Spiritual death is to be "cut off from the presence of the Lord," the phrase used repeatedly in the scriptures to define the term (2 Nephi 9:6; Alma 42:9; Helaman 14:16). Being cut off from the Lord's presence can mean being separated from God himself or being alienated from God's ways through a sinful lifestyle (to "die as to things pertaining unto righteousness"; Alma 12:16, 32; 40:26).
Two Types of Spiritual Death
There are two ways we are cut off or separated from the presence of the Lord, and this distinction sometimes causes confusion. The Guide to the Scriptures makes this distinction by defining spiritual death as "separation from God and his influences." In other words, separation from either Heavenly Father or the Holy Ghost can be called "spiritual death." Book of Mormon prophets use the labels "temporal" and "spiritual" when delineating these two types of separation:
- Our first parents were cut off both temporally and spiritually from the presence of the Lord. (Alma 42:7)
- The resurrection ... redeemeth all mankind from the first death—that spiritual death; for all mankind, by the fall of Adam being cut off from the presence of the Lord, are considered as dead, both as to things temporal and to things spiritual. (Helaman 14:16)
In other words, being cut off from Heavenly Father's presence is called a "temporal separation," and being cut off from the Holy Ghost's presence is called a "spiritual separation." The temporal separation (from Heavenly Father) is sometimes called the first spiritual death, or the first death (2 Nephi 9:15; Alma 11:45; 12:36; Helaman 14:16; D&C 29:41). The spiritual separation (from the Holy Ghost) is sometimes called the second spiritual death, or the second death (Revelation 2:11; 20:6, 14; 21:8; Jacob 3:11; Alma 12:16, 32; 13:30; Helaman 14:18-19; Doctrine and Covenants 63:17; 76:37). This terminology may have been chosen because it refers to the sequence in which the two deaths occur in every individual's life—we are first separated from Heavenly Father when we come to earth for our mortal lives (the first death); then we are separated by degrees from the Holy Ghost when we sin (the second death).
It is important to understand the definition and cause of both types of spiritual death, as well as which type of separation is necessary for our growth and exaltation and which is not. It is also important to understand how each separation is resolved, and the conditions that must be met for the resolution to occur.
The temporal separation refers to being separated from Heavenly Father in a physical way, in the literal sense that he is up in heaven while we are down on earth. For example, before the Fall, Adam and Eve walked and talked with God the Father face to face; they were able to be in his physical presence. After the Fall, they experienced a temporal separation in that the earth fell and they were no longer in his literal presence; they could converse with him in prayer, but "they saw him not" (Moses 5:4). Elder Earl C. Tingey explains,
- Spiritual [death] is separation from God’s presence. Adam and Eve freely conversed with God in the Garden of Eden. After their transgression, they lost that privilege. Thereafter, communication from God came only through faith and sacrifice, combined with heartfelt petitioning.
- Currently, we are all in the state of spiritual death. We are separated from God. He dwells in heaven; we live on earth. We would like to return to Him.
This temporal separation is caused by the fall of Adam and affects every descendant of Adam, including little children who have not reached the age of accountability. That is, every descendant of Adam is born into a world that is apart from God the Father's heavenly dwelling place. Even the Savior Jesus Christ experienced this temporal separation when he left heaven and came to earth; this was partly a result of his being a descendant of Adam.
The temporal separation is absolutely necessary for our eternal growth and progress to become like God. We must leave the Father's presence in order to be thoroughly tested. Elder D. Todd Christofferson explains,
- It was necessary in God’s plan for our future happiness and glory that we become morally free and responsible. For that to happen, we needed an experience apart from Him where our choices would determine our destiny. The Fall of Adam provided the spiritual death needed to separate us from God and place us in this mortal condition.
This is why Alma tells his son that "it was not expedient that man should be reclaimed from this temporal death, for that would destroy the great plan of happiness" (Alma 42:8).
The temporal separation is overcome when all people return to God's presence for the Judgment. This return would not be possible without the atonement: "Because of the intercession for all, all men come unto God; wherefore, they stand in the presence of him, to be judged"; "the atonement ... bringeth back men into the presence of God; and thus they are restored into his presence, to be judged" (2 Nephi 2:10; Alma 42:23). At that point, they are in God's physical presence again, and the temporal aspect of spiritual death is overcome.
