What kinds of unintended errors can arise when we conflate the two types of spiritual death?
Recap: Many explanations of spiritual death ignore the distinction between the two kinds of separation, mixing elements of one kind (e.g., cause) with elements of the other (e.g., conditions).

The Inaccurate or Unclear explanations that I discussed in “Spiritual Death Quiz: My Answers” frequently treated the two kinds of spiritual death as though they were one entity. The problem with combining the temporal and spiritual separations into one concept is that doing so often conflicts with several important doctrines.1

Following are six erroneous ideas that are closely related to a conflated view of spiritual death. I do not necessarily think that these false notions grow directly out of the incorrect view of spiritual death, but I do think they’re related. It seems to me that failing to distinguish between the two types of spiritual death makes it far easier to fall into these doctrinal snares.

The first two errors are paired opposites. They both consist of mixing up the conditions required to overcome spiritual death, resulting in the idea of either (1) an unjust God who punishes us for things we didn’t do, or (2) a universalist God who saves everyone in their sins.

1. An Unjust God

As I’ve mentioned (see “Temporal Separation versus Spiritual Separation“), Elder Lund points out that if we say spiritual death is caused by Adam, but is only overcome if we make certain choices, such a formulation would negate God’s fairness as described in the second article of faith.


An Unjust God


I must add one caveat. I’ve found that in most cases, if the speaker does not explicitly distinguish between two types of separation, they usually turn out to be talking about the spiritual separation. For example, the manual Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith has two paired chapters that are named on the basis of conditionality. Chapter 10 is titled “Jesus Christ Redeems All Mankind from Temporal Death” and chapter 11 is titled “Jesus Christ Redeems the Repentant from Spiritual Death.” While it overlooks the temporal separation, the title of chapter 11 is still technically accurate, as long as readers understand that it is referring to only one kind of spiritual death.

In the latter chapter, Joseph F. Smith lists the conditions for overcoming spiritual death:

The Gospel was, therefore, preached to him [Adam], and a way of escape from that spiritual death given unto him. That way of escape was through faith in God, repentance of sin, baptism for the remission of sins, the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands. Thereby he received a knowledge of the truth and a testimony of Jesus Christ, and was redeemed from the spiritual death that came upon him.2

Is President Smith making the doctrinal error that Elder Lund warns against? Is President Smith saying, “Spiritual death is caused by Adam, but is only overcome if we make certain choices”? I don’t think so. Remember, in addition to Adam and Eve’s temporal fall, they each individually sinned and experienced their own individual spiritual separation, which they needed to repent of in order to overcome. It seems to me that President Smith is saying here that Adam and Eve needed to repent in order to overcome the spiritual separation. I believe statements like this are best considered a simplified description that is bracketing the temporal separation.

2. Universalism

The opposite of the unjust God error is the idea of a permissive God. It’s technically true to say, “Spiritual death is overcome unconditionally, no matter what choices you make” … if the speaker clarifies they were talking about the temporal separation. Otherwise, such statements could be construed as asserting the false idea that our sins are overcome unconditionally. For example, the fifth quote on the quiz says, “The first spiritual death does not begin for an individual on the earth until the age of accountability [when we sin]. … Christ’s Atonement … overcomes the first spiritual death by making it possible for all men and women to come into God’s presence to be judged.” To say that spiritual death is caused by individual sin, but everyone overcomes spiritual death and returns to God’s presence unconditionally, could unintentionally sound like a kind of universalism that is inconsistent with the restored gospel.3


Universalism
Error related to spiritual death: Universalism


Universalism is the false doctrine “that all human beings will eventually be saved.”4 Nephi specifically warned against it (2 Ne. 28:8), but it is still taught today by such groups as Universalists and Unitarians. I don’t know that this undifferentiated concept of spiritual death is the reason such groups teach this problematic doctrine, but it seems to me that it might be easier to make this error if you don’t know the doctrine that there are two types of spiritual death.

