Evidence #203 | June 15, 2021

Darkness in Third Nephi

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Scripture Central


The account of three days of thick darkness in Third Nephi corresponds well with historical examples of volcanic-related geological phenomena.

Darkness in Third Nephi at the Death of Christ

The account of the great destruction at the death of Christ recounted in 3 Nephi corresponds well with volcanic-related geological hazards. In an important article, geologist Bart Kowalis has outlined a number of these convergences,1 one of which involves an extended period of thick darkness. In his description of the destruction, Mormon stated:

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 kindled with their fine and exceedingly dry wood, so that there could not be any light at all; 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. 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 (3 Nephi 8:20–23).

The elements in this description are consistent with known historical examples of volcanic eruptions, during which significant amounts of ash and tephra were ejected into the atmosphere.

Darkness in 3 Nephi. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

Legends of Thick Darkness Caused by Major Volcanic Events

In 1982 R. J. Blong published a significant study investigating a series of legends and oral traditions from Eastern New Guinea. These accounts describe a “time of darkness” that occurred in the distant past of that region. Blong found geological evidence for a massive volcanic eruption in the region around three hundred years ago and concluded that these accounts preserve accurate memories of this event.2

Although they date to a time period long after the events described in the Book of Mormon, the accounts from New Guinea correspond well with the description of the three days of darkness in the Nephite record. Blong notes that “about one-third of the accounts emphasize the quality of the darkness as being darker than usual.”3 As with the account in 3 Nephi, the absence of light from the heavens is specifically noted. “The sun and the moon vanished; they did not rise” or “the sun and moon hid under the earth.”4

Signs of volcanic activity on Kadovar Island, Papua New Guinea. Image via weather.com. 

Examples of Volcanic-Induced Darkness in Modern Times

In 1815 there was a massive eruption of the volcano Tambora on the island of Sumbawa in Indonesia. Significant darkness accompanied this eruption. According to one witness, “By noon the light that had remained in the Eastern part of the horizon disappeared, and complete darkness covered the face of day. This continued so profound during the remainder of the day, that I never saw anything to equal it in the darkest night—it was impossible to see your hand when held up close to your eyes.”5 Five years after the publication of the Book of Mormon, the volcano Coseguina erupted in Nicaragua in Central America. One observer witnessed the eruption from the nearby Bay of Conchagua:

The cloud finally covered the whole firmament, about 11, and enveloped everything in the greatest darkness, so that the nearest objects were imperceptible. The melancholy howling of beasts, the flocks of birds of all species, that came to seek, as it were, an asylum amongst men, the terror which assailed the latter, the cries of women and children, and the uncertainty of so rare a phenomenon—everything combined to overcome the stoutest soul and fill it with apprehension.”6

Another witness reported:

On the morning of the 22nd the sun shone brightly at San Antonio, but a line of intense darkness was observed in the direction of the cloud … The light began to fail, and darkness commenced with such quickness, that in half an hour it was more utterly dark than during the most clouded night. So intense was the darkness that men could touch without seeing each other ...  At Nocaome, a city in the northerly direction, eight leagues distant from the volcano, the same cloud was observed to rise at half-past six o’clock in a pyramidal shape. At half past eleven on that day the darkness commenced, and at twelve nothing whatever could be distinguished.7

In 1883 the inhabitants of Indonesia experienced effects from the devastating eruption of Krakatau, in the Sunda Strait.8 Numerous reports have been collected from those who witnessed the event, which include descriptions of significant darkness. A Dutch boat captain near the Strait described “thick darkness, so black and intense that I could not see my hand before my eyes.”9 Passengers on an American boat that was 83 km. from Krakatau said that at 9:30 in the morning it was “darker than the darkest night.”10

Eruption of the Cordón Caulle Volcano in central Chile in 2011. Image via Reuters.

