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3 Nephi Chapter 8

Scripture Mastery

3 Nephi 8 Signs of Christ's crucifixion-great destruction throughout the land

The Lord often endures the wickedness of the world with patience and longsuffering. There are times, however, when his patience reaches its limit, and he does not continue to endure. Chauncey Riddle has referred to these times as "days of wickedness and vengeance" ("Days of Wickedness and Vengeance: Analysis of 3 Nephi 6 and 7" in The Book of Mormon Helaman Through 3 Nephi 8, According To Thy Word, 191-205). They occur when the gospel has been preached to the people, and yet the people wilfully reject it and continue in wickedness. The people not only reject the teachings of the prophets, but they may banish or even kill the prophets and persecute and destroy the saints as well. The blood of the prophets and the saints cry out, and the Lord hears. When a society deteriorates spiritually to this extent, a setting is created wherein righteousness cannot exist. How, for example, could a child in Ammonihah or Sodom learn to obey God? If the Lord were to allow such societies to continue, he would condemn generations to the powers of Satan. In an ironic way, destruction of such a society may be seen as evidence of God's love. Since those who fail to repent will be consigned to the spirit prison after this life where they will begin to suffer for their own sins, the act of cutting short their sinning is an act of mercy. Death may be the beginning of spiritual wisdom for the wicked. The Lord therefore initiates some form of physical punishment that destroys the people from off the face of the earth. Brother Riddle has pointed out that the scriptures tell of two major times of "wickedness and vengeance": the meridian of time-in both the Old and New Worlds (Moses 7:45-47)-and the latter days (Moses 7:59-61).

In our study of the Book of Mormon, we have reached one of these times. The Nephites, with the Lord's help, have just defeated the Gadianton robbers. They should have continued in humility and gratitude for the Lord's great blessings to them. Instead they knowingly rejected the doctrine of Christ and fell into pride and wickedness. In chapter 8, we will read of the Lord's vengeance upon the Book of Mormon people in the New World. In the Old World, the Lord will wait until about AD 70 and then allow the Romans to take vengeance upon the people of Jerusalem.

There is a clear and obvious analogy between the period of 3 Nephi 6-7 and our day. In both periods, the righteous believers are awaiting the Lord's advent. The wicked have been taught the gospel, and yet have rejected it. The period of destruction at the time of Christ's crucifixion is felt to be a type or symbol of the ultimate destruction of the ungodly at the time of the Savior's second coming. In like manner the two-hundred year period of peace and prosperity following the Savior's appearance on the western hemisphere is a type of the great millennial day.

1 And now it came to pass that according to our record, and we know our record to be true, for behold, it was a just man who did keep the record-for he truly did many miracles in the name of Jesus; and there was not any man who could do a miracle in the name of Jesus save he were cleansed every whit from his iniquity-

verse 1 Mormon adds another editorial comment. As we have noted previously the "just man" who kept or wrote the record Mormon abridged as he created the book of 3 Nephi was Nephi, the son of Nephi who will become the chief disciple of Jesus.

"there was not any man who could do a miracle in the name of Jesus save he were cleansed every whit from his iniquity" Here is an important principle. The performing of miracles in the name of Jesus is evidence that one is "cleansed every whit from his iniquity" and thus worthy of the companionship of the Holy Ghost and worthy to wield the powers of God. "The rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and . . . the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness" (D&C 121:36).

2 And now it came to pass, if there was no mistake made by this man in the reckoning of our time, the thirty and third year had passed away;

verse 2 "the thirty and third year had passed away" The reference date referred to here is the time of the sign of the birth of Christ's birth (3 Nephi 1:15; 3 Nephi 2:8). For a review of the three methods of reckoning time in the Book of Mormon, see the commentary for 3 Nephi 1:1.

3 And the people began to look with great earnestness for the sign which had been given by the prophet Samuel, the Lamanite, yea, for the time that there should be darkness for the space of three days over the face of the land.

verse 3 Now the people begin to look for another sign, the sign of Christ's death which was prophesied by Samuel. For a review of this sign see Helaman 14:20-28.

