"Problems are the means of human development, not the result of human depravity."
SEEING THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY
First off, I have no certainty on any of these questions. Even the most quoted biblical author of all time, the Apostle Paul, said he saw 'through a blurry glass.' (I Corinthians 13:12) In Paul's world, every major city had a bath house with open window frames to allow in cool summer breezes; but in the fall and winter, very thick, opaque glass was installed to keep the cold out while letting the light in. These panes allowed only the most vague forms to show through. Paul used this metaphor to say that he wasn't certain of his theological metaphysics either, making love his bottom line. Therefore, if even the great Apostle, whom Christians think spoke for God, couldn't see beyond this world clearly, don't expect me to. The following responses are based on personal experience, limited reading, universal psychological phenomena found in world religions and philosophy, and metaphysical speculation.
CLOSEST THING TO WHAT I 'BELIEVE'
The standard Christian approach to 'man's problem and the solution' is to appeal to the position developed by Augustine around 400 A.D. which says that we are fallen sinners who need to be saved. This view says that disease, death, sin and all natural disasters are the result of human evil. Few evangelcals even know that about 250 years before Augustine, an old orthodox Bishop named Irenaeus (c.150 AD) had a very different view of humankind and the so called problem that needs fixing. Irenaeus taught in his major work, Against Heresies, that the universe and humans are created imperfect or incomplete, and that the goal of life is to make completed souls, or to move toward and into the likeness of God. He thought that genuine human perfection could not come about except through humans achieving it through their own free will, in an imperfect world in which there was a very real possibility of evil.
In other words, humans aren't fallen sinners that need saving, but incomplete blocks of marble that need chiseling and polishing. His main text is Genesis 1:26-27 which uses two terms that most people overlook as synonyms or Hebrew parallelism: the words are ''image" and "likeness." The word image is tselem in Hebrew, and likeness is demoot. The word 'image,' according to Irenaeus refers to potential and the word 'likeness' refers to actual. He taught that humans were placed on the planet by God to move from 'image/potential' to 'likeness/actual'. In other words, the purpose of life is to make a perfected or mature soul in the divine likeness of God. Humans were NOT primarily sinners, but baby souls.
All humans begin with a soul-seed or potential in the 'image' phase, and are very much animalistic at this point, living by instincts. We eat, sleep, breed, and live lives of self-centered survival, living by the basic instincts of pleasure, prestige and power (as found in the temptation of Jesus). This was the metaphor of Adam being formed from the earth before the breath of God entered. This is what happened with Adam and Eve in Eden. They didn't fall into sin, they moved from the Edenic nursery of blissful ignornce into the school of challenging classes and test, or the University of Adversity to get a degree in soul-making.
Each human is born an unconscious being with an innate image of God, almost animal like until he or she wakes up to the God 'likeness' within. That 'likeness' whispers and bubbles to the surface of consciousness in all humans, but only when it is recognized and received ('to as many as receive him') does it reanimate the human animal into a spiritual being. Humans aren't evil or fallen, just ignorant and incomplete. When from the cross, Jesus viewed his violent executioners, he didn't cry, "Punish them Father for they are fallen, wicked sinners." He said, "Forgive them, they are ignorant." Jesus came to proclaim the God news that all humans are baby souls who need to be born and become growing sons and daughters of God.
THE UNIVERSITY OF ADVERSITY
The English Romantic poet, John Keats, called the world in which we live and die 'the vale of soul-making.' Keats was dying of tubercleosis and contemplating the purpose of this existence fraught with suffering and certain death. He died at the age of 26. I find myself agreeing with Keats. Problems are the means of human development, not the result of human depravity.
2,500 years ago the Buddha began his first sermon with the phrase 'life is suffering.' This has become the the first tenet of Buddhist teaching as found in the Four Noble Truths. More recently, M. Scott Peck in his very popular, The Road Less Traveled, begins with the laconic line, "Life is difficult." Jesus stated mater of factly, "In the world you shall have tribulations."
Life is filled with tests that bring pain, which move us to turn to other sources for help, and ideally, ultimately to The Higher Power(s) or God(s) for help. Living like an animal never satisfies because we are in the potential image of God with the likeness constantly whispering for us to become more. The innate seed of divinity or potential soul is in every human, but must be fertilized by the Spirit in order to cause a new birth, a soul birth. At that point, the human begins to shift from 'image' to 'likeness'. After he is born again, or his soul becomes God-conscious, a man is capable of making free will choices and becomes morally responsible to co-create and have dominion. That is why Nicodemus and others were more reprehensible than the whores and drunks; those who knew something of the likeness of God were free to choose or reject truth. Unquickened men are not. That is why Paul said we would all be judged by the Gospel, not the Law. The Gospel is the covenant written on the heart of all men which Jeremiah talked about. Human judgment will be most severe to those of us who are spiritually awake, and feel the tug of Spirit into more truth outside of our cult, but are afraid to follow it.
