Evangelical Questions: Why are temples still needed?
by Jennifer Roach, MDiv, LMHC
Luke 2:22, 27
And when the days of her (Mary’s) purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him (baby Jesus) to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord…And he (Simeon) came by the Spirit into the temple: and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him after the custom of the law.
Again we will be looking at a section of scripture in the Come Follow Me readings that corresponds to a common question Evangelicals have about our faith. Last time we talked about how an Evangelical’s value of showing loyalty to Christ makes them suspicious of some of our claims. This week we’re going to talk about the temple – why Evangelicals are skeptical of the need of a temple, why they think that way, and some of the ways you can have better conversations with them that lead to a natural but confident sharing of your testimony.
What Do Evangelicals Understand About Temples?
Many Evangelicals actually have a keen interest in learning about the temple as it is portrayed in the Old Testament. They understand much of the symbolism and value what God was trying to teach through those symbols. They also have a knowledge of how the temple functioned in the New Testament and what role it plays in the story of Jesus. You might find your Evangelical friends or family an interesting source of conversation about the temple as it is talked about in the Bible. Another area of commonality with them is that they believe the temple will be restored in Jerusalem at some future point which is related to the End Times. All of these are great jumping off places for a conversation about temples.
Where Temples Get Uncomfortable for Evangelicals
Despite our commonalities in talking about temples in the Bible, Evangelicals would start to get nervous when we talk about modern-day temples. Here is an example: when I was a girl I lived in California not far from the Oakland Temple. If you’ve ever seen the Oakland Temple you know it sits high up on a hill overlooking the entire Bay Area of San Francisco. It’s illuminated at night and very hard to miss. We were taught by our leaders that we should avert our eyes away from the temple and not even look at it – despite it being the brightest thing on the hill – because, “strange and evil things happen inside of those temples.” Clearly this was a misguided statement, but it represents the kind of fear Evangelicals have when it comes to our temples. But when you sit down to have a conversation with them about the temple it often boils down to one real question: Didn’t Jesus do away with the temple?
Did Jesus do away with temples?
I’m going to try to explain what most Evangelicals would say about why temples are no longer needed – and why they say it. If you remember back to our first video in this series, one of the dynamics at play here is that they are trying very hard to show proper loyalty and respect to Jesus Christ. Assuming they have some other motive is going to make a conversation like this harder, not easier. So, assuming their good motives we look at why talk about temples makes them so nervous.
First, you have to understand that Evangelicals prioritize the work and words of Jesus. Despite the numerous times in the Old Testament that the temple is talked about in ways that they can learn from, the ultimate temple story is when the temple veil rips in half during the crucifixion. Matthew 27:51, “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split.” The temple veil referred to here is of course the veil that separates the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple. In Old Testament days the Holy of Holies was only entered 1 time per year and only by a very special priest and there were very strict rules around this. Normal people certainly didn’t have access to the Holy of Holies at any point during their lives. Evangelicals interpret this verse as if it’s saying that the entire temple is unneeded. They would say something like, “If the veil is ripped, then there is no need to protect the Holy of Holies, anyone can have the special direct access to God that was allowed in that place.” While we would disagree with that interpretation there is something to admire in it. Evangelicals are trying to make it so that every person has as much access to God as they want, and all it takes is a turn of the heart to be in full communion with God. They would say that because of Jesus’ sacrifice we humans no longer need anyone to help us connect with God. And in theory, we wouldn’t disagree with that, right? We too believe that every human can choose to pray inside the quietness of their own mind and that God will listen.
The differences come when Evangelicals start to make practical applications of this theology. Because the temple veil was ripped in two, there is now no barrier between us and God. and therefore it is not necessary to go to a temple to feel God’s presence, we can access it anytime from anywhere through the Spirit. In their view temples are unneeded simply because no physical space can cause a person to have, or not have, the Spirit. Again, in theory we wouldn’t disagree, but they use this to say that therefore temples are not needed. They see us as putting up a barrier to people who want to be closer to God – when Jesus’ work on the cross took that barrier down. Their hearts are certainly in the right place.
Temple Worship in the New Testament
Even though there is a certain logic to this claim, and a good motive behind it, it doesn’t really pan out . If the New Testament ended immediately after Jesus’ resurrection, they might have a more convincing claim. However, we have a lot of information about what a life of faith looked like in the post-resurrection world. And that information includes temple worship. Let me show you what I mean.