4 And there began to be great doubtings and disputations among the people, notwithstanding so many signs had been given.

verse 4 "notwithstanding so many signs had been given" These signs include the miraculous signs that attended the birth of Christ and the many miracles wrought by the prophet Nephi and others.

verses 5-23 The account of destruction in these verses documents the fulfillment of the prophecies of Nephi (1 Nephi 12:4; 2 Nephi 26:6), Zenos (1 Nephi 19:11-12), and Samuel the Lamanite (Helaman 14:20-28).

These verses describe a three-hour period of catastrophic destruction in the land. The text refers to this destructive phenomenon as a "storm," and it was undoubtedly some type of dramatically destructive convulsion of nature. But what exactly was it? Just what type of "storm" could wreak such havoc? Russell H. Ball has suggested that it might have been a major volcanic eruption perhaps precipitated by major seismic or earthquake activity ("An Hypothesis Concerning the Three Days of Darkness Among the Nephites," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, volume 2, Spring and Fall 1993, 107-23). Brother Ball has outlined textual evidence to support his hypothesis. He lists, for example, all of the mechanisms of the phenomena mentioned in these verses that resulted in massive land destruction. Each of these is plausibly the result of earthquake and volcanic eruption:

1. "a great and terrible tempest" (a tempest is a violent windstorm-verse 6) and "whirlwinds" (verse 12). When a huge ash column is ejected from a volcano, it can rise to thousands of feet. When such a column collapses back on the volcano it generates an ash surge carried by high winds that can travel at speeds up to one hundred miles per hour. Such a surge may collapse houses, break through windows, and bury the people inside buildings in an instant.

2. "terrible thunder that shook the whole earth" (verse 6). "exceedingly sharp lightnings, such as never had been known in all the land" (verse 7) Even though there was thunder and an unusual display of lightning, no rain is mentioned. Apparently fine volcanic ash is also very effective in generating lightning. Photographs of erupting volcanoes such as Mount Vesuvius in 1944 (R.V. Fodor, Earth Afire! Volcanoes and Their Activity. New York: William Morrow, 1981, 15) and Sakura-Jima in 1987 (Mark Kemp, "Power Surge," Discover [April 1988] 9:40-42), show hundreds of lightning bolts in the ash clouds above those volcanoes. The friction between fine volcanic ash particles in the atmosphere is very effective in generating severe lightning without any attending rain, leaving the ground and wood very dry. It is notable that after hours of thunderstorm activity of unprecedented fury the Nephites' wood was still referred to as being "exceedingly dry" (verse 21) (Alvin K. Benson, "Geological Upheaval and Darkness in 3 Nephi 8-10" The Book of Mormon: 3 Nephi 9-30, This Is My Gospel, 63-64).

3. "earth's being carried up upon the city of Moronihah" (verse 10). The roughening of smooth places (verse 13), the subsidence or sinking of some areas, and the building of a "great mountain" in the place where the city of Moronihah had been (3 Nephi 8:10) are events clearly associated with very severe seismic and volcanic activity.

4. floods (3 Nephi 9:7). Even though no rain is mentioned, this "storm" caused the waters to "come up upon" the cities. Landslides, which may have dammed rivers, or which may have caused large waves to spread across lakes, could have caused water to "come up upon" some cities.

5. "earthquakes" which caused some cities to sink, some to burn (3 Nephi 9:9-10), and the buildings of some to collapse (verses 13-14)

6. "cities sunk in the sea" (3 Nephi 9:4; 3 Nephi 9:6-7). An earthquake may result in subsidence or sinking of coastal regions. Those cities which sunk into the depths of the sea were probably located along the west coast.

