Book of Mormon/Three days of darkness

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The "three days of darkness" in the New World following Christ's death

Summary: The three days of darkness is consistent with a period of intense volcanism. This explanation of the darkness has been particularly popular among those who advocate a limited geographical model of the Book of Mormon. Most LGT models place Book of Mormon lands in central America; this area is well-known for active seismic activity.

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Question: How is it possible that there were three days of darkness in the New World and not in the Old World?

Book of Mormon Central, KnoWhy #188: How Was There A Night Without Darkness? (Video)

When the Book of Mormon says “the whole Earth” it does not actually mean the entire planet, but rather every place within the local people’s experience

Some argue that the "three days" of "darkness upon the face of the land" in the New World following Christ's death is implausible. There are also a number of references to the destruction in the New World that accompanied Christ's death to "the whole Earth." However, When the Book of Mormon says “the whole Earth” it does not actually mean the entire planet, but rather every place within the local people’s experience.

Note that in the gospel of Luke is says that Caesar taxed "all the world" (Luke 2:1). But he clearly could not have taxed anyone outside the Roman Empire, which, large as it was, was not "all the world." It certainly did not include India or China, or much of anywhere else east of Judea, nor most Arabia to the south and the vast majority of the African continent--let alone the Americas, obviously, which they did not even know. Likewise, when Jesus commanded the apostles to preach the gospel throughout "all the world" (Mark 16:15) there no evidence they went beyond the Roman Empire either.

The phrases "all the world" and "the whole earth" in the scriptures and other ancient sources generally lack the global perspective we have today, and are in fact hyperbolic, referring to a more limited region

The three days of darkness are consistent with a massive volcanic and seismic eruption

The Book of Mormon 3 Nephi 8:5-25 provides a detailed description consistent with a massive volcanic and seismic eruption. Such details are precise for both ancient and modern accounts, though they would have been unknown to Joseph Smith.

Remarkably, one of the models most favored by LDS scholars (Sorenson's Mesoamerican model) has candidate eruptions which are largely restricted to the proper time period.

The LGT model for the Book of Mormon situates Book of Mormon lands in the Caribbean tectonic plate, and intersection of multiple tectonic plates and consequently of much volcanism and seismic activity.

The three days of darkness is consistent with a period of intense volcanism. This explanation of the darkness has been particularly popular among those who advocate a limited geographical model of the Book of Mormon. Most LGT models place Book of Mormon lands in central America; this area is well-known for active seismic activity.

The intersection of the Cocos and Caribbean plates results in multiple volcanoes (shown in red dots on this USGS map) through central America.

One author suggested:

  • The basic cause of the destruction was a tremendous seismic upheaval.
  • Numerous destructive mechanisms were involved, but rain was not one of them.
  • The accompanying period of darkness was caused by an immense local cloud of volcanic ash.
  • The unprecedented lightning was due to electrical discharges within the ash cloud.
  • The intense thunder was due both to the lightning and to the rumbling of the earth due to seismic movements.
  • The vapor of darkness (1 Nephi 12:5; 19:11) and the mist of darkness (3 Nephi 8:20) were volcanic ash and dust stirred up by the quaking of the ground.[1]
An example of volcanic lightning from a 1995 eruption in Indonesia—such a phenomenon matches the 3 Nephi description of severe lightning following Christ's crucifixion.

A concentration of dense volcanic gases (carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide) at ground level is sufficient to prevent igniting of the kindling and to cause suffocation

The inability to ignite the exceedingly dry wood is interesting in view of the fact that a few people are also described as dying from suffocation during the period of destruction which preceded the period of darkness (3 Nephi 10:13). This suggests that in some regions the concentration of dense volcanic gases (carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide) at ground level was sufficient to prevent igniting of the kindling and to cause suffocation. The uncle of Pliny died of suffocation as a consequence of a volcanic eruption.

Volcanic eruptions could have accompanied the violent earthquake described in 3 Nephi

James Baer notes that volcanic eruptions could have accompanied the violent earthquake described in 3 Nephi. He notes that these would have made the atmosphere dark with dust and cinders and would have released carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and sulfurous gases, which would have been suffocating and could have made fire kindling impossible.