3. Original Sin

The third error is related to the cause and scope of spiritual death. If a person did not understand the two distinct kinds of separation, they might have a train of thought that sounded like this:

“Spiritual death is separation from God.”
[True.]
“Spiritual death is caused by sin.”
[True of the spiritual separation.]
“Little infants are obviously separated from God.”
[True of the temporal separation.]
“Therefore, little infants must be sinful. It’s the only explanation for why they’d be separated from God.”
[False.]


Original Sin
Error related to spiritual death: Original sin


Because much of the rest of Christianity does not recognize a difference between the two types of spiritual death, that is exactly the conclusion they often come to. Many biblical passages are misunderstood to teach that children are actually born sinful and thus subject to the spiritual separation. For example, one Protestant author says,

Children, no matter how young, are not “innocent” in the sense of being sinless. The Bible tells us that even if an infant or child has not committed personal sin, all people, including infants and children, are guilty before God because of inherited and imputed sin. Inherited sin is that which is passed on from our parents. … The very sad fact that infants sometimes die demonstrates that even infants are impacted by Adam’s sin, since physical and spiritual death were the results of Adam’s original sin. Each person, infant or adult, stands guilty before God; each person has offended the holiness of God.5

If a person really believes that physical death is caused by sin, then the only way to explain why children die is to conclude that they are sinful.

4. Infant Baptism

This leads to a fourth error, which is related to how spiritual death is resolved. The belief that infants are “guilty before God” and spiritually dead through sin logically implies that they need to be spiritually reborn through baptism. This is a reason that many Christian religions teach the need for infant baptism. The Catholic catechism holds that

born with a fallen human nature and tainted by original sin, children also have need of the new birth in Baptism to be freed from the power of darkness. … Parents would deny a child the priceless grace of becoming a child of God were they not to confer Baptism shortly after birth.6

Thus, when people assume that anyone who is temporally distanced from God’s physical presence is also spiritually alienated from His influence, it is understandable that they conclude this separation is caused by sin and needs to be resolved through baptism.


Infant Baptism
Error related to spiritual death: Infant baptism


As Mormon makes clear in Moroni 8, these are incorrect conclusions. He strongly denounces infant baptism and the idea that it would even be necessary. This misunderstanding can be greatly alleviated simply by distinguishing between the two spiritual deaths.7 Any passages referring to Adam passing on spiritual death to his descendants can be understood as referring to the temporal separation (or to the fact that the spiritual separation was now made possible because his descendants now had knowledge of good and evil).

5. Theistic Amorality

The fifth and sixth errors are another set of paired opposites. They are related to the question of whether spiritual death is necessary to progress. For lack of better terminology, I will call these errors (1) theistic amorality and (2) incomplete theodicy.

By amorality, I mean more than the secular/humanist idea that, since there is no God, there is no revealed scripture, and therefore no commandments to breaks, and thus nothing is a sin. That idea is to be expected among atheists such as Korihor, who said that “whatsoever a man did was no crime” (Alma 30:17). But I’m talking about a theistic version of this idea which accepts the existence of God, canonical scriptures, and divine commandments. In essence, it gives a token nod to the fact that God gives certain Thou-shalts and Thou-shalt-nots, but holds that in practical reality, sometimes we need to ignore those in order to grow. The line of thinking goes like this:

Sin has very unpleasant consequences.
[True.]
But I learn so much in the process of repentance …
[True, because the Lord is merciful enough to atone for our sins.]
… that it must have been necessary for me to commit those sins in order to learn those lessons.
[False.]
In fact, the more I look back on my life, the more I realize that all those things I called “sins” were really just “mistakes.” And don’t we need to make mistakes in order to learn?


