Two Kinds of Spiritual Death

Blog post by Nathan Richardson on February 21, 2011
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Nathan Richardson

Jesus Christ casting out Satan
Spiritual death is separation from God—but what does that mean?
Recap: Spiritual death is often incorrectly (or incompletely) understood by Latter-day Saints. Several additional misunderstandings can arise as a result.

In my previous post, I asked you to jot down answers to six questions about spiritual death. Here is the first question:

1. What is spiritual death?

The first time I heard the term “spiritual death,” I was in Primary. The teacher didn’t explain what she meant, so I was left to figure it out on my own. I thought, “Well, since physical death is when you lose your physical body, and you’re left as just a spirit, maybe spiritual death is when you lose your spirit body, and you’re left as just a … What else is there?” Is that what it means? Can you ever destroy or kill a spirit? It seems the answer is No. Alma the younger, when speaking of spiritual death, seems to be clearing up this misconception of mine when he says, “The soul could never die” (Alma 42:9). Nephi’s angel guide likewise seems to clarify that spiritual death does not refer to literally destroying spirit bodies: “That great pit … shall be filled by those who digged it, unto their utter destruction … ; not the destruction of the soul, save it be the casting of it into that hell which hath no end” (1 Ne. 14:3). As far as I’m aware, spirits don’t “die” like bodies do; they’re eternal.

The simplest definition of spiritual death is “separation from God,” which is the phrase used in True to the Faith, an encyclopedic reference manual of basic doctrines of the Church.1 Several prophets in the Book of Mormon use another phrase with the same meaning, saying that spiritual death is to be “cut off from the presence of the Lord” (2 Ne. 9:6; Alma 42:9; Hel. 14:16) This obviously raises the follow-up question, What does it mean to be separated from God? The way we answer that question determines whether we understand this doctrine and can explain it in harmony with the scriptures, or we give a mistaken explanation that amounts to folk doctrine of the kind Elder Lund described and gently corrected.

One helpful way to learn about spiritual death is to contrast it with the more familiar, concrete idea of physical death. As is often pointed out, death can be thought of as separation. In physical death, it is separation of a physical body from its spirit, the source of its life. In spiritual death, it is separation of a spirit from God, the source of all life.

Basic Definitions

Physical death Spiritual death
Definition Separation of body from spirit Separation from God

Now let’s expand the explanation to include such topics as the cause (What first brings about this kind of death?), the scope (Whom does the death affect? Who is an “eligible candidate”?), the necessity (Must a person experience it in order to grow and become more like God?), the resolution (At what point is this death overcome? What event or process resolves it?), and the conditions (What requirements must a person meet in order to overcome it? Is it resolved for everyone, or only those who meet certain conditions?).

Physical death is largely understood correctly by your average Latter-day Saint. It was caused by Adam’s fall, and it affects every one of his descendants, including the Savior Jesus Christ. It is a necessary step to grow and become like God. It is resolved during resurrection, when a body and spirit reunite permanently, and is overcome unconditionally, without a person having to do or choose anything (i.e., even Cain, a son of perdition, will be resurrected).

Correct View of Physical Death

Physical death Spiritual death
Definition Separation of body from spirit Separation from God
Cause Adam’s fall
Scope All Adam’s descendants
Necessity Yes
Resolution Resurrection
Conditions [none]

Incorrect Explanation

Spiritual death is a little more complex. If you took the six-question quiz and compared your answers with those of others, you might find that you gave different answers in at least a few cases. Several years ago, my answers to the rest of the quiz would have sounded a lot like the mistaken conception that Elder Lund talks about. Here is how I used to answer the questions:

2. Has a week-old infant experienced spiritual death?
I don’t think so. They’re clean and pure and don’t need to repent.

3. Is it necessary for an individual to go through spiritual death in order to grow and become more like God?
No, I don’t think so. Spiritual death is bad.

4. What causes spiritual death?
Adam and Eve’s fall … which means it affects all their posterity? Shoot, I guess I need to revise my answer to number 2; I guess an infant has experienced spiritual death.

5. When do we overcome spiritual death?
When we go to live with God in the celestial kingdom.

6. Are there any conditions that we are required to meet in order to overcome spiritual death? If so, what are they?
Many, but I’d summarize them as obeying the commandments and repenting when we mess up.

If we were to place this erroneous explanation of spiritual death side by side with a correct explanation of physical death, it would look like this:

Incorrect View of Spiritual Death

Physical death *Spiritual death
Definition Separation of body from spirit Separation from God
Cause Adam’s fall Adam’s fall
Scope All Adam’s descendants All Adam’s descendants
Necessity Yes ?
Resolution Resurrection Exaltation; heaven
Conditions [none] Repentance

(For the moment, I am bracketing the question of whether spiritual death is necessary. That question will be addressed in the next article. For now it is irrelevant, since the other factors make this view incorrect no matter how you answer this particular question.)

