The ancient Israelites called their temple, the House, the Sanctuary, or the Edifice (Bayith, Miqdash, and Heykal, respectively). When and how the word temple was chosen to refer to the sacred structures built and dedicated to God, or to gods, is likely lost in prehistory, though we can speculate. Temple comes from the Latin templum, the same root from which we derive template. The signification of both words being that something is measured and patterned. Ancient Roman temple precincts were often used for “measuring” the flights of birds or looking for other omens. Though of pagan origins, this word can appropriately be applied to Mormon temples and the sacred, Christ-centered temple ceremonies that are performed within them. Mormon temple ceremonies and the temples themselves lay out a pattern for life, including pre-mortal, mortal, and post-mortal, as well serve as a school for integrating one’s life and for understanding the purpose and direction of one’s life within the eternal world. It is also a place set apart from the world where worshippers can go to seek in quiet meditation, cut off from all distractions, answers to their prayers thirukadaiyur temple.
Perhaps nothing else about Mormonism evokes so much horror ignotium as do Mormon temple ceremonies. Professional anti-Mormons scour their thesauri for every dreadful and sensationalist adjective they can find in order to provoke those who know little or nothing about Mormon ceremonies into developing a primal fear toward Mormon temples. In a day and age such as ours I cannot understand this, though certainly fear-mongering has always been present in this country’s public discourse, used and exploited by those who want power, but have no ideas or platforms to support them. Instead, like school-yard bullies they intimidate and provoke because, as any teacher will tell you, they are themselves afraid and must divert attention elsewhere to assuage their weakened self-confidence. Mormons need not stoop to attacks, though sadly some have, but I will not dwell any longer on such puerile and vicious attacks. My message is a positive one.
For Mormons, the temple is the utmost goal of spiritual life and the symbol of their belief in life beyond death and of this life’s relevance to our eternal existence. Worshippers of God have always had temples, or at least have striven to erect them. Jacob, the father of all Israel, resting in a place called Luz, saw in vision a ladder that reached to heaven at the top of which stood God who there renewed the covenant with Jacob which He, Almighty God, had made with Jacob’s fathers. Upon awakening, Jacob called the place Bethel, meaning “the House of God”. Covenants and temples, then, have a long history. When buildings were not available, the Lord’s people used mountains and thus the temple was called the “Mountain of the Lord’s House” (Isaiah 2:2). Jesus taught frequently in the temple and after His death, the Apostles continued “daily with one accord in the temple” (Acts 2:46). Malachi prophesied that the Lord would come suddenly to His temple (Mal. 3:1).
Mormon Temples today are built for the purposes of providing ordinances and covenants. According to Mormon beliefs, covenants are central to man’s relationship to God. Through covenants, man enters a relationship with God through which he (or she) will be saved. There is no doctrine taught in Mormon temples which is not taught publicly, but the ordinances and covenants made within the sanctuary are guarded and kept sacred. Some are offended by this supposed secrecy about Mormon temples, but it is well to remember that Jesus himself commanded such reticence in divulging certain things. Time and again, when Jesus healed people, he commanded them not to tell anyone and to his disciples he enjoined, “neither cast ye your pearls before swine” (Matt 7:6), meaning that sacred things should be given or shown to those who stand outside the law, compared here to “swine,” the archetypal animal forbidden by Mosaic law. Then as now, no doctrine is taught secretly, but certain ordinances and rites should be held sacred and not performed publicly lest they be mocked or trivialized.
Mormon temple ceremonies are rooted in Mormon understanding of Deity and man’s relationship to Him. These fundamental doctrines regarding God and man’s identity and destiny are what most distinguish Mormon beliefs and practices for they are the starting point from which the Mormon concept of life and man’s destiny must be understood. Without understanding these fundamental beliefs, no one can understand the Mormon doctrines which are dependent upon them. Too many people studying Mormonism, whether honestly seeking to understand its beliefs, or else trying to discredit them outright, neglect to begin with these fundamentals. As they build their picture of Mormonism beginning with the branches and neglecting the roots, they merely construct an anemic straw man which reflects their own preconceived notions and prejudices more than Mormon doctrine.