Theistic Amorality
Error related to spiritual death: Theistic amorality


This is a very seductive line of reasoning, in part because it actually seems to make sense of some of our experiences in life (see the series The Path of Sin for a detailed response to it). It is a very common idea among New Age groups, and it has even filtered into some branches of Christianity. The more extreme versions completely deconstruct the concept of sin, while still quoting from the Bible and professing faith in Jesus Christ. The following quote is from a proponent of the book A Course in Miracles, which completely changes the gospel message:

The good news is not that we sinned but can be forgiven. The good news is that we never sinned. We are incapable of sinning. “Sin is impossible.” Sin, like the unicorn, is a concept which we all carry in our minds yet which does not actually exist in reality. Not only have we not sinned, no one ever has and no one ever will. It simply is not in our nature to do so. The Course flatly states, “Sin does not exist.” …

This is a radical point of view, one which may take us a long time to accept, if we accept it at all. My teaching partner, Allen Watson, found that for him this was perhaps the single most objectionable idea in A Course in Miracles. He wrestled with it for years. Accepting that there is no sin can feel like a betrayal of God. Yet I believe it is an acknowledgment of God, of His absolute sovereignty. Sin is not the Will of God, and His Will is all-powerful. There is no sin, because God is God. The innocence we thought we lost has never been tainted.8

I once had a conversation with a relative who believes this. He said that everything that happens is meant to be, because the universe wants us to learn something from it, so we should just accept whatever we do. I agreed that we could learn from any circumstance, but I would stop short of saying that that fact made the circumstance necessary. My wife asked him, “What about robbing or murdering?” He said that even in those cases, it wasn’t really “wrong” because the offender was supposed to do it. I decided to jump right to the most extreme example to test his idea. “So if a woman gets raped, the rapist didn’t commit a sin?” He shrugged and said, “Well, no. I guess there’s something he needed to learn from it.” As shockingly false as the whole idea was, I had to concede one thing—at least he was consistent. He followed his doctrines to their inevitable end.

6. Incomplete Theodicy

The second error related to spiritual death’s necessity has to do with theodicy, or the problem of reconciling the idea of a good God with the presence of evil and pain in the world. While the previous error holds that sin is necessary, this error holds that pain and suffering are unnecessary.

One of the most profound doctrines that was restored in the latter days is the truth that sorrow and joy are two sides of the same coin. Lehi’s speech to his son Jacob is probably the most extensive scriptural discussion of this principle. He says in part:

11It must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, … righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, … neither good nor bad, … happiness nor misery. …

22If Adam had not transgressed, … 23they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin. (2 Ne. 2:11, 22–23)

Thus Lehi explains that one cannot have the capacity for joy without also having the capacity for misery. While this can be a difficult doctrine to understand or accept at certain times in life, I have personally come to know that it is profoundly, vitally true. Joy is made possible by sorrow. Space does not permit a fuller discussion of how that is true (I don’t know that a whole library of books could satisfactorily “explain” it); all I can offer here is an analogy that came to my mind in high school that for some reason helped me understand it better.

Rather than thinking of joy and sorrow as paired opposites, like black and white tokens that we have to collect equal quantities of, I think of them as intrinsic opposites—two ends of the same stick. To put it another way, think of joy as refreshing water to drink, or some other favorite juice or beverage. Sorrow is not a sour-tasting drink that we have to swallow between each sip of water; sorrow is the digging process that widens and deepens that hole in which we store our water. Sorrow is the cistern; joy is the water. Sorrow increases our capacity to experience greater joy.

This truth, however, is tied to a certain Restoration interpretation of the Fall of Adam and Eve. We can only understand it by embracing the fact that Adam and Eve needed to Fall in order to bring these spiritual opposites into this world. This is not the interpretation of the rest of Christianity, however.

If you ask a traditional Christian why God created a world with pain and evil, they will often say, “He didn’t; he created it free of evil and pain, and humans messed it up, against God’s intentions.” They are right about the world being originally pain free, and being changed by human choice. But they are wrong about God’s intentions. Their reasoning usually goes like this: “All evil and pain is ultimately caused by human sins. God originally intended a world with no suffering or misery; He would have a universe free from any kind of pain or sorrow. The only reason we ever experience pain or sorrow is because we do something against his will, since he would never want or ask us to experience anything unpleasant. If mankind were to fully cooperate with His will, there would never be any need to experience unpleasantries. Absent the Fall, the cosmos should have been such a place, and God intends to eventually make it that way again.” To see an example of this argument being used to answer the problem of evil, see this clip of a debate between two Christians, Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron, and two atheists, Brian Sapient and Kelly (skip ahead to minutes 8:15-10:45).


