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I'm preparing for a Sunday School lesson that includes 3 Nephi 25 where Christ quotes Malachi 4.

1 For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the Lord of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch.

That verse is part of a prophecy that the earth will be cleansed when Christ returns. The cleansing is frequently described as fire, such as in the passage quoted above. How will this happen?

The verse I quoted has figurative language, so it could be assumed that the fire is figurative. But whenever this topic comes up in church, the discussion seems to imply that the burning will be literal with people occasionally going so far as speculating it will be caused by nuclear bombs (that is not doctrine of the LDS church).

The Gospel Principles manual also implies that it's a literal burning:

When Jesus Christ comes again to the earth, He will do the following things:

  1. He will cleanse the earth. When Jesus comes again, He will come in power and great glory. At that time the wicked will be destroyed. All things that are corrupt will be burned, and the earth will be cleansed by fire (see D&C 101:24–25).

So which is it? If it's figurative, do we know what the fire represents? If it's literal, do we know what will cause the fire? How will the righteous escape?

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Fire is often symbolic of the purifying power of the Holy Ghost, and I wouldn't be surprised if the "burning" is both physical and spiritual in this case. For example, missionary work may be one way that the wicked are "burned" (cleansed) and are uprooted from their ways.

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    Do you have any references to support that this is the LDS answer to this question? – curiousdannii Dec 29 '16 at 9:08
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So which is it? If it's figurative, do we know what the fire represents? If it's literal, do we know what will cause the fire?

The answer is both, but the burning refers neither to fire caused by man nor any natural processes.

Coming of Christ

When Jesus comes again, He will come in power and great glory.

See Matt 24:30, Mark 13:26, Luke 21:27, D&C 45:44, JSM 1:36.

The scriptures speak of different fates for the wicked and the righteous:

1 For behold, the day cometh that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble; and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the Lord of Hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch.
2 But unto you that fear my name, shall the Son of Righteousness arise with healing in his wings; and ye shall go forth and grow up as calves in the stall. 3 Nephi 25:1-2

Transfiguration

To behold the presence of God (or the power of God), a mortal must be transfigured, which transfiguration depends on the will of God, and in this case, the righteousness of that person at the Second Coming. See Transfiguration - lds.org

Evidence of this exists in many places in the scriptures:

Nephi, when filled with the power of God stated, "I am filled with the power of God, even unto the consuming of my flesh; and whoso shall lay his hands upon me shall wither even as a dried reed." 1 Nephi 17:48.

A similar thing happened with Abinadi: Mosiah 13:3

Moses, after seeing God, taught "mine own eyes have beheld God; but not my natural, but my spiritual eyes, for my natural eyes could not have beheld; for I should have withered and died in his presence." Moses 1:11

Cleansing

the earth will be cleansed by fire

This cleansing is what is referred to as the transfiguration of the earth into it's renewed, paradisaical state: Millennium and Glorification of the Earth. Note this is not the final glorification of the earth, when it will be sanctified and celestialized, when the earth "will be made like unto crystal and will be a Urim and Thummim" D&C 130:9, which will occur some time after the Millennium, see D&C 88:19

Elder Bruce R. McConkie clarified the burning heat will have a physical effect on the earth itself:

“When the Lord comes in his glory, in flaming fire, that fire will both cleanse the vineyard and burn the earth. In that day, so intense shall be the heat and so universal the burning, the very elements of which this earth is composed shall melt. The mountains, high and glorious and made of solid rock, shall melt like wax. They shall become molten and flow down into the valleys below. The very earth itself, as now constituted, shall be dissolved. All things shall burn with fervent heat. And out of it all shall come new heavens and a new earth whereon dwelleth righteousness”. McConkie, Millennial Messiah, 526–27

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