The Savior was the first person to overcome the temporal separation. This occurred when he ascended into heaven after his resurrection. The magnitude of this event—a member of the human race rising to the dwelling place of God, rather than remaining in the spirit world apart from God—is emphasized by ancient prophets because it was so singular and unprecedented. Abinadi prophesied not only of Christ's Resurrection, but also of his Ascension, and both events are treated as important doctrines by other prophets like Alma and Nephi son of Nephi.
Because the temporal separation is imposed by Adam's Fall, involuntarily, its effects are overcome unconditionally. Samuel the Lamanite teaches that everyone overcomes this first spiritual death, no matter what choices they make in life, when he says "[Christ] redeemeth all mankind from the first death—that spiritual death; ... Christ redeemeth mankind, yea, even all mankind, and bringeth them back into the presence of the Lord" (Hel. 14:16--17). Gerald N. Lund emphasizes the importance of this point:
- Not only does Christ’s redemption bring about resurrection for all without condition, but it also brings all men to the judgment bar where they are brought into the presence of God to stand before him to be judged. If we are brought back into the presence of God, then spiritual death, or our separation from God, is overcome at that point. What does a man have to do to have this happen? Absolutely nothing. It, too, is unconditional. Thus both effects of the fall of Adam [physical death and temporal separation] are automatically redeemed by the Savior.
The spiritual separation refers to being separated from the Holy Ghost in a spiritual way, in the figurative sense that, since the Holy Ghost is a member of the Godhead, separation from the Holy Ghost is separation from God. For example, before we sin, we can freely have the Holy Ghost's influence. After we sin, the Holy Ghost withdraws and we are cut off from the Spirit, or "cut off ... spiritually ... from the presence of the Lord."
This spiritual separation is caused by individual sins—while the first separation is caused by the Fall, "the second is [caused by] our own disobedience." The spiritual separation only affects those who sin, thus excluding little children who have not reached the age of accountability.
The spiritual separation is absolutely unnecessary for our eternal growth and progress to become like God. It is synonymous with sin, and sin is never necessary for us to become wiser, stronger, or more like our Heavenly Father in any way, as multiple prophets have attested. That is why Alma tells his son that "it was expedient that mankind should be reclaimed from this spiritual death" (Alma 42:9).
The spiritual separation is overcome to the extent that a person returns to and dwells in God's spiritual presence. We regain the Holy Spirit's presence in degrees as we repent and keep the commandments, but the greatest single step in this return happens through baptism and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost.
- When one is given the gift ... of the Holy Ghost, he has overcome spiritual death to a degree, for he has come into the presence of one member of the Godhead. The Holy Ghost’s role, of course, is to help us continue in the pre-conditions of this part of the Atonement and fully overcome spiritual death by coming back into the presence of the Father and the Son.
Adam was the first to learn about and overcome the spiritual separation by receiving this ordinance:
- Adam cried unto the Lord, and he was caught away by the Spirit of the Lord, and was carried down into the water, and was laid under the water, and was brought forth out of the water. And thus he was baptized, and the Spirit of God descended upon him, and thus he was born of the Spirit, and became quickened in the inner man (Moses 6:64--65).
When we are baptized and confirmed, we enter a covenant that can potentially bind us to the Holy Ghost and allow us to enjoy his presence constantly. This ordinance and covenant are the means of overcoming spiritual death.
Because the spiritual separation is caused by individual choices, voluntarily, its effects are only overcome conditionally, on the terms of repentance. The resolution of both spiritual deaths are made possible by the atonement. However, whereas the temporal separation is overcome unconditionally, the spiritual separation is only overcome as we make and keep sacred covenants.
For those who do not exercise faith, repent, get baptized, receive the Holy Ghost, and endure to the end, the spiritual separation is not overcome. While they return to God's temporal presence for the Judgment, they reject the Holy Ghost, God's spiritual presence. Thus, they overcome the first spiritual death, but the second spiritual death still has power over them, and they remain cast out of God's presence. This state is often referred to as the second death (Revelation 2:11; 20:6, 14; Revelation 21:8; Jacob 3:11; Alma 12:16, 32; Alma 13:30; Helaman 14:18-19; Doctrine and Covenants 63:17; Doctrine and Covenants 76:37). However, the Lord makes every possible attempt to give all of us the opportunity to make covenants and to repent, even extending the opportunity to those who have already died and are spirits awaiting resurrection and judgment. This guarantees that those who have never had the opportunity in the mortal world, will eventually and fairly receive it.
