What I Thought I Knew about Spiritual Death

Blog post by Nathan Richardson on February 14, 2011
12Comments

Nathan Richardson

Resurrection of Christ
Everyone overcomes physical death, but only the repentant overcome spiritual death … right?

OK, quiz time. Get out a piece of paper and get ready to answer six short questions. No seriously, open up Notepad or something and jot down answers to the following questions:

  1. What is spiritual death?
  2. Has a week-old infant experienced spiritual death?
  3. Is it necessary for an individual to go through spiritual death in order to grow and become more like God?
  4. What causes spiritual death?
  5. When do we overcome spiritual death?
  6. Are there any conditions that we are required to meet in order to overcome spiritual death? If so, what are they?

I want you to commit your answers to paper (or pixels) so that after you read this series, you’ll be able to look at your original answers, possibly revise them, and appreciate how much the Book of Mormon and latter-day prophets have helped clear up doctrinal ambiguities. In fact, if you want to have even more fun, have a few friends answer the same questions and see whether you come up with different answers in a few cases.

Spiritual death is a doctrine that has often been misunderstood (including by me), so it can be eye-opening to find that even well-seasoned members sometimes have very different conceptions of it. Not only are Latter-day Saint sometimes confused on some of the finer details of this doctrine, but the effect is that non-Mormons sometimes come to gravely erroneous conclusions because we are not always very good at explaining it to them.

A Missionary’s Summary of LDS Doctrine

Elder Gerald N. Lund, formerly of the Seventy, was the person who first brought this confusion to my attention. When I took “Doctrines of the Gospel” from Blake Ostler at BYU, he had us read an book chapter by Elder Lund called “The Fall of Man and His Redemption.” (A shorter version of that article was later published in the Ensign.1 I will quote primarily from the longer version, as it goes into more detail.) In it, Elder Lund explains,

Elder Gerald N. Lund
Elder Gerald N. Lund shares a way of explaining spiritual death that many Latter-day Saints frequently use … and then points out what’s incorrect about it.

Members of the Church, particularly missionaries, have often been called upon to defend our belief that the way a man lives (his works) plays a critical role in his salvation. … The diagram on the following page has been used by some to help answer those questions. [See the diagram here.]

This diagram is explained as follows: Through the fall of Adam two deaths came upon mankind. One was physical death, which is the separation of the body and the spirit. All of the children of Adam who are born into the world are subject to mortality, that is, physical death. But there was also a spiritual death. This is defined as being cut off or separated from the presence of God. Because Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden, all men are born in a state of separation from the presence of God or in a state of spiritual death.

The diagram then shows how Christ’s redemption covers both the physical and the spiritual fall. The reasoning runs as follows. … Since no one has to do anything to be resurrected, this is an unconditional blessing. … But, the explanation continues, there is a second spiritual part of the redemption which cannot be overlooked and that was done in the Garden of Gethsemane. … This suffering redeems the soul from hell, but this gift is not unconditional. Here men must do certain things to have this redemption operate in their behalf. … Thus, the conclusion runs, we are saved (resurrected) by grace but we are exalted (redeemed) by our works.2

Did anyone else use an explanation similar to this one as a missionary? [Nathan raises his own hand.] Elder Lund continues,

This is a neat and attractive explanation. The only problem is it has four major doctrinal errors. …

The fourth error in this diagrammed explanation is the idea that overcoming spiritual death is conditional upon how we live. … Our second Article of Faith states, “We believe that men will be punished for their own sins and not for Adam’s transgression.” If that is true, then 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.

The first time I read this, I was riveted, because here was a Church leader calling incorrect a description that I had heard quite literally hundreds of times. Of course, Elder Lund isn’t trying to criticize members who’ve used this explanation; he’s trying to improve gospel scholarship and prevent misinterpretations. When his book chapter was prepared from publication in the Ensign, the part about “major doctrinal errors” was phrased this way: “If we want to go into a fuller discussion of this relationship, such statements can be easily misunderstood.” And he is quite right that LDS doctrines regarding spiritual death have been misunderstood by members of other faiths.

