Preface: This article is an edited extract from the author's book Refuting the Critics: Evidences of the Book of Mormon's Authenticity (Bountiful, Utah: Horizon Publishers, 1993). The full text, along with all references, can be found therein.

THE VAPOR OF DARKNESS IN 3 NEPHI: PROOF OF FRAUD IN THE BOOK OF MORMON?

Michael T. Griffith

1993

@All Rights Reserved

The Book of Mormon records that after the destruction of the wicked Nephites and Lamanites, an impenetrable vapor of darkness hung over the land for three days:

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

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. . . .

[Some people] were overpowered by the vapor of smoke and darkness. (3 Nephi 8:20-21, 23; 10:13)

Decker and other anti-Mormons see all of this as more proof of falsehood. I quote Decker:

Another comparison the Bible offers us is the astronomical occurrence at the death of Jesus . . .. Luke's gospel says that there was a darkness over all the earth (23:44-45) . Matthew 27:45 says, "Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land unto the ninth hour," and Mark 15:33 concurs almost exactly. Now the word used in the Greek for "earth" almost always means the earth as a whole, or the entire inhabited earth. (Vine's Expository, pp. 352-353.) Therefore, we can assume that the 3 evangelists meant that the darkness would include the Book of Mormon lands.

However, again we have a substantial difference between the two accounts. It seems clear from the Bible that there is nothing unusual about the darkness. Jesus' disciples and the Romans about the cross got about without difficulty and saw the Lord die. John, an eye-witness, even makes a special point of saying that he saw Jesus pierced (John 19:34-35)

The Book of Mormon darkness seems to have started at the time the Biblical darkness ended (3 Nephi 8:19) .... [Decker then cites the above-quoted verses from 3 Nephi 8.]

Now that's quite a different type of darkness. It seems to be a tangible thing which allowed no light at all. Not only that, but it lasted for 3 days instead of three hours. This is utterly different from the Bible. When the Bible says gloom covered the entire earth during the crucifixion, the Book of Mormon teaches that a mysterious "vapor of darkness" started right after the crucifixion and lasted for three days.

How can both be true, especially when you consider how this darkness would violate the laws of physics? No darkness can stop light, because it is the absence of light. (13, emphasis in original)

I will deal with these arguments in the order in which they are presented.

Decker's assertion that the biblical darkness covered the entire planet is open to serious debate. Most modern Bible scholars believe the darkness covered only the land of Palestine, not the entire globe.It is interesting to note that the parallel passages from Mark and Matthew in the King James Version (KJV), which is the translation Decker seems to be using here, state that the darkness merely covered "the whole land."The Greek word for "earth" in Luke 23:44-45 is ge, which can mean "region," "soil," "land," "country," or "earth" (Strong 20; Newman 37).

Here is how Luke 23:44 is translated in some of the better modern translations:

The Anchor Bible: "It was already about noon, and darkness began to hang over the whole land until three in the afternoon."

The New English Bible: "By now it was midday and there came a darkness over the whole land, which lasted until three in the afternoon."

The Revised Standard Version (RSV): "It was now about the sixth hour, and there was a darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour."

The New International Version (NIV): "It was now about the sixth hour, and darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour."

Today's English Version: "It was about twelve o'clock when the sun stopped shining and darkness covered the whole country until three o'clock."

Catholic scholar Joseph A. Fitzmyer has said the following about Luke's statement:

His [Jesus'] death is attended by darkness over the whole land .... Literally, "and darkness began to be over the whole land," i.e. Palestine .... Cf. Gospel of Peter 5:15, "Now it was midday and darkness covered all Judea." (1985: 1512, 1517)

Some might assert that the darkness described by Luke was caused by a solar eclipse and therefore that it would have covered the entire globe. However, in addition to the scriptural evidence against Luke's darkness being planetwide, there is also the fact that the crucifixion took place during the Jewish festival of Passover, which occurs when the moon is full. An eclipse of the sun, ". . . of course, would be impossible at full moon" (Eiselen, Lewis, and Downey 1058).

The darkness lasted from about noon to 3 p.m.; for it there is no known scientific explanation. That it was not a solar eclipse is shown by the fact that the Passover occurs when the moon is full; indeed, the first full moon after the Spring equinox is what determines the time of the Passover. (B. McConkie 1965:827)

Decker makes much of the fact that the darkness described in 3 Nephi began after the Biblical one and that it lasted for three days instead of three hours. But where is it written that the two periods of darkness had to occur simultaneously and last for the same amount of time? The two periods of darkness were obviously separate and distinct events; therefore, the differences in their times of occurrence and duration prove nothing.

Likewise, since we are dealing with two different events, the fact that the Book of Mormon darkness was more severe and harmful than the Biblical one is equally meaningless. The claim that the darkness described in the Nephite record is an impossibility has long been advanced by anti-Mormon writers. However, it has been answered by a number of LDS scholars. There is very good evidence that the Book of Mormon darkness not only could have occurred but that it did in fact take place.

The most knowledgeable LDS scholars on the geography of the Book of Mormon agree that the book's land area was located in what we now call Mesoamerica, i.e., northern Central America and southern Mexico. This region is known for its intense earthquake and volcanic activity, which is significant because the account in 3 Nephi suggests that much of the great destruction was caused by mighty earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Such activity could have caused the darkness described in the Nephite text. I quote Nibley:

Today it is possible to check step-by-step every phenomenon described in the account of the great destruction in 3 Nephi 8-9 and to discover that what passed for many years as the most lurid, extravagant, and . . . impossible part of the Book of Mormon is actually a very sober and factual account of a first-class earthquake . . . .

