dictionary page
Some explanations of spiritual death are more specific than others.
Recap: There are two types of spiritual death. Temporal separation is caused by the Fall of Adam and Eve, and it is overcome unconditionally for everyone at the Judgment. Spiritual separation is caused by individuals’ sins, and it is overcome only for the repentant through the baptismal covenant.

Once I had a better understanding of spiritual death, as well as a set of distinctive terms to be able to talk about it clearly, I found myself evaluating the way this doctrine is explained in various places. Out of curiosity, I did a few Google searches of “spiritual death” and browsed several LDS-related sites to see how the average member conceived of the idea. For every definition or explanation I encountered, I found it useful to evaluate it based on two criteria, each of which had two possible ratings:

  1. Accuracy:Accurate v. Inaccurate or Unclear
  2. Depth: Thorough v. Simplified

An Accurate explanation is one that correctly links elements (cause, resolution, etc.) of one kind of separation to each other. For example, a definition saying that separation from the Father is caused by Adam’s fall (correct linking of definition and cause), or that separation from the Holy Ghost is resolved by repentance (correct linking of definition and conditions). An Inaccurate explanation is one that links an element of one kind of separation with an element of the other kind. For example, an explanation saying that we needed to leave God’s presence but that separation is only resolved through repentance (incorrect linking of necessity with conditions). In other words, if an explanation jumps columns on the chart, crossing over between the temporal separation and the spiritual separation, it is inaccurate. In some cases, I believe the author may have understood spiritual death, but they did not word their explanation clearly enough to convey that understanding. For this reason, I have phrased this rating as Inaccurate or Unclear, to give authors the benefit of the doubt. I cannot look into their minds and gauge whether they understand spiritual death, but I can definitely tell them about my mind—whether their understanding was clearly conveyed to me by the explanation they’ve given. In other words, I’m evaluating how successfully they’ve conveyed their knowledge, not the knowledge itself.

A Thorough explanation is one that recognizes there are two kinds of spiritual death, and preferably mentions several elements of each kind (cause, necessity, conditions, etc.). A Simplified explanation is one that only talks about one kind of spiritual death, not mentioning or specifying the other kind. In other words, if an explanation acknowledges that there are two columns on the spiritual death chart, it is thorough. If it talks as though there were only one column, it is simplified. Also, the more rows it mentions, the better. Only Accurate explanations could be rated on Depth; if an explanation was Inaccurate or Unclear, then it didn’t make sense to evaluate whether it was thoroughly unclear or a simplified inaccuracy. 🙂

I want to be very clear that I am not trying to be critical. I hesitated to write up this portion of my series on spiritual death because I didn’t want people to feel like I was criticizing their heartfelt efforts to explain and share the gospel. I’m sincerely glad for any such effort. There are at least two good reasons for doing this exercise. First, it’s an opportunity to sharpen our understanding of this doctrine by “quizzing” ourselves. Second, it provides a practical application, by showing ways we can improve our explanations of restored doctrines when sharing the gospel.

Examples

In the following examples, I give the source, the explanation itself (as a blockquote), my interpretation or rationale, a chart illustrating my interpretation, and my final rating. When quoting each explanation, I will color terms that seem to refer to the temporal separation in red, and those that refer to the spiritual separation in blue. On the charts, I will place dots next to elements of spiritual death that are mentioned in the explanation—green dots for clear references and yellow dots for possible references, when I couldn’t be completely sure if the author had that element in mind but the context seems to imply they did. Gray dots are used for unclear references, when the context is not clear enough to say which type of death was meant (e.g., saying that spiritual death is “separation from God” does not provide enough information to tell which separation is intended).

Example 1: Accurate and Thorough

Source: Elder Gerald N. Lund, “The Fall of Man and His Redemption“, Ensign, Jan. 1990, p. 22.