A Protestant’s Summary of LDS Doctrine

I recently read an article by a Protestant Christian that examined LDS beliefs. Specifically, he explained what Latter-day Saints believe about the Fall of Adam, and why he has strong reservations about those LDS beliefs. Ask yourself if the following summary is accurate:

The passage under investigation, 2 Nephi 2 in the Book of Mormon, presents a unique philosophy pertaining to the role of the Adamic fall. … It teaches that the Adamic fall was a good event necessary for the progress of humanity.1

True? Yes. We do believe the Adamic fall was a necessary and good event. So far Welborn’s summary is accurate. However, later in his article he goes in a surprising directions:

According to Mormon scriptures, the personal performance of sin is necessary for human moral advancement. [Quotes Moses 5:11 and 6:55.] It is not enough that each person know sin simply in the sense of knowing about sin, or specific sins rather, each person from the first parents onward must personally experience sin. … The Mormon concept [is] that the experience of sin is necessary for human progress.

True? No! We do not believe an individual has to sin in order to become more like God; we believe sin is inimical to our growth and progress (see my series “The Path of Sin” for a fuller discussion).

Sources of Misunderstanding

Does tasting the bitter (which we must do) mean committing sin?

The idea that sin is universally unbeneficial, undesirable, and unnecessary is one of the most basic premises of the restored gospel, of Christianity, and (I imagine) of all Abrahamic faiths as well. So how did this non-Mormon writer so completely misunderstand us in this case?4

Well, it may partly come from a misunderstanding of what the scriptures mean by “opposition.” Several passages teach that “it must needs be that there was an opposition” (2 Ne. 2:15) and that “they taste the bitter, that they may know to prize the good” (Moses 6:55). Elder D. Todd Christofferson clarifies,

Of course Satan’s ongoing opposition is a useful and even necessary part of moral agency. The scripture states, “It must needs be that the devil should tempt the children of men, or they could not be agents unto themselves; for if they never should have bitter they could not know the sweet” (D&C 29:39).

Remember, though, that we retain the right and power of independent action. God does not intend that we yield to temptation. Like Jesus, we can gain all we need in the way of a mortal experience without yielding.5

In fact, the passage the Elder Christofferson cites even implies that the “bitterness” we must experience is temptation, not actually committing sins:

It must needs be that the devil should tempt the children of men,
or they could not be agents unto themselves;
for if they never should have bitter
they could not know the sweet.

Thus Moses 6:55 might be paraphrased, “They [are tempted], that they may know to prize the good,” obviating the conclusion that we must sin in order to prize the good.

Conclusion

While a clearer understanding of the doctrine of opposition helps ameliorate this misunderstanding about the necessity of sin, there is another doctrine that is even more closely related: spiritual death. Remember that according to Elder Lund’s statement, many Latter-day Saints explain spiritual death as something that we can only overcome when we meet certain conditions, such as repenting of our sins. In other words, not all of mankind will be redeemed from spiritual death. Such a conception of spiritual death, however, does not match the way prophets describe it in the Book of Mormon. Take, for instance, the following statements from Samuel the Lamanite and Mormon:

16[Christ] 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. 17But behold, the resurrection of Christ redeemeth mankind, yea, even all mankind, and bringeth them back into the presence of the Lord. (Hel. 14:16–17)

Because of the redemption of man, which came by Jesus Christ, they are brought back into the presence of the Lord; yea, this is wherein all men are redeemed. (Morm. 9:13)

If overcoming spiritual death were conditional upon our choices, then why would two Book of Mormon prophets say that “all mankind” will be redeemed from spiritual death and brought back into his presence? I hope to make clear the answer to that question, as well as show why it matters so much, as this series continues.



Notes

1. Gerald N. Lund, “The Fall of Man and His Redemption“, Ensign, Jan. 1990, p. 22. See also Lund, “Salvation: By Grace or by Works?“, Ensign, Apr. 1981, p. 17.

2. 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.

