A journey through time with the problem of pain...
Is pain part of God's plan? I hesitate to answer with absolute boldness. Most of us would agree that some pain is beneficial. "No pain, no gain". Few Olympic athletes would regret the pain of their training once they're holding their gold. In fact, their sweat makes their victory that much sweeter. What I can say with confidence is that the "problem" of pain isn't part of God's plan. It was never God's plan for creation to become subject to sin, sickness, disaster, disease, and death.
So how comes evil into the world? It is important to understand that while God is absolutely in charge, God is not in absolute control. What do I mean by this? God had a reason for creating the heavens and the earth. God wanted to invite creation into the experience of trinitarian love. Before anything else, love existed between the Father, Son, and Spirit. Since Love is other-oriented, God decided to create. The purpose for creation was loving-partnership.
Both of those words (‘loving’ and ‘partnership’) are important here. Love involves freedom. It must be freely chosen. So God decided to create creatures with freedom (the ability to choose between options). Partnership involves the granting of authority. Partners are given authority (some level of control). They are invited to use their genuine freedom to make a genuine difference in creation.
Now think about what it means that God gave created beings freedom and authority. It means that God took a risk. Freedom creates options. Some of those options are good and some are bad. Free creatures get to choose. And authority means that those choices will have real results in the world. This freedom and authority was given in the heavens to angels and on the earth to man and woman. It means that, presently, angels and humans, while not in charge, have a large degree of control.
How have angels and humans used their freedom, authority, and control? The results are very mixed. There’s plenty of good caused by creatures and plenty of evil. Both of these realities actually point to God’s existence. There is no good without God and there is no evil without good. Evil exists only as a result of creatures using their God-given freedom and authority in ways that go against God’s purposes.
Our present reality, insofar as it is problematic, is the result of Powers that have departed from the Giver of those powers. God is not the cause of sin, sickness, disaster, disease, or death. These things are not part of God’s plan. They are, in fact, departures from God’s plan. They were, from the beginning, potentialities of creation. But they only came to fruition because of the abuse of power given by God to creatures.
Of course, one might object on numerous grounds to what I’ve said thus far. One might suggest that it was wrong or foolish for God to create a world with the potential for such evils as we presently see in the world. My main reply to this objection would simply be: What alternative world would you prefer? Would you rather God NOT create a world at all? Would you prefer a world in which there are no free creatures? Would you prefer a God who does not share power with creatures? I highly doubt most would prefer such alternatives.
Someone else might object that God should just stop the really bad things from happening. Well, there is a lot I’d want to say in response to such an argument, but I’ll stick to two things. First of all, we don’t know what God prevents from happening. For all we know, the world could be far worse off than it is (actually, it's not that hard to imagine it being worse). Second, intervention of this kind would be sort of like rescinding the gifts of freedom and authority that have been given. What kind of gift-giver takes back a gift because they don’t like the way it is being used?
All of what I’ve said so far would be, in my opinion, unbearable if present levels of pain and suffering were to be our unending reality. If reality, from here on out, was going to continue to be this struggle between good and evil, despair would be understandable. But that is not the message of Christianity. Christianity includes the belief that the triune God is working in the midst of this fallen world to bring about what was originally intended.
There will be a Day of Judgment in which all abuse (and continuing abusers) of God-given freedom and authority will be dealt with once and for all. Broken and disease-ridden bodies will be restored to health. The earth itself will be restored. Tears will be wiped away. Joy will be full. Eden won’t so much be restored as it will be expanded and improved. And, as Mother Theresa (not someone unfamiliar with suffering) once said, in the light of this reality, the darkness of this world’s suffering “will be seen to be no more serious than one night in an inconvenient hotel.” I don’t quote her to dismiss the horrors of our present reality (they’re real), but to emphasize the goodness and beauty of what is to come.
Now the typical objection toward this appeal to the future is that Christians have no basis for such projections. But that’s exactly where the strength of Christian evidence does, in fact, exist. In Jesus Christ, God has brought a powerful glimpse of the future into the present order. Jesus Christ lived the sort of life God originally intended. It was a life of freedom and authority. It was a life in which the power of love was on display. And it was a life that did not end with death, but included resurrection and exaltation. Humans are invited into Christ’s life. This is not a blind wish. It is a substantial faith.
In a very real sense, Jesus’ earthly life was a microcosm of our journey through time with the problem of pain. He lived as Adam could and should have lived. He entered into the present pain, even to the point of death on the cross. He rose from the dead to guarantee our promised future.
The problem of pain is a problem. God agrees. God, far more than anyone, has reason to hate this problem… for it goes against the expressed purpose for which The Trinity extended its love into creation. And God, more than anyone, has entered into it… for the Son of God has become flesh, dwelt among us, and been crucified by us. And God, and God alone, is the answer to the problem of pain… for God raised Jesus from the dead by the Spirit.
If I’m being completely honest, I’ve always wondered why the ‘problem of pain’ is considered more of an argument against God than an argument for God. After all, if there is no God, then there is no good. And if there is no good, there is no evil. And if there is no evil, there is no problem. But the problem of pain is a problem few deny. The problem of pain is a problem because, deep down, we know that the world was created by God to be so much better. The problem of pain points to The Answer.
Our struggle, in the midst of pain, is not to avoid healthy expressions of anger and grief (which make sense—God is angry and grieving too), but to direct our anger to the proper places (Satan, Sin, Systems) and grieve with the hope that we have in Jesus Christ.