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Book review: Where is God in All the Suffering? by Amy Orr-Ewing

05 January 2024

An empathetic study, John Saxbee finds

IF YOU are looking for a concise popular conservative Evangelical theodicy, look no further.

Dr Amy Orr-Ewing is currently co-director of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics and is an internationally recognised author and speaker. Here, she draws on her own suffering, and that of others of her acquaintance, to reach out especially to those who may profess little or no religious faith, and reveal to them God in Christ alongside them in their suffering, bearing their pain, and surrounding them with reassuring love.

Her writing is clear, confident, and relentlessly anecdotal. Indeed, her relatives and acquaintances feature to an extent that can verge on mawkishness. But if philosophers of religion have tended towards an impersonal or even callous objectivity when dealing with the problem of evil and suffering, that certainly cannot be said of Orr-Ewing’s perceptive, sensitive, and empathetic approach, in this book shortlisted for the Michael Ramsey Prize.

She takes the opportunity trenchantly to challenge atheistic reductionism, nihilism, and religiously founded appeals to karma and various forms of fatalism. Although philosophers of religion feature here and there, the Bible read uncritically is far and away her most referenced source when it comes to the hard questions posed by suffering in relation to a God of love. Furthermore, her essentially fundamentalist theology relies on original sin, penal substitution, and divine judgement as doctrinal foundations that may well entail more questions than answers.

A comprehensive range of topics are addressed in concise chapters on sickness, mental illness, violence, natural disasters, and systemic suffering. Anger and grief are treated with admirable care, and an opening chapter on why the question why is a thoroughly human response to pain and suffering, with a final chapter on the Suffering Servant, give the book a pleasing symmetry. Issues very much to the fore these days such as mental health, self-harm, domestic violence, and sexual abuse are well informed and handled with acute pastoral sensitivity, and without resort to simplistic solutions.

Those for whom this topic is a theological minefield will feel that Orr-Ewing relies too much on an uncritical biblicism and a kind of philosophical naïvety. She is certainly right to assert that “if Christian faith is worth considering, it needs to be deep enough to cope with our most rigorous human scrutiny.” Whether her answer to the title question is rigorous enough is debatable.

But, that said, there is a great deal here to encourage and comfort those enduring afflictions of many kinds, and to resource those coming alongside them with the good news of God with us, come what may.

The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.

Where is God in All the Suffering?
Amy Orr-Ewing
The Good Book Company £8.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.09

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