Temporal Separation versus Spiritual Separation

Blog post by Nathan Richardson on February 27, 2011
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Nathan Richardson

An angel casts out Adam and Eve
Adam and Eve were cast out from God’s presence, which is definitely a type of spiritual death. But it’s not the only type the scriptures refer to.
Recap: There are two types of spiritual death: being cut off from Heavenly Father’s dwelling place (temporal separation) and being cut off from the Holy Ghost’s influence (spiritual separation).

Now that we’ve established that there are two types of spiritual death, as well as the importance of knowing that fact, I will spend this article explaining the differences between the two. I will also point out related insights along the way. (The bulk of this article comes from an entry I wrote for MormonWiki.com on spiritual death.) I apologize in advance if this article seems excessively long, but I wanted to establish a thorough understanding of spiritual death for the articles that follow it. I suppose I could have chopped it into two posts, but I wanted to discuss the two types of separation together. If you don’t want to go into as much detail, skip ahead to the summary.

Temporal Separation

Definition

As explained previously, the temporal separation refers to being separated from Heavenly Father’s physical location, 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.1

Cause and Scope

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. Being a descendant of Adam, even Jesus Christ himself experienced this temporal separation when he left heaven and came to earth. This voluntary “exile” is spoken of in many sacrament hymns and is called by Nephi’s angel guide “the condescension of God” (1 Ne. 11:16).

Necessity

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.2

Elder L. Tom Perry likewise explains,

Mortality was introduced by Adam and Eve. … It was a necessary step forward in the progress of man. Because of the Fall, all men and women are separated from God. This is known as spiritual death. … It is in a fallen world that we are fully given the opportunities to be tested and to prove ourselves.3

The council in heaven
When Heavenly Father told us we needed to leave his presence for a time in order to be tested, he was essentially saying that we needed to undergo a type of spiritual death.

This is one of the most important insights I’ve learned from studying this doctrine. We are very familiar with the idea that we needed to leave Heavenly Father’s presence in order to be tested—whole firesides are devoted to the idea. What we are less familiar with, however, is the idea that we can accurately call that circumstance “spiritual death.” When we talk about the premortal council in which the Father asked, “Who is willing to leave heaven and go to earth?” another way of saying that is, “Who is willing to undergo spiritual death?” That may sound odd at first, but that’s exactly what Elders Christofferson and Perry are saying—one kind of spiritual death is necessary.

I suspect 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). As I’ve reviewed all the instances of “temporal death” in the Book of Mormon, it appears that the term may mean not only physical death, but temporal separation as well. That is, it refers to those effects of the Fall that we inherit (mortal bodies, and a home outside the presence of Heavenly Father). Both effects are overcome unconditionally; they have a definite ending time. Therefore they are “temporary”; perhaps that is why they are grouped together under the name “temporal” death.

Resolution

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. As I understand the scriptures, were it not for the Atonement, we couldn’t even endure Heavenly Father’s glorious presence long enough to be judged. That should tell us how pure he is, how fallen we are, and how far-reaching the Atonement is.

The Ascension of Jesus Christ
Jesus Christ was the first person to be fully restored to Heavenly Father’s presence since Adam and Eve were first cast out from it. The same restoration will happen to all of us as well … whether we’re prepared or not.

The Savior was the first person to overcome the temporal separation. This occurred when he ascended into heaven after his resurrection (Acts 1:9). 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 (Mosiah 15:9), and both events are treated as important doctrines by other prophets like Alma the elder (Mosiah 18:2), Alma the younger (Alma 40:20), and Nephi son of Nephi (3 Ne. 10:18; 11:12).

To appreciate how unique this event would be in the mind of pre-Resurrection peoples, imagine Peter or Paul explaining the plan of salvation to a Greek by saying, “When people die, their bodies rot to pieces, and then they go up to Mount Olympus to dwell with the gods.” It’s easy to imagine that the Greek would think this crazy Christian didn’t know basic cosmology, and would argue, “No, that’s not it at all. When people die, their bodies rot to pieces, and then they go down to Hades to dwell with other dead people. Olympus is for the gods, not for mortals.” The Ascension truly was a paradigm-shattering doctrine. The temporal separation had never been breached by a son of Adam before that moment, as John explains when he says, “No man hath ascended up to heaven” (John 3:13).

Conditions

Because the temporal separation is imposed by Adam’s Fall, not by our own choices, its effects are overcome unconditionally, without depending on our choices. 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.4

Here, then, is the answer to the riddle: Samuel and Mormon say that everyone will be redeemed from spiritual death (even sons of perdition) because everyone goes to God’s presence for the Judgement (at least for a brief time).

Egyptian judgement scene
The temporal separation will end when we re-enter the Father’s presence at the Judgement. That event is represented in this Egyptian drawing as a departed soul (far right) is brought before the divine throne (far left), at which point the person’s lifetime of choices are weighed in a balance.

