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Mormonism and the Millennium

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Mormonism and the Millennium

Robert M. Bowman Jr.

One of the doctrinal ideas that Mormons have in common with many evangelicals—an idea that Joseph Smith in fact received from his Protestant evangelical heritage—is premillennialism, the doctrine that Jesus Christ will return personally to the earth and inaugurate a thousand-year period during which he will rule from an earthly throne (commonly called the Millennium). As the Prophet of the Restoration, however, Joseph Smith claimed to speak on such doctrinal issues with an authority that Protestant theologians and prophecy teachers lacked. Moreover, the LDS Church has a unique take on the significance of the Millennium. In this study, we will put Joseph Smith’s teaching on this subject in some theological context and examine the LDS Church’s teaching on the Millennium in light of the Bible.

A. Good Points in the LDS Doctrine

"The LDS understanding of the real significance of the Millennium—what the actual purpose and primary activity of the Millennium will be—is unprecedented in Christian theology and has no basis in the teachings of the Bible."

There are several aspects or elements of the LDS Church’s doctrine concerning Christ’s return and the Millennium that are acceptable understandings of the Bible’s teaching. For convenience and clarity, I will discuss these elements under two headings: definite points of agreement with biblical teaching (on which all sound-thinking Christians should agree), and defensible doctrinal ideas (on which some but not all sound-thinking Christians will agree).

1. Definite Points of Agreement with Sound Biblical Teaching

Some of what the LDS Church teaches about the Second Coming of Christ is beyond reasonable dispute sound, correct doctrine. On these issues, LDS doctrine agrees with the Bible and with historic, orthodox Christian doctrine on which most professing Christians have agreed throughout church history. We want to acknowledge fully these points of agreement even though we must also address important areas of disagreement.

  • Jesus Christ will return personally, visibly, and bodily to the earth.

It is an essential truth of the Christian faith that Jesus Christ will come personally back to earth at the end of this age. It is taught throughout the New Testament and affirmed in the early Christian confession known as the Apostles Creed. In a day when many people are radically reinterpreting the Second Coming to mean something quite different—a global shift in consciousness, or the appearance of an entirely different figure in history—we gladly note the LDS Church’s explicit agreement with this basic Christian doctrine. Jesus Christ will himself return to the earth in the same immortal body with which he was raised from the dead. He will physically come back.

  • Jesus Christ will return in power and glory.

Jesus is not coming back as a mortal being. When he rose from the dead, he rose with an immortal human body, which he will retain forever. When he returns to the earth, he will come in his undiminished divine glory and power. Gospel Principles rightly affirms this important truth (257, 260).

  • Jesus Christ is returning to judge all people.

Gospel Principles affirms, “When Jesus comes again, He will judge the nations and will divide the righteous from the wicked” (259). It rightly warns that we will be judged based on our “thoughts, words, and actions” (269).

2. Defensible Doctrinal Ideas

On some additional points, LDS doctrine agrees with beliefs held by many but not all evangelical Christians. These are ideas that may well be correct but from an evangelical perspective deal with secondary issues on which Bible-believing Christians have some differing opinions. The reason for this diversity of opinion is simply that the Bible does not say enough on these issues to settle them beyond reasonable doubt.

The chief of these areas of doctrinal agreement with some evangelical Christians has to do with the Millennium. All Bible-believing Christians believe in the truth of the teaching of Revelation 20:1-6 regarding the “thousand years” (which is what millennium means). The problem is that the meaning of this passage, which is the only place in the Bible that mentions a period of a thousand years, is subject to considerable debate. In turn this is because the Book of Revelation is not meant to provide a blueprint, a chronological list, or even literal descriptions of future events leading up to and including the consummation of all things at what it calls “the new heavens and new earth” (Revelation 21:1). The book is written in highly symbolic language using images (a lampstand, four horses, four living creatures, a lamb, scrolls, seals, bowls, stars, a dragon, a beast, a harlot, a bottomless pit, a lake of fire, a river, a tree, etc.) that are not meant to be taken as literal descriptions of things to come. On the other hand, the book clearly is meant to teach us something about the future.

The interpretation of the Millennium that dominated Christian interpretation in the second, third, and fourth centuries, and the interpretation that a majority of evangelicals have held during the past two centuries or so, is called premillennialism. This is the view (-ism) that Jesus Christ’s second coming will take place before (pre-) the thousand years (millennial). The Millennium, according to this view, is a period during which Jesus Christ lives and reigns personally and bodily on the earth. At the end of the Millennium, Christ will put down a final rebellion, hold the Final Judgment, and inaugurate the new heavens and new earth. We may represent this view as follows:

This Age → Second Coming → Millennial Kingdom → Final Judgment → End

The LDS Church’s doctrine assumes the truth of this premillennial view of the end times. Gospel Principles, for example, affirms that at his second coming Jesus Christ “will usher in the Millennium” which it defines as “the thousand-year period when Jesus will reign on the earth” (259). This is what the 10th Article of Faith of the LDS Church means when it affirms “that Christ will reign personally upon the earth.”

