The name of this article came to me as I was writing commentary for 2 Nephi 11-25 and was studying Nephi’s testimonies of Christ. It never occurred to me before that death is a requisite step in our progression to eternal life.
Types of death
There are three types of death. The scriptures refer to them in different ways.
Death no. 1
Spiritual death was, and is, experienced by all who enter mortality, save Jesus only. (Clarification: all those incapable of committing sin also qualify as never experiencing spiritual death. When I say “all who enter mortality” I am referring to all who are capable and guilty of committing sin, which is the vast majority of us.)
By defining death as a separation, spiritual death is to be separated from God, our Father. When we left His presence and came to earth, the first time we are capable of commiting sin, and we did so, we became “cut off” from God, spiritually dead, for we are no longer covered by Christ’s atonement. Without our Redeemer’s atoning sacrifice we are damned, stopped in our progression, because we can never return to God in a clean state. We cannot be reconciled to God’s laws. This is why the atonement of Christ is so vital and necessary, it provides the only path in existence back to God.
Spiritual death, brought about by the committing of sin of any kind, is usually the first death we suffer. By committing sin in any way we put ourselves into a state of opposition to God and His laws. Until this state of opposition is dealt with, we are forever banned from His sight. As we repent and live Christ’s commandments, we are forgiven of our trespasses and we become justified before the law. This means the law can no longer have a claim on us to punish us, because the law has been satisfied. We are then free to act for ourselves, as long as we don’t break that or another of God’s laws. The goal is to become and remain justified before the Lord at all times. Those who leave mortality in a state of justification are clean before the Lord, and can return to live with Him once again.
The only person ever to come to earth and live life past the age of accountability, be capable of sinning, and not experience spiritual death, is Jesus. Because God has promised us that where there is no law there is no punishment, those who are incapable of committing sin, like small children and those of limited mental capacity are automatically saved and promised exaltation by our Redeemer. The ones we need to worry about are those who know better and still commit sin, like the rest of us. We are the ones who have been cut off from God and need to repent to be reconciled to Christ through his atoning sacrifice.
Death no. 2
Adam and Eve experienced spiritual death when they were expelled from Eden. Being mortal brings with it all the desires of the mortal body, the desires of the flesh. This is where many of our sins originate. But being mortal also means we only have a limited time in our mortal bodies. When our time on earth is up, for whatever reason, we must leave our body. This separation of us, our spirit self, from our mortal body, is called death.
While there are a few who have escaped physical death through translation, like Moses, Elijah, or the 3 Nephites, the vast majority of us will experience death in the traditional sense. We have already left God’s presence, and no one will return there until after the final judgment, so when we die we spend time in the spirit world, continuing to work out our salvation and doing the Lord’s work until we are called up for judgment.
This death is the only death Jesus suffered. He never qualified for the first death, spiritual death. Except for those who are translated, all of humanity, small children and the innocent alike will suffer physical death. The scriptures refer to the “sting of death” referring to the suffering of those who go through life having to live with the separation of us from our loved ones. Even knowing where they are and that they are in a good state with God doesn’t remove the hurt of their loss, even if it is only temporary.
One of the fears we have of death comes from the fact that it is so present and current. We live in a life where everyone we love will be lost to physical death. All of us will be deprived of those we love. When they die they leave our sight. It is like a child whose mother walks out of the room. The child becomes unconsolable because in their little world, the absence from sight is like the actual loss of that person. Without the hope we have in Christ and his promises to us, death really is the greatest fear we can hold in this life. It is only the hope we receive by believing in Christ that provides us with any comfort at the loss of a loved one.
Death no. 3
Those who have died the first death upon committing their first sin or transgression are in danger of the third type of death. The first death, spiritual death, is only meant to be temporary. When we access Christ’s atoning sacrifice and repent of our sins, we become justified/reconciled with God. When we are reconciled with Christ and live in a state of justification, we have no fear of being permanently separated from God, which is the the third kind of death.
Those who die the third kind of death are permanently separated from God. The scriptures refer to this death as the second death, which is because they are thinking of the first death as our first separation from God. Those who suffer the second death are those who choose eternal damnation. Let’s define that.
Damnation is to be stopped, like water at a dam. Our eternal progression is stopped if we do not return to live with God, our Father in the celestial kingdom. So all those in the lower kingdoms are damned, meaning stopped in their progression. Only those who return to the celestial kingdom will grow in glory and continue to become more and more holy and wise until they attain godhood for themselves. 2 Nephi 10:23 puts it this way.
23 Therefore, your hearts, and remember that ye are to for yourselves—to the way of everlasting death or the way of eternal life.
I just have to laugh every time I read that sentiment – Cheer up your hearts and remember you are free to choose everlasting death! To be fair, that thought is being deliberately obtuse. The scripture does say we can choose everlasting death or eternal life, so we do have more than one option. The point here is that none of us have to experience the second death, the one that lasts forever. That death is a choice each of makes by refusing to choose Christ over all else. Those who choose Christ to be the center of their lives will not experience the second death, for they will have chosen “the way of eternal life.” And note that there is only one way to return to God. This is as God, Himself designed the plan for our salvation and exaltation. He made it as simple and as streamlined as it can be made. There is only one path back home, and it called Christ.
If you are reading this article, chances are you have already experienced the first spiritual death, and will experience mortal death. It still remains to be seen whether you will experience the second death. We don’t have to experience the second death if we are willing to put Christ at the center of our lives, and live by his covenants and commandments. This is the whole point of the scriptures and the teachings of the prophets. They exist to teach us of Christ and his ways. They are designed to set us on the path back home and show us the way.
The purpose of the plan of salvation is to provide a way for each of us to become like our Father in Heaven, and to live the rest of eternity as He lives it. To do that required that all of us come to earth and die so that we might live. Whether we experience one type of death or two types of death is of no consequence, as long as we don’t experience that third type of death, which is permanent. Both the spiritual death and physical death have been rendered temporary by Christ’s atoning sacrifice. The only thing that cannot be repaired is the second death, the permanent separation from God through our unwillingness to keep our covenants and obey Christ’s commandments.
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