As mentioned earlier, there are at least two problems with this formulation. First, it negates the second article of faith: if spiritual death is brought upon you because of something Adam did (eating the fruit), but is only removed from you because of something you do (repent), then that would mean you were being “punished for Adam’s transgression.” Second, it contradicts several scripture passages which state that “all mankind” will be redeemed from spiritual death regardless of their choices (i.e., including Cain, a son of perdition). Thus, we are obliged to abandon this explanation of spiritual death and look for a better one.

Correct Explanation

The key to understanding spiritual death lies in a doctrine taught in the Book of Mormon—specifically, that there are two kinds of spiritual death. The Guide to the Scriptures (a more concise, updated combination of the Bible Dictionary and the Topical Guide) alludes to this fact by defining it as “separation from God and his influences.2 In other words, we can be literally separated from Heavenly Father’s location, or we can be alienated from the Holy Ghost’s influence. Since both the Father and the Holy Ghost are members of the Godhead, being cut off from either one’s presence can be accurately called “separation from God,” or spiritual death.

A variety of terms could be used to describe this distinction.3 When we refer to Heavenly Father’s presence, we might use words like physical, literal, direct, or actual to refer to Heavenly Father’s presence, and figurative, indirect, immaterial, or influence to refer to the Holy Ghost’s influence. Prophets in the Book of Mormon, however, use a different pair of terms when distinguishing the two kinds of spiritual death:

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)

Thus, from here on out, I will refer to the kind of spiritual death that means being cut off from Heavenly Father as “temporal separation” and the kind that means being cut off from the Holy Ghost as “spiritual separation.”4

The word \”death\” can refer to several different things.


Likewise, we will modify our chart to acknowledge the two types of spiritual death:

More Precise Definitions

Physical death Spiritual death Temporal separation Spiritual separation
Definition Separation of body from spirit Separation from Heavenly Father Separation from the Holy Ghost

Objections

It may seem a little surprising to hear these two passages interpreted as referring to two kinds of spiritual death. Usually we read over such statements quickly, assuming that the phrase “temporal” is a reference to physical death (that’s how I always used to read it). However, if you slow down and read closely, it’s clear that it’s not so simple.

In Alma’s statement (Alma 42:7), he says Adam and Eve were “cut off from the presence of the Lord” (spiritual death) in two ways: temporally and spiritually. Clearly the word temporal is referring to God’s presence, not physical bodies. That is, Alma is not saying there are two kinds of death (physical and spiritual); he’s saying there are two kinds of spiritual death (“cut off temporally” and “cut off spiritually”).

In Samuel the Lamanite’s statement (Hel. 14:16), he even uses the term “spiritual death.” The phrases that follow seem to be a parenthetical explanation of the term. That is, they are “cut off from the presence of the Lord” regarding temporal things (“literal, direct, physical”) and spiritual things (“figurative, indirect, influence”). The fact that the True to the Faith entry on spiritual death cites this passage further strengthens this interpretation:

The scriptures teach of two sources of spiritual death. The first source is the Fall, and the second is our own disobedience.

The Book of Mormon prophet Samuel taught, “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).1

The entry goes on to talk about the two kinds of spiritual death (albeit not in as much detail as I plan to).

Thus, while these passages have been used to produce true and useful insights regarding the two kinds of death generally (physical and spiritual), I think they are better understood as referring more specifically to the two kinds of spiritual death. I think this reading is closer to the original intent of the prophets who are speaking.

Clearing up Confusion

The Book of Mormon
Most of the clarifications we have regarding spiritual death come from the Book of Mormon.

Ezra Taft Benson explained one reason the Book of Mormon is such an important work of scripture:

The Book of Mormon is … the keystone of our doctrine. … It bears witness of His [Jesus Christ’s] reality with power and clarity. Unlike the Bible, which passed through generations of copyists, translators, and corrupt religionists who tampered with the text, the Book of Mormon came from writer to reader in just one inspired step of translation. Therefore, its testimony of the Master is clear, undiluted, and full of power. … It also provides the most complete explanation of the doctrine of the Atonement. …

In the Book of Mormon we will find the fulness of those doctrines required for our salvation. And they are taught plainly and simply so that even children can learn the ways of salvation and exaltation. The Book of Mormon offers so much that broadens our understandings of the doctrines of salvation. Without it, much of what is taught in other scriptures would not be nearly so plain and precious.5

I believe that spiritual death is a prime example of a doctrine that is made much “plainer and clearer” by the Book of Mormon. It is present in the Bible, but a quick Google search of the term will show that beyond the basic definition, there is a lot of confusion about it. Since the very purpose of the Atonement is to make overcoming spiritual (and physical) death possible, understanding this doctrine should be a pretty high priority—right up there with faith, repentance, and salvation.