This may seem anti-climactic. “That’s it?” It may seem like a trick of language. “Well sure, I suppose that technically everyone is brought back into God’s presence for the Judgement, but that doesn’t matter as much as whether a person is prepared to stay there.” Granted, it’s probably more urgent for us to understand how the second spiritual death (being cast out of God’s presence again, permanently) can be averted (by repenting) than how the first spiritual death (leaving God’s presence to be tested) is resolved (the Judgement).

However, there are at least two reasons we need to understand the fact that the Judgement is the resolution of spiritual death. First, because that’s how the prophets talk about it in the scriptures. Unless we connect the Judgement with overcoming the temporal separation we all inherited from Adam, we will never fully understand many scriptural passages—especially in the Book of Mormon (e.g., 2 Nephi 9, Mosiah 15, Alma 11, Alma 42, and Helaman 14). One interesting point these prophets make is that the Resurrection and the Judgement are intimately related. In fact, in several passages, they talk about the two as though they were the same event (Jacob 6:9; Hel. 14:15, 17; Morm. 7:6; Morm. 9:13). Second, because it’s crucial to understanding the justice of God. For example, the fairness of innocent babies being born into a world far from God, filled with crime and disease, because of something Adam and Eve did. It will all be resolved in the end, no matter what you do, when all are restored to God’s glorious presence. Any negative developments after that moment, we can only lay squarely on our own shoulders for our own poor choices … which leads us to the next topic.

Spiritual Separation

Definition

As explained in the previous post, the spiritual separation refers to being separated from God’s Spirit, in the sense that, since the Holy Ghost is a member of the Godhead, separation from the Holy Ghost’s influence 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” (Alma 42:7). Passages that describe “dying as to things pertaining unto righteousness” (Alma 12:16, 32; 40:26) seem to refer to this second kind of spiritual death.

Cause and Scope

Christ on the cross: Why hast thou forsaken me?
Infants have not experienced the spiritual separation, because only sinners are cut off from the presence of the Holy Ghost … with one significant exception.

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.”5 To put it another way using a phrase coined by someone else, the temporal separation is caused by “the Fall of Adam,” but the spiritual separation is caused by “the fall of me.”6 Thus, the spiritual separation only affects those who sin. While that includes almost everyone, there are two notable exceptions.

First, “little children … cannot sin, for power is not given unto Satan to tempt little children, until they begin to become accountable” (D&C 29:46–47). Therefore, “little children need no repentance, neither baptism” because they “are alive in Christ,” having never alienated themselves from the Spirit of God (Moro. 8:11–12).

Second, Jesus Christ, being perfect and without moral fault, never did anything to estrange Himself from God’s Spirit. He is further unique, however, because He voluntarily experienced the spiritual separation as part of the Atonement, even though, being sinless, He did not deserve it. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland explains, “For His Atonement to be infinite and eternal, He had to feel what it was like to die not only physically but spiritually, to sense what it was like to have the divine Spirit withdraw, leaving one feeling totally, abjectly, hopelessly alone.”7

Thus, the Savior did experience the spiritual separation, but not for the same reasons as you and I. (Actually, in a way, we could say it was for the same reasons: You and I are cut off from the Spirit because of our sins; Jesus Christ was cut off from the Spirit because of … our sins.)

Necessity

The spiritual separation is absolutely unnecessary for our eternal growth and progress to become like God. It is virtually synonymous with sin (noting the exception mentioned in the previous paragraph), 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 (see “I am the Way … Unless You Find a Better One“). That is why Alma tells his son that “it was expedient that mankind should be reclaimed from this spiritual death” (Alma 42:9); we lose nothing by refraining from committing sin.

Resolution

The Holy Ghost descends upon Jesus at his baptism
When we enter the baptismal covenant, we can now be in the constant presence of the Holy Ghost, resolving the spiritual separation we brought upon ourselves by sinning. Though he was perfectly sinless, Christ’s actions exemplified overcoming the spiritual separation, illustrated through the sign of the dove at his baptism.

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.8

Thus, Elder Lund identifies the gift of the Holy Ghost with overcoming the spiritual separation, in part because, though we can feel the Holy Ghost throughout our lives, even before hearing the gospel, it is at that moment that we enter a qualitatively different relationship with deity. Adam was the first to learn about and overcome the spiritual separation by receiving this ordinance, blazing the way for all his posterity:

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.9

Conditions

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 (Rev. 2:11; 20:6, 14; 21:8; Jacob 3:11; Alma 12:16, 32; Alma 13:30; Hel. 14:18-19; D&C 63:17; 76:37).

