The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose members are sometimes called Mormons, are well-known for their temples. Temples are different than ordinary meetinghouses.
On Sundays, Mormons meet in chapels or meetinghouses in their local community. These chapels are open to everyone and are used for Sunday worship and for other meetings and activities.
However, the temples are closed on Sundays. They do not host regular worship services, parties, or other activities. Considered to be literally the house of God, these buildings are used for sacred ordinances, making covenants with God, and for learning the gospel of Jesus Christ at a high level.
A covenant is a sacred promise made between God and man. God sets the term of the covenant, but once made, we have a sacred obligation to keep our portion of it. If we do so, God always keeps His. A covenant with God is not to be taken lightly. For this reason, God requires a person who enters into the temple to be properly prepared and knowledgeable so that he makes this covenant fully understanding what he is promising to do and what the consequences for breaking the covenant are. Mormons entering the temple to make covenants must be adults who have belonged to the church for at least one year and have achieved a certain level of obedience to the commandments of God. Teenagers may enter to perform certain ordinances but may not enter the rest of the temple. Children and teens go into the temple only to be “sealed” to their families, which means to be made a family that will continue after death.
Because Mormons have been members for a year prior to entering the temple and have achieved a certain level of obedience to the commandments, they have a foundation in the basics of the gospel. Going to the temple without a foundation and a testimony would be like taking an advanced physics class at a top university without ever having taken a beginner’s class—it simply wouldn’t make any sense.
In addition, it would be unkind to ask a very high level of obedience that is sealed with a covenant when they have not yet mastered the basics of Christian living. These covenants, which revolve around caring for and honoring families and obeying the commandments of God, are serious commitments and must not be taken lightly. Contrary to gossip, there is no blood oath or imaginary throat-slitting ceremony. The consequences for breaking covenants are not physical—they are administered by God when we stand before Him for judgment after our deaths.
One temple ordinance is called an endowment, a word which means “gift.” During the endowment, Mormons are taught about Jesus Christ and commit to honor Him and to follow Him. In addition, Mormons may, as mentioned earlier, be joined as an eternal family. We learn from Jesus Christ in the Bible:
“And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:19).”
Families joined together on earth are meant to be eternal. God created a powerful feeling of love in the hearts of His children for their families and commanded man to put them before anyone else. He intended them to last forever—how could we possibly go to Heaven, a place of joy, and be happy if we were alone without those we love most? The marriages that take place in the temple are for eternity, without a specified divorce date of death. In addition, children born to these marriages are joined with their families forever. Children who are adopted can be eternally “sealed” to their new families when the adoption is finalized. Those who join the church after they are married are sealed in the temple and also sealed to their children when they have met the requirements for entry into the temple.
An additional ordinance performed in the temples is that of baptism for the dead. This ordinance may be performed by anyone who is at least fourteen years of age and has been found worthy by obedience to the commandments. Mormons believe a just and loving God would not punish those who died without an opportunity to learn the gospel and to be baptized. This is an issue many faiths have struggled with for centuries. The Bible states that we must accept Jesus Christ as our Savior, repent, and be baptized in order to return to God.
Repentance, then, is another act required for salvation.
Mark 16:16 says, “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.” How then, does a loving God give each of His children a fair chance to be saved? Some lived before the time of Christ. Others never heard of Him at all. Some lived in situations that simply made it very hard for them to give any attention to whether or not Jesus was the Christ. While we cannot judge who received a testimony from the Holy Ghost of Jesus Christ’s divinity, God knows. He knows who did not have a true opportunity to gain a testimony.
Because God loves all His children, He has planned a way for all of them to have a fair chance to be saved. The answer is found in the Bible itself. In 1 Peter 3:18-19, we learn that Jesus preached to those who were dead and in spirit prison, where those who have not been saved must go:
18 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:
19 By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison;
From this we learn that dying does not mean a person has lost the chance to learn the gospel. What would be the purpose of preaching it to them if they had no chance of salvation anyway? Clearly, Jesus taught them in preparation for them to be saved, just as He taught the people who lived on earth so they could be saved.
But how can they meet the requirement of baptism, an ordinance that must be done on earth? Jesus’ atonement was a proxy ordinance. He took our sins on ourselves because we could not. This demonstrates that proxy ordinances are acceptable to God. Turning to 1 Corinthians 15:29, we learn the answer to how baptism can be done if you are already dead:
Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?
This verse comes to us through Paul, who was working to convince the Corinthians that Jesus was the Christ and the resurrection was real. Some have tried to suggest he was mentioning a false practice, but it would make no sense to use a false practice to prove a real doctrine. He mentioned it because it was in common practice at the time—so common he did not need to explain it. He wanted them to understand why they were doing—because the resurrection is real and baptism is an essential part of salvation.
Baptism for the dead is a proxy ordinance. It is performed by people who are still alive and who have already been baptized themselves. Mormons perform this in the holy temples, being baptized in the name of a specific person. To obtain these names, Mormons do genealogy and are instructed to submit only the names of their own ancestors, their family.
When the baptism is performed, it does not make that person a Mormon. It merely gives them the opportunity to accept the ordinance if they choose, just as if they’d been offered a chance to be baptized into the church during their lifetimes. If they accept, the baptism is valid. If they reject it, it is as if it never happened. Because we have no way of knowing who did and did not accept the ordinance, these people are not recorded on the rolls of the church. A fair and loving God will always give every child a chance to be saved and this is what baptism for the dead accomplishes.
Temples are a place of refuge for Mormons, who try to attend as often as possible. Because everyone in the temple shares a common faith and a high level of Christian lifestyle, it is a time to withdraw briefly from the challenges of an increasingly secular world and to strengthen their testimonies and their courage to face the trials of life. This can be preserved only by reserving it for those who have willingly sacrificed worldly priorities in order to become more Christ-like and for those with the spiritual education necessary to understand the work that goes on there.