According to another passenger, “It had gradually been growing dark since 9 a.m. and by the time the squall struck us, it was darker than any night I ever saw; this was midnight at noon, a heavy shower of ashes came with the squall, the air being so thick it was difficult to breathe.”11 Yet another witness stated, “By 11:30 a.m. we were enclosed in a darkness that might almost be felt” and “At noon the darkness was so intense that we had to grope our way about the decks, and although speaking to each other on the poop [a deck that forms the roof of a cabin], yet we could not see each other … Such darkness and such a time in general, few would conceive, and many, I dare say, would disbelieve. ”12

In fact, historical accounts of similar eruptions from many parts of the world use phrases such as “like a night with no moon,” “impenetrable blackness,” “couldn’t see my hand at arm’s length,” “couldn’t see a lighted candle across the room,” “pitch blackness,” ”like night even in daytime,” or “an almost palpable blackness” to characterize the thickness of the darkness which may be experienced in such events.13

Difficulty Lighting Fire

Another feature sometimes referenced in descriptions of volcanic activity is the difficulty of lighting fire during the darkness. After the Krakatau eruption, one family related “We couldn’t light a fire as matches went out immediately” although eventually after much effort they were able to do so.14 The lengthy darkness of the Coseguina eruption made it “indispensable for everyone to carry a light, and even these were not sufficient to see clearly with.”15 One related legend from New Guinea states that during the darkness people were unable to see the light from flares.16

During the 18th Dynasty of Egypt (16th Century BC) the Pharaoh Ahmose erected a stela to mark a rebuilding program after a destructive event which had apparently been witnessed by the Pharaoh. It is believed that the account refers to the eruption of the volcano Thera which seems to have erupted about that time.17 This event included a period of darkness which lasted for several days in which, according to the stela, “no torch could be lit in the Two Lands.”18

Extended Periods of Darkness

The darkness associated with volcanic events can be unpredictable and sporadic, but evidence suggests that sometimes the period of darkness may last for several days.19 The darkness associated with the Coseguina eruption is reported to have lasted for forty-three hours.20 The darkness in Egypt believed to have been caused by the Thera eruption lasted for more than one day, although it is impossible to determine how many since the stela which described the event was partially damaged.21

Image via sciencealert.com.

The “time of darkness” legends analyzed by Blong suggest that the New Guinea eruption most likely lasted for several days. Several accounts state that the darkness lasted for three days after which the people sacrificed a white pig and the light returned on the fourth day.22 Another speaks of three nights of darkness.23 According to Blong, “most informants believed the darkness lasted two to four days” although some suggest they lasted much longer.24


Mormon’s account of the three days of darkness at the death of the Savior corresponds remarkably well with known historical accounts of similar phenomenon during major volcanic events. These accounts describe “thick” darkness that was seemingly impenetrable and had a tangible quality that could be “felt.” The difficulty of lighting fires during such times is also attested, as well as examples of multiple days of thick darkness, just as mentioned in the Nephite text.

There were no volcanos in New York, where Joseph Smith grew up, and it is unlikely, given his lack of knowledge and experience, that he would have known much about such volcanic phenomena. In fact, some of the most analogous examples can be seen in eruptions which took place long after the Book of Mormon was published. As with other elements of the destruction mentioned by Mormon, the period of darkness constitutes a remarkable convergence between the Book of Mormon and known geological phenomena.  

Book of Mormon Central, “Is there evidence for great destruction in the land northward at the death of Christ?” (3 Nephi 9:9),” KnoWhy 530 (September 6, 2019).

Book of Mormon Central, “What Caused the Darkness and Destruction in the 34th Year? (3 Nephi 8:20),” KnoWhy 197 (September 28, 2016).

Bart J. Kowalis, “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.

John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book and the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2013), 641–649.

John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1985), 128–129, 318–323.

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

John Gee, “Another Note on the Three Days of Darkness,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 6, no. 2 (1997): 235–244.

Russell H. Ball, “An Hypothesis Concerning the Three Days of Darkness Among the Nephites,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2, no. 1 (Spring 1993): 107–123.

1 Nephi 12:41 Nephi 12:51 Nephi 19:101 Nephi 19:11Helaman 14:20Helaman 14:273 Nephi 8:33 Nephi 8:203 Nephi 8:213 Nephi 8:223 Nephi 8:233 Nephi 10:93 Nephi 10:13