Incomplete Theodicy
Error related to spiritual death: Incomplete theodicy


In my limited experience, it appears that this idea is fairly common among creedal Christians (meaning traditional Christians, who accept the creeds developed after the Church fell into apostasy). They believe that sorrow is not necessary, and any sorrow that does occur is always the result of sin. Over the last two years, my wife and I have had the blessing of participating in interfaith dialogues, wherein we chat for a few hours with evangelical Christians about each other’s beliefs (they’re very fun visits, and we’ve made some great friends). I have made a habit of including one particular question at some point in each dialogue: “Do you believe pain and suffering—not the kind that come from sin, but the kind that result from being mortal and subject to disease, death, and inconvenience—is necessary? Do we need to experience suffering in order to experience joy?” I’ve asked the question on different occasions in four different groups, and each time the answer was, “No.”9 My conversational partners will usually add that suffering is inevitable in this fallen world, and that it can be useful to instructing us and developing Godly attributes. But ultimately, no, it is not necessary. Sorrow did not have to be part of the equation. Sorrow is not necessary for joy to exist, and God intended a universe where we only experienced the latter.

I believe that traditional Christians’ interpretation of the Fall cuts them off from a full understanding of the necessity of suffering. As long as we believe that sorrow is unnecessary and is only caused by sin, we can never recognize the profound doctrine that sorrow is the flipside of joy, and is thus necessary for any kind of meaningful existence.10

I don’t mean to be blasé about suffering. There is a world of difference between understanding this doctrine in theory and actually turning our suffering over to the Savior, allowing him to redeem it and transform it into something meaningful and good. That’s a very personal process that lasts a lifetime. I wouldn’t be so emphatic about its importance if I hadn’t experienced part of the process myself. I certainly hope I haven’t made anyone feel like their suffering has been minimized by talking about this doctrine. On the contrary, I feel so passionate about this doctrine because it does give our suffering meaning.

And for that reason, I am saddened that the traditional Christian interpretation of the Fall effectively cuts off many people from fully understanding and embracing this important truth. I think that an oversimplified view of spiritual death exacerbates the problem of evil, and that the Book of Mormon’s distinction between two kinds of spiritual death is a powerful key to eventually reconciling God’s goodness with the existence of evil and pain.

Conclusion

Once again, I’m not asserting that an incomplete doctrine of spiritual death is the specific cause of each of these false doctrines, but I do think they’re related. I think it’s easier to believe false ideas like these when one lacks a thorough understanding of spiritual death. And I believe that the Book of Mormon’s teaching that there are two kinds of separation is the key to unraveling a lot of confusion in the world.



Notes

1. Some explanations that seem wrong could be construed to be correct, if you allow for you a shift in meaning of terms part way through the quote. For an example, see the second quote on the quiz, from the Aaronic Priesthood manual. The statement could be considered accurate, strictly speaking, if we assume that when the author refers to the “presence of God,” they mean “temporal presence” in the second instance and “spiritual presence” in the third instance.

2. Joseph F. Smith, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith, “Chapter 11: Jesus Christ Redeems the Repentant from Spiritual Death,” p. 95.

3. I seriously doubt she intended this, but the point still stands that if we’re not careful in our doctrinal expositions, our listeners can walk away with the wrong impression.

4. For one explanation of why this doctrine is so concerning, see Chris Heimerdinger, “The Re-emergence of a Flawed Doctrine,” FrostCave.blogspot.com, accessed 11 Apr. 2011. For a more nuanced discussion, see Casey Paul Griffiths, “Universalism and the Revelations of Joseph Smith,” in The Doctrine and Covenants, Revelations in Context: The 37th Annual Brigham Young University Sidney B. Sperry, ed. Andrew H. Hedges, J. Spencer Fluhman, and Alonzo L. Gaskill (Provo and Salt Lake City: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, and Deseret Book, 2008), p. 168–87.

