Why does Evil persist?

If the gods are so just and so powerful, why does evil continue to exist? If they are unable to strike it down, are they worth following? If they are unwilling, does that not make them evil as well?

The Norse Eddas are actually very clear on this.

If we look at good and evil as similar to light and shadow, then it becomes evident that evil came into the world just as soon as good did– they always exist because of yet in spite of each other. Evil is the shadow of goodness.

The gods were once accused of being evil themselves, because they refused to destroy evil, which the people assumed was in their power.

However, the gods made it clear that they permitted evil to exist for one reason, and one reason alone.

Just as we learn to truly appreciate light through times spent in shadow, in the absence of light, we learn to truly appreciate goodness by our time spent in its absence, by time spent under the suffering caused by evil.

It is akin to burning your hand on the stove for the very first time– intense pain gives way to realization that some activities are to be avoided. When we encounter evil, the wise man (the primary focus of Eddic teaching) realizes that this is not the path to wisdom, and pursues a path in which one lessens the suffering in the world as opposed to adding to it. 

The Havamal (Sayings of the Wise Man– by tradition attributed to Odin, though most certainly the work of men) has many choice names and veiled barbed comments for those who behave such that they bring ruin to 1) themselves, 2) their family, 3) their community, and 4) their country. Men who do these are called Fools, Unwise, and are generally to be avoided, because they either knowingly or unknowingly add to the evils in the world.

In short, it is by the suffering caused by evil that we know how to recognize goodness, just as shadow teaches us to recognize light.

And it is not as if the gods are negligent teachers and protectors– the Eddas also stress that they only permit the evils they know to be within our united capabilities to deal with to affect mankind– that all the suffering mankind undergoes can be (and must be) overcome by the hand of mankind itself, or else we would not learn, mature, or grow as a species. All other evils that we cannot deal with, either alone or united as one, fall within the Gods’ sphere of influence.

That is what the Eddas teach me, and I find the answer both enlightening and encouraging: if all problems faced by humans are only so faced because the gods have confidence in our ability to handle it ourselves, then surely the problem will always be overcome in time when we learn how to fix it.

This frees us to find ways to fix it, rather than waste time appealing to divine parents whose answer will just be “You’re a big kid now, and we know you can figure this out” anyway.


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