The wicked met their demise by being sunk and buried in the earth, drowned in the depths of the sea, burned by fire, fallen upon and crushed to death, carried away in the whirlwind, overpowered by the vapor of smoke and of darkness, and swallowed up by the opening of the earth to receive them.

It seems likely, then, that the primary geological phenomenon in this great "storm" was a gigantic earthquake which triggered erupting volcanoes. Apparently it is common for areas that have frequent, severe earthquakes to have a high incidence of volcanic activity (A. F. Espinosa, "The Guatemalan Earthquake of February 4, 1976, a Preliminary Report." United States Geological Survey Professional Paper 1002. Washington: GPO, 1976, 87-90). The combination of earthquake activity and active volcanoes is especially common along the west coast of Central America (Bruce W. Warren and Thomas S. Ferguson, The Messiah in Ancient America, Provo, Utah: Book of Mormon Research Foundation, 1988, 40-45).

Elder Bruce R. McConkie has written of the Lord's use of earthquakes:

Since the earth has been in its present fallen or telestial state, it has been subject to earthquakes. These are part of the Lord's plan; they come by his power and fulfill his purposes. By them he delivers his servants from perils, destroys the wicked, and leaves a sign that his hand has been in transcendent events (Helaman 12:7-17).

Earthquakes attended the delivery from prison of Paul and Silas in the old world, of Lehi and Nephi in the new (Acts 16:25-26; Helaman 5:27). Both the crucifixion and the resurrection of our Lord were attested by earthquakes (Matthew 27:54; Matthew 28:2). Among the Nephites the quakings and destructions at the time of the crucifixion were so extensive that the whole face of the land was changed and the wicked and rebellious were destroyed (3 Nephi 8; 9:1-14; 10:9-10).

Earthquakes are given as one of the signs of the times; they foreshadow the second coming (Matthew 24:7; Mark 13:8; Luke 21:11; D&C 45:33; D&C 87:6). By them the testimony of the Lord's power is borne to the people of the earth (D&C 43:25; D&C 88:89), and when the glorious second coming itself arrives there will be "a great earthquake, such as was not since men were upon the earth, so mighty an earthquake, and so great" (Revelation 16:18-20; Revelation 6:12-17; Revelation 8:5; Revelation 11:12-15; Revelation 11:19; Zechariah 14:4-5; D&C 133:22-25) ("Earthquakes" in Mormon Doctrine, 211).

5 And it came to pass in the thirty and fourth year, in the first month, on the fourth day of the month, there arose a great storm, such an one as never had been known in all the land.

verse 5 It is possible that the moment this "storm" began, the Master, on the other side of the world, had just voluntarily given up his life with the words: "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit" (Luke 23:46). Others have suggested that this storm, which will last three hours, occurred during the Savior's final three hours on the cross. He actually hung upon the cross for about six hours, from approximately 9 am to 3 pm. Perhaps this final three hours was the time of his greatest suffering. We are taught that during this period the agonies of Gethsemane returned (Bruce R. McConkie, Mortal Messiah, 4:224-25).

Just when was the Savior crucified? How does the Nephite calendar correspond to our calendar today? Randall P. Spackman has provided us with a compelling discussion of the date of Christ's crucifixion ("Introduction to Book of Mormon Chronology: The Principal Prophecies, Calendars, and Dates," a FARMS reprint, 57-74). He concludes that the Savior was crucified, according to our present-day calendar, on March 16, AD 29. The interested reader is invited to review Brother Spackman's article.

6 And there was also a great and terrible tempest; and there was terrible thunder, insomuch that it did shake the whole earth as if it was about to divide asunder.

verse 6 "there was also a great and terrible tempest" A tempest is a violent wind storm.

