If asked, “What are the consequences of the Atonement?” many people respond, “It overcame physical death for all men and spiritual death for those who repent.” While that answer is correct as far as it goes, it is incomplete. The Fall brought about physical death and, in addition, one type of spiritual death to all men. This was caused by our first parents’ transgression in the Garden, known by the world as “original sin.” All men physically die because of Adam’s transgression. There is no escape from this consequence.
Likewise, all men will be resurrected because of Christ. There is no exception to this remedy. Physical death, however, is not the only universal consequence of the Fall. As another consequence of Adam’s transgression, all men are born in a setting outside God’s physical presence. This separation is known in the scriptures as the first spiritual death (see Helaman 14:16–18; D&C 29:41). It is an estrangement from God caused by Adam.
There is also a second spiritual death. It is a separation from God caused by our individual sins.
Each form of spiritual death has its cure. The Atonement corrects the first spiritual death for all men without any effort on their own, and understandably so, for they in no way were its cause. The Atonement corrects the second spiritual death on an individual basis for those who repent, since each of us who has sinned must individually contribute to our own redemption, “For we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” (2 Nephi 25:23).
The universal effects of the first spiritual death were externally imposed by Adam and externally corrected by Christ for all mankind. Paul taught, “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22). Robert J. Matthews points out that many do not understand these words of Paul. “Most think it only pertains to the death of the body and the resurrection of the body. In truth, Paul’s statement covers both physical death and spiritual death,”3 meaning the first spiritual death brought about by Adam. Brother Matthews then offers this helpful explanation:
“There is a prevailing idea that although the resurrection is free, only those who repent and obey the gospel will ever return to the presence of God. Those who adhere to this idea, however, seem to have missed a very essential point and fundamental concept of the Atonement, and that is that Jesus Christ has redeemed all mankind from all the consequences of the fall of Adam.
“The scriptures teach that every person, saint or sinner, will return to the presence of God after the resurrection. It may be only a temporary reunion in his presence, but justice requires that all that was lost in Adam be restored in Jesus Christ. Every person will return to God’s presence, behold his face, and be judged for his own works. Then, those who have obeyed the gospel will be able to stay in his presence, while all others will have to be shut out of his presence a second time and will thus die what is called a second spiritual death.”
The scriptures teach that “no unclean thing can dwell with God” (1 Nephi 10:21).
This does not mean, however, that we will not return to God’s presence temporarily for judgment purposes— for in fact each individual will. It simply means we cannot “dwell” or remain in the presence of God on a permanent basis or “be received into the kingdom of God” (Alma 7:21) if we are unclean. In the same verse in which Nephi states that the unclean cannot “dwell with God,” he also teaches that the unclean will be brought “before the judgment- seat of God” (1 Nephi 10:21). Lehi clearly taught that all men, even the wicked, will return to God’s presence: “Because of the intercession for all, all men come unto God; wherefore, they stand in the presence of him, to be judged of him according to the truth and holiness which is in him” (2 Nephi 2:10; see also Alma 33:22). Jacob, who learned so much about the Atonement from his father, also spoke of this temporary reunion, even for the wicked: “Wo unto all those who die in their sins; for they shall return to God, and behold his face, and remain in their sins” (2 Nephi 9:38). Jacob then prophesied that those who reject the prophets will stand “with shame and awful guilt before the bar of God” (Jacob 6:9; see also Mormon 9:5).
Alma makes it clear that the return to God’s presence is no optional program, no joyous reunion for the wicked, for “we would fain be glad if we could command the rocks and the mountains to fall upon us to hide us from his presence.” As if this were not enough, his description adds to the terror of the moment: “We must come forth and stand before him in his glory, and in his power, and in his might, majesty, and dominion, and acknowledge to our everlasting shame that all his judgments are just” (Alma 12:14–15). This will be the day of reckoning when “the judgments of God . . . stare them in the face” (Helaman 4:23).
Amulek warned that at the fateful moment of our judgment we will “have a bright recollection of all our guilt” (Alma 11:43). Jacob knew that we would have “a perfect knowledge of all our guilt, and our uncleanness” (2 Nephi 9:14), and Alma foresaw that we would have “a perfect remembrance” (Alma 5:18) of all our wicked deeds. What a sobering thought. It was such a frightening reality that confronted Alma: “Yea, I did remember all my sins and iniquities, . . . and in fine so great had been my iniquities, that the very thought of coming into the presence of my God did rack my soul with inexpressible horror” (Alma 36:13–14). So terrifying was the prospect of this encounter with the Holy One that Alma longed for banishment and extinction rather than “be brought to stand in the presence of my God” (Alma 36:15).
Then a miracle occurred. In the midst of Alma’s suffering he recalled his father speaking of the Savior and his atoning sacrifice “for the sins of the world” (Alma 36:17). The very thought of the Savior was a balm to his wounded soul and frenzied mind, so much so that he exclaimed, “I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more” (Alma 36:19). He then saw “God sitting upon his throne” and in a stunning spiritual turnabout his “soul did long to be there” (Alma 36:22). He, who earlier had sought banishment from God’s presence and extinction of his soul, now yearned for life everlasting in God’s presence.
The scriptures are clear on this point: whether pleasant or unpleasant, there will be a reunion for all men before their Maker.
In summary, the Atonement was intended to restore all that was lost by the Fall, including the resurrection and a return to God’s presence regardless of our state of righteousness.
Alma explains, “The atonement bringeth to pass the resurrection of the dead; and the resurrection of the dead bringeth back men into the presence of God; and thus they are restored into his presence, to be judged according to their works” (Alma 42:23). This return to God’s presence overcame the first spiritual death triggered by Adam, and thus, all that was lost by the Fall was equally restored by the Atonement. As Amulek so beautifully taught, “This restoration shall come to all” (Alma 11:44). In some cases, this restoration is temporarily accelerated. Due to the faith of the brother of Jared, the Lord promised him, “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; emphasis added).
There is nothing anyone can do to reject these saving powers of the Atonement.
They will descend upon every man “in spite of himself,”5 as observed by Joseph F. Smith. There is no one to whom they do not apply, whether saint or sinner. These blessings are guaranteed— in fact, they are compulsory upon all men. Thus all men are saved from physical death and the first spiritual death.