The "mist of darkness" and "vapor of darkness" is consistent with the falling of volcanic ash

Another mechanism, however, seems an equally likely explanation of the inability to ignite the dry tinder. If one assumes that sparks from flint were the common method of starting fires, then the heavy ash fall could have been effective in preventing ignition. This heavy ash fall also offers a likely explanation for the terms mist of darkness and vapor of darkness used in 1 Nephi 12:4–5.[2]

There is evidence dating volcanic eruptions in Mesoamerica to the proper timeframe

Given the wide variety of geographic models proposed for the Book of Mormon, there is obviously not evidence of volcanism in all areas, especially at the proper (i.e., at around AD 30, at Christ's death). (If the volcanic hypothesis for the three days' darkness is true, this provides one data point which can exclude many models, including a hemispheric or exclusively North American model.)

However, Sorenson's Mesoamerican model has been noted to have some interesting features in this regard: volcanoes do exist in the proper area, and these volcanoes have been shown by modern dating to have erupted only during two periods during the past 8600 years (3% of the time):

  • 1230–1190 BC [too early]
  • 30 BC – AD 170 [matches the circa AD 30 eruption at Christ's death]

Thus, Sorenson's model could have been easily disproven by these data, but was not.[3]

Furthermore, ice core data is consistent with a major volcanic event at the time of Christ's death, within the margin of error provided by the dating measurements, though it is not at present possible to determine the location of these eruptions.[4]


Question: How did ancient people of the Old and New Worlds view the "the world"?

Ancient people conceived of the world on a much smaller scale than we do today. For them, "the world" consisted of the lands and nations they were aware of in their immediate area

The way that ancient people viewed "the world" has critical implications for how we read ancient scripture.

Ancient people conceived of the world on a much smaller scale than we do today. For them, "the world" consisted of the lands and nations they were aware of in their immediate area. They didn't understand "the earth" to be an enormous sphere; rather, they visualized it as a comparatively small, flat disk. (When you look to the horizon, that's an obvious conclusion to make.)

In Exodus 10:15 we read that the Lord sent a swarm of locusts that "covered the face of the whole earth"

This view of the world appears throughout the Bible:

In Exodus 10:15 we read that the Lord sent a swarm of locusts that "covered the face of the whole earth." Obviously, this couldn't mean that locusts covered all the land on the entire planet earth! To the author of Exodus, "the whole earth" meant "all the land we can see." Similarly, according to Genesis 41:56, in the days of Joseph there was a famine that "was over all the face of the earth." This passage is not suggesting there was a global famine, but a famine that affected Egypt, Palestine, and all the other lands in the Near East. Neal has already mentioned Luke 2:1's description of "a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed." Naturally, "all the world" refers to the limits of the Roman Empire, and wasn't meant to include Scandinavia, southern Africa, east Asia, or the American continent. Acts 2:5 tells us that devout Jews "out of every nation under heaven" had come to Jerusalem to observe the feast of Pentecost. Are we assume this means that "every nation under heaven" included the western hemisphere, where the descendants of Lehi still kept the Law of Moses? Of course not.

Regarding the Flood of Noah, the Genesis account tells us that "the waters were on the face of the whole earth"

Regarding the Flood of Noah, the Genesis account tells us that "the waters were on the face of the whole earth" (Genesis 8:9) and "all flesh died that moved upon the earth" (7:21).

Alma in the Book of Mormon: "his voice was as thunder, and it shook the whole earth"

As an ancient document, the Book of Mormon employs the same usage of the phrases "the whole earth" and "the whole world":

Alma₂ testified that the angel who appeared to him and the sons of Mosiah₂ "spake unto us, as it were the voice of thunder, and the whole earth did tremble beneath our feet" (Alma 36:7), and "his voice was as thunder, and it shook the whole earth" (Alma 38:7). Surely the entire planet wasn't trembling at the sound of the angel's voice; rather, all the ground in the area around the five men shook.