Comparison of the Two Types
|Temporal separation||Spiritual separation||Source|
|Definition in the scriptures||"Cut off temporally from the presence of the Lord"||"Cut off spiritually from the presence of the Lord"||Alma 42:7; Helaman 14:16|
|Separation from|| Heavenly Father |
| The Holy Ghost |
|Guide to the Scriptures, "Death, Spiritual"|
|Caused by||Adam's transgression||Our individual sins||True to the Faith, "Death, Spiritual"|
|Necessity of||Completely necessary (to be tested and to grow)||Completely unnecessary for growth and testing||Alma 42:8–9|
|Overcome during||The final Judgment||The covenant of baptism||2 Nephi 2:10; Alma 42:23; Moses 6:64–65|
|Conditions required to overcome||None||Repentance||Gerald N. Lund, “Salvation: By Grace or by Works?,” Ensign, Apr. 1981, p. 17|
|Presence typified by||The face of God||The voice of God||Genesis 3:8; Deuteronomy 4:12; Enos 1:4, 27; Ether 3:6, 13; Doctrine and Covenants 93:1; Moses 5:4|
|Separation typified by||Hell||The devil||2 Nephi 9|
Thus, spiritual death can refer to either of two separations. In the scriptures, the Lord's temporal presence is often symbolized by his face, and his spiritual presence is often symbolized by his voice (see Genesis 3:8; Enos 1:4, 27; Ether 3:6, 13; Doctrine and Covenants 93:1; Moses 5:4).
The temporal separation, being cut off from Heavenly Father, is caused by Adam's transgression and affects all his posterity unconditionally, even innocent children. Therefore, it is overcome unconditionally by the Atonement when everyone, even sons of perdition, returns to the Father's presence to be judged.
The spiritual separation, being cut off from the Holy Ghost, is caused by individual sins, and affects only those who are accountable and break the commandments. Therefore, it is overcome conditionally by the Atonement only for those who repent, when they receive the gift of the Holy Ghost and abide in his presence through continual submission to God's will.
Confusion has arisen in the past because of simpler explanations of spiritual death that do not go into as much detail as the Book of Mormon. In many explanations of spiritual death within Church publications, a simplified notion is given that only accounts for the spiritual separation. That is, spiritual death is explained as separation from God on account of sin, which is only overcome on conditions of faith and repentance. The temporal separation (caused by Adam and overcome unconditionally at the Judgment) is not mentioned at all as "spiritual death."
According to such explanations, everyone overcomes physical death no matter what they do, when they resurrect, whereas there are certain requirements that individuals must meet to overcome spiritual death. For example, President Ezra Taft Benson said,
- Thus He became our Redeemer—redeeming all of us from physical death, and redeeming those of us from spiritual death who will obey the laws and ordinances of the gospel.
Technically, however, physical death is not the only obstacle that is overcome unconditionally. The first spiritual death is also overcome without any requirements or conditions, because everyone returns to the Father's presence for the Judgment. Therefore it is not completely accurate to say that we are only saved from spiritual death if we meet certain conditions. Gerald N. Lund explains why this technicality matters:
- To make coming back into the presence of God (overcoming spiritual death) conditional, when our separation from him was originally caused by the fall of Adam, would mean we do suffer punishment for Adam’s transgression, and such is not the case. ... Thus both effects of the fall of Adam [physical death and temporal separation] are automatically redeemed by the Savior.
Statements on spiritual death such as the one above by President Benson can be considered a simplified explanation. This explanation does not account for the temporal aspect of spiritual death, nor does it clarify the fact that we are redeemed from that temporal separation unconditionally (in contrast, the Book of Mormon clarifies that fact, such as in Helaman 14:16). This simplified way of teaching should not be considered inaccurate so much as imprecise or incomplete, as is often the case when distilling profound doctrines so they can be understood by those new to the restored gospel.
Such simplified explanations of spiritual death as the one by President Benson exclude the temporal separation probably because of priority and expediency. That is, since the temporal separation has already been overcome unconditionally by the Savior (when all mankind returns to the Father's presence for the Judgment), it might seem redundant to explain a problem that has already been fully resolved. In contrast, many doctrinal expositions serve the purpose of persuading the listener to make wise choices while their mortal probation still lasts. Thus, the spiritual separation is a more important doctrine to explain, since each mortal still needs to overcome it through his or her choices. When a speaker's time and article space are limited, he will often describe spiritual death as only the spiritual separation, omitting the more technically accurate description of it as both the spiritual and temporal separations.
