We like to learn to control our environment, so when things go terribly wrong, we spend a lot of effort and study trying to figure out what the root cause was so that we can prevent anything like it from ever happening again. There is a tendency to argue about root causes and contributing causes and debate about how much weight each cause should get. After the great destruction in the Nephite lands at the death of Christ, the voice of Christ tells the people exactly what happened, where, and why. Cities were destroyed because of their wickedness in rejecting and killing the prophets. Those that were left were told they had survived because they were more righteous than the others. (This negates any possibility of so-called “survivor’s guilt.”) Here the voice of Christ precludes any debate by going straight to the root cause so that there is no mistake. It has a spiritual cause, which is under their control, while preventing earthquakes, tempests, whirlwinds, tsunamis, and the like is not.
Then Jesus tells the people how often he had gathered them and nourished them. He says an interesting thing—“O ye people of the house of Israel who have fallen;…how oft would I have gathered you as a hen gathereth her chickens, and ye would not” (v5, emphasis added). It is curious that Jesus speaks not only to the living, but to the disobedient dead, and that He allows the living to hear what He says to the disobedient dead. It seems that Jesus cares enough about these disobedient spirits who have just died that He takes the time to explain to them that they only have themselves to blame for their present condition because He did His best to gather them. Perhaps He allows the living to listen in because it is a sample of what the final judgment is like and it can give them extra reason to repent and prepare.
Another interesting thing is that He includes in this “ye that dwell in Jerusalem, as ye that have fallen…how oft I would have gathered you…and ye would not.” Clearly Jesus anticipates that Jerusalem will be destroyed and desolated just like the wicked Nephites cities had been, and in His mind, it is as if it has already happened because they rejected His efforts to save them. This gives a sense of impending judgment, reinforcing for the Nephite listeners the need to repent.
Then Jesus promises that He will gather oft those who repent and come to Him, and He finishes with a strong statement—“But if not, O house of Israel, the places of your dwellings shall become desolate until the time of the fulfilling of the covenant to your fathers.” (v7) This causes the multitude to weep and wail again for the loss of their kindred. Why? Jesus made all the destruction into a massive object lesson of what would happen to them if they did not repent. Their recent experience of losing their families made them feel Jesus’s words as never before. They had already experienced this desolation in mortality, and they would experience a spiritual desolation on the other side of the veil if they didn’t repent. Jesus implied a looming separation of family members from each other because of failing to repent and receive saving ordinances and celestial marriage covenants. If they were all separated from each other in spirit prison, it would be just as if their whole family was made desolate except for them. It would only be overcome (by temple work) when the covenant to Abraham that “in thy seed shall all the kindred’s of the earth be blessed” would be fulfilled.
It seems then, that the destruction among the Nephites at the crucifixion of Christ was not just a sign of that significant event, nor was it just divine justice meted out, but it was also used as a teaching tool for those who were still soft-hearted enough to listen.
After the three days, all the darkness dispersed and the destruction ceased, and the record notes “the wailing of the people who were spared alive did cease; and their mourning was turned into joy, and their lamentations into the praise and thanksgiving unto the Lord Jesus Christ, their Redeemer” (v10). I used to think that they were just happy the darkness was gone and the destruction was over. But recently, I realized that wasn’t the main cause their joy. Their joy and praise and thanksgiving was because of Jesus Christ redeeming them. They had listened to the words of the voice of Christ and obeyed the command to repent. So by the time the darkness was dispersed, they had begun to feel the joy of their redemption.
Note that the destruction and darkness happened at the very beginning of the year (see 3 Nephi 8:5), and it wasn’t until the end of the year that Christ appeared to the Nephites (see 3 Nephi 10:18). Thus, when the record tells us in 3 Nephi 11:1 that the multitude at the temple was “marveling and wondering one with another, and were showing one to another the great and marvelous change which had taken place,” they were not talking about geographic change at all, as we so often suppose. (They had plenty of time during the year for that.) They were telling each other about the great and marvelous change that had occurred in their lives since they had repented. That’s the kind of change that takes some time to manifest itself. The greatness lay in the lastingness of it. (Keep in mind that all the previous chapters of 3 Nephi show plainly that they only enjoyed righteousness two short times in between long stretches of awful wickedness.) So they were speaking of how their lives had changed and conversing about Christ who had died, which sounds a lot like they were bearing testimony. And to this environment of spiritual witness and reflection, Christ came. What better time for Him to come?
And might He still come to our testimony meetings, even if we don’t see Him? Perhaps this holds a lesson—we witness of Him spiritually before we can witness Him with our eyes.