Summary

I hope by this point it is clear that the quiz is filled with trick questions. The quiz is impossible to complete without asking, “Which kind of spiritual death do you mean?” Each question can be answered two ways, depending on whether the asker is thinking of the temporal separation or the spiritual separation. Now would be a good time to go back to the answers you originally gave to the quiz and reexamine them, modifying or adding to them as needed. As an example, here are my corrected answers to the quiz:

  1. What is spiritual death?

Speaking generally, it is separation from God, or being “cut off from the presence of the Lord.” If you mean temporal separation, it is being physically separated from Heavenly Father’s dwelling place. If you mean spiritual separation, it is being alienated from the influence of the Holy Ghost.

  • Has a week-old infant experienced spiritual death?If you mean temporal separation, yes; the baby lives on an earth that is outside the Father’s presence. If you mean spiritual separation, no; the baby is sinless and “alive in Christ,” and has thus not distanced herself from the Holy Ghost. (Usually people are thinking of the spiritual separation when they ask this question, so by the most commonly-intended meaning, the answer is No.)
  • Is it necessary for an individual to go through spiritual death in order to grow and become more like God?If you mean temporal separation, yes; we need to leave the Father’s presence in order to be tested. If you mean spiritual separation, no; we never need to sin or make the Spirit flee in order to develop Godly attributes. Distancing ourselves from the Spirit through sin only impedes our progress.
  • What causes spiritual death?If you mean temporal separation, the Fall of Adam and Eve. If you mean spiritual separation, each person’s individual sins.
  • When do we overcome spiritual death?If you mean temporal separation, at the final Judgement, when we all return to the Father’s presence to be judged. If you mean spiritual separation, it is a process that begins with the ordinances of baptism and confirmation (justification), after which enjoy the Holy Ghost’s presence to the degree that we are faithful to our covenants and allow the Spirit to gradually but steadily change us for the better (sanctification).
  • Are there any conditions that we are required to meet in order to overcome spiritual death? If so, what are they?If you mean temporal separation, no; because it was not caused by something we did, we are not required to do anything to overcome it—such is God’s justice. If you mean the spiritual separation, yes; we must repent of our sins, which includes all the changes we need to make to our actions and attitudes.

    We can summarize our answers to the questions by expanding the chart from the last article, as follows:

    Correct View of Spiritual Death

    Physical death Spiritual death Temporal
    separation
    Spiritual
    separation

    Definition Separation of body from spirit Separation from Heavenly Father Separation from the Holy Ghost
    Cause Adam’s fall Adam’s fall My sins
    Scope All Adam’s descendants All Adam’s descendants People past the age of accountability
    Necessity Yes Yes No; harmful
    Resolution Resurrection Judgement Baptismal covenant
    Conditions [None] [None] Repentance

    This has been (of necessity) a long post, so I’ll wrap it up with one thought: In a way, this article does not introduce new ideas; it introduces new ways of looking at familiar ideas. For example, the idea that the Judgement is God’s way of responding to the Adamic Fall justly, or the idea that baptism brings us back into the presence of God. For me, the greatest benefit has been that I feel I understand several scripture passages more clearly. I hope it has been helpful for readers as well.

    In my next post, I will give examples of popular definitions of spiritual death from websites, articles, and other publications and evaluate them based on two criteria. In the post following that one, I will give four examples of doctrinal errors that crop up when we conflate the two types of spiritual death and treat them as one concept. While I may risk being redundant, I hope this continued discussion will keep shedding further light on this important doctrine.



    Notes

    1. Earl C. Tingey, “The Great Plan of Happiness,” Ensign, May 2006, p. 72–74.

    2. D. Todd Christofferson, “Moral Agency,” Ensign, Jun. 2009, p. 46–53.

    3. L. Tom Perry, “‘Give Heed unto the Word of the Lord’,” Ensign, Jun. 2000, p. 22.

    4. Gerald N. Lund, “The Fall of Man and His Redemption,” ch. 9 in Charles D. Tate, Monte S. Nyman, ed., The Fall of Man and His Redemption (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, 1989), ch. 5.

    5. “Death, Spiritual,” True to the Faith.

    6. Gerald N. Lund, “Salvation: By Grace or by Works?,” Ensign, Apr. 1981, p. 17; Robert L. Millet, “The Fall as Taught in the Book of Mormon,” LightPlanet.com, accessed 23 Apr. 2010.

    7. Jeffrey R. Holland, “None Were with Him,” Ensign, May 2009.

    8. Gerald N. Lund, “Salvation: By Grace or by Works?,” Ensign, Apr. 1981, p. 17.

    9. Here and in the chart, I describe the spiritual separations resolution as the “baptismal covenant,” not “baptism.” I do so because I do not want to imply that once we’ve received the ordinance of baptism and confirmation, the journey of regaining the Holy Ghost’s presence is over. Overcoming the spiritual separation (spiritual rebirth) “is a process that goes on gradually” more than an event that happens in one moment (Bruce R. McConkie, The Promised Messiah (SLC: Deseret Book, 1978), p. 351).