"terrible thunder" Hugh Nibley reports that sometimes an earthquake can be heard before it is felt. He notes that in the Assam earthquake of 1950, one thing stressed in all reports was that an awful rumble heralded the quake, a deafening roar, louder than anything any of the witnesses had ever heard before. He also notes that in the Assam earthquake "strong winds raised the dust until visibility was reduced to a few feet" (The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, volume 7, 233). Some survivors of the Mount St. Helen's volcano referred to the noise and shaking as like being next to ground zero in an atomic bomb blast (Thomas G. Aylesworth and Virginia L. Aylesworth, The Mount St. Helens Disaster, New York: Franklin Watts, 1983, 15-17).

The great earthquake that completely destroyed the old capital of Guatemala in 1541 was preceded by "the fury of the wind, the incessant, appalling lightning and dreadful thunder that were indescribable in their violence" (Ibid.). The "terrible thunder" might also have resulted from the lightning.

"it did shake the whole earth" It seems likely that the phrase "whole earth" should be understood as "whole land," that is, all of the area populated by the Nephites and Lamanites. Thus, the destruction was a localized rather than a global phenomenon (see another example of a similar use of the term "whole earth" in Alma 36:7).

7 And there were exceedingly sharp lightnings, such as never had been known in all the land.

verse 7 Hugh Nibley reported: "One of the still unexplained phenomena of earthquakes is that all types of lights are reported seen. . . . There are flashes, balls of fire, and streamers-every type of lightning (Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, volume 7, 233).

While sitting at my computer on April 9, 2009, I have just read a news report titled "Volcano's Lightning Captured in Photo." The article reported: "In one of the rarest images ever captured in a photograph, scientists have been able to track lightning occurring inside clouds spewing from a volcanic eruption. Using a system called Lightning Mapping Array, researchers were able to see this tumultuous lightning storm occurring above Alaska's Mount Redoubt when it blew its top on March 22 and 23 [2009]."

8 And the city of Zarahemla did take fire.

verse 8 Hugh Nibley, again:

Now, most of the destruction in the Book of Mormon was caused by fire, not by the earthquake, like the San Francisco earthquake. This is always so in earthquakes, because people have open fires, lamps, and things, and they start everything burning. It would appear from the Nephite account that the main cause of destruction was fire in the cities which agrees with all major statistics through the centuries; for earthquakes are largely a city problem, mainly because the first heavy shock invariably sets fires all over town (Teachings of the Book of Mormon, Semester 3, 320).

9 And the city of Moroni did sink into the depths of the sea, and the inhabitants thereof were drowned.

verse 9 "And the city of Moroni did sink into the depths of the sea" Hugh Nibley wrote:

Such a submergence happened on a spectacular scale in the Chilean earthquake of 1960: "We would have taken these flooded stretches, permanently flooded, for coastal lagoons," a geologist reports, "if here and there we had not seen roads that ran straight toward them and into them. . . . roads that vanished, or sometimes showed under the stagnant water, branching into what had been the streets of a town." In the New Madrid, Missouri, earthquake of 1811, two vast tracts of land were covered with fresh water both by the damming of streams and the bursting out of numerous earthquake blows or fountains, flooding the newly submerged areas (Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, volume 7, 233-34).

Alvin K. Benson has pointed out: "One of the more active [earthquake] zones of the world is located along the western coasts of Central and South America. The mountainous areas there extend oceanward to a long, linear ocean trench. The trench exceeds 20,000 feet in depth and is bordered along the shore by mountains over 22,000 feet high. This large elevation difference of over 40,000 feet is a likely site for large-scale fault development, allowing blocks of earth to slip oceanward. Such movement could occur during a large earthquake, which could explain the loss of the city of Moroni into the depths of the sea" ("Geological Upheaval and Darkness in 3 Nephi 8-10" The Book of Mormon: 3 Nephi 9-30, This Is My Gospel, 67).

Author's note: Contrary to Brother Benson's conclusion in the preceding paragraph, the likely location of the city of Moroni was near the coast of the east sea (see the hypothetical map of Book of Mormon lands).

10 And the earth was carried up upon the city of Moronihah, that in the place of the city there became a great mountain.

verse 10 This is the first mention of the city of Moronihah in the Book of Mormon, hence we have no idea as to its relative location.

