The problem of pain is taken as one of the key stumbling blocks for belief in Christianity. I don't think the debate is quite as simply as atheism or theism -- because Christian Theism is on a completely different planet to any other breed of theism when it comes to suffering.
The problem of pain is such a problem for us in this area because we assume a God worth knowing would stop us from experiencing pain. It's clear what matters most to us - not hurting. We're raised to assume we wont. When business leader Stephen Covey died last year I saw (an internet) newspaper observe that he was only 79 when he died. We assume we'll live forever.
Atheist buses tell us to forget god and just enjoy life. Francis Spufford retorts that "enjoyment" is too small a picture of life and limited to a very privileged few. Where is the good news for the suffering, the poor, the abused etc. in a trite call to enjoy you life?
The desire to escape pain is understandable and instinctive. But can anyone offer it today?
What does a broadly atheist approach say: The universe is pitiless and indifferent (Richard Dawkins) which amounts to solving the problem of pain by denying its existence.
"If we remove God from the equation, we still have to endure suffering, but not the agonising problem of 'why?' Suffering just is. The human story without God is no more than a survival of the fittest. so, far from disproving God, our "Why suffering?" questions assume his existence."Our gut emotional response to suffering cries for more than a pitiless world. The Karma police suggest that bad happens to bad people and good to good people - and you might have to invoke evidenceless reincarnation to justify that. England manager Glenn Hoddle was sacked for articulating that kind of view in 1999.
Others suggest that the world is just dualistic - there good and evil powers at war. That's too simplistic and leaves a view where it's uncertain who will win. Another alternative is monism, blurring the categories of good and evil this is pretty close to just denying the existence of suffering, and a Bhuddist like the Dalai Lama isn't able to ignore evil - he denies desire but desires the liberation of his people.
There are many unanswered questions but we need an approach that can take evil seriously, we long for a hope that it can be dealt with - for justice, for liberty.
It can feel painful to consider Jesus in the middle of pain - yet we can do that. We can cry out. It's faith to come with our pain and despair and frustration and fury. Walking away robs me of the ability to ask the questions, and of comfort.
"Although unanswered questions still remain, at a fundamental level the Bible's view of evil and suffering makes more sense of who we are an how we respond to suffering than atheism does. The Bible points us away from glib and simplistic answers... and from the ambiguities of our world to an even more startling paradox. An innocent man hanging on a cross.... Jesus stands in solidarity for us.. but he also uniquely represents God... Jesus achieved all this, not by remaining serene and detached from our pain, but through his own suffering and tears and death. The death of Christ mirrors all those questions we have asked of suffering. Was Jesus' death due to God's lack of power or moral goodness? Why did Jesus experience further suffering imposed by God? Why did the innocent Jesus suffer while evildoers escape punishment?"In Jesus there is a unique approach to suffering. It's not denied. It's not easily solved. The world is sadder and more frustrating than we want, than it should be. But against the dark skies the suns beams begin to break through. The minor chords are mixed with the major, but one day they will be found only in the memory of the death of Jesus - the bruised and wounded God. The one who uniquely offers comfort, hope, understanding.
How powerful our Redeemer's cries which life in death impart,
Which open still the sinner's eyes, and pierce his echoing heart!
By faith I hear his speaking blood, his mangled form I see,
And know, This is the Son of God, whose cries converted me." (Charles Wesley)
Quotes above from How can God allow suffering by Richard Cunningham, available from IVP for £1.