Where is God in Japan?
March 20th, 2011
01:00 AM ET

Finding faith amid disaster

By Jessica Ravitz, CNN

Around the world, people are still struggling to come to terms with the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, which have left more than 8,000 dead, thousands more missing and hundreds of thousand others homeless. The threat of a nuclear crisis only adds to the uncertainty.

In times like these, many people find comfort in their faith. But disasters can also challenge long-held beliefs. The CNN Belief Blog asked some prominent voices with different views on religion how they make sense of such suffering, where they see inspiration amid destruction and how they respond to people who wonder, “How could God let this happen?”

Rabbi Harold Kushner, author whose books include “When Bad Things Happen to Good People”

Whenever a disaster like this occurs, I go back to the Bible, to the First Book of Kings. Elijah, in despair over the situation in Israel, runs to the desert, back to Mt. Sinai to find the God of the Revelation to Moses.

"And lo, the Lord God passed by. There was a mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks, but the Lord was not in the wind. There was an earthquake but the Lord was not in the earthquake."

To me, that is the key: the Lord was not in the earthquake.

Natural disasters are acts of nature, not acts of God. God cares about the well-being of good people; Nature is blind, an equal-opportunity destroyer.

Where is God in Japan today? In the courage of people to carry on their lives after the tragedy. In the resilience of those whose lives have been destroyed, families swept away, homes lost, but they resolve to rebuild their lives. In the goodness and generosity of people all over the world to reach out and help strangers who live far from them, to contribute aid, to pray for them.

How can people do such things if God were not at work in them to lend a counterweight to a natural disaster?

The Rev. Tesshu Shaku, chief priest of Nyoraiji Temple, a Jodo Shinshu (True Pure Land sect of Buddhism) temple in Ikeda City, Japan

Buddhism is called a religion with no god. So we don’t think God caused this, according to the Buddhist way of thinking. We think of the law of cause and effect, searching for a cause. It is the same approach as science. The cause of this earthquake is the friction between the North American plate and the Pacific plate.

The Japanese are more focused on relationships as opposed to faith, feeling the pain of others. I have witnessed this at the time of the Hanshin Awaji earthquake. [In 1995, the Great Hanshin earthquake on the island of Awaji killed about 6,500 people.] There were many people who came to the affected area to help and volunteer.

There is a word, “earthquake children,” for people whose perspectives were affected by the disaster. They became very active in community service or became Buddhist monks. So people will be more spiritual, feeling the pains and joys of others.

The Rev. James Martin, Jesuit priest, culture editor of America magazine and author of “The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything”

For the believer, there is no satisfactory answer for why we suffer. Each person has to come to grips with that. It’s not as if some magic answer can be found. But the idea of God suffering along with us can be very helpful.

The Christian believes that God became human and that God underwent all the things we do. Jesus on the cross cried, “My God, my God, why did you abandon me?” Christians do not have an impersonal God, but a God who understands what it means to suffer. People can relate more easily to a God who understands them.

Where is God? God is right there with the people who are grieving and sorrowful. In my own life, when I have felt great sorrow I have trusted that God is with me in this and that I’m not facing my struggles alone.

Oftentimes people become more religious in times of sorrow. They find that they are able to meet God in new ways. Why? Because when our defenses are down and we’re more vulnerable, God can break into our lives more easily. It’s not that God is closer, it’s that we’re more open.

Dr. Sayyid Syeed, national director of the Islamic Society of North America’s Office of Interfaith and Community Alliances

These sort of natural disasters become the collective responsibility of all mankind to mobilize our compassion and resources to ease the pain of the people who have suffered.

This disaster is not the result of any sins of these people; we need to be clear that there is no belief that these victims “deserved” it for any of their actions. Rather, Muslims see these kinds of tragedies as a test from God. Muslims believe that God tests those he loves, and these tragedies also serve as a reminder to the rest of us to remain grateful to God for all our blessings and cognizant that we must support those in need.

These kinds of calamities should push us in positive ways. They should strengthen our faith in God and in his goodness. We attribute the things we don’t understand to his limitless wisdom and comfort ourselves that he is with us and he loves us, so there must be some meaning in what has happened, even if it is beyond our comprehension here at this time.