Our initial mortal separation from [God] was originally caused by the fall of Adam, not any act of our own; we therefore suffer no spiritual punishment for Adam’s transgression. … Through the atonement of Jesus Christ, all men, good and evil, will be brought back into his presence to be judged. … In one sense, this event overcomes the spiritual death caused by the Fall of Adam. … There are no conditions placed on our coming back into the presence of God (overcoming spiritual death) at the Judgment. … Seen from this perspective, then, Christ’s atonement unconditionally pays for both the physical and spiritual effects of Adam’s fall. … Since we did nothing to be under the effects of the Fall except to be born of the lineage of Adam, it is not necessary (or just) that we should have to meet any conditions to overcome the Fall. …

If we know good from evil and then sin … then we must deal with a second fall—our own personal fall. … Once we reach the age of accountability and sin, we become unclean. … Since we have no one to blame for this but ourselves, … if we are to receive all that Christ’s grace offers us … we must, during our probationary period, exercise faith and “godly sorrow” to repentance and participate in the redemptive ordinances and covenants that Christ established and makes effectual—baptism, confirmation, priesthood ordination, and completion of the temple ordinances.

Elder Lund mentions several elements of spiritual death. He clearly describes the temporal separation’s cause (“fall of Adam”), scope (“lineage of Adam”), resolution (“the Judgment”), and conditions (“no conditions”). He also clearly describes the spiritual separation’s cause (“sin”), scope (“age of accountability”), and conditions (“repentance”). He mentions the covenants of baptism and confirmation, but he does not explicitly say that they are the means of being restored to God’s spiritual presence. He defines spiritual death as separation from God, but he does not specify that it can be both physical separation or spiritual alienation (his phrase “mortal separation” might have been intended to mean “temporal separation,” but it’s hard to tell). Overall, Elder Lund not only correctly links elements in the appropriate column, but he also acknowledges that there are two columns.

  1. Accuracy:Accurate
  2. Depth: Thorough

Example 2: Accurate but Simplified

Source: Elder Marion G. Romney, “The Resurrection of Jesus,” Ensign, May 1982, p. 6.

Spiritual death … shuts [men] out from the presence of God. … We suffer this spiritual death as a result of our own transgressions. … Redemption from the grave is granted to every soul unconditionally. This is not so, however, with respect to forgiveness and redemption from the effects of our own transgressions. The only persons who are thus forgiven and redeemed are those who accept and abide the terms prescribed by the Redeemer. … This is repentance.

President Romney defines spiritual death as separation from God (“shut out from the presence of God”), but that phrase is not specific enough to know which type of spiritual death he is talking about. However, since he mentions a cause (“our own transgressions”) and conditions (“abiding the terms of repentance”) that both belong in the same column, we can tentatively assume that he is talking about the spiritual separation. The elements he mentions are few, but they are consistent with one type of spiritual death. Thus, his definition is not wrong; it just doesn’t cover all the ground that could potentially be mentioned on this topic (which is fine; speakers always need summarize some topics in order to move on to their main subject).

Spiritual death explanation: Marion G. Romney

  1. Accuracy:Accurate
  2. Depth: Simplified

Example 3: Inaccurate or Unclear

Source: Old Testament Gospel Doctrine Teacher’s Manual, Lesson 4: “Because of My Transgression My Eyes Are Opened,” p. 12.

The Fall of Adam and Eve brought physical and spiritual death into the world. … Spiritual death is the separation from the presence of God, which occurred when Adam and Eve were cast out of the garden. … All of Adam and Eve’s posterity inherited the consequences of the Fall, including physical and spiritual death, but not the responsibility for the Fall. … The Fall was a necessary part of Heavenly Father’s plan for us. … Mortals are saved from physical death through the Resurrection and may be saved from spiritual death through faith, repentance, baptism, the gift of the Holy Ghost, and obedience to the commandments.

