An interesting philosophical question concerns whether human beings are making progress. Great thinkers have fallen on either side of the issue, as you can see here.
Some who take the negative view on this issue use lack of human moral progress as an objection to theism. After all, wouldn’t God want human beings to improve? And, being omnipotent, wouldn’t he find a way to ensure that happened? Thus, the notion that God exists seems to be undermined by the fact that human beings are not making any moral progress.
I happen to agree with the no-moral-progress thesis. I believe that human beings in the early 21st century are no better, and no worse, than we were a century ago, just prior to the first of two hideous world wars. And we are no better or worse than we were during the Renaissance, the Dark Ages, or the Iron Age. From a moral standpoint, human nature has remained constant—since the Fall, anyway—notwithstanding salient eruptions of evil (e.g., the Mongol conquests, the Nazis, etc.) and bursts of goodness (e.g., the birth of the university, the abolition of Western slavery, etc.).
But granting the no-progress thesis regarding the human race generally, it doesn’t follow that there is no significant human moral progress at all. Just because the human race doesn’t improve as a whole, this doesn’t mean there is no individual progress. On the contrary, I think such progress is the norm throughout the world. And it is here that we see the moral work of God on a global scale.
In his classic book Evil and the God of Love, philosopher of religion John Hick insightfully addressed this issue:
Because this is a pilgrimage with in the life of each individual, rather than a racial evolution, the progressive fulfillment of God’s purpose does not entail any corresponding progressive improvement in the moral state of the world. . . . It is probable that human life was lived on much the same moral plane two thousand years ago or four thousand years ago as it is today. But nevertheless during this period uncounted millions of souls have been through the experience of earthly life, and God’s purpose has gradually moved towards its fulfillment within each one of them, rather than within a human aggregate composed of different units in different generations. (Evil and the God of Love [Harper & Row, 1966], p. 292)
Hick was a religious pluralist and a universalist, but one need not affirm either pluralism or universalism to see the sense in his proposal here—that God works redemptively in the individual lives of people—perhaps the overarching majority of people worldwide—and this is consistent with the disappointing fact that the human race shows no signs of moral progress. In fact, Hick even suggests that the lack of aggregate human improvement makes for a better environment for individual moral growth. After all, as free agents, we all must choose to pursue the good and live faithfully before God, all the while resisting temptation, dealing with strife and disappointment, recuperating from failure, and persevering through suffering in order to do so. In short, the struggle against evil is precisely how we grow in this world. This is Hick’s so-called “soul-making” theodicy—an approach to the problem of evil that I find particularly compelling philosophically. Moreover, it enjoys some biblical support as well, as is evident in such passages as James 1:2-4, Rom. 5:3-4, and 1 Pet. 1:6-7. While I don’t regard this theodicy as a final and complete solution to the problem of evil, I do think it is an essential part of a Christian response to the problem.
There is also a moral-psychological (or, one might say, existential) benefit in this way of thinking about the human condition. For if God is ever at work in people, accomplishing his work of redemption in the lives of individuals, then I need not despair over the “current state of the world” or lose hope when considering what appears to be a general moral decline of our society. Nor should those of us who work to improve human institutions and social structures despair if we see no net improvements. For God is still at work in the lives of those we meet. He always has been and he always will be.