1 Nephi 12:4

1 Nephi 12:5

1 Nephi 19:10

1 Nephi 19:11

Helaman 14:20

Helaman 14:27

3 Nephi 8:3

3 Nephi 8:20

3 Nephi 8:21

3 Nephi 8:22

3 Nephi 8:23

3 Nephi 10:9

3 Nephi 10:13

  • 1 Bart J. Kowalis, “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.
  • 2 R. J. Blong, The Time of Darkness: Local Legends and Volcanic Reality in Papua New Guinea (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1982). See also Russell J. Blong, “Time of Darkness Legends and Volcanic Eruptions in Papua New Guinea,” in Oral Tradition in Melanesia, ed. Donald Denoon and Roderic Lacey (Hong Kong: University of Papua New Guinea and the Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies Port Moresby, 1981), 141–150; Russell Blong, “Tibito Tephras, Taim Tudak and the Impact of Tephra Falls,” in Ten Thousand Years of Cultivation at Kuk Swamp in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, ed. Jack Golson, Tim Denham, Philip Hughes, Pamela Swadling, John Muke (Acton, Australia: Australian National University Press, 2017), 133–143; James B. Watson, “Krakatoa’s Echo?” Journal of the Polynesian Society 72, no., 2 (June 1963): 152–155.
  • 3 Blong, The Time of Darkness: Local Legends and Volcanic Reality in Papua New Guinea, 104.
  • 4 Blong, The Time of Darkness: Local Legends and Volcanic Reality in Papua New Guinea, 98.
  • 5 J. T. Ross, “Narrative of the Effects of the Eruption from the Tambora Mountain, in the Island of Sumbawa, on the 11th and 12th of April 1815,” Verhandelingen van het Bataviaasch Genootschap van Kunsten en Wetenschappen 8, no. 10 (1816): 14.
  • 6 Juan Galindo, “Eruption of the Volcano Coseguina,” American Journal of Science and Arts 28 (July 1835): 332.
  • 7 Alexander Caldcleugh, “Some Account of the Volcanic Eruption of Coseguina in the Bay of Fonseca, Commonly Called the Bay of Conchagua, on the Western Coast of Central America,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 126 (1836): 28.
  • 8 Simon Winchester, Krakatau: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883 (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2003); Tom Simkin and Richard S, Fiske, Krakatau 1883: The Volcanic Eruption and Its Effects (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983).
  • 9 Simkin and Fiske, Krakatau 1883, 73. A Mrs. Beyerinck who barely managed to escape with her family, described it as “hellish darkness” and affirmed “I could not see my hand before me” (p. 84).
  • 10 Simkin and Fiske, Krakatau 1883, 98.
  • 11 Simkin and Fiske, Krakatau 1883, 99.
  • 12 Simkin and Fiske, Krakatau 1883, 103, 105.
  • 13 Blong, The Time of Darkness, 145.
  • 14 Simkin and Fiske, Krakatau 1883, 85.
  • 15 Juan Galindo, “Eruption of the Volcano Coseguina,” American Journal of Science and Arts 28 (July 1835): 332.
  • 16 Blong, The Time of Darkness: Local Legends and Volcanic Reality in Papua New Guinea, 70.
  • 17 Karen Polinger Foster and Robert K. Ritner, “Texts, Storms, and the Thera Eruption,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 55, no. 1 (1996): 1–14; Robert K. Ritner and Nadine Moeller, “The Ahmose ‘Tempest Stela,’ Thera and Comparative Chronology,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 73, no. 1 (2014): 1–19; Karen Polinger Foster, “Volcanic Echoes in Ancient Near Eastern Texts,” in Cultural Responses to the Volcanic Landscape: The Mediterranean and Beyond, ed. Miriam S. Balmuth, David K. Chester, Patricia A. Johnston (Boston, MA: Archaeological Institute of America, 2005): 279–296.
  • 18 Ritner and Moeller, “The Ahmose ‘Tempest Stela’, Thera and Comparative Chronology,” 5, 7.
  • 19 Blong, “Time of Darkness Legends and Volcanic Eruptions in Papua New Guinea,” 145.
  • 20 Juan Galindo, “Eruption of the Volcano Coseguina,” American Journal of Science and Arts 28 (July 1835): 332.
  • 21 Ritner and Moeller, “The Ahmose ‘Tempest Stela,’ Thera and Comparative Chronology,” 7.
  • 22 Watson, “Krakatoa’s Echo?” 152.
  • 23 Blong, The Time of Darkness: Local Legends and Volcanic Reality in Papua New Guinea, 70.
  • 24 Blong, The Time of Darkness: Local Legends and Volcanic Reality in Papua New Guinea, 104; Blong, “Time of Darkness Legends and Volcanic Eruptions in Papua New Guinea,” 144.
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