This [the description of the vapor of darkness in 3 Nephi], like so much else in the account . . . suggests nearby volcanic activity. And indeed, in many cases "earthquakes are the preparation for the volcano that follows," as in the Chilean 1960 quake, which triggered the activity of long-dormant volcanoes in the area [Hodgson 41]. Most of the victims of the great catastrophes of Pompeii, St. Pierre (Martinque, 1902), and Mt. Pelee (1906) died of suffocation when earthquake dust, volcanic ash, steam, and hot gasses (mostly sulfureted hydrogen gas) took the place of air. In some areas, the Book of Mormon reports, people were "overpowered by the vapor of smoke and darkness," and so lost their lives. (3 Nephi 10:13.) Even without volcanic accompaniments, however, major earthquakes kick up a terrible dust and, according to Sieberg, are accompanied by "phenomenal vapors and astonishingly thick air." (Down to the present generation "old Indians still fix their ages and other events in relation to 'La Oscuridad Grande' 'The Great Darkness' that accompanied a great eruption and earthquake in Nicaragua in 1835" [Spinden 211] .) In the Assam earthquake such contamination [i.e., vapors and smoke, etc.] "reduced visibility to a few feet and made breathing a nightmare" [Knop 25].

According to 3 Nephi 8:20-21 the "vapor of darkness" was not only tangible to the survivors, but defeated every attempt to light candles or torches for illumination . At present, intensive studies are being made of the destruction of the Greek island of Thera (today Santorini) in 1400 B.C. This catastrophe, well within historic times, is thought to have been eight times as violent as Krakatoa and is described in terms exactly paralleling the account in 3 Nephi. Among other things it is pointed out that the overpowering thickness of the air must have extinguished all lamps (see the article by John Lear, in Saturday Review, Nov. 5, 1966, pp. 57-66. He mentions the quenching of all lamps on p. 63). (1967:262, 266-267)

John Sorenson, a professor emeritus of anthropology at Brigham Young University and a leading Book of Mormon scholar, has also discussed this subject:

A description of the eruption of the Conseguina volcano in Nicaragua in 1835 hints at the terror and destruction that resulted from the powerful disaster [in the Book of Mormon area] at the time of Christ. A dense cloud first rose above the cone, and within a couple of hours "it enveloped everything in the greatest darkness, so that the nearest objects were imperceptible." Fear-struck wild animals blundered into settlements, adding to the terror. Then came quakes, "a perpetual undulation." Volcanic ash began to fall, like "fine powder-like flour." The thunder and lightning "continued the whole night and the following day." Dust thrown up into the atmosphere combined with heat from the volcano to trigger the storms. Still later the worst tremor of all hit, strong enough to throw people to the ground. Darkness again came on and this time lasted for forty-three hours.

These conditions, multiplied in both intensity and territory covered, sound much like 3 Nephi. (1985:321)

Sorenson goes on to point out that there is evidence of this kind of activity in Mesoamerica during the time period called for in the Book of Mormon:

In chapter 3, citations were made of scientific literature reporting evidence of volcanism right around the time of Christ. Probably the most spectacular was in El Salvador. Archaeologist and geologist Payson Sheets has worked to clarify the date and extent of the eruption there at "about the time of Christ." One volcano apparently devastated a 3,000-square mile area; ash falls up to 40 feet deep buried settlement after settlement. (1985:321)

Bruce Warren has done a great deal of research on this subject. He, too, has found evidence of the great destruction. Since time only permits me to quote some of his more summarized statements on the matter, I would urge the reader to examine all of the detailed evidence Warren presents in his book,The Messiah in Ancient America. Warren sums up the evidence he has documented:

There is particularly clear and abundant archaeological evidence of widespread destruction in Mesoamerica dating from the period of Christ's crucifixion. . . .

The very nature of earthquake and volcanic activity typical of the Mesoamerican area is consistent with this whole set of phenomena [earthquakes, volcanism, etc.]. . . .

Mesoamerica . . . is known for its seismic activity. One text on the archaeology of Mesoamerica is called The Sons of the Shaking Earth, taking its title from a common characteristic of the whole area. . . .

The evidences are striking of huge volcanic eruptions, mud slides, and destructions in several areas of Mesoamerica which date to about A.D. 30. These archaeological discoveries parallel the natural destruction described in the Book of Mormon at the time of the crucifixion of the Savior. (Warren and Ferguson 39-40, 45-46)

Ancient Mesoamerican sources actually mention a great destruction which occurred at the same time the Book of Mormon's great destruction took place (Jakeman 1968a:2).

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:Michael T. Griffith holds a Masterís degree in Theology from The Catholic Distance University, a Graduate Certificate in Ancient and Classical History from American Military University, a Bachelorís degree in Liberal Arts from Excelsior College, two Associate in Applied Science degrees from the Community College of the Air Force, and an Advanced Certificate of Civil War Studies and a Certificate of Civil War Studies from Carroll College. He is a two-time graduate of the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, in Arabic and Hebrew, and of the U.S. Air Force Technical Training School in San Angelo, Texas.He has completed advanced Hebrew programs at Haifa University in Israel and at the Spiro Institute in London, England.He is the author of four books on Mormonism and ancient texts, and of one book on the John F. Kennedy assassination.