3. Chris Welborn, Was the Fall Necessary?,” Christian Research Journal 27:3, online at equip.org.

4. I’m usually loathe to try deducing motives, but I have my doubts about whether Welborn is sincerely mistaken about Latter-day Saint teachings and beliefs. In his article, he interprets various LDS scripture passages to say sinning is necessary while fully conscious (even acknowledging) that most, if not all, Latter-day Saints would interpret them differently. There are plenty of other valid interpretations for the verses he uses, but he seems to consciously ignore them, insisting that his eisegesis is the obvious meaning. And then he goes on to cite several modern apostles who disagree with his interpretation. To put the worst light possible on a passage and portray it as the widely-held and only possible meaning, while simultaneously listing several Church leaders and lay members who disagree with it, is difficult to regard as anything but disingenuous. I will concede, however, that once in a while you will find Latter-day Saints themselves who have this same doctrinal misconception. For example, see this blog post, especially the first comment. Such examples are one of my main motivations for writing these articles.

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

 

12
comments so far
  1. Nathan, that was an eye-opening post. I can’t wait to read more about what exactly those Book of Mormon prophets meant by “all mankind” being redeemed from spiritual death. This has always been a personal question.

    I’m definitely going to share this with my readers.

  2. Thanks, Gdub. I’m trying to crank out the next post as fast as possible. I’m also trying to be thorough without belaboring the points. We’ll see if I succeed. :-)

    You’re a newcomer; I don’t remember seeing you around here before. Welcome! If you don’t mind me asking, how’d you find the blog? How long have you followed it? What posts have interested you most? We’re always trying to improve the site and make it easier to find.

    I checked out your site—great topics!

  3. Here were my initial answers to the questions:

    1. Separation from God; living without God.

    2. Probably not. Perhaps to a degree.
    3. Yes.
    4. Life on earth. Because of the Fall of Adam. So, the sin of others and moreso because of ourselves.
    5. When we are resurrected and live with God in heaven.
    6. Articles of Faith 3 and 4, the doctrine of Christ.

    I just read a post called “Salvation by Grace, Obedience, and the Parable of the Pie.” Somehow the parable seems incomplete to me.

    Your post is very interesting to me and I look forward to your next posts. How is overcoming spiritual death different than receiving exaltation or another kingdom of glory after final judgement?

    Alma asks us to consider our position before God (Alma 5:10-33). He gives a list of things to believe and do and become to receive salvation.

  4. Thanks for venturing answers to the questions, Rich. I very much hope that others will post their answers before I publish the next article in the series, because it will help illustrate the need for clarity on this topic. It can be very interesting to see the differences in how people formulate this concept.

    How is overcoming spiritual death different than receiving exaltation or another kingdom of glory after final judgement?

    Great question. We know there has to be a difference, in part because of the statements from Alma and Samuel. I’ll answer that question in the articles that come.

  5. Here are my answers:

    1. What is spiritual death?

      Separation from God (by physical locality, or through sin)

    2. Has a week-old infant experienced spiritual death?

      Yes. By locality. Living in a mortal, telestial sphere.

    3. Is it necessary for an individual to go through spiritual death in order to grow and become more like God?

      Yes-ish. That is God’s plan (the only way I know of to receive immortality and eternal life). Yes—we must leave His presence to enter mortality. But I’m not sure all mortals go through sin-caused spiritual death (Christ, infants(?) …)

    4. What causes spiritual death?

      The Fall of Adam separated us physically (to a fallen earth). Our personal fall (sin) separates us from His Spirit as well.

    5. When do we overcome spiritual death?

      The spiritual death from the Fall of Adam is overcome unconditionally when we enter God’s presence for judgement; our own spiritual deaths may be overcome through the Atonement by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel.

    6. Are there any conditions that we are required to meet in order to overcome spiritual death? If so, what are they?

      No condition to overcome the separation/spiritual death caused by the Fall of Adam. Must repent to overcome the separation/spiritual death caused by sin (for those who have sin) and must have a Redeemer.

    I agree that what you’ve said is not well understood generally in the Church, but you can find hints of it in many places if you know what you’re looking for. For instance, there are several hints and outright statements (that I think get overlooked) in the True to the Faith booklet (for instance, “We are redeemed unconditionally from the universal effects of the Fall,” page 18 [notice the plural word?]).

    I think generally, most members overlook these things because no one has ever clued them in to it. I had an Institute instructor who taught this subject in class. My initial reaction was that he was wrong, or at least not using the right terminology. But once the seed was planted, I began to see it over and over.