While premillennialism is a respected interpretation of biblical prophecy, there are Bible-believing Christians who hold to other views. The view that dominated church history from the early fifth century through the eighteenth century or so (and is still held by many Christians today) is called amillennialism. This is an unfortunate term because it literally means “no-millennium-ism,” which sounds like this view denies the truth of Revelation 20. That is not the case. It simply understands the thousand years in that passage in a different way. According to amillennialists, the “thousand years” in Revelation 20 is not an exact period of time but a way of speaking of a very long period of time. In their view, the “Millennium” is a picture of the church age, the period between Christ’s first coming and his still-future second coming. This would mean that the Second Coming occurs at the end of the “Millennium,” not at its beginning. Christ’s millennial rule according to this view is his heavenly reign going on right now. When the church age ends, Christ will return to the earth in glory, judge all mankind, and establish the new heavens and new earth. We may represent the amillennial view as follows:

Church Age (Millennium) → Second Coming → Final Judgment → End

Now, for the LDS view of the Millennium to be correct, obviously premillennialism must be correct; and it may very well be, as a majority of us who are evangelicals also happens to think. On the other hand, even if premillennialism is correct, this does not mean that the LDS view of what the Millennium really means is correct. We turn next, then, to a discussion of the meaning of the Millennium in LDS religion.

B. Misunderstanding the Meaning of the Millennium

Belief in an earthly millennial kingdom in which Jesus Christ rules personally from an earthly throne is a widely respected and accepted belief among Bible-believing Christians. However, the LDS understanding of the real significance of the Millennium—what the actual purpose and primary activity of the Millennium will be—is unprecedented in Christian theology and has no basis in the teachings of the Bible.

The core issue here has to do with the place of temples in LDS religion and theology. Temples have a major place in LDS religion; in a sense, the temples and their ordinances are LDS religion. Furthermore, as we have shown in our articles in this study guide responding to chapters 41 and 42 of Gospel Principles, the LDS temples and temple ordinances are not consistent with Christianity as taught in the New Testament. To review, we specifically made the following points:
  • In the Bible, God’s people had no more than one authorized, legitimate temple at a time, whereas the LDS Church operates over a hundred temples worldwide.
  • The Jerusalem temple existed to perform functions of the Mosaic, old covenant—primarily sacrifices—and did not include proxy ordinances such as baptisms for the dead, the main function of LDS temples (Hebrews 7-10).
  • With the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ, the temple and the Mosaic covenant with which it was associated were made obsolete. Jesus Christ is now our heavenly high priest; he himself was the final sacrifice for our sins; and his body is the dwelling place of God that the man-made temple foreshadowed (John 1:14-18; 4:20-24; Hebrews 7-10; etc.).
  • Baptisms for the dead are not necessary for their salvation because baptism is not itself necessary for salvation and an earthly priesthood “authority” is not needed to perform baptism (Matthew 28:16-20; 1 Corinthians 1:13-17).
  • The LDS Church’s view of baptism for the dead entails that virtually all people who ever live—well over 99 percent—are not saved or condemned based on their relationship with God in this mortal life but instead on what happens after they die, an idea that is flatly unbiblical (2 Corinthians 5:9-10, 20; Hebrews 9:27).
  • Nearly all biblical scholars agree, with excellent reasons, that at most 1 Corinthians 15:29 refers to a local practice of some Corinthians that Paul did not endorse, not a program of the whole Christian church to perform baptisms for the dead on behalf of everyone who has ever died without an opportunity to be baptized.
  • 1 Peter 3:18-22 and 4:6 do not teach that “spirit prison” is a place where the vast majority of people in history go when they die and are there given an opportunity to hear the gospel, repent, and attain individual salvation. Rather, the “spirits” in 1 Peter 3:19 were probably the wicked spirits whom God condemned at the time of Noah, and Christ was proclaiming his victory over the demonic spirits, not inviting people to accept the gospel.

The divide or chasm between New Testament Christianity and LDS religion shows itself to be even deeper when we consider how this issue of temples and proxy ordinances for the dead connect to the LDS view of the Millennium. The main activity that Mormons expect people to be performing during that thousand-year period is building temples and undergoing proxy ordinances for the dead. The reason why this activity will continue and even intensify during the Millennium is that the LDS Church recognizes it cannot be finished before the Millennium: “There is too much work to finish before the Millennium begins, so it will be completed during that time” (Gospel Principles, 265). That is putting it mildly. The LDS Church claims that by 1988 it had performed 100 million proxy endowment ordinances for the dead. Since they will probably need to perform roughly 100 billion such ordinances, that means they will need the full thousand years to finish the task at today’s pace. Even if the pace is accelerated and the number of temples dramatically increases, it is evident that proxy ordinances in the temples would need to be a major project for most if not all of the Millennium.

