Let me clarify right off the bat that I do think we were spiritually dead at one point, just not in the way it is commonly thought we were.
What is usually meant by being “spiritually dead” is a state of being separated from God. The common explanation for this is that our sins cause us to become separated.
If we are going to say that we were at some point separated from God, we have to say that either God decided to be separate from us from the moment we came into existence or we were not separate from him at first, until we first sinned, and then God left us. In the former case, it’s not very loving of God to create us in a state of spiritual death (and could we then really be said to be “very good” and made in the image of God?). As for the latter case, I say that our sin doesn’t offend God (I have previously written about this here) and, consequently, it cannot separate us from him. Indeed, nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39). Can we say with honesty that God separating himself from us is ever a loving thing to do?
So what do I mean when I use the phrase “spiritually dead”?
I believe we were never actually separated from God. We only thought we were. In other words, our being “spiritually dead” wasn’t an ontological condition of depravity. Rather, it was unbelief, a state of the mind where faith is placed in a false reality. We were “spiritually dead,” but only in the sense of a mindset of separation resulting in destructive behavior. Simply put, humanity was deceived.
Why, then, all the talk in the scriptures about salvation and being saved? Let’s take a look at some related scriptures.
Paul was sent by Jesus to “the Gentiles…to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light…” (Acts 26:18, emphasis mine).
Jesus came not to bring salvation itself, but “to give to His people the knowledge of salvation” (Luke 1:77, emphasis mine), which, despite our ignorance, we have always had.
Similarly, Jesus “brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:9-10, emphasis mine). Jesus didn’t bring them, because they were already available. He brought them to light; that is, he simply revealed them.
“You were at one time strangers and enemies in your minds as expressed through your evil deeds” (Colossians 1:21, emphasis mine). We only thought we were God’s enemies; it wasn’t actually true.
“Being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart” (Ephesians 4:18, emphasis mine). Here Paul speak of people who did not experience the life of God, not because it was not available to them, but simply because they did not understand it, were ignorant of it, and chose to not partake of it.
“For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened” (Romans 1:21-23, emphasis mine).
Again, we were never spiritually dead, as if God had left us and we needed some sort of spiritual resuscitation. We can, however, act as if we are. That’s why it says we were “dead in our transgressions and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). The reference is to our actions. Same with Colossians 2:13 – “When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh…” We can live as if we are separated from God, but that doesn’t mean we actually are. We can “alienate” ourselves from God in our own thinking, but we actually cannot distance ourselves from him. Our union with Christ is the fundamental, immutable, and permanent reality. He is closer than the air we breathe.
The life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ happened within our time, but it was a manifestation of an eternal event. His appearance revealed what has always been true – the mystery hidden for ages and generations was finally made known in our dimension of time and space. – Andre Rabe
As a concluding thought, “spiritual death” seems like a very poor term to describe what the above scriptures did, since it is not about separation from God. It would be better to call it ignorance or an illusion, and what Christ did a revelation of reality that draws us out of our ignorance and illusions.