3 Nephi 8
In verse one, Mormon is careful to lay out before he gets into it, the credentials of the author of the record from which he uses as the source of his summary. Presumably the record had been kept by Nephi, who in chapter 7 certainly qualifies as someone “who could do a miracle in the name of Jesus” (verse 1) That credential was enough, he could presume of Nephi’s integrity and purity and that he would have the wisdom and insight to interpret current events with insight and truth.
The people begin to look for the signs of Jesus’ death just like they had done for his birth. It seems they were expecting a day without light as a compliment to the sign of his birth, being a night without darkness. Samual also prophesied destruction and calamity, something I expect, they hoped to avoid or at least survive.
In verse 5, the calamity begins, “there arose a great storm, such an one as never have been known in all the land.” He continues in the record to describe the destructions and the general destruction of vast populations – by drownings, fire, earthquake and tempests. The storms and earthquakes spanned the land and lasted for a solid three hours (verse 19) followed by complete darkness, described as a vapor (verse 20), such that the sun, the moon and all of the stars in the sky were completely blotted out. The people could not even light a fire. How difficult to endure and survive a three hour, multi-dimensional destruction, in which the natural world seemed to come at this civilization from multiple directions only to end it in complete darkness lasting for three days.
The people quickly connected this destruction to their own sins, crying with painful regret, “‘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.'” verse 24.
3 Nephi 9
And then in chapter 9, a voice is heard who takes full credit for the destruction and calamity, “Behold that great city Zarahemla have I burned with fire” (verse 3), “And behold, that great city Moroni have I caused to be sunk in the depths of the sea” (verse 4), “that great city Moronihah have I covered with earth… to hide their iniquities and their abominations from before my face” (verse 5). This continues through 7 more verses, spanning 13 additional named cities but concluding with “and many great destructions have I caused to come upon this land, and upon this people, because of their wickedness and abominations.”
Then in verse 13, the voice describes those who survived as those who were “more righteous than they” but still in need of deep repentance. And then in verse 15, the kicker, the voice names himself, Jesus Christ, who “created the heavens and the earth, and all things that in them are.” He announces the fulfillment of scripture, the fulfillment of the law of Moses, an announcement that burnt offerings are unnecessary anymore, that all that’s required is a “broken heart and contrite spirit”.
3 Nephi 10
After the words of Christ cease, there is silence for many hours. And then the voice comes again, “how oft have I gathered you as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings and have nourished you.” (verse 4) Jesus here reminds the people of his continual mercy and of the deep regret that despite that mercy, the people “would not” (verse 5).
This signal of gentle rebuke and a reminder of opportunities lost send the people back into a spiral, “they began to weep and howl again because of the loss of their kindred and friends.” (verse 8). And as often happens after a period of deep mourning and loss, the light eventually returns and life begins anew.
Mormon pauses the story to remind the reader that that all of these events have been prophesied, that those who were spared were more righteous, those who had not slain the prophets or killed the saints. And that these who were spared were about to experience “great blessings poured out upon their heads.” (verse 18)
3 Nephi 11
I’ve personally read chapter 11 multiple times. On my mission, we assigned this chapter as one of the first to be read by someone investigating the church and would read it with them when they inevitably wouldn’t. We felt this chapter of any in the Book of Mormon had the convincing, conversion power.
The chapter begins in Bountiful. A lot of people had gathered at the temple to talk about the remarkable events they just survived – the destruction and its consequences, the fulfillment of Samuel’s prophecies and the voice of Christ. In verse 3, they heard the voice again, but this time, rather than something from an unknown source that could be heard by all, it was a voice that “came out of heaven”, verse 3, and at first they could not understand it because “notwithstanding it being a small voice it did pierce them that did hear to the center, insomuch that there was no part of their frame that it did not cause to quake; yea, it did pierce them to the very soul, and did cause their hearts to burn.” (verse 3).
Only after they did “open their ears” and “look steadfastly towards the heaven” were they able to hear the voice. This time the voice wasn’t Jesus, but it was presumably the father (although it could have been his mother) introducing Jesus who was in process of descending out of heaven into their midst. From here, Jesus announces himself and lets the multitude feel his wounds.
Next, Jesus calls forth Nephi and others to give them power and instructions on baptism. The first order of business is to organize his church anew. The next order of business is to distill the doctrine of Christ down to the core fundamentals, that the doctrine isn’t about disagreement or disputations, but it’s about unifying across tribes and disagreements – that all people everywhere should repent and believe in Christ. And after belief, turn that into covenant through baptism. This is the doctrine. That’s it. Building our lives on that central tenant is like building your house on a rock. And in way that seems to echo the physical storms these people just passed through, building our lives upon the gospel of faith, repentance and covenant is to have a life that can withstand the storms.
These set of chapters are really challenging. What to make of this massive, apparently willful destruction of the wicked but presumably not just the wicked because many of “our fair daughters, and our children” would “not have been buried up in that great city Moronihah” (3 Nephi 8:25). It’s hard to imagine a precise destruction sparing just those more righteous.
That’s not my sense of how the world works. My only good way through these chapters is to think of this more as attribution where attribution is not warranted. In many ways, however, our connection to the earth is directly related to our righteousness in ways that don’t contradict natural law. Not being in-tune with nature, leads to all sorts of bad outcomes. Being out-of-tune with our surroundings is one fundamental way we sin. Sin is isolating, distracting, self aggrandizing, leads us into complacency, pride, and arrogance.
Righteousness recognizes how our behavior affects the world. Righteous people are sensitive to human activity that pollutes the world and then through inspiration works toward solutions. I think there are parallels here with our terrible pandemic response, our failure to manage our forests leading to horrific fires, our unwillingness to pivot away from carbon energy leading to global warming and the resulting disasters that has caused. God wasn’t directly responsible. We were. Then and now.