Conclusion

In my next article, I will complete the chart begun in this article. As I address the six questions from the quiz, I hope it will become clear that the answer to every question is “It depends on which kind of spiritual death you’re talking about.” Only by acknowledging the two kinds of separation can we give clear and consistent answers to the quiz.



Notes

1. “Death, spiritual,” True to the Faith.

2. “Death, spiritual,” The Guide to the Scriptures.

3. When I’m teaching this in a classroom setting, I generate this list by asking the class, “Are you in God’s presence right now?” The answer, of course, is “Yes and No.” As I ask different class members to explain what they mean, I pick out these key phrases and write them in two groups on the blackboard. Once the distinction is clear to everyone, I then turn to Alma 42:7 and Hel. 14:16 to show them the terms used by Alma and Samuel to make the same distinction they are making.

4. I figure this usage is more scriptural, and it’s definitely clearer than “temporal spiritual death and spiritual spiritual death.” :-)

5. Ezra Taft Benson, “The Book of Mormon—Keystone of Our Religion,” Ensign, Nov. 1986, p. 4.

10
comments so far
  1. The concept of two spiritual deaths is quite enlightening. I’d always found the language of Samuel in that scripture confusing, and now I see why. Thanks for expounding, and I look forward to your next installment!

  2. I think I kind of knew what Alma and Samuel the Lamanite were getting at when they refer to the temporal and spiritual separation from God, but I probably read over it without really thinking about what they were saying. Thanks for pointing it out. Now I’ll never read those explanations without conscientiously noticing the distinction they’re making.

    We could also refer to the two types of Spiritual Death as the one caused by the Fall of Adam and the one caused by our own personal fall. Have we like Adam and Eve partaken of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil? Yes, we have — and so we, like them, need a Saviour.

  3. I was reading the Book of Mormon today and found another reference that is similar to the two you listed above. This one is a little different. It mentions being, “cut off,” but does not say specify being cut off, “from the presence of the Lord,” and it also talks about the “temporal law” and “spiritual law.” It’s not as explicit and clear as the other two, but it seems like it might be related:

    And men are instructed sufficiently that they know good from evil. And the law is given unto men. And by the law no flesh is justified; or, by the law men are cut off. Yea, by the temporal law they were cut off; and also, by the spiritual law they perish from that which is good, and become miserable forever. (2 Nephi 2:5)

  4. I just came across a scripture that I can’t help but throw out there. It probably applies more to future posts on this, but is still fun to think about now. (Context: The Brother of Jared has just seen the finger of the Lord reach out and touch the stones that will go on to light the barges)

    When he had said these words, behold, the Lord showed himself unto him, and said: Because thou knowest these things ye are redeemed from the fall; therefore ye are brought back into my presence; therefore I show myself unto you. (Ether 3:13)

    Clearly the Savior is at least speaking of redeeming him from the first, temporal separation. And clearly this is not a permanent redemption because the Brother of Jared goes on to finish out a relatively normal life. Does that mean that the state of our spiritual death can vacillate? Temporally and spiritually can we die and/or be born again multiple times?

  5. Matthew, interesting passage. It seems to me that the phraseology is similar enough (“cut off,” “temporal,” and “spiritual”) that it must be related. I’ll have to examine that chapter more closely.

    Toria, I agree—the phrase “brought back into my presence” definitely seems to tie it to the temporal separation. Since this is the Son talking to the brother of Jared, not the Father, I wonder if it would be more accurate to call it being reborn by degrees. I sometimes think of the Son’s presence as an intermediate step between being cut off temporally and being in the Father’s presence. That is, the Holy Ghost is the Comforter, and we’re promised that He can eventually lead us to a personal appearance of Jesus Christ. That’s why Joseph Smith called the Son “the Second Comforter,” and he added that the Son “will manifest the Father unto him, and … will teach him face to face” (TPJS 150–51). It seems almost like re-entering God’s temporal presence begins with the Son’s presence, then culminates in the Father’s presence. Does that make sense?

  6. Thanks Nathan, I really like the idea of being “reborn by degrees”. And the progression from the presence of the Holy Ghost, then the Savior, and ultimately God makes perfect sense. I love it. Especially since Christ is our mediator and is so central to our worship in the Temple and in all ordinances.

  7. I love this idea of progressive redemption. That I can bring myself into the presence of the Holy Ghost by keeping my baptismal and sacrament covenants. By seeking the face of the Lord, we are brought into the presence of Jesus and then our Father.

  8. Both of you have hit upon some of my favorite temple imagery. In the coming weeks, I plan to write up an article explaining that imagery and its meaning.

  9. Elder Bednar seems to be exploring a similar vein in this talk:

  10. I read it and I’m not sure I see the connection. What part of the talk did you have in mind?

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