We are trained by our faith that every suffering, whether big or small, brings us closer to God’s mercy and forgiveness, to the extent that the Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him) said, if you are walking and feel a thorn pierce your foot, you should know that even this little bit of pain brings you divine blessing and God’s forgiveness. These times of suffering give us an opportunity to demonstrate patience and faith, and therefore, become closer to God.

Every natural phenomenon challenges us as God’s trustees on this Earth, showing us that we should continue to study and explore ways of safeguarding humankind and all creatures from being subjected to this kind of devastation. It is the collective duty of all humankind to put resources in this and advance our understanding of how to respond to these disasters in a scientific way.

Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Buddhist monk, writer and activist who founded the Unified Buddhist Church in France, and Plum Village, a Buddhist community in exile

As we contemplate the great number of people who have died in this tragedy, we may feel very strongly that we ourselves, in some part or manner, also have died.

The pain of one part of humankind is the pain of the whole of humankind. And the human species and the planet Earth are one body. What happens to one part of the body happens to the whole body.

An event such as this reminds us of the impermanent nature of our lives. It helps us remember that what’s most important is to love each other, to be there for each other, and to treasure each moment we have that we are alive. This is the best that we can do for those who have died: We can live in such a way that they can feel they are continuing to live in us, more mindfully, more profoundly, more beautifully, tasting every minute of life available to us, for them.

Sam Harris, author of books including “The End of Faith,” and co-founder and CEO of Project Reason, dedicated to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values

Either God can do nothing to stop catastrophes like this, or he doesn’t care to, or he doesn’t exist. God is either impotent, evil, or imaginary. Take your pick, and choose wisely.

The only sense to make of tragedies like this is that terrible things can happen to perfectly innocent people. This understanding inspires compassion.

Religious faith, on the other hand, erodes compassion. Thoughts like, “this might be all part of God’s plan,” or “there are no accidents in life,” or “everyone on some level gets what he or she deserves” - these ideas are not only stupid, they are extraordinarily callous. They are nothing more than a childish refusal to connect with the suffering of other human beings. It is time to grow up and let our hearts break at moments like this.

The Rev. Franklin Graham,  president and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan's Purse, an international Christian relief organization

I don’t believe God does want this to happen. I don’t think it was ever God’s intention.

We know that there are going to be storms in life. No matter what happens we need to keep our faith and trust in almighty God.  And I want the people of Japan to know that God hasn’t forgotten them,  that God does care for them and that he loves them.

We care and God cares, and we’re standing by them.

CNN's Carol Costello contributed to this report

- CNN Writer/Producer

Filed under: Belief • God • Japan

soundoff (1,886 Responses)
  1. tallulah13

    This is amazing. I posted a reply to a comment and it actually posted BEFORE the comment I replied to. Is there a warp in the time/space continuum at CNN? I blame the European particle accelerator.

    March 20, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
  2. tallulah13

    Sorry if this is a double post. The filter doesn't like something.

    Really: I don't know that you are ignorant, uneducated or just obtuse, but you do have a basic lack of knowledge about evolution. Humans did not evolve from apes. Humans and apes evolved from a common ancestor. Evolution generally occurs to fill a niche in an ecosystem. Many species and subspecies die along the way. For whatever environmental reasons, humans evolved to walk on two legs, use spoken language and have an opposable thumb. Apes developed as they did to fill their own environmental niches – most, it seems, as tree dwellers.

    Evolution is truly an amazing story. If you are interested, you should "Why Evolution is True" by Jerry Coyne. It is filled with fascinating, doc umented examples of evolution.

    March 20, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
  3. Will

    The Easter Bunny, oops I mean God, still loves you all despite this TEST from him.

    March 20, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
  4. Ari

    only a US based news outlet would run such nonsense. does the BBC run stories about God during natural disasters? What a ridiculous story, pathetic to give coverage to these charlatans who do nothing more than create false hope and cause more suffering around the world.

    March 20, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
    • Mr. Sniffles

      Actually, BBC does. Here are two from the Thai tsunami a few years back:



      They certainly do less stories about religion as there are far fewer religious nutters in Europe, but you should never overestimate the integrity of any news company.

      March 20, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
  5. GodIsDead

    God never existed. Religion is an archaic system by which we were controlled. Frankly I wish all religion would be outlawed for anyone under the age of 15, after that they can make up their own mind.

