Zenos prophesied the events recorded in 3 Nephi:
And the God of our fathers, who were led out of Egypt, out of bondage, and also were preserved in the wilderness by him, yea, the God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, yieldeth himself, according to the words of the angel, as a man, into the hands of wicked men, to be lifted up, according to the words of Zenock, and to be crucified, according to the words of Neum, and to be buried in a sepulchre, according to the words of Zenos, which he spake concerning the three days of darkness, which should be a sign given of his death unto those who should inhabit the isles of the sea, more especially given unto those who are of the house of Israel.
For thus spake the prophet: The Lord God surely shall visit all the house of Israel at that day, some with his voice, because of their righteousness, unto their great joy and salvation, and others with the thunderings and the lightnings of his power, by tempest, by fire, and by smoke, and vapor of darkness, and by the opening of the earth, and by mountains which shall be carried up.
And all these things must surely come, saith the prophet Zenos. And the rocks of the earth must rend; and because of the groanings of the earth, many of the kings of the isles of the sea shall be wrought upon by the Spirit of God, to exclaim: The God of nature suffers. (1 Ne. 19:10–12)
Zenos’s prophecy was fulfilled in the New World, but not in the Old. Whether or not Zenos understood it, his words were destined for the New World house of Israel more than the Old. As a lost brass plates prophet, Zenos’s impact was felt in the New World even as it was forgotten in the Old.
Geography and Geology: The Atoning Messiah’s arrival is presaged by violent natural manifestations. Typologically, the coming of the Messiah at the end of times will be preceded by great destructions, including burnings. In this appearance during the meridian of time, the Messiah is accompanied by parallel destruction. Mormon understands that the Atoning Messiah and the Triumphant Messiah are the same person; given Mormon’s cyclical view of history, it is clear why he sees the two comings as typologically parallel.
There is nothing metaphoric, however, about this destruction. The Book of Mormon is very explicit in describing the physical events. As real-world phenomena, they correspond to an explosive eruption of a volcano arising in a subduction zone, or the zone where two tectonic plates are colliding. Mesoamerica is part of the “ring of fire” that marks one of the most active volcanic regions in the world, and Mesoamerica is located at a subduction boundary. All of the geologic conditions to create a violently explosive volcano are present in Mesoamerica, and Central America ranks as “the most productive volcanic region on earth.” At least three geologically attested volcanic events date to this basic period, but there may have been other unrecorded incidents around the same time. About this time, Xitle erupted as well as Yololica and Popocatepetl (all in the Central Mexico Basin, south of modern Mexico City).
Volcanic eruptions are difficult to date with precision, yielding timing in relative centuries. Archaeologist Susan Toby Evans notes of Xitle: “We don’t know exactly when Xitle’s [sic] erupted; possible dates range from 400 B.C. to A.D. 400. However, Popocatépetl was erupting from 250 B.C. to 50 A.D., severely disrupting southern Basin communities.” There is currently no way to obtain a precise date that will match a specific volcano (or set of volcanoes) to the destruction in 3 Nephi because of these dating issues. However, the region was active during this period and the textual reports indicate a first-hand understanding of a particular type of volcanic event. I suspect that the Book of Mormon refers to different volcanic events in different locations, but in the same region and within a relatively brief period. The Nephites at Bountiful would have experienced a single event, but the distances required for some of the reports suggests that there were disruptions over a larger area.
Chronology: This destruction occurs in the fourth day of the first month. The first Nephite month is obviously different from our current calendar. It would be interesting if the Nephite restructuring of the calendar dating from the signs of Christ’s birth began counting the “first month” as Jesus’s birth, held in LDS tradition to be April.
Raymond E. Brown summarizes a tremendous amount of work on dating the year of Jesus’s death, bringing it down to two likely dates: April 7, 30, or April 3, 33. The Book of Mormon chronology would point us toward the year 30, and therefore the more complete date of April 7, 30.