It must first be understood that Mormons believe that all mankind are literally the spirit children of Heavenly Parents. Paul referenced this in his address on Mars’ hill where he states that we are God’s offspring (Acts 17:29). For Mormonism, belief in a pre-existent life as spirits living in the presence of God is vital to understanding our life here. Personal identity is as eternal as are our spirits, but it would be more correct to state that we are spirits, inhabiting tabernacles of clay which are mere coverings to our true self. In a revelation given to the Prophet Joseph Smith, the Lord declared:
Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be…For man is spirit. The elements are eternal, and spirit and element inseparably connected, receive a fullness of joy (Doctrine and Covenants 93:29,33)
In that primeval childhood we had the power to learn, grow, and ultimately to decide. Every man and woman who has or every will live upon this earth made the choice to come here to be tested. In another revelation it states:
[A]nd he [Jesus] said unto those who were with him: We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell; and we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them; And they who keep their first estate [i.e. the pre-existence] shall be added upon; and they who keep not their first estate shall not have glory in the same kingdom with those who keep their first estate; and they who keep their second estate [i.e. this life] shall have glory added upon their heads for ever and ever (Abraham 3:24-26).
It is important moreover to note that Mormonism does preach the inherent sinfulness of man; there is in Mormonism no original sin. The same revelation quoted above further teaches that, “Every spirit of man was innocent in the beginning; and God having redeemed man from the fall, men became again, in their infant state, innocent before God. And that wicked one cometh and taketh away light and truth, through disobedience, from the children of men, and because of the traditions of the fathers” (D&C 93:38-40). Man’s nature can, in Mormonism, be described as weak and susceptible to sin, but not inherently evil. Sin in this sense corresponds to the original Greek word used in the New Testament and often anglicized as hamartia, which literally means missing the mark, or erring. Fallen man is estranged from God by our weakness, but we choose to become either good or evil since both impulses exist within every person.
Furthermore God, our Heavenly Father, is an embodied, glorified, and perfected spirit and seeks to help His children become perfect just as He is perfect (see Matthew 5:48). This perfection is not simply to be void of sin, but to be perfected by having a perfect, resurrected and glorified body, just as He has. Jesus set the example in this and made this perfection possible by this atoning sacrifice which began in the Garden of Gethsemane, continued through the cross and the tomb and reached its culmination with His resurrection which opened the doors for all mankind to be resurrected with a perfect, immortal body. He is thus the central figure of human life, pre-mortal, mortal, and eternal. God and man are in one sense very close and yet still so distant. God, man, and the angels, in one sense, are of the same species, but of varying degrees of perfection, mankind being the lowest. This doctrine does not denigrate or lower God, but rather exalts man. The Psalmist says in wonderment:
What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels[literally: the gods, the Hebrew word here is Elohim], and hast crowned him with glory and honour. Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet (Psalms 8:4-6).
We are God’s offspring with the potential to be like Him. John said, “Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). God and Christ are two separate, glorified beings united in all things. Jesus taught that we must become one just as the Father and the Son are one (see John 17:20-21). This unity is no metaphysical confusion of substance and essence, but a union of minds and hearts, glory and power, toward which all mankind should strive.
Man’s relationship to God is governed by covenants, two-way promises which bind hearts and souls together in sacred communion. God, who cannot lie or fail to fulfill His promises, extends the gift of Eternal Life to those who fulfill their covenant of faith and faithfulness. This is not to say that man earns his salvation by fulfilling his covenants. Far from it. Rather, God has established basic actions which must be fulfilled in order for God to grant the gift of Life to His children.
