Scripture once offered five answers to good and evil, but only two of them made it into the Bible as we now know it. The other three were cut as an accidental side-effect of bookmaking technology.
Fortunately, history has not completely erased these ancient jewels, which survive to complement the Bible’s answer to the most timeless of questions, Why is my life like this?
According to Deuteronomy, good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. Follow God’s ways and you will prosper. Stray from God’s ways and you will perish.
This is the first answer to good and evil, and it’s simple, compelling, and attractive. The world is fundamentally fair. But even in antiquity, this theology’s biggest failing was evident: it doesn’t work. We all know good people who suffer and bad people who thrive.
The Book of Job addresses this obvious shortcoming. There, the uber-righteous Job suffers almost unspeakable losses. Toward the end of the book, Job asks God why he has suffered so terribly. God answers along the lines of: “Who do you think you are? You don’t even know how I made the oceans. What makes you think you could ever understand good and evil, suffering and joy?”
According to the Book of Job, life is fundamentally enigmatic. “God works in mysterious ways,” we might now say. Though potentially accurate, that theology doesn’t usually offer much help to people who are suffering.
Three books that were almost lost explore good and evil more deeply. They are the Life of Adam and Eve, which tells the second half of the Adam and Eve story and details the first couple’s life after exile from the Garden of Eden; the Apocalypse of Abraham, which exposes Abraham’s childhood; and the Book of Enoch, which, among other things, explains the mysterious Watchers of Genesis.
Toward the beginning of the Life of Adam and Eve, Adam confronts the Devil with the question we all want answered. “What did I ever to do you,” Adam demands to know, “that you should hunt me like this?” In other words, Why do people suffer? The Devil explains that he torments people not because of anything they do, but because of who they are. Having been created little less than divine, humans automatically attracted the wrath of the Devil.
Unlike in Deuteronomy, suffering here is not a punishment. It’s not something we deserve. And there is nothing we could have done differently. Suffering is simply part of being human. We are asking the wrong question with, Why is this happening to me? Life is fundamentally a mixed bag.
The Apocalypse of Abraham goes a step further. In the second part of this sometimes troubling book, God grants Abraham a personal audience, which the first monotheist uses to ask, “Why do people suffer?” God answers that suffering is ultimately of human origin. “So why did You create humans who were capable of causing suffering?” Abraham — along with both ancient and modern readers — wants to know.
God answers that the ability to do harm is an inextricable part of free will. Our unique ability to choose makes life worth living, but also makes it possible to choose evil over good. According to the Apocalypse of Abraham, life is fundamentally in our own, collective, control.
The boldest answer comes from the Book of Enoch. Written before the Book of Daniel and quoted in the Book of Jude, Enoch was among the most beloved and popular writings in antiquity, but it was whitewashed from mainstream religion in the first millennium AD.
Enoch’s position is that God designed a perfect universe, one which had no evil or suffering. But then things went awry. Even God’s own angels deviated from their proper course. We suffer, says Enoch, but God doesn’t want us to. Misery wasn’t part of God’s plan. According to the Book of Enoch, life is fundamentally a little out of control.
These five answers combine to offer a more balanced perspective on life. The demise of a parent, the loss of a spouse, or the devastating death of a child; joblessness, divorce, or hunger; and the shattered dreams of childhood or the surprising realities of adult life: All of these are tied up with the mystery of Job and the reward and punishment of Deuteronomy, but also with Enoch’s imperfect world, with Abraham’s realization that it’s the price we pay for the ability to choose, and the penetrating observation from Adam and Eve that to live life as a human is to mix suffering with joy.