    March 20, 2011 at 12:42 pm |

    This Rabbi is delusional. There is no god. There is no afterlife. There is nothing but an indifferent universe. Get over it. Live today for what you can. It's all you may get. The bible is a collection of ridiculous fairy tales. The old testament god is a psychopath. Maturity means accepting life as it is. When it's over...it's over. Period.

    March 20, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
  7. terry wrist


    March 20, 2011 at 12:38 pm |

      Terry, please do not post in capital letters. It's difficult to read them. If you want to make a word stronger in a sentence, just capitalize that one. People will not generally read all-capital letter posts.

      March 20, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • Iris

      The reason non-believing people get angry is because believers are constantly trying to control the rest of society (eg prop 8 in CA). If people weren't constantly pushing their beliefs onto us and trying to tell us that they are better just for believing, you wouldn't see so much anger.

      March 20, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
  8. skeptik

    None of the religious folks want to take a stab at Sam Harris's question. You say your god exists. So was he impotent to stop these disasters (in a world he himself purportedly created) or evil enough to allow them to happen?

    Saying an omnipotent god created the universe but didn't want this to happen (Franklin Graham) is nonsensical. God cares? Tell that to the dead.

    March 20, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
  9. Andy

    Let me get this straight, this god fellow created nature but when natural disasters occur, the almighty gets a free pass? So, Dr. Frankenstein had no responsibility for the monster he created either. No, wait, yes he did. Honestly, if god is all knowing and all powerful, then his decision not to intervene in natural disasters should prove that he is not all good. There is no, other explanation. Sure, believers will of course say, god works in mysterious ways, you can't know the heart of god, something good will come from this, etc, etc. If god is real, we are the children of an overtly abusive parent. Or more likely, we created god in our image and use this ancient philosophical construct to convince ourselves that everything will be alright.

    March 20, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
    • Sue

      Thank you - well put! I would like to add that people are quick to thank god for their survival - but what about the neighbor that was standing next to them? Did they ask or deserve to die? I guess their prayers didn't count. I couldn't agree with you more that "if god is all knowing and all powerful, then his decision not to intervene in natural disasters should prove that he is not all good. There is no, other explanation." That is, if a god exists at all - If it is a creator god that they worship, then yes, he is responsible - afterall he created disease didn't he? (Could a one-year-old child do something to deserve terminal cancer?) The answer, of course, is simple - there is no god.

      March 20, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
    • Al Bluengreenenbrownenburger

      Welcome to The Problem Of Evil, a philosophical conundrum that bascially tests if any given religion appropriately answers how the world really operates, specifically why good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people. No religion does particularly well, and some like Christianity fail miserably due to the assertion that God is active in your personal life.

      The Problem of Evil. Check it out.

      March 20, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
  10. Lori

    I can't actually believe that people still believe there is a "god.". I guess I better ask Santa for a new Jag this year, "cause I know he's real too, after all, he's been written about forever, oh, and let's not forget the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny, after all, there are lots of books written about them too, so that makes them real, right?

    March 20, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
  11. Mr. Sniffles

    b4bigbang, you said that you "have seen things that defy explanation and could only be explained as miracles."

    Could you share those with us? I will give you a fair listen.

    March 20, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
  12. Geoperson

    As interesting as this article is, pointing out several different points of veiw on God's role in this disaster, I can't help but feel CNN has a different reason. Do they enjoy feeding hate? All an article like this will do is encourage people to post wild comments about how right their religion is, or how wrong another's is. I just wish CNN would stop posting oppinions and start posting news and facts. Leave the interpretation to someone else, like a church perhaps?

    March 20, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
  13. GodisDead

    Xtians each have their own specific delusion that they spout off about. Occasionally, two or more of them will actually agree. Some say you gotta' do it this way, and that's not the way that you do it. Or that Jebus did or didn't do or say something or other, and it's not what you believe. Math and science give the same answer every time, and there is no room for adding your own personal twist to it. They speak the truth while you nincompoops sit here and babble your delusions. It's simply horrific, and I hope a medical solution comes along soon.

    March 20, 2011 at 12:33 pm |
  14. profart

    Boy does Mr. Harris come off looking like callous idiot. I hope he doesn't really represent atheists. But then, from what I have seen in new comments everywhere, he does.

