It is interesting to think about how the righteous may have escaped the destruction in the Americas at the death of Christ.
12 And it was the more righteous part of the people who were saved, and it was they who received the prophets and stoned them not; and it was they who had not shed the blood of the saints, who were spared—
13 And they were spared and were not sunk and buried up in the earth; and they were not drowned in the depths of the sea; and they were not burned by fire, neither were they fallen upon and crushed to death; and they were not carried away in the whirlwind; neither were they overpowered by the vapor of smoke and of darkness.
14 And now, whoso readeth, let him understand; he that hath the scriptures, let him search them, and see and behold if all these deaths and destructions by fire, and by smoke, and by tempests, and by whirlwinds, and by the opening of the earth to receive them, and all these things are not unto the fulfilling of the prophecies of many of the holy prophets. (3 Nephi 10:12-14)
First, I have to say that I feel rather cheated that we don’t have Zenos and Zenock and Jacob-Israel’s words about these things, since Mormon cites them particularly in following verses as prophets who testified of these destructions. The way Mormon challenges the reader to search the scriptures and see for ourselves, it is evident he thought we would have those particular prophecies.
However, at least we have a different source that prophesied of those destructions—Nephi saw it all in his sweeping visions of world history. While some would dismiss that as too easy for the Book of Mormon to be self-referential this way, I think it is an instance where we are presented with a choice to believe the account or not.
Another thing that fascinates me about these verses is how clear-cut the division is between the righteous who survived and the wicked who didn’t. I wonder if the righteous were gathered out of the most dangerous areas, or whether disasters were so precision-targeted to the wicked that no righteous people nearby were killed along with them.
Really, it could be either way. The Book of Mormon has a number of instances when the righteous were led out from among the wicked before the wicked were destroyed. Also, before the destruction at Christ’s death, the tribes were already stoning the prophets and casting them out, so to a certain degree they were self-sorting.
But some disasters can be so isolated as to seem selective. For example, who has not seen aerial photos of the path of a tornado that demolishes the houses in its path, yet leaves other houses next door still standing? I also recently watched a Nova TV program on sinkholes, and there was a story of a family who had a sink hole open up just under one bedroom and swallow up the brother or brother-in-law of the owner such that he died. The owner was conflicted because on one hand that room had previously been that of his young child, but the child had been moved to a different bedroom. So one of his family was saved, and another perished.
I am not giving these examples to suggest that people who suffer these disasters are wicked and are being punished. (I’m sure we have people tested like Job at the same time there are Sodoms and Gomorrahs.) I’m using them to illustrate the precision these disasters can have. But I think if the Lord chooses, He can use them to weed out the wicked. I also imagine that if/when in the future the Lord uses disasters this way, the inhabitants of each place will know it. Also, Christ announced to the righteous people that the destruction among them happened because of wickedness, and they also had prophecies to refer to that told them such a thing would happen, and when it did, they realized the prophecies had been fulfilled. The Lord didn’t want them to have any doubt on that score.
I notice that Mormon doesn’t look at it as selective destruction, but actually points out instead who was saved. To me the story underlines how physical salvation is strongly linked to spiritual salvation. It is yet another way of expressing the message, “Repent and be saved.”