Gospel Principles and the Bible
Gospel Principles, chapter 40 (Part A)
Mormon Temples and the Bible
Temples are an essential, major element of LDS religion, far more so than most non-Mormons realize. Mormons are not considered faithful, fully practicing members of the LDS Church until they have proven themselves worthy to enter into a temple and are regularly participating in its ordinances or rituals. Most of these rituals are performed on behalf of the dead—that is, for departed ancestors who did not have the opportunity to receive these ordinances during their mortal lives on earth.
In this article, we will examine what the Bible teaches about temples and compare that teaching with the LDS view of temples.
A. The Importance of Temples in LDS Religion
The word temple literally denotes a man-made building dedicated as a place for meeting God through the performance of special religious rites. Temples are an essential—one might almost say the essential—element of the religion of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). Nothing is more important to LDS religion or sets it apart from historic, biblical Christianity more clearly than its temples. According to Joseph Smith, “the main object” of the gathering of God’s people in every age has been “to build unto the Lord a house whereby He could reveal unto His people the ordinances of His house and the glories of His kingdom, and teach the people the way of salvation: for there are certain ordinances and principles that, when they are taught and practiced, must be done in a place or house built for that purpose” (History of the Church 5:423). Brigham Young taught that “the building of temples, places in which the ordinances of salvation are administered, is necessary to carry out the plan of redemption” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young, 125). Joseph Fielding Smith asserted that the LDS Church’s temples and ordinances “prove” that it is “the true Church of Jesus Christ” (Doctrines of Salvation 2:235-36).
B. One Temple versus Many Temples
Despite these LDS prophets’ claims, there is a complete disconnect between LDS temples and what the Bible teaches about the temple.
Consider the temple in Jerusalem. Solomon dedicated Jerusalem’s first temple about 960 BC. After the Babylonians destroyed Solomon’s temple in 587/586 BC, the Jews rebuilt it under the direction of Zerubbabel in about 516 BC. This temple was reconstructed in a massive project initiated by Herod the Great in 20 BC, though work continued on the surrounding Temple Mount long after Herod’s death (see John 2:20). The Romans utterly destroyed this temple in ad 70 in fulfillment of Jesus’ prediction no more than forty years earlier (Mark 13:1-2, 30).The Jerusalem temple is the only temple recognized or authorized anywhere in the Bible. The few references in the Bible to “temples” in the plural refer to temples of Israel’s pagan neighbors (Jer. 43:12-13; Joel 3:5; see also Acts 17:24; 19:37). The Bible does not even mention the Jewish temple in Heliopolis, Egypt, which the priest Onias IV built about 160 BC as a rival temple (not recognized by the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem) when he failed in his bid to become high priest in Jerusalem. Right away we see a significant difference between the biblical and LDS view of temples: Mormons believe in having many temples whereas the Bible consistently recognizes at most only one temple. The LDS Church had 134 temples operating throughout the world as of mid-2011.
C. The Jerusalem Temple versus the Mormon Temples
As LDS scholars generally acknowledge, the distinctive functions of the Jerusalem temple (that is, the functions that were associated exclusively with the temple) were not the same as those of LDS temples. The Jerusalem temple was the authorized place for sacrificial worship, including burnt offerings and the solemn sacrificial rituals of the Day of Atonement. Mormons agree that such sacrifices became obsolete following the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ on the cross. Mormons also admit that the Jews did not perform baptisms for the dead (in the temple or elsewhere) or other proxy ordinances. Yet such ordinances for the dead easily account for more than 99 percent of the ordinances performed in LDS temples. The other LDS temple ordinances are also rituals that were not performed in the Jerusalem temple (the LDS "endowment" ritual, marriage for eternity, and other family "sealings"). In short, there is no significant overlap between what went on in the ancient Jerusalem temple and what goes on in LDS temples, beyond such broad generalities as teaching and prayer (which of course also take place outside LDS temples).
D. The Temple and the New Testament Church
In the New Testament, Jesus’ prophetic predictions of the temple’s destruction fit into a larger story of the passing of the old, Mosaic covenant, with its sacrifices, priests, and temple, and the inauguration of the new covenant that the Mosaic covenant prefigured (see Gal. 3:23-25; 4:21-31; Col. 2:16-17; Heb. 8:1-13; 12:18-24). In this new covenant, Christ is at once the final sacrifice (Matt. 27:50-51; 1 Cor. 5:7; Heb. 7:27; 9:11-14, 24-28; 10:8-22; 1 Peter 1:2, 18-19), the eternal high priest (Heb. 2:17; 3:1; 4:14-15; 5:10; 6:20; 7:11-28; 8:1-3; 9:11, 25), and the ultimate temple (Matt. 12:6; John 1:14; 2:19-22; Rev. 21:22). Instead of going to a temple to have a priest serve as one’s intermediary in offering a sacrifice on one’s behalf, every Christian believer is figuratively speaking part of the royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:5, 9; Rev. 1:6; 5:10; 20:6) and is expected to behave as a living and sacred sacrifice (Rom. 12:1). Every believer is like a “living stone” in the spiritual “temple” of the church (1 Cor. 3:16-17; 2 Cor. 6:16-18; Eph. 2:18-22; 1 Peter 2:4-10).
Except for Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, Christians in New Testament times had no access to any temple of God. Yet the New Testament expresses no concern about the lack of such access for Gentile Christians and in fact consistently treats the temple as part of a religious system that was outmoded at best and under God’s judgment at worst. As for the first-century Jewish Christians, they did not perform any rites in the Jerusalem temple comparable to the rites of the LDS Church temples. The loss of the temple in AD 70 was a severe blow and historic crisis for the Jewish religion, but it was not a religious crisis for Christians.
E. The Temple and Salvation
The LDS Church contradicts the Bible when it teaches that temples are an essential means to individual salvation and eternal life with our Heavenly Father, and that the lack of such temples throughout most of church history is a mark of the Great Apostasy. According to New Testament doctrine, salvation and eternal life are gifts of God received simply by faith in Jesus Christ (John 3:16-18; Acts 16:31; Rom. 3:21-26; 6:23; Titus 3:4-7; 1 Peter 1:3-7; 1 John 5:11-13). Since the Christian religion never had nor needed temples, they are not something that Christianity could “lose” in a supposed Great Apostasy.
Indeed, the passing of the temple was a sign that something much better had come. In response to the Samaritan woman’s comment about their rival centers of worship—the Samaritan temple at Gerizim and the Jewish temple at Jerusalem—Jesus told her, “an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.” Instead, “the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (John 4:20-23). The temple worship of the old religion merely foreshadowed the spiritual worship of the new covenant in Christ. The LDS religion, in seeking to “restore” temples, negates an essential element of the Christian faith.
For Further Study
Wilson, Luke P. “Are Mormon Temples Christian?” (2004). Helpful for understanding the contrasts between the biblical temple and Mormon temples.
Wilson, Luke P. “The Old Testament Temple and New Testament Faith: Are Mormon Temples an Extension of the Biblical Temple?” (1997). Older article that explores some of the same issues regarding the temple in more detail.