    March 20, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
    • Jesus

      This is all about taking money from fearful and often ignorant people based on a slick and glib speaker (e.g. Rabbi, Preacher, Minister, Priest etc.) who affirms the existence of an afterlife and of the existence of all seeing and knowing God despite NO EVIDENCE of either. The religion business plan is based on the dogma of a bronze age culture. Harris correct. We as a people MUST confront this scam and ignorance with aggressive commentary.

      March 20, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
  15. Josh


    March 20, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
  16. just looking

    What a beautiful article. As different as these faiths outwardly seem to be, there is one common thread through all of them and that is compassion.
    While us puny humans are not in control of anything-witness what is happening with the nuclear reactor! how tragic-we can respond in a loving way to the suffering of our fellow human beings. As the song says all of us are one phone call away from getting down on our knees. In suffering and in the way we respond to it we can truly be one family.

    March 20, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
  17. The Truth

    Believe in what you want. Personally though...there is no god. Just be good to all people and do whats right!

    March 20, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
    • Shells

      Do what is right. But by whose standard of "right"? What is right to you may not be right to me. Only God's standards are right. And yes, God does exist. Go look in the mirror. You are an amazing, complicated creature. There is no way you or anyone else just appeared. We don't need religion, but we do need God.

      March 20, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
  18. b4bigbang

    I give up trying to make this thing work right. Maybe i shouldn't use two different p/c. Cookie problems? Oh well, bye for now everybody.

    March 20, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
  19. devinjgray

    I don't wish to get into my personal beliefs, though I will say that I am not Jewish so that you don't think my opinion is due to bias. I just want to say that Rabbi Kushner's book "when bad things happen to good people" was immensely helpful to me in coming to terms with some terrible tragedies in my chilhood. I would just recommend, as I always recommend, to keep an open mind. I would encourage anyone to read this book.

    March 20, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
    • just looking

      Just read your reply. I'm going through some stressful stuff right now and maybe I'll read this particular book. Also I might suggest When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron. It is in the same vein as your book. Thank you for your comment!

      March 20, 2011 at 12:32 pm |

      I'm truly sorry that you went through some horrible things. I hope things are better now. While I'm glad that Rabbi Kushner's book helped you, I'd rather suggest that the REAL reasons you got better and over it is because you are now STRONGER than you were then.

      Be strong. Continue to be strong in the face of adversity. But god has nothing to do with this. Neither does Kushner. Your innner strength is what did it. Congratulations. I'm proud of you. Keep it up.

      March 20, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
    • Boruch N. Hoffinger BS"D

      Rabbi Kushner's book is NOT the Orthodox opinion.
      You cannot grow as an individual blaming others for one's transgressions, errors, etc.
      There's not a thing in the world that is not full of G-d's essence and power. Check out modern science.
      'The 7 Noahide Laws' NOW !

      March 20, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
  20. sami

    Sam Harris will not change the thinking of others by calling their beliefs stupid and callous. There are much better ways to speak to people when trying to get a point across. People skills 101. Be nice.

    March 20, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
    • SDFrankie

      Nice or not, nobody cares to explain how his point is wrong. And that's not because he's mean. It's because he's right.

      March 20, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
    • Andy

      Why should he be nice? Do you think it is nice to tell someone that because they think, act or are born differently than you, that they are then going to hell?

      I agree you catch more flies with honey, but seriously, it's not like religious people are all that nice to people who are just a little different.

      March 20, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
    • Jesus

      Are you advocating that we should be "nice" to scam artists who take advantage of the human fear of mortality? This is all about taking money from fearful and often ignorant people based on a slick and glib speaker (e.g. Rabbi, Preacher, Minister, Priest etc.) who affirms the existence of an afterlife and of the existence of all seeing and knowing God despite NO EVIDENCE of either. The religion business plan is based on the dogma of a bronze age culture. Harris correct. We as a people MUST confront this scam and ignorance with aggressive commentary.

      March 20, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
    • itsame?

      Calling a belief stupid isn't the same as calling a person stupid. The belief that the earth is flat is a stupid belief. The belief that you will get 72 Virgins in Heaven for blowing up yourself in the name of your God is a stupid belief. The ideas that Harris referenced are also stupid, and indeed callous as they undermine the tragedy at hand.

      March 20, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
    • Chris

      It's not a if being nice about people's irrational faith will make them see anything any clearer, I like that sam is candid, why should he tip-toe around?

      March 21, 2011 at 12:04 am |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.