Since some modern prophets seem content to pass over a more technical explanation, the question could be asked, why did ancient prophets like Samuel the Lamanite, Alma, and Jacob deem it worthwhile to spend significant portions of their speeches explaining that the temporal separation has been unconditionally overcome? One possible reason is that their ancient audiences were more acutely aware of their temporal separation from God. Being closer in time to and more familiar with the Eden story or the supernatural realm, they may have understood more clearly than modern society does that something wasn't right with the human condition, and that we were created to enjoy the Father's presence. Feeling this truth, the question may have arisen more often than it does today of why we are separated from the Father before we are accountable enough to do anything to merit such a condition. Therefore, their prophets would have addressed the unfair-seeming condition and explained why it is overcome unconditionally.
Symbolism in the Tabernacle
When it is understood that "the face of the Lord" can represent Heavenly Father's presence, while "the voice of the Lord" can represent the Holy Ghost's presence, key principles about overcoming spiritual death can be recognized in the ceremonies that occurred in the ancient tabernacle (this symbolism is also present in modern temples).
- The mercy seat, the equivalent of the throne of God where the Lord himself dwelt, was in the Holiest Place (Holy of Holies), the room furthest back in the tabernacle. If a person were standing in that room, he would be able to see God's face since he would be standing directly in the Lord's presence.
- The next room over, the Holy Place, was separated from the Holiest Place by a veil, a thick curtain. If a person were standing in that room, he would not be able to see God's face, since the veil would block his view of the mercy seat where God sat; however, the person would be able to hear the Lord's voice, since only a curtain lay between them.
- The next area of the tabernacle was the Courtyard, an open-air enclosure beyond the Holy Place where animals were brought in for sacrifice. If a person were standing in the Courtyard, he would not be able to see God's face, nor would he be able to hear God's voice, since he would now be so far removed and surrounding by the bleating of animals.
Likewise, when we lived in heaven before this life (the Holiest Place), we enjoyed the presence of both Heavenly Father and the Holy Ghost (seeing his face and hearing his voice). Mortal probation requires that we pass to the other side of the veil, where we no longer enjoy Heavenly Father's presence (seeing his face). However, if we draw close to God and keep our covenants (stand in Holy Places), we can still enjoy the Holy Ghost's presence (hearing his voice). If we fail to make or keep those sacred covenants, remaining "without God in the world" (out in the Courtyard), we will lose the presence of both Heavenly Father and the Holy Ghost (neither seeing his face nor hearing his voice).
In the tabernacle, in order to draw near the mercy seat (the throne where God sat), leaving the Courtyard and entering the Holy Place, a person had to walk past the altar of sacrifice. Again, in order to leave the Holy Place and enter the Holiest Place, he had to walk past the altar of incense. Both altars remind us that in order to draw nearer to the Lord, we must make covenants, sacrificing the sins we hold so dear in order to better hear his voice, or to have the Holy Ghost with us more strongly. As long as we are in earth life, Heavenly Father's presence will always be veiled to us. But in the end, if we have heeded his voice, overcoming the spiritual separation, we will be prepared to cross the veil into the celestial realms where he dwells and see his face, overcoming the temporal separation and enjoying his personal presence forever.
- ↑ Earl C. Tingey, “The Great Plan of Happiness,” Ensign, May 2006, p. 72–74
- ↑ D. Todd Christofferson, “Moral Agency,” Ensign, Jun. 2009, p. 46– 53.
- ↑ Gerald N. Lund, “The Fall of Man and His Redemption,” The Book of Mormon: Second Nephi, the Doctrinal Structure, p. 95–96
- ↑ True to the Faith, Death, Spiritual
- ↑ Gerald N. Lund, "Salvation: By Grace or by Works?,” Ensign, Apr. 1981, p. 17
- ↑ Ezra Taft Benson, "Keeping Christ in Christmas," Ensign, Dec. 1993, p. 2. Other explanations conflate the two aspects of spiritual death, saying things like, "Spiritual death ... occurred when Adam and Eve were cast out of the garden. ... We [can] be saved from spiritual death ... through faith in Jesus Christ, repentance, baptism, the gift of the Holy Ghost, and obedience to the commandments."
- ↑ Gerald N. Lund, “The Fall of Man and His Redemption,” The Book of Mormon: Second Nephi, the Doctrinal Structure, p. 95–96