5. S. Michael Houdmann, ed., “Where do I find the age of accountability in the Bible? What happens to babies and young children when they die?GotQuestions.org, accessed 11 Apr. 2011.

6. Catechism of the Catholic Church 1250.

7. Interestingly, many non-LDS Christians intuit the truth that babies are innocent and undeserving of damnation. Many believe the scriptures “allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1261, Vatican.va). In order to reconcile this hope with many New Testament passages, they propose a distinction similar (in some ways) to the one the Book of Mormon makes between the two types of spiritual death:

To reconcile the truths that all humans are sinful but that children do possess a kind of “relative innocence”, some theologians have suggested that the distinct variations in sin could carry different kinds of “death penalties.”

For instance, could it be proposed that the penalty for inherited sin (sin passed genetically from generation to generation) is spiritual death (separation from God) which state, if left unchanged and confirmed in personal sin (sins personally committed as an act of free will) results in eternal death and eternal separation from God? Could the penalty of imputed sin (judicially passed from Adam directly to each individual—Rom. 5:12) be physical death?

If so, it could help us to understand how a child (born in sin, yet having not committed sin as an act of the will) could be subject to physical death without being subject to the penalty of eternal spiritual death. Infants, born “guilty” of both imputed sin (ultimately resulting in physical death) and inherited sin, would not be subject to the eternal penalties of sin until confirmed by personal acts of unrighteousness committed with an understanding of right and wrong. It must be confessed that the Scriptures do not explicitly teach the existence of these distinctions. (Scott S. Shepherd, “The Destiny of an Infant Who Dies (Prematurely)!?“ TheWordOut.net, accessed 25 Apr. 2010.)

The theologians mentioned propose two terms that (very roughly) correspond to the two types of spiritual death: imputed sin for the temporal separation, and inherited sin for the spiritual separation. There are still significant differences between the restored doctrine of spiritual death and this formulation, but the doctrinal outcome is the same—babies inherit spiritual death from Adam, but they do not necessarily go to hell if they die before accepting the Savior’s Atonement.

These theologians apparently consider the mental work of interpreting Bible passages regarding the effects of Adam’s fall to be worth the effort if it means finding the possibility that infants are not damned. Fortunately, such a possibility is boldly proclaimed as a reality in the restored gospel. While this good author forthrightly confesses that the Bible verses he examines “do not explicitly teach the existence of these distinctions,” the Book of Mormon does explicitly teach such a distinction. God be praised for the gift of modern revelation.

8. Robert Perry, “There is No Sin,” Circle of Atonement website, circleofa.org, accessed 11 Apr. 2011.

9. On one of the occasions (just a couple weeks ago, actually: Monday, April 18), I asked the professor who came with the students. He noted that some Christian theologians in history have argued that pain was necessary. For example, Irenaeus argued that we need sorrow and suffering in order to mature spiritually. But he clarified and confirmed that the vast majority of traditional Christians do not accept that position.

10. Another problem with the idea that all suffering is caused by sin is that it can never explain the suffering of innocents. If you really believe that all pain and suffering is caused by sin, what do you about the fact that every baby is mortal? Little children suffer from disease and sometimes die. These events are not caused by another human agent causing the problem—they are part of living in this world—so we can’t attribute it to someone else’s sins. If you really believe personal sin is the root of all suffering, then it’d be very easy to conclude that anyone who suffers must be sinful. In other words, if asked, “Why do innocents suffer?” the reply would be, “Because they’re not really innocent.”

Can you see how the Incomplete Theodicy concept is closely tied with the Original Sin and Infant Baptism concepts? These ideas are incorrect, but you can see how there is a kind of internal consistency in the way they are framed.