find a second biblical answer to why this three-year-old died: the question is too complex for humans.
A third biblical answer comes from the New Testament, which insists, like Deuteronomy, that people are rewarded in kind. The New Testament adds the nuance that things balance out only in the World to Come. Righteous people may appear to suffer (and the wicked may appear to thrive), but only on this earth. In God's eternal kingdom the righteous alone will flourish.
This theology, also adopted by the ancient rabbis and therefore incorporated into Judaism as well as well as Christianity, can be comforting. But in many cases, including the death of an innocent three-year-old, the answer falls short.
A fourth ancient answer comes from the Life of Adam and Eve. Cut from the Bible in antiquity, that book contains the saga of Adam and Eve's life after their exile from the Garden of Eden. In one telling scene, Adam confronts the Devil to ask why people suffer. The Devil's answer, and therefore the answer of this fascinating work, is that people suffer not because of what they did but simply because that is the nature of being human.
Everyone, according to the Life of Adam and Eve, is living in some sort of exile. Part of living life as a human is to lose what we cherish. We all have something that we thought we would always have — a parent, a first love, a spouse, a child — and we are all distraught when we lose it. But God didn't take it away. We are not being punished. We didn't do anything wrong. And we should stop asking "why?" Loss is part of living.
Perhaps the most intriguing answer comes from the mysterious book of Enoch. Though not part of most people's Bible today, the New Testament quotes Enoch. And in the ancient Jerusalem that gave us the Bible, Enoch was among the most popular and widely read books.
Enoch observes that even the angels disobey God. Genesis 6:4, summarizing a well-known account, explains that some angels mated with human women and produced wicked giants. (This is the wickedness that forces God to flood the earth.) But angels, being immortal, aren't meant to procreate. Enoch concludes that God's world has gone awry. There's suffering in the world that wasn't supposed to be here.
This answer, then, complements the others. Maybe God rewards the just and punishes the wicked, either here on earth or in the World to Come. Or maybe the question of good and evil is too difficult for us. Or maybe suffering is just a part of life, and we'd better get used to it.
Or maybe this three-year-old child wasn't supposed to die.
Joel M. Hoffman is author most recently of The Bible's Cutting Room Floor, which explores ancient answers to good and evil.