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Why There May Be a Temple in Heaven (and 5 Things We Know About It)

According to several old Jewish traditions, the earthly temple was a copy, counterpart, or mirror image of the heavenly temple. Victor Aptowitzer summarizes the Jewish point of view by writing that

"[Jewish] literature avers that in heaven there is a temple that is the counterpart of the temple on earth. The same sacrifices are said to be offered there and the same hymns sung as in the earthly temple. Just as the temple below is located in terrestrial Jerusalem so the temple above is located in celestial Jerusalem."1

Various collections of writings mention the existence of a heavenly temple, including the Old and New Testaments, the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, Talmud, and a host of midrashic2 materials. Some of the sources provide only a brief description of the temple, while others explain its significance. 

What is the significance of the temple in heaven?

The following five categories help provide answers to this question: (1) The heavenly temple is the place of holiness par excellence, (2) the heavenly temple is the quintessential place of mediation, (3) the heavenly temple is the ultimate goal of the saints, (4) the heavenly temple is the place of ratification, and (5) the heavenly temple is the place from which revelation goes forth. Each of these categories will now be examined.

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Figure 42. This small ivory pomegranate (A) from the time of Solomon’s Temple ornamented the top of a priest’s staff, possibly serving as a sign of office. The inscription proclaimed it as set apart for sacred use. The simple clay bowl (B) from Megiddo is also set apart by its inscription. Bowls of various materials were used in temple service (see Isaiah 22:24).

1. The heavenly temple is the place of holiness par excellence.

This is clearly seen in one of the principal roots from the Hebrew Bible that is translated with the English words sanctuary and temple—the word *QDŠ, which has the basic meaning of “separation” or “withdrawal” of sacred entities from profane things.3 In its different verbal forms, *QDŠ denotes something that is “holy” or “withheld from profane use”; the idea of showing or proving “oneself holy”; the placing of a thing or person “into the state of holiness”; and the dedication or sanctification of a person or thing, making it sacred.4 A nominal derivation of *QDŠ is the masculine singular noun qōdeš. This labyrinthine term has reference to many aspects of the sacred,5 all of which can be directly connected to its root meaning, the separation of the sacred from the profane. A second biblical noun derived from *QDŠ is miqdāš, commonly translated in English as “sanctuary” or “temple.” The word is found 73 times in the Hebrew Bible.

The biblical scriptures leave no question that God requires His earthly dwelling places to possess a high degree of holiness, to be consecrated and set apart from the profanities of the world. If the earthly temple is holy, the heavenly temple serves as the very definition of holiness. Since God will not dwell in an unholy place (see Alma 7:21; 34:36; Helaman 4:24), one central purpose for a heavenly temple would be to serve as a holy place in which God and the saints will dwell forever.

2. The heavenly temple is the quintessential place of mediation.

The focus of the gospel of Jesus Christ is the Atonement, and the purpose of the Atonement is mediation between God and man. Many different aspects of the gospel in ancient times represented that Atonement—and the eventual oneness the saints would have with God in heaven—without actually being the Atonement. Thus, the law of Moses represented “a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things” (Hebrews 10:1); the Israelite high priest, who on the Day of Atonement administered the Mosaic law, served as a “shadow of heavenly things” (8:5); the earthly temple, as discussed above, represented a copy, image, or “figure” (9:9) of the true or real6 temple in heaven. These three earthly elements of the gospel—the law of Moses, the high priest, and the temple—each pointed to the Atonement of Jesus Christ and His subsequent ministry in the temple in heaven. The sacrificial ordinances of the law of Moses prefigured the sacrifice and crucifixion of Jesus, the office and ministries of the priestly minister typified the Atonement of Jesus Christ, and the earthly temple signified the heavenly temple.

As the earthly high priest entered the temple to make atonement for “the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins” (Leviticus 16:21; see also Hebrews 9:7), even so Jesus Christ, who is called the “high priest” (Hebrews 9:11), offered Himself up for the sins of the world. Paul wrote, “For Christ is not entered into the holy places made with hands, which are the figures of the true; but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us: nor yet that he should offer himself often, as the high priest entereth into the holy place every year with blood of others. . . . So Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many” (Hebrews 9:24-25, 28).

In a unique and special sense, the Israelite high priest, while performing his duties on the Day of Atonement, acted as a mediator between God and Israel. Similarly, but in a complete sense, Christ the high priest entered heaven and made intercession for all of mankind (see Hebrews 7:25). Paul, in his lengthy comparison of the earthly and heavenly temples, declared that Jesus is the “mediator of a better covenant” (Hebrews 8:6), and “the mediator of the new covenant” (JST, Hebrews 9:15). Hence, when the earthly high priest acted as mediator, the earthly temple served as a place of mediation between God and man, while the heavenly temple serves as the true mediation place, with Jesus the high priest serving as mediator.

3. The heavenly temple represents the ultimate goal of the Saints.

The earthly temple is a microcosmic representation of the celestial temple. It is a miniature model, a preparatory edifice where worshipers practice and rehearse rites, looking forward to the moment when they will be permitted entrance into the heavenly temple. In a most wonderful way, the spirit felt in the earthly temple—with its harmony and unity, its joy and peace, its purity and power—will be magnified a thousandfold in the celestial realms, where the throne of God is found. The Utopian setting of the earthly temple, where persons make consummate efforts to see eye to eye and to consecrate their lives unto a Godlike life, anticipates or prefigures the heavenly environment, where harmony and integrity are the rule.