In Acts 22 we get a fascinating story from the Apostle Paul. First he retells the details of his conversion (we converts love to do this!) and after he’s done he goes on to tell a less well-known story. He tells of visiting the temple in Jerusalem and says that while he was praying in the temple he was, as the King James version says, in a trance. What exactly does that mean? We don’t totally know but Paul tells us that God told him to leave Jerusalem because the people there were not going to receive what he had to say, and that he should go preach to the Gentiles.
For most Latter-day Saints there is nothing at all odd about a story where someone goes to the temple and God communicates to them. If you don’t have a story like that of your own, you certainly know someone who does. Saying, “It’s easier to hear God speak in the temple sometimes,” would not be a controversial statement for a Latter-day Saint to make. But that statement is hard for Evangelicals because they hear us talk about temples and think we’re trying to make it harder to hear God, not easier. At this point in the conversation your Evangelical friend or family member might ask, “Well, then why are there so many rules about who can go in the temple and who can’t? Don’t you want everyone to hear from God?” Yes, we do want everyone to hear from God, and we believe that living the kind of life that makes you temple worthy gives you the very best chance at hearing from him. And that having a physical place to go where it’s quiet and everyone is focused on God also gives you a better chance. It’s not that we want to keep people out per se, it’s that we want to help people construct lives where they regularly hear from God. The requirements for temple entry are an aid toward being able to hear from God, not a deterrent from it. Can God speak to a person anywhere? Of course. He spoke to Saul, before he became Paul, out on the side of the road. But that same Paul also recognized the value of going to the temple where he could pray and hear from God. It’s taken us to this point to make the connection, but the reality here is Evangelicals and Latter-day Saints all desperately want the same thing – a connection with the Divine. We have some disagreements on how to best facilitate such a connection, but the desire is the same. They’re worried that we’re trying to keep people away from God, but it’s an unfounded fear.
One of the things you might be starting to notice, even here in Video #2, is that many of the questions that come up for Evangelicals about our faith are born out of focusing on a different set of Bible verses than we would focus on. Set aside the fact that we have additional scriptures that they don’t have, even if we’re just looking at the Biblical text you can see that we Latter-day Saints focus on different texts, and different details in the text. And for many of the issues we’ll cover in this series one doesn’t even have to look beyond the Biblical text to have a good conversation about our difference. How can this be? If Evangelicals are sincere seekers of God, how is it that we see things so differently, even when we’re just looking at the Bible? Yes, modern revelation is part of it. We have information they don’t have. But perhaps there is something else going on too. The Bible is a really big book, with a lot of details that are odd to our ears. And most people condense the stories down into memorable parts, they attach a spiritual lesson to it, and sort of put it in the “done” column. They stop thinking about what a passage could possibly mean because they think they have it figured out. It’s not just Evangelicals that do this – all humans do this when trying to understand large amounts of information, we have to develop a system of shorthand in order to manage it all. We all do some degree of selective reading. And it really can take an act of humility to take a text and look at it again with fresh eyes.
When I was an Evangelical I never would have picked up the detail about Paul having a vision/trance in the temple. It’s not that I disbelieved it, I just wouldn’t have noticed it because it didn’t fit into the other bits of knowledge I was already trying to build on. I had no real place to put that information because my preconceived idea was already that temples weren’t important. As members of the church sometimes I think we shy away from a very careful reading of the Bible, not out of laziness or disinterest, but because we already have a feast of scripture that is far more explicit about these things in our modern-day scriptures. Understandable enough. But after listening to all of this you can see how having a conversation with a friend who is not of our faith about the Bible actually can lead you to some parts of scripture that perhaps they overlooked – not in a fighting or contentious kind of way, but in a way that reads closely and might see how the pieces are put together differently. I hope that as you are going through the New Testament this year you are doing a close and careful reading of the text – not just assuming that you already know what it says, but with a mind open to the Spirit to see the important details. You might be surprised at how much they bolster your faith and your confidence in talking about your testimony.
Join us next week as we look at another question that comes up in the readings. If you have a specific question that you are hoping will get addressed please contact FAIR directly or email me at [email protected]
More Come, Follow Me resources here.
Jennifer Roach earned a Master of Divinity from The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, and a Master of Counseling from Argosy University. Before her conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints she was an ordained minister in the Anglican church. Her own experience of sexual abuse from a pastor during her teen years led her to care deeply about issues of abuse in faith communities.