Just how does a city become a "great mountain"? Hugh Nibley again has written: "In September 1538 during a tremendous storm and tidal wave a volcanic mountain suddenly appeared and covered a town near Puzzuoli on the Bay of Naples; ever since, the mountain has been known as Monte Nueve, or New Mountain" (Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, volume 7, 235).

11 And there was a great and terrible destruction in the land southward.

12 But behold, there was a more great and terrible destruction in the land northward; for behold, the whole face of the land was changed, because of the tempest and the whirlwinds, and the thunderings and the lightnings, and the exceedingly great quaking of the whole earth;

verses 11-12 Again, it is likely that the land southward and the land northward are both parts of the former land of Zarahemla which is entirely south of the narrow neck of land. The land northward included the land Bountiful and its environs, and the land southward included the city of Zarahemla and those lands surrounding it.

13 And the highways were broken up, and the level roads were spoiled, and many smooth places became rough.

14 And many great and notable cities were sunk, and many were burned, and many were shaken till the buildings thereof had fallen to the earth, and the inhabitants thereof were slain, and the places were left desolate.

15 And there were some cities which remained; but the damage thereof was exceedingly great, and there were many in them who were slain.

16 And there were some who were carried away in the whirlwind; and whither they went no man knoweth, save they know that they were carried away.

17 And thus the face of the whole earth became deformed, because of the tempests, and the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the quaking of the earth.

verse 17 "thus the face of the whole earth became deformed" The astute student of the Book of Mormon may conclude from this verse that the lands of the Book of Mormon were so altered by this great catastrophe that it would not be possible to locate and identify those lands on our present-day map of the Western Hemisphere. Is this true? Are those students who are interested in the geography of the Book of Mormon involved in a hopeless quest? John L. Sorenson wrote:

What if the physical conditions changed so much from ancient to modern times that the former locations no longer can be found? We learn from the Book of Mormon that "the face of the whole earth" was changed through terrible earthquakes and other destruction at the time of the Savior's crucifixion. Could it be that today there is no way to reconstruct the geography of pre-crucifixion times?

The answer to [this question] . . . is . . . in the book. Mormon and Moroni both lived and wrote after the catastrophic changes. They had no trouble identifying locations they personally knew in their lifetimes with places referred to by Alma or Helaman before the catastrophe. Nothing about the pre-crucifixion geography seems to have puzzled them. The volume itself says that the changes at the Savior's death were mainly to the surface. Bountiful was still in place, its temple still there, when the resurrected Savior appeared (3 Nephi 11:1). Zarahemla was rebuilt on the burned ruin of the former city (4 Nephi 1:8). The narrow pass was still in its key position during the final battles as it had been more than four centuries before. The River Sidon ran the same course, and Ramah/Cumorah, the landmark hill, presided unchanged over the annihilation of its second people. Thus the record itself gives no justification for supposing that the form or nature of the land changed in any essentials, despite the impressive destruction that signaled the Savior's death. Nor is there reliable evidence from the earth sciences to lead us to suppose major changes took place. Nothing we know prevents our placing most of the ancient places on today's map (An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, 45-46).

18 And behold, the rocks were rent in twain; they were broken up upon the face of the whole earth, insomuch that they were found in broken fragments, and in seams and in cracks, upon all the face of the land.

19 And it came to pass that when the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the storm, and the tempest, and the quakings of the earth did cease-for behold, they did last for about the space of three hours; and it was said by some that the time was greater; nevertheless, all these great and terrible things were done in about the space of three hours-and then behold, there was darkness upon the face of the land.

verse 19 "they did last for about the space of three hours" This three-hour period of terrible destruction ushered in the three days of darkness.

