When the destruction among the Nephites happens at Christ’s death, there is a curious contradiction between the people’s cries of mourning and regret and the Lord’s words about where the fault lay.
The people say one thing and Christ says another.
24 And in one place they were heard to cry, saying: 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.
25 And in another place they were heard to cry and mourn, saying: O that we had repented before this great and terrible day, and had not killed and stoned the prophets, and cast them out; then would our mothers and our fair daughters, and our children have been spared, and not have been buried up in that great city Moronihah. And thus were the howlings of the people great and terrible. (3 Nephi 8:24-25)
The people exclaim that if they had repented and not stoned the prophets, their brethren and families would have been spared. It is as if they claim it is their fault and that innocent others were destroyed in punishment for that guilt.
Christ has something different to say.
2 Wo, wo, wo unto this people; wo unto the inhabitants of the whole earth except they shall repent; for the devil laugheth, and his angels rejoice, because of the slain of the fair sons and daughters of my people; and it is because of their iniquity and abominations that they are fallen!
3 Behold, that great city Zarahemla have I burned with fire, and the inhabitants thereof. . . .
5 And behold, that great city Moronihah have I covered with earth, and the inhabitants thereof, to hide their iniquities and their abominations from before my face, that the blood of the prophets and the saints shall not come any more unto me against them. . . .
12 And many great destructions have I caused to come upon this land, and upon this people, because of their wickedness and their abominations.
13 O all ye that are spared because ye were more righteous than they, will ye not now return unto me, and repent of your sins, and be converted, that I may heal you? (3 Nephi 9:2-3, 5, 12-13)
Christ, on the other hand, tells them the people slain had been wicked and those who were spared were more righteous, although they still needed to repent.
I think this shows us several things. First, people tend to attribute responsibility to themselves for the destruction of their family members, even if those who were destroyed were wicked. (“If we would have repented, these family members would have been spared.”) We know from the D&C that parents are responsible for the guilt of the children if the children are not taught right, but when those who sin do it in full knowledge of their rebellion, it is another story. To the survivors it can feel like a punishment when it is actually more of a deliverance. So when Jesus says those who had been spared had been more righteous, He absolves them of the guilt they don’t deserve to feel, though He still tells them they need to turn to Him and repent.
I think Satan would love people to feel responsible for sins they didn’t commit because then he can destroy their peace. Jesus, on the other hand, wants us to be free from guilt. He put the responsibility where it really belonged so they could be free of undeserved guilt, and He also extended the invitation to repent of their sins so they could become free from deserved guilt.
It is also interesting to see who is mourned in the city of Moronihah and who is left out. They mourn for their mothers, fair daughters, and their children, but there is no mention of fathers, wives, or fair sons, so it is possible those were saved.
It is peculiar that mothers, fair daughters, and children were killed because usually we’d think of these groups as being some of the tender and innocent. But because of Christ’s statement about the destruction falling on the iniquitous and abominable, we must conclude that He was just and they were corrupted. I could speculate a good long time on why the families were divided along those particular lines, and I can think of at least three plausible scenarios about how this happened, but ultimately it’s not terribly important. The important thing was that it shows us that the Lord has the power to save or destroy very specifically, even with large disasters.
Other observations can be made about what Christ told the people about the destruction. A lot of cities are listed that were destroyed, but there were also a lot of cities we’ve heard of in the Book of Mormon in other places that were not mentioned in the list, so we can probably assume that the damage to them wasn’t so horrific that all the people died in them too.
There is also a range of severity in the destruction and condemnation. Zerahemla and Moronihah had great destruction, but they also had people associated with them that remained alive to mourn the loss of those who died there. There is no such thing recorded of the other cities – Moroni, Gilgal, Onihah, Mocum, Jerusalem, Gadiandi, Gadiomnah, Jacob, Gimgimno, Jacobugath, Laman, Josh, Gad, and Kishkumen.
Also, all of the cities mentioned have it noted of them that the inhabitants were slain “that the blood of the prophets and saints shall not come any more unto me against them,” but the cities of Laman, Josh, Gad, and Kishkumen come in for especial condemnation for 1) casting out and stoning the prophets and those sent by God to declare unto them concerning their wickedness and abominations (3 Nephi 9:10) and 2) casting ALL of them out so there were no righteous among them (v11) and they were destroyed so that the blood of the prophets and saints “might not cry unto me from the ground against them.” (v11)
So, some cities just had the righteous blood come up to God, but the extra wicked cities had righteous blood crying to God against them. To me this implies degrees of violence, one perhaps being abuse and injury, but the other implying murder, much like Abel’s blood cried to God against Cain. It also seems like most of the cities still allowed the righteous to stay among them, but the extra wicked cities kicked them all out.
The Lord mentions that prophets and others had been sent to those cities Laman, Josh, Gad, and Kishkumen to declare their wickedness to them, which makes me think those cities had no local people to tell them. They needed imported prophets and warnings. I wonder if those were cities formed by Gadianton robbers for the purpose of having their own special enclave, or whether the robbers had just taken over a place and gradually got rid of everyone who dared to warn them of their perfidy. Kishkumen could easily be a city of just Gadianton robbers, since it is stated elsewhere that cities were named after their first founder.
Jacobugath also comes in for special condemnation because in addition to the blood of prophets and saints, they also 1) committed murders, 2) had secret combinations, and 3) destroyed the peace of the people and the government of the land. It is very significant that He calls their wickedness “above all the wickedness of the whole earth” (v9). This is probably because the secret combination created such a synergy of coordinated, corporatized evil greater than just individuals and it affected the whole land by destroying the credibility of government and causing the government to be destroyed. (Yet another reason to avoid secret combinations or group-organized evil…)
The way the Lord says multiple times that He destroyed these places “to hide their iniquities and abominations from before my face” is a great reminder that even if we think our sins are secret, the Lord can still see them. We can’t hide them from the Lord; apparently only death does that. And even if they are hidden from the Lord for His relief, they still exist and have to be repented of and had to be atoned for. And it reminds me that as Christ is the one who atoned for all of our sins and even the worst of what these people did, He would not let them continue to go on in it indefinitely. He removed them from life to stop them. And we see that He had warned them all, even the worst of them.
After all the tale of destruction has been told, I love that Christ says to those who remain, “Behold, mine arm of mercy is extended towards you, and whosoever will come, him will I receive; and blessed are those who come unto me.” (3 Nephi 9:14) Maybe they didn’t feel like they had more chance to repent and all this destruction was a punishment, but Christ still extended mercy in the middle of it. Their lives were extended and that was a mercy. The invitation to repent and return was given, and that was extended mercy. They were not beyond help.
I’ve noticed and Elder Bednar pointed out in the recent Christmas devotional that Christ saved a bunch of Christians among the Nephites simply by being born, but I think it could also be said that He saved a bunch of Christians through the signs of His death as well. We don’t have the accounts of all the circumstances whereby those who were saved were guiding to remove them from danger in those natural cataclysms while the wicked from the same families were destroyed. But it is evident that His death saved many, not just spiritually, but temporally. With every major event of His life, Christ was the means of saving those who believed in Him, and His second coming will be another event of salvation for the righteous.