What Caused the Darkness and Destruction in the 34th Year?

September 28, 2016
KnoWhy #197
Eruption of the Cordón Caulle Volcano in central Chile in 2011, via Reuters
Eruption of the Cordón Caulle Volcano in central Chile in 2011, via Reuters
“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”
3 Nephi 8:20

The Know

In the thirty and fourth year, Mormon carefully documented “a great and terrible tempest … terrible thunder … exceedingly sharp lightnings” and “thick darkness,” even a “vapor of darkness” which could be felt, and prevented the lighting of fire (3 Nephi 8:6–7, 20–22). This had been predicted in detail by prophets such as Nephi son of Lehi, Zenos, and Samuel the Lamanite.1

In the 1960s, Hugh Nibley compared these Book of Mormon accounts to descriptions of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.2 Since that time, several other scholars, including many professional geologists, have examined these accounts and widely agreed that the three-day darkness and other destructive forces described in the Book of Mormon accounts involve a volcanic eruption.3

The main reason for this is the three-day period of darkness.4 Geologists who have studied the 3 Nephi 8 account generally agree that nothing except volcanic ash and dust clouds could account for the three days of darkness, as it is described.5 Not only the darkness, but the excessive lightning, thundering, tempest, and many other features can all be explained by volcanic activity.6

A lightning storm erupts inside the ash cloud of an erupting volcano in Indonesia. Image via mirror.co.uk

In the most recent and thorough analysis by a professional geologist, Jerry Grover, Jr. concluded, “In order to account for the destruction described in 3rd Nephi, it is clear that a volcano and a regional earthquake are indicated.”7 Earthquakes are known to trigger volcanic eruptions, especially when a volcano is located on or near a fault-line.8

After analyzing all the destructive elements mentioned in the Book of Mormon accounts, Grover determined that the best-fit scenario is a strike-slip fault zone, near a coast, with an active volcano nearby.9 There is at least one fault system in the Americas which meets these criteria: the Veracruz fault system in Mexico.10 Grover noted, “The Veracruz fault segment … is a strike-slip fault, … located on and adjacent to the coastal plains … [and] has a major volcano sitting directly on the fault system, the volcano San Martín.”11

In some Book of Mormon geography models, Veracruz, Mexico is part of the land northward, which experienced greater damage during the cataclysmic events (3 Nephi 8:12).12 Interestingly, while it is impossible to prove the exact timing of a volcanic eruption, current evidence indicates that the San Martín volcano likely experienced an eruption event in the first century AD.13 Further evidence suggests that during or around the first century AD, Mesoamerica experienced widespread volcanic activity.14

Additional evidence comes from ice core samples from Greenland and Antarctica. While the estimated dates are still not exact, using ice cores “tends to be fairly good” with margins of error of only a few years.15 After examining documented dates for volcanic events in four different ice core samples, geologist Benjamin R. Jordan concluded, “There is evidence for large eruptions [somewhere in the world], within the margin of error, for the period of AD 30 to 40.”16

A section of an ice core in which the vertical layers represent individual years and seasons. Ash layers can also determine the presence of volcanic activity. Image via Wikimedia commons

Ice cores, therefore, offer evidence that there was a major volcanic event close to the timing of Christ’s death.17 Yet ice cores have the drawback of not being able to pinpoint the location of the volcanic events they document from all around the world.18 A correlation to Mesoamerica, however, is possible, given the evidence already mentioned for extensive volcanic activity around this time.19

The Why

In graphic detail, the Book of Mormon documents a divinely caused natural disaster occurring at the time of Christ’s death that many geologists agree appears to have involved a volcanic eruption, most likely occurring simultaneously with an earthquake along a strike-slip fault line. Thus far, current geologic evidence supports the following conclusions:

  1. At least one region in the Americas (Veracruz, Mexico) possessed the necessary geologic characteristics. 
  2. At least one volcano in that region (San Martín) appears to have erupted in the first century AD. 
  3. There was further volcanic activity in Mesoamerica in and around the first century AD.
  4. Ice core samples indicate that a major volcanic event took place somewhere in the world around AD 30–40—around or close to the time of Christ’s death.

Jesus Christ Appears to the Nephites, by Arnold Friberg

While none of this can be linked directly to the events described in 3 Nephi, it goes to show that, as with the sign at Christ’s birth,20 there is nothing scientifically implausible in the account given in 3 Nephi 8–10. In fact, the fulfillment of this prophesied volcanic disaster is strikingly realistic, especially its three days of smoky vapor and thick darkness.

Also, as was the sign of great light at the time of Christ’s birth, the profound darkness at his death and time in the tomb is strongly symbolic. Just as the “excessive light surrounding Christ’s birth acts as a kind of morning,” the “darkness surrounding Christ’s death acts as a kind of evening.”21 Alvin Benson aptly stated, “It appears that the earth was symbolically manifesting its gloom over the death of its creator.”22

But even the darkest of nights come to end. The darkness dissipated as the Savior conquered death, and within the year righteous Nephites and Lamanites witnessed the risen, glorified Lord in all his majesty (3 Nephi 11).

President Ezra Taft Benson taught, “The record of the Nephite history just prior to the Savior’s visit reveals many parallels to our own day as we anticipate the Savior’s second coming.”23 This statement warns readers of further societal decay and impending darkness and destruction. But it also enables them to glimpse the grandeur and glory that is to follow for the humble and penitent who come unto Christ.

Further Reading

Neal Rappleye, “‘The Great and Terrible Judgements of the Lord’: Destruction and Disaster in 3 Nephi and the Geology of Mesoamerica,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 15 (2015): 143–157.

Jerry D. Grover, Jr., Geology of the Book of Mormon (Vineyard, UT: Grover Publications, 2014).

Benjamin R. Jordan, “Volcanic Destruction in the Book of Mormon: Possible Evidence from Ice Cores,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 12, no. 1 (2003): 78–87.

Bart J. Kowallis, “In the Thirty and Fourth Year: A Geologist’s View of the Great Destruction in 3 Nephi,” BYU Studies 37, no. 3 (1997–1998): 136–190.