This awakening may happen at age 5 or age 85, or not at all. Some Jews and early Christians believed we keep coming back to earth until we finish soul school. As the newly regenerated human learns to surrender to God and increasingly releases self will, his soul expands and he becomes a "partaker of the divine nature" as Peter's epistle says. We move from babes to adolescents to adults (I John 2:11-12). According to Irenaeus, Jesus was the first human to arrive at making a completed soul, uniting the human and the divine. He was the first born of the brethern, the first fruits of all creation - the true Son of Man and Son of God. The aim of life is not to be saved from our depraved sinful nature, but to make souls in the image of God.
ATONEMENT THEORIES AND THE PURPOSE OF LIFE
For Irenaeus and the majority of early Christians before Augustine and Anselm, Jesus died to ransom us back from Satan who was a kidnapping terrorist. You can read more on this site http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atonement_(Ransom_view) This is sometimes called the classical view of atonement because it was the earliest view held by many Christians. This view held that Jesus did not die for our sins, but to rescue us back from the clutches of Satan. The human problem was not sin, but captivity by the Devil. Once Jesus redeemed us, or bought us back, he then resurrected and slipped away from Satan, tricking the old deluder. CS Lewis revived this theory in Mere Christianity and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Remember when the Ice Queen swaps the children for Aslan?
So to answer your questions by summary:
I believe we are here to make souls, individually and socially. The goal of life is to move from the 'image' or potential to the 'likeness' or actual Human/Divine nature and being we are created to be. Earth is a school of sorts. Satan is one of the teachers - look at his role in Job and where Jesus says Satan asked to sift Peter like wheat so he could return and be of greater use to the disciples. Satan took Jesus into the desert to test him, to help him make a soul. In the Old Testament, the word Shatan is a verb which means to block the path, to test, and is used most often of God's actions (read Numbers 22) as he places obstacles in the path of humans to teach them and help them make soul. That was the role of the Tree in Eden. The Serpent was the teacher, not some critter that outwitted God and ruined the divine plan, as if God didn't know what He was doing. Later, the verb Shatan came to refer to a person, but any serious Bible student will see that the word is used of God and later applied to God's helper, Satan, an aspect of the divine. There should be a Quaternity instead of a trinity. Christianity has created an illogical and psychologically damaging theology by making God All-powerful, and Satan a threat to God!!! If God is all-powerful, then Satan is part of the soul-making staff at the University of Adversity, and he gets his teaching assignments from God as we see in Job and Jesus. I could go on...but will stop.
I don't see life or the world as a fallen, evil, and God forsaken place filled with depraved, wicked, God hating sinners in need of God to slaughter his son to appease his petty wrath. I see the world and cosmos in general as a place of intentional light and darkness, chaos and order, good and evil and all dualities created by God for the sake of making humans partakers of the Divine Image. Jesus was one of our greatest examples and guides.
PROSPERITY AND SOUL MAKING
Those of us who hold to the so-called Prosperity teachings are sometimes challenged to find the positive in a world intentionally filled with challenges and problems, suffering and pathologies. On the surface, it is a problem, but when you scratch the varnish off the surface, the problem diminishes. Prosperity, like a three dimensional chess game, occurs on three levels, separately and simultaneously. The lowest level of prosperity is personal, the second is social, and the highest is in the invisible realm of soul-making. All three are important, to be sought earnestly and are interrelated. The pursuit of personal and social prosperity are a critical means to making soul. The basic human instincts are tested, the soul seed is watered and fertilized, the skin of soul is stretched to make room for more of God through our strivings. Those who participate fully in the game of life, including self and communal success are simultaneously making souls, whether they make a million dollars or go bankrupt, whether they die in battle at the age of 19 or in bed at the age of 91.
WHERE IS IT ALL GOING?
Where is it all going? According to another early theologian who believed in Soul-making, Origen, the aim of existence is to make divine souls and then cease to exist when the educational process is over. Origen went so far as to say that in the end, even the Devil and his angels will be redeemed. Origen taught that in the beginning God asked for two volunteers to be the greatest teachers on earth. Jesus volunteered to be the soul-making light, and God's beloved Lucifer volunteered to be the soul-making teacher or agent of darkness - I call him the Algebra teacher!! I hated algebra, even though it is good for you.
Enough from me. That is how I view life these days based on the teaching from the Holy Spirit through external education and internal revelation, which we all have access to according to Jeremiah and Jesus and many others.