It is the relationship of a Father to His children. The child, incapable of meriting anything of himself whereby he can earn what he desires, asks his father for help. The father, fully capable of granting the child’s wish, instead desires that his son or daughter grow and develop. Any parent knows that if you simply give a child everything he or she wants, the child will grow up spoiled and immature. So, rather than simply granting the child’s wish, the father requires something from him. He requires that the child clean his room or help with the dishes. In doing so, the child grows and develops. The desire is granted, but the deeds did not truly merit the reward, just as our paltry righteousness does not merit salvation. What brings us salvation is our covenant with God who promises to cleanse us and purify us and bring us back to Him in exchange for our humility, our faith, our repentance, and our continuing to improve ourselves through righteous living. Through this covenant God grants us the power and opportunity to become perfect just as He is perfect, but such perfection will not occur until the resurrection and the final judgment. The crux of all this is the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross, which enables us to be forgiven and to return to God’s presence. Elder Dallin H. Oaks, an Apostle in the Mormon Church said this:
[W]e conclude that the Final Judgment is not just an evaluation of a sum total of good and evil acts–what we have done. It is an acknowledgment of the final effect of our acts and thoughts–what we have become. It is not enough for anyone just to go through the motions. The commandments, ordinances, and covenants of the gospel are not a list of deposits required to be made in some heavenly account. The gospel of Jesus Christ is a plan that shows us how to become what our Heavenly Father desires us to become (Conference Report, October 2000).
How does this relate to the Mormon temple and its ceremonies? It is the central message and focus of all temple activities and ordinances. The temple represents a microcosm of man’s journey through life from pre-mortal to mortal to the unimaginable glories of eternity. In the temple this journey is taught through symbols and allegory much as Jesus taught through parables so that different people at different stages of spiritual and personal growth could listen to the same message and learn what is most needed for them at that particular point in the spiritual growth.
The Mormon temple ceremonies consist of a symbolic presentation of man’s journey coupled with the covenants and promises God makes to man and the covenants and promises man makes to God. Thus the pre-existence, the creation of the world, our journey through life and our eventual return to God are all depicted and promises and covenants are made. In the temple, all Mormon teachings about life, its purpose and direction, about families, and about our ancestors and descendents are brought together and unified. Through temples, links are forged which can bind families and generations together.
Since Mormon belief teaches that man is an eternal being with a pre- and post-earth life, it makes sense that temple ceremonies are performed for those who did not have the opportunity to accept them. If, as the Bible and the Book of Mormon teach, Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation, then what of those who died with no opportunity to hear of Him? Three possibilities exist:
They will be eternally damned
They will be saved
They will have an opportunity to accept Jesus
Choices one and two are damaging to the Christian message. (1) means that God will unjustly condemn those who for no fault of their own could not learn of Him and (2) weakens the very foundations of Christianity by asserting that salvation is possible without Jesus. The Bible teaches that:
For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water (1 Peter 3:18-20).
Christ taught the unrighteous spirits living in prison so that they “might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit” (1 Peter 4:6). Mormon temples provide places where the necessary ordinances of baptism both by water and by the Holy Spirit can take place and thus give those spirits in prison a chance to accept Jesus. They will not be forced to accept either Him or the ordinances, but through the temple ceremonies, they have the opportunity thus showing that God can be both just and merciful toward His children. Temples also provide a place where husbands and wives can be married for eternity and be bound to their children by the power of God through all eternity. Thus the human family is united, both past, present, and future in the ceremonies of the Mormon temple.
The Mormon temple and its ceremonies represent the very essence of Mormon belief about God, Jesus Christ, and the eternal nature and destiny of all mankind. Within the temple, the ceremonies seek to bind the human family together and to God through covenants with Almighty God. Mormon temple ceremonies cannot be understood in isolation from Mormon beliefs, but when studied together they show the beauty, the power, and the faith that impels Mormons to share their message with the world. The Gospel of Jesus Christ, that He died and was resurrected in order to redeem all mankind, is the greatest message of hope in this world and the Mormon temple reflects the culmination of Jesus Christ’s and man’s covenantal relationship.
Jonathan Barney is a graduate student at Princeton University where he is pursuing a Master’s Degree in Near Eastern Studies emphasizing the Arab world. From 1999 to 2001, he served as a Mormon missionary in Ohio. He has continued to be an active member of the Mormon Church since his return. His interests include religious and cultural history, foreign languages and linguistics and literature.