4
comments so far
  1. Thanks, I just wanted to subscribe to the comments here too.

  2. What a great series, Nathan. Thank you for the depth and time you took to research this important doctrine. Well worth the time in studying it.

  3. Thanks for train of thought. How do you interpret Jesus words at the cross, of Father why hast thou forsaken me?” Another Proxi Separation that He was not aware was to transpire?

    More importantly for me, what is your view on the following type of events. Not sin free during my life, & having utilized the repentant process, it seems that I have still lost the Holy Ghost. I had a house to lease/ sell, & then was financially hurt by LDS agent. Later I was on my knees praying for help & guidance when the phone rings. a Property management agency called. I reviewed the problem w/them and meanwhile found that the management were all LDS. One could assume an answer to a prayer. Bottom line, they robbed me of my very very hard earned life saving. The filed bankruptcy & never paid another LDS viciim that had the funds to fight their con in court & won.

    Please note that I went thru all of the recommended review of legitimate businesses..but several times during transactions I HAD STRONG feeling that they were not of the LDS spirit. I was known on my mission for the gift of discernment but had been thru terrible times, and felt that I must have been merely paranoid.

    In a way I feel punished for not having gone by my discernment, proper business procedures or not. But is this rejection by the Holy Ghost? See, I want it. I need it. And as hard as it has been I have been hanging on by a thread using spiritual memories. Truth is, I am now spiritually dead (or coma) not sure the term fits into you paradigm. Any extended thoughts? (Bishop says some people regain testimony near the end of their days) I used to question how the early founders could have seen witness and then leave the CHurch. I wished I had never asked that question. I have nothing that means as much to me as did my testimony and the Spirit.
    Thanks for your thoughts

  4. Alexandra, your comment brought to mind an incident when I was a bishop. You seem pretty distraught that (1) the people that took financial advantage of you were LDS, and (2) that you weren’t in tune enough to be able to discern through the Spirit that you were being taken advantage of.

    Shortly after being released as bishop, I was called by the new bishop who was called after me. He wanted me to go with him to serve a letter to a married member of our ward who had committed adultery. As we were meeting with him, he was anxious, belligerent, and bellicose. He tried to turn the tables on the two of us by telling us that neither of us had the Spirit of the Holy Ghost with us. He said that if we had the Spirit of the Holy Ghost, we would have known that he was lying when he answered questions during his temple recommend interview and, knowing he was lying, would have stopped his destructive behavior. I told him that given his definition, the stake president also didn’t have the Spirit of the Holy Ghost because he also had interviewed him, and that every person who exercised their agency to lie to a Church leader could also blame that person for their behavior.

    After that incident, I had a tinge of guilt. I thought to myself, was he right, was I not in tune, should I have known he was lying during the temple recommend interview, could I have prevented him from going to the point of committing adultery, should I share part of the blame of his sin?

    Then I thought of the times when greater men than I had been deceived. There have been numerous times throughout the history of the Church when great leaders were lied to and betrayed and were harmed by that betrayal both spiritually or physically. Was it their fault?

    As members of the Church, we have an abiding trust in our fellow members that is much like the naivete of a child’s trust. Even when things reveal themselves in the most benign way that something isn’t right, we don’t challenge it because our nature is to trust, especially a fellow brother or sister. We lose sight of the fact that they are mortal, they have frailties, they are subject to temptation, they have agency.

    As we know, one of God’s most precious gifts to us is agency. Agency has been something each of us has shared since the very beginning of time. Our Father lost a third of His children because of agency (D&C 29:36). Judas had his agency and used it to betray Christ. Agency is a two-edged sword. It can bring about salvation and it can bring about condemnation. Agency is so important that it was the primary goal of Satan in the pre-existence, to destroy it (Moses 4:3). He couldn’t destroy it, so he uses it as a way for us to destroy ourselves. It seems to me that Alexandra, as many of us do when dealt a blow like this, is struggling with the idiosyncrasies of agency. She is dealing with someone who has chosen to use the wrong side of the two-edged sword.

    Ironically, she did recognize it, though. She said, “Several times during the transactions I had strong feeling[s] that they were not of the LDS spirit.” So the Holy Ghost didn’t abandon her, she made a choice not to act on that prompting. Deception is an evil thing and shakes us to our core. There are evil people in the world, and Satan will seek them out to use them to help to destroy other’s lives and especially their testimony. More importantly, if he can help initiate discord between members of the Church, it just adds a significant bonus to what he wants to achieve. I think LDS people are especially susceptible to these kind of scams. You see it in pyramid schemes all the time. A great percentage of these start in Utah, and it is by design. Things like this happen because an innate desire of members of the Church is to trust. As much as we don’t want to be cynical, for our own preservation, we need to have a certain amount of cynicism in us, even when dealing with members, to survive in this sinful world.

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