Yet when we turn to the one reference to a Millennium in the Bible, we find not only that temple buildings and ordinances are not part of the picture, but that the picture we do have excludes such things. Let’s look at the Millennium passage in Revelation 20 in context.

“Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. 2 And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, 3 and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while. 4 Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. 5 The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. 6 Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years” (Revelation 20:1-6 ESV).

This is the entire description of the Millennium in the only passage of the Bible that even mentions a period of a thousand years. This passage says nothing about temples or ordinances for the dead. John describes the Millennium as a period during which the souls of faithful believers in Christ will have been raised from the dead to immortal life and “will be priests of God and of Christ,” reigning with Christ for the thousand years. Wait just a minute, though. If these immortal resurrected believers will be “priests” during the Millennium, might this mean that they will be priests in man-made temples, performing rituals for those who have not yet been raised from the dead? Is there perhaps some basis for the LDS view of the Millennium in that brief description after all?

We can be sure, it turns out, that John’s reference to the immortal people of the Millennium as priests is not a veiled reference to them performing proxy ordinances for the dead. There are two reasons from the larger context in the book of Revelation why such a view is impossible.

First, this is the last of three references in Revelation to believers in Christ as “priests.” Let’s look at all three together, along with the biblical texts outside Revelation that all biblical scholars agree forms the conceptual background to John’s wording:

“Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6 ESV).

“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9 ESV).

“To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever” (Revelation 1:5-6 ESV).

“Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth” (Revelation 5:9-10 ESV).

“Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years” (Revelation 20:1-6 ESV).

In all of these texts, being “priests” is connected directly with kingship (“a kingdom,” “royal,” “they shall reign”). What the earthly nation of Israel failed to be—a people that represented God’s redeeming presence and kingdom rule in the world, bringing the knowledge of God to the rest of the nations—these holy, redeemed people will be in truth. What this means in 1 Peter is not that Christians are to be working behind closed doors performing religious ordinances for the dead, but that they are to be out in the public eye proclaiming and displaying the saving light of Christ to people living in our darkened world (1 Peter 2:9-12). We extend Christ’s redemptive kingdom to the rest of the world by shining the light of the gospel to make disciples of people among all the nations (Matthew 28:16-20). The Millennium is a period during which the devil and death itself are powerless to stop God’s royal priesthood, his priestly princes, from bringing God’s love and redemption from sin through the blood of Christ to people of all nations.

In none of these texts is there anything at all regarding religious rituals or ordinances, let alone proxy ordinances performed for the dead. That is simply not what this motif of Christian believers as “priests” means. In the only New Testament passage outside Revelation that uses this language, Peter says that these “priests” are also the “stones” of a “spiritual house” in which they offer “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:4-5). In other words, Christians don’t build temples; they are the temple that God, not man, is building. And Christians don’t offer physical sacrifices; instead, they offer spiritual “sacrifices,” risking their lives, if necessary, to glorify God by bringing the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ to others (verses 6-10; see also Hebrews 13:15).

The second reason from the context in the book of Revelation why we know that Christian believers as “priests” will not be offering proxy ordinances for the dead is that Revelation goes on immediately to say the following:

“Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. 13 And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. 14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:11-15 ESV).

Twice in this passage in Revelation 20, coming at the end of the same chapter that talks about the Millennium, John states that the dead will be judged “according to what they had done.” The “books” in this passage represent God’s perfect knowledge of everything that every human being has ever done, said, or thought during their mortal lifetimes. This exact phrase “according to what they had done” (literally “according to their works”) is used throughout the Old and New Testaments to refer to human beings’ actions performed in this mortal life (Psalm 28:4; 33:15; 62:12; Proverbs 24:12; Isaiah 3:11; Jeremiah 50:29; Lamentations 3:64; Romans 2:6; 2 Corinthians 11:15; 2 Timothy 1:9; 4:14; Revelation 2:23; 18:6; 20:12, 13). That is the basis on which God will judge people. As has already been explained, it makes a mockery of this principle to claim that the vast majority of people will be judged on the basis of a decision they will make in the afterlife. The only way to escape condemnation is to be freed from it in this life by having one’s name written in the “book of life”—God’s knowledge of those whom the Lamb, Jesus Christ, saves by his blood and through their faith that “conquers” sin, death, and the world (Revelation 3:5; 12:11; 13:8; 21:27). Proxy religious rituals or ordinances play no role in salvation here.

One other relevant point of great importance is made here in Revelation 20:11-15. Human beings face just two prospects in the Final Judgment: “life” and “the second death”; either eternal life with God or “the lake of fire” (verses 14-15). Those who escape the lake of fire by God’s grace in Christ will live forever in the “new heaven and new earth” (Revelation 21:1). These are the only two “final destinations” envisioned in the Book of Revelation or anywhere else in the Bible. That being the case, the idea that practically everyone who will ever live in human history is already guaranteed life forever in some heavenly kingdom, but needs proxy baptism and other ordinances performed on their behalf to secure passage to the highest of those kingdoms, simply makes no sense.