We know that the Nephites experienced three hours of terrible storm followed by three days of darkness. To what extent the rest of the world experienced these phenomena is not known. Luke suggests that perhaps the period of storm in the New World corresponded to a three-hour period of darkness in the Old World and perhaps even throughout the whole earth. "And it was about the sixth hour, and there was a darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour. And the sun was darkened, and the veil of the temple was rent in the midst" (Luke 23:44-45). While some manifestations may have been noticeable world-wide, it seems likely that the cataclysmic storm and the resulting three days of darkness was a local phenomenon involving the Nephite and Lamanite lands.

What might have been the mechanism for the darkness? If volcanic eruptions last several hours, as described here, the enormous amount of ash discharged might have blanketed a large region and might have produced intense local darkness. It has been suggested that in this darkness the earth was symbolically manifesting its gloom over the death of its Creator.

20 And it came to pass that there was thick darkness upon all the face of the land, insomuch that the inhabitants thereof who had not fallen could feel the vapor of darkness;

21 And there could be no light, because of the darkness, neither candles, neither torches; neither could there be fire kindled with their fine and exceedingly dry wood, so that there could not be any light at all;

verses 20-21 The "vapor of darkness" could have been the result of volcanic activity, possibly a combination of dense clouds of dust and volcanic ash and smoke. A large volcano may result in an enormous amount of ash being discharged into the atmosphere. This ash can rise to great heights (many thousands of feet) and then spread out in the stratosphere to cover a large region with an impenetrable cloud of dust (Kathryn A. Goldner and Carole G. Vogel, Why Mount St. Helens Blew Its Top. Minneapolis: Dillion, 1981, 37-43). Combined with volcanic ash, smoke, and gases in the lower atmosphere, these phenomena might well have produced the "vapor of darkness." During the Mount St. Helens volcano observers reported that visibility dropped to zero as thick volcanic dust hid the sun. Day became night as far away as 500 miles. Spokane, Washington, located 250 miles east of the volcano was in complete darkness at 3 pm (Thomas G. Aylesworth and Virginia L. Aylesworth, The Mount St. Helens Disaster, New York: Franklin Watts, 1983, 15-17).

Another author James Baer has also suggested that volcanic eruptions might have accompanied the violent earthquake described in this chapter. He notes that in the areas of the surviving Nephites, the concentration of volcanic gases may have been sufficient to prevent the ignition of fires but not high enough to suffocate the people ("The Third Nephi Disaster: A Geological View," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought [Spring 1986] 129-32).

22 And there was not any light seen, neither fire, nor glimmer, neither the sun, nor the moon, nor the stars, for so great were the mists of darkness which were upon the face of the land.

23 And it came to pass that it did last for the space of three days that there was no light seen; and there was great mourning and howling and weeping among all the people continually; yea, great were the groanings of the people, because of the darkness and the great destruction which had come upon them.

verse 23 "These three days of darkness obviously accord with the three days that the body of the crucified Christ lay in the borrowed tomb of Joseph of Arimathaea. How appropriate that the lands of the Book of Mormon be draped in darkness to commemorate and mourn the death and suffering of their king! The coming of light each morning ought be a reminder to all, of the manner in which our Redeemer brought to an end that long night of darkness we associate with death, and ought also be a reminder of the promise granted us, through him, of a newness of life" (Millet and McConkie, Doctrinal Commentary on the Book of Mormon, volume 4, 38-39).

Verse 22 states that the sun, moon, and stars were not visible during this three-day period. It is likely this phenomenon was more the result of things occurring on the earth than in the heavens. No comparable event is found in the New Testament record, suggesting that the three days of darkness was largely another remarkable and unique sign to the Book of Mormon people.

24 And in one place they were heard to cry, saying: O that we had repented before this great and terrible day, and then would our brethren have been spared, and they would not have been burned in that great city Zarahemla.

25 And in another place they were heard to cry and mourn, saying: O that we had repented before this great and terrible day, and had not killed and stoned the prophets, and cast them out; then would our mothers and our fair daughters, and our children have been spared, and not have been buried up in that great city Moronihah. And thus were the howlings of the people great and terrible.

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