This author also correctly defines spiritual death as separation from God, but again, we cannot tell whether the author is distinguishing between Heavenly Father’s temporal presence and the Holy Ghost’s spiritual presence, and in this case we cannot tell from context because the rest of the quote mentions elements from both kinds of separation. He mentions Adam’s Fall causing them to be cast out of the garden, which might imply temporal separation, but it’s hard to be sure. He specifies that the Fall was necessary, which might be construed to mean spiritual death is necessary. He says spiritual death affects all of their posterity, although they’re not responsible for it. That can be confusing, however, because he then says that mortals are not guaranteed salvation from it, but must meet certain requirements like repentance. He mentions baptism as a needed ingredient, but does not specify that it is actually one type of spiritual rebirth, resolving the spiritual separation.

  1. Accuracy:Inaccurate or Unclear
  2. Depth: N/A

For all I know, the writer of this Sunday School manual has a very thorough understanding of spiritual death. My point is that he did not convey that understanding to me. If we are not careful in our explanations, the learner can walk away without a clear conception of the doctrine. Thus, I’ve tried to give authors the benefit of the doubt by calling this rating “Inaccurate or Unclear.”

Explanations like this one always left me confused. For example, based on this explanation, I always had a hard time answering the question, “Do little children experience spiritual death?” because I knew they descended from Adam, but I also knew they were sinless. I also wondered, “If spiritual death is caused by sin, and Adam and Eve did not sin in eating the fruit, then why did eating the fruit bring spiritual death?” Questions like these can be quickly cleared up with a more detailed explanation of spiritual death—in particular, one that makes a distinction between the two types of spiritual death.

You might have noticed a correlation between the shape of the line(s) on the chart and the final rating/score. When there are two straight lines on the chart, the explanation is rated Accurate and Thorough. When there is one straight line, it is rated Accurate but Simplified. When there is a jagged, zig-zag line, it is rated Inaccurate or Unclear.

Caveats

I want to be clear about some things. First, just because an explanation is Simplified, only recognizing one kind of spiritual death, that does not make it wrong. In fact, many explanations of spiritual death I have found from general authorities only really get into the spiritual separation; most do not go into the kind of detail that Elder Lund does. There are a couple reasons I can think of why that would be the case. First, the preparation of the audience. If the listeners are new to the restored gospel, it makes sense to simplify your explanation of certain doctrines. For example, when explaining the premortal life to a newcomer, I doubt I would get into discussion about pre-existent intelligence. Second, priority of application. Since the temporal separation has already been resolved, there is nothing a person needs to do about it. In contrast, there is a lot we need to do in order to resolve the spiritual separation. It makes sense to focus on doctrines that give the hearer some kind of personal application to walk away with.

I also want to be clear that I am not trying to be critical of the authors whose explanations are included in this article and the ones following it. The last thing I want is for one of these authors (some of whom I’ve even met) to come across this page and feel like they’re being attacked. It’s not like that at all. My goal is to improve our personal gospel scholarship and our ability to explain the gospel clearly to non-members. I hope everyone takes this article in the spirit of friendly encouragement and reflection that I’ve intended.

Lastly, all ratings must be qualified by the potential for misreading. For example, in an explanation given by Elder McConkie in the next post in this series, he says that the Fall of Adam brought spiritual death into the world, then later discusses the spiritual separation. This does not necessarily mean he believed you and I are cut off from the Holy Ghost’s influence because of Adam’s transgression. Read in context, he could have meant that Adam and Eve’s actions gave all their children knowledge of good and evil, which makes us all accountable and able to sin. Thus, you and I are not estranged from the Holy Ghost because of Adam’s transgression, but his transgression makes it possible for us to estrange ourselves because we are now able to sin. In that sense, Adam and Eve’s Fall “brought” the spiritual separation into this world—by making it an option where it wasn’t earlier. So it helps to read these quotes in context.

Your Turn

In an upcoming post, I will list several additional examples of attempts to explain spiritual death, mostly gleaned from the internet. Readers will be able to rate each one according to Accuracy and Depth (in the form of a poll with three options) and discuss their results in the comments section. In a follow-up post, I will give my ratings, my rationale, and charts that illustrate each explanation.