Perhaps you’ve seen it—the video taken by Nickson Gensis on November 7, 2013, that showed a surge of water caused by Typhoon Haiyan as it obliterated a house near the water’s edge. Gensis said, “Six of us took refuge on the top floor of a boarding house. Five were praying and I was filming.”
The typhoon first attracted attention on November 2 as little more than an area of low pressure some 2,000 miles east of the Philippine Islands. That in itself was not unusual, since low and high pressure areas alternate all over the globe. But it didn’t take observers very long to realize that an unusual storm was brewing. The low pressure system formed in an area where sizzling sunshine had heated ocean temperatures, generating steaming humidity. Combined with numerous other local conditions, the situation was perfect for the formation of a tropical typhoon.
The Joint Typhoon Warning Center (JTWC) in Hawaii took note and began tracking it. Within 24 hours, it evolved into a tropical depression. On November 4, less than two days after tracking began, the depression became a tropical storm, which the JTWC christened “Haiyan.” The storm’s intensity kept accelerating until it became a typhoon of such ferocity that the JTWC changed its classification to “super typhoon.” The massive maelstrom of whirling winds eventually reached speeds of 195 miles per hour, with gusts up to 230 mph. All the while, winds in the upper atmosphere drove it inexorably west toward the Philippine Islands.
One hundred million people in the Phillipines watched with growing apprehension as the massive storm—which they named “Yolanda”—approached their coast. On November 7, Yolanda made landfall at Guiuan, Eastern Samar. These great storms usually weaken as they move over land, but Yolanda remained powerful.
The typhoon’s worst effect was felt in the city of Tacloban, capital of the province of Leyte. The death toll in the Phillipines was more than 5,200. Those who survived witnessed an apocalyptic landscape of shattered buildings, uprooted and broken trees, snapped power lines, and general devastation. They were left without electricity, telephone service, safe drinking water, or food supplies.
U. S. Marine Brigadier General Paul Kennedy, who assisted in bringing American aid to the region, was quoted as saying, “I don’t believe there is a single structure that is not destroyed or severely damaged in some way—every single building, every single house.” Eleven days after the storm hit, CNN reported that teams of “body collectors” still moved through the streets of Tacloban, gathering up corpses to be taken to outdoor morgues or buried in mass graves.
So where was God?
Atheists cite the terrible destruction of such natural disasters as evidence that God does not exist. Sam Harris, an atheist author and activist, commenting on the tsunami that struck Japan on March 11, 2011, said, “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.”
Before we go any further, we need to recognize a false premise in Harris’s statement. He said either God cannot, or He does not care to, do anything to stop these catastrophes. The Bible tells us that God cares for us as a loving father cares for his children (Psalm 103:13). But there are times when even the most loving parent chooses not to intervene in a child’s life.
When your children leave your home to go to school or out on their own to take a job, sooner or later, you know they’ll make choices that bring them disappointment, pain, and perhaps injury. Does that mean you don’t care? Of course not! But you choose not to intervene, because you realize that for your children to grow and mature and become fully independent, they must be permitted to make such choices.
So does the Bible say anything that helps us to understand the reason for our human suffering? It does!
The source of suffering
Revelation—the last book of the Bible—gives us an insight into the cause of human suffering: “There was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him” (Revelation 12:7–9).
Please note that Satan and his angels were cast down to our planet, and they are the source of human suffering, not God. Satan’s conflict with God began in heaven, and it continues to the present on this earth. C. S. Lewis expressed it well: “There is no neutral ground in the universe; every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God and counter-claimed by Satan.”
The biblical book of Job gives us a good example of Satan as the source of suffering. At the very outset of the story we are informed that Job “was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil” (Job 1:1). But the story abruptly shifts to a scene that’s reminiscent of the courts of ancient monarchs: “One day the angels came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them” (verse 6).
At that meeting, Satan claimed to be representing planet Earth. God pointed out that Job had remain faithful to Him, but Satan countered that the only reason Job served God was because God had bribed him. So God allowed Satan to take everything from Job—his possessions, his children, and even his health—as a test to demonstrate whether Job truly was loyal to God. And Job proved Satan’s accusations to be false.
Please notice that not only did God not stop Satan from tormenting Job— He gave Satan permission to do so. Why? What did that accomplish?
We aren’t told directly, but Satan’s accusation took place in a setting that involved three parties: God (the first party), the sons of God (the second party, probably angels), and Satan (the third party). God claimed that Job was one of His loyal followers. Satan made the counterclaim that God had simply bribed Job. That left the “sons of God.” Since they were present when Satan made his claim, it appears that he wanted to persuade them that God was unfair. He wanted to sow doubt about God’s justice in their minds.
Where there’s a claim and a counterclaim, neither of the two claimants can render the verdict. Someone, or some other group, must give that verdict. So God agreed to the trials that Satan brought on Job as the only way to allay those doubts that Satan had sowed in the minds of the angels. He cared deeply about Job, but there was more at stake. Near the end of the book, when Job challenged God, He replied, in effect, “I am involved in things far beyond your comprehension” (see Job 38–41).
An illustration from Daniel
Daniel tells a story that helps us to understand where God is when His people suffer. In the story, King Nebuchadnezzar ordered that three Hebrew young men be cast into a furnace so hot that it killed the men who threw them in. But then the king saw that something very unusual had happened. He “leaped to his feet in amazement and asked his advisers, ‘Weren’t there three men that we tied up and threw into the fire?’ They replied, ‘Certainly, O king.’ He said, ‘Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods’ ” (Daniel 3:24, 25).
This “son of the gods” was none other than Jesus, the Son of God! So where was God when those three young men were thrown into the fire? He was in the fire with them!
In Deuteronomy, we are told “the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6). Jesus said that “where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20). And shortly before He left this earth to return to heaven, He told His disciples, “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
So where was God when Typhoon Haiyan struck Tacloban? I believe He was there in the midst of it all, going through the storm with the people— including even those who didn’t call on His name.