    I’ve tried to bring up the idea in various classes, and the usual reaction is resistance and sometimes worse. I’m afraid I’m a little too blunt.

    I was going to offer a scripture about your topic, but I’m quite sure you’ll be covering it in a future post based on what you’re already written, so I’ll stay silent. (But here is a hint: If there is a second one, then the first one must have been taken care of.)

  6. My initial answers closely resemble Matthew Andreasen’s in the way that he separates the spiritual death cause by locality and then that caused by sin. Here’s what I wrote:

    “Spiritual death is an estrangement from God. It is not so much that our spirit has died, but that our spirit can no longer connect with God physically or with the Holy Spirit. We experience a spiritual death when we receive bodies because our spirit is now bound by something earthly and cannot enjoy being with God. In the church we more commonly talk about the kind of spiritual death that happens as we distance ourselves from the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost because of sin.”

    Somewhere along the lines growing up I was taught that spiritual death, the kind caused by the Fall / our getting a body, was unconditionally overcome through the atonement in that everyone will once again be with God and Christ at the final judgement but then conditionally some will continue to enjoy the presence of God whereas others will again experience spiritual death and be denied access to eternal life.

    What I’m more curious about is quiz question #6, whether or not there are conditions to be met. A big part of me thinks that while we must accept Christ as our Savior and Redeemer (since we all obviously sin even if we don’t HAVE to), that for the vast majority of people who have lived, an acceptance of Christ can happen right there during the final judgement when they witness Christ pleading their case. Even with baptisms for the dead, I just don’t know what do to with all those who have lived on the earth and never even heard of Christianity. Although maybe that is what Spiritual Prison is and what the Millennium is for?

  7. Also, when it comes to Conditional vs. Unconditional, there is the big question of what to do with 2 Nephi 9. Verse 12 seems to imply that the “back to the presence of God” that Samuel the Lamanite referred to in Helaman is really just the final judgement and that permanently overcoming spiritual death is granted conditionally (2 Ne 9:18, 21).

    Maybe some of our loose terminology stems from the vocabulary differences among the Book of Mormon prophets?

    At any rate, interesting topic for sure, I’m looking forward to the next post on spiritual death.

  8. Thanks, Matthew and Toria, for your answers. You’ve both hit upon a key idea that I’ll elaborate upon in my next post. You’re a step ahead of where I was before I read Elder Lund’s articles. :-)

    Matthew: What you’ve said is not well understood generally in the Church, but you can find hints of it in many places if you know what you’re looking for.

    Totally! I’ve noticed the same thing. I think the people who wrote True to the Faith might have had “spiritual death” on their list of things to make clearer, because it takes several leaps forward in clarity.

    My initial reaction was that he was wrong, or at least not using the right terminology.

    Interesting. Please let me know if, during this series, I use unclear terminology or if there are better terms I could choose.

    The usual reaction is resistance and sometimes worse.

    I wonder which idea they didn’t like? That would have been an enlightening class to listen in on. I’m always trying to figure out how to teach this more clearly and in a way that references the prophets often, so that it never seems like I’m promoting the doctrine of Nathan.

    I was going to offer a scripture about your topic …

    If I don’t bring up in the next two posts whichever scripture you have in mind, please add it in a comment!

    Toria: Even with baptisms for the dead, I just don’t know what do to with all those who have lived on the earth and never even heard of Christianity. Although maybe that is what Spiritual Prison is and what the Millennium is for?

    As I understand it, that’s exactly what spirit prison and the Millennium are for: to give such people the time and the opportunity to hear, fully understand, receive a witness, mull it over, and accept—before they have to present themselves at the Judgement. I’ve got a brother who’s busy teaching such people as we speak. :-)

  9. I shared this with a few friends that are not Mormon. I referred them to Death, Spiritual at lds.org as a way to quickly introduce the idea.

  10. Super. If they ever give you any feedback, I’d love to hear what they think.

  11. I had some interesting experiences when I was Bishop. Often people would feel guilty just because they were tempted, even though they resisted the temptation and avoided sinning. I explained to them that to be tempted is not a sin. Sin is when you succumb to that temptation. I am still surprised at the number of people who carry guilt because they were tempted.

  12. Darwin6,

    That is a critical distinction.

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