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The work performed in holy temples, perhaps more than any other thing, sets The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon Church) apart from the rest of the Christian world.
The Church currently has 122 temples in operation in over 40 countries around the world. Thirteen more have been announced or are already under construction. Of those in operation, over 60% have been dedicated during the last decade (See Chronological List of Temples). The exponential growth in the number of temples coincides with the tremendous growth of the Church around the world. President Gordon B. Hinckley (who has himself dedicated or re-dedicated over 80 temples) has done much to spread the blessings of the temple to members. Said he: "We have done all that we know how to do to bring temples closer to our people. There are still many who have to travel long distances. I hope they will continue to make that effort" (“Closing Remarks,” Ensign, Nov. 2004, 104).
Holiness to the Lord, the House of the Lord
According to one Church leader, "Each holy temple stands as a symbol of our membership in the Church, as a sign of our faith in life after death, and as a sacred step toward eternal glory for us and our families" (Russell M. Nelson, “Personal Preparation for Temple Blessings,” Ensign, May 2001, 32)
The Mormon Church dedicates all of its buildings to the worship of God and as places where the Holy Spirit can reside and bless and inspire those who enter. But unlike these other buildings, temples are dedicated to be the houses of the Lord: sacred, special, and set apart from the rest of the world. As Houses of the Lord, it is the Lord who sets the standard whereby people may enter. Those who enter the temple must do so worthily. Members must be keeping the commandments and hold what is known as a temple recommend, a card signed by the bishop and stake president stating that the person is worthy. The Lord invites all men and women to become worthy come to the temple.
In the temple faithful members of the Church perform ordinances essential to the salvation of mankind and enter into covenants with the Lord. The temple is like a school where men and women learn about sacred and eternal things. The temple can be considered as a presentation, in figurative terms, of the pattern and journey of life on earth, often referred to as the Plan of Salvation. In Mormon temples, holy truths are taught and solemn covenants are made not only by the individual members on their own behalf, but also on behalf of others who have died.
Mormon Temples and Work for the Dead
When the Lord Jesus Christ was living on this earth He clearly explained that there was only one way by which man can be saved. He said: "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me" (John 14:6).
Two things emerge as essential if one is to believe the previous statement. First, in His name rests the authority to save mankind, as explained in this scripture found in the Bible: "for there is none other name under heaven given... whereby we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). Second, there is an essential ordinance, baptism, which is the gate through which every soul must pass in order to obtain eternal life, as explained in this other scripture: “Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:5).
Since baptism is essential, and the authority to act in the name of Jesus Christ has been restored on the earth through the prophet Joseph Smith, Mormon Church is anxiously engaged in carrying the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people. This proselyting assignment came as a commandment from Him, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matthew 28:19). In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints members accept the responsibility to preach the gospel to every person on earth. The goal is to bring the blessings of the gospel and the ordinances of salvation to the entire world. But is this possible? What about the millions or billions of people who already died without baptism? Are they doomed to “burn in hell”, or at least to be deprived of the greatest blessing of our God?
According to the Bible and Mormon doctrine, mankind can only be saved through the name of Jesus Christ and through baptism, but most of the people who ever lived on the earth knew nothing about these two prerequisites. So, is God mindless of the billions of people who did not have the opportunity to hear the Gospel and be baptized by the proper authority?
The answer to this was revealed by God Himself. Through revelation, God instructed the Prophet Joseph Smith to build temples where ordinances such as baptism could be performed not only for the living, but also for the dead. In the New Testament we read, "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?" (1 Corinthians 15:29).
The reality of the resurrection makes baptism for the dead not only meaningful, but critical to the salvation of billions who have died without receiving baptism while alive. Jesus, during the time between his death and resurrection, went into the spirit world and preached the gospel (see 1 Peter 3:19-20; 4:6). The purpose of the Savior's preaching to the dead in the spirit world was to give them the opportunity of hearing and accepting the gospel, so that later a vicarious baptism could be performed for them. "For for this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit." (1 Peter 4:6.)
To some, having ordinances performed for the dead may seem like an imposition, but that is neither how it works nor how it was intended to work. When Jesus Christ atoned for the sins of the world, He did for people everywhere what they could not do for themselves. The effects and blessings of Christ's Atonement and Resurrection can be received by every member of the human family. The offer of salvation is to all, but because people have agency they must choose for themselves whether they will accept or reject Christ's offer.
Because of Christ's Atonement and Resurrection, and through the power and authority of the Priesthood, Mormons can do for the dead, what the dead cannot do for themselves. This work can only be done in temples. When ordinances are performed for someone who has died, it does not in any way take away their agency or choice in the matter. Just the opposite, if no work is done, the person has no options to choose between. Once work has been done, they may use their ability to choose to either accept or reject the ordinances performed. Mormons believe everyone who has ever lived should have the chance to make that choice. For this reason, temple work and family history will continue to be an intregal part of the Mormon Church.