After the great Nephite-Lamanite War, the Book of Mormon peoples "did multiply and spread, and did go forth from the land southward to the land northward, and did spread insomuch that they began to cover the face of the whole earth, from the sea south to the sea north, from the sea west to the sea east" (Helaman 3:8). Notice how "the face of the whole earth" meant, for Mormon₂ (the editor), the entire lands the Nephites and Lamanites possessed (which were small enough to be traversed in a period of a few weeks). Nephi₂ called down a great famine, and we are told that "the whole earth was smitten, even among the Lamanites as well as among the Nephites" (Helaman 11:6). Clearly the planet earth was not struck with a famine, only the Nephite and Lamanite lands. When the sign of Christ's birth appeared in the heavens, "all the people upon the face of the whole earth from the west to the east, both in the land north and in the land south, were so exceedingly astonished that they fell to the earth" (3 Nephi 1:17). Notice again that Mormon₂ was describing the extent of Nephite/Lamanite lands, and calling them "the face of the whole earth." At the end of the Jaredite civilization, Moroni₂ lamented that "there were none of the fair sons and daughters [of the Jardites] upon the face of the whole earth who repented of their sins" (Ether 13:17). Clearly Moroni₂ wasn't insinuating that there were Jaredites on every continent of the planet earth.

For Samuel the Lamanite, "this earth" and "the whole earth" were synonymous

Samuel the Lamanite prophesied that, when Jesus died, "the rocks which are upon the face of this earth, which are both above the earth and beneath…shall be broken up; yea, they shall be rent in twain, and shall ever after be found in seams and in cracks, and in broken fragments upon the face of the whole earth, yea, both above the earth and beneath" (Helaman 14:21–22). Notice that, for Samuel, "this earth" and "the whole earth" were synonymous: They were, from his perspective and the perspective of those who heard him, the same thing. Likewise, he prophesied that "darkness should cover the face of the whole earth for the space of three days" (Helaman 14:27), i.e. the lands where the Nephites and Lamanites dwelt.

And so it was fulfilled that "the whole earth [did shake] as if it was about to divide asunder" (3 Nephi 8:6; cf. 8:12), "the face of the whole earth became deformed" (3 Nephi 8:17), the rocks "were broken up upon the face of the whole earth" (3 Nephi 8:18). Again, this didn't mean the planet earth, but rather the Book of Mormon lands.

When the darkness fell upon the Lehite people, the text tells us that it was "upon the face of the land" (3 Nephi 8:19; 10:9), which, from the perspective of the ancient authors, was synonymous with "the face of the whole earth."

One of the greatest challenges we have today is reading the scriptures in the mindset of the people who wrote them, who had different scientific and cultural understandings than we do.


Russell H. Ball, "An Hypothesis concerning the Three Days of Darkness among the Nephites"

Russell H. Ball,  Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, (1993)
Aspects of the three days of darkness following the three-hour period of intense destruction described principally in 3 Nephi are discussed, including: (1) the strange absence of rain among the destructive mechanisms described; (2) the source of the intense lightning, which seems to be unaccompanied by rain; (3) a mechanism to account for the inundation of the cities of Onihah, Mocum, and Jerusalem, which were not among the cities which "sunk in the depths of the sea"; and (4) the absence in the histories of contemporary European and Asiatic civilizations of corresponding events, which are repeatedly characterized in 3 Nephi as affecting "the face of the whole earth."

Click here to view the complete article

Anonymous, "When the Day Turned to Night"

Anonymous,  Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, (2001)
Archaeological work done in the last 15 years has yielded considerable insight into what happened in or about the Tuxtla Mountains of southern Veracruz state, Mexico, an area often considered a key part of the lands where the Book of Mormon story was played out. In John L. Sorenson's correlation of the internal and external geographies,[1] this area would have seen three notable events: (1) settlement of the general area by people mentioned in the Jaredite account (Ether 9:3) and their eventual climactic destruction (Ether 14:26–15:32), (2) major effects of the great natural disasters at the time of the Savior's crucifixion (3 Nephi 8:),[2] and (3) the ultimate destruction of the Nephite people (Mormon 6:5–15).

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To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here

Notes

  1. Russell H. Ball, "An Hypothesis concerning the Three Days of Darkness among the Nephites," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2/1 (1993): 107–123. wiki
  2. Russell H. Ball, "An Hypothesis concerning the Three Days of Darkness among the Nephites," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2/1 (1993): 107–123. wiki (italics in original); citing James Baer, "The Third Nephi Disaster: A Geological View," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 19 no. 1 (Spring 1986), 129–132.
  3. "Book of Mormon Geophysics," mormonmatters.org (28 August 2010) off-site
  4. Benjamin R. Jordan, "Volcanic Destruction in the Book of Mormon: Possible Evidence from Ice Cores," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 12/1 (2003): 78–87. off-site wiki



Further reading and additional sources responding to these claims