4. The heavenly temple is the place of ratification.

The fact that earthly temples provide a sacred place for holy ordinances is well known. Conceivably, the rites and ordinances performed in the earthly temple will be ratified and sealed in the heavenly temple. Several scriptures suggest this possibility (see Matthew 16:19; 18:18; Helaman 10:7; D&C 1:8; 124:93). The following example illustrates the connection between heaven and earth. Note the relationship between the terms earth and heaven:

"And verily, verily, I say unto you,

that whatsoever you seal on earth

shall be sealed in heaven;

and whatsoever you bind on earth,

in my name and by my word, saith the Lord,

it shall be eternally bound in the heavens;

and whosesoever sins you remit on earth

shall be remitted eternally in the heavens;

and whosesoever sins you retain on earth

shall be retained in heaven."

(D&C 132:46; italics added.)

5. The heavenly temple is the place from which revelation goes forth.

The scriptures make clear that the earthly temple is a place where revelation is received. “Let this house [Nauvoo Temple] be built unto my name,” the Lord said, “that I may reveal mine ordinances therein unto my people; for I deign to reveal unto my church things which have been kept hid from before the foundation of the world” (D&C 124:40-41). The Lord’s people have typically received the word of the Lord while in the temple. Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were the recipients of manifold revelations while in the Kirtland Temple (see D&C 110). King David’s song of praise included a testimony of having a prayer answered in the temple: “In my distress I called upon the LORD, and cried unto my God: he heard my voice out of his temple” (Psalm 18:6, cf. 3:4; D&C 109:77; 1 Kings 8:49). Directly related to this, the prophet Jeremiah revealed God’s word unto the cities of Judah while standing in the temple courtyard (see Jeremiah 26:2).

Other prophets received important instructions from the Lord while in the temple. As mentioned above, the lengthy vision received by John the Revelator was received in the heavenly temple. Other examples include the experiences of Isaiah (Isaiah 6), Micaiah (1 Kings 22:19), Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1, 10), Lehi (1 Nephi 1:8), and the seventy elders (Exodus 24:9). In addition, the so-called biblical incubation texts, or texts in which an individual makes ritual preparation in a sanctuary setting with the intent of receiving revelation,7 disclose additional revelatory experiences in a temple setting. The texts include Jacob (Genesis 28:10-19; 46:1-4), Samuel (1 Samuel 3), Solomon (1 Kings 3), and Moses (Exodus 24:18; 34:28; Deuteronomy 9:9, 18).

It is clear that revelation is often received in the earthly temple—and it is equally clear that the revelation originates in the heavenly temple, since that is the dwelling place of God. Once again we have the imperfection of the earthly temple (where only some revelations are received) standing against the perfection of the heavenly temple (where all revelations originate).

God as a Temple

The heavenly sanctuary, like its earthly counterpart, possesses a number of significant features. It is a place of holiness par excellence, it is a place of mediation, it represents the ultimate goal of those who worship at the earthly temple, it is the place of ratification, and it is the place from which revelation goes forth. More important than this list of significant features, however, is the fact that God Himself is a temple. A number of scriptures so testify. The Lord told Ezekiel that Jehovah would be “as a little sanctuary” to the scattered tribes of Israel (Ezekiel 11:16). The Psalmist wrote, “Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations” (Psalm 90:1; cf. Psalm 91:2). Isaiah stated that the Lord was as a “sanctuary” unto the righteous, “a stone of stumbling and … a rock of offence” unto the wicked (Isaiah 8:14). Similarly, in the New Testament, Jesus told the Jews, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up. Then said the Jews, Forty and six years was this temple in building, and wilt thou rear it up in three days? But he spake of the temple of his body” (John 2:19-21). John, after describing the New Jerusalem, declared, “And I saw no temple therein: for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple of it” (Revelation 21:22).

How is it that God is a temple? As the temple of heaven is a place that serves the divine and eternal purposes of God, so does God Himself have the attributes of that temple—His body and presence represent the ultimate place of holiness, He is the mediator, His godly status represents the ultimate goal of temple worshipers, He is the divine ratifier, and finally, He represents the embodiment of truth and revelation.

We also are temples when we yield ourselves to the Holy Ghost and let Him dwell within us (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:16-17; 6:19; 2 Corinthians 6:16; D&C 93:35). As we become pure and holy through Christ, we eventually join with the Godhead in a blissful union in the celestial world. There, dwelling in the heavenly temple, we join with God as a temple in perfect oneness. We then will receive unto ourselves the attributes of the heavenly temple: We will be holy through the mediation of Christ; we will be at one with God; we will have reached our goal of dwelling with God; all our righteous acts will have been ratified; and, as we live on a great Urim and Thummim (see D&C 130:8-9), we will have access to all light and truth. When we become inhabitants of God’s heavenly temple we will more completely fulfill Christ’s great intercessory prayer, wherein He asked the Father, “that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us” (John 17:21). Surely that is the final great purpose of a temple in heaven.

Lead image from Getty Images

1. Victor Aptowitzer, The Celestial Temple as Viewed in the Aggadah (Jerusalem: International Center for University Teaching of Jewish Civilization, 1980).

2. A midrash is an ancient Jewish exposition of a scriptural passage.

3. See Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, trans. Edward Robinson (Oxford: Clarendon, 1977). Compare also the definitions of templeprovided by Menahem Haran, Temples and Temple Service in Ancient Israel (Oxford: Clarendon, 1977); and G. R. H. Wright, Ancient Building in South Syria and Palestine (Leiden: Brill, 1985).

4. Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, eds., Lexicon in Veteris Testamenti Libros (Leiden: Brill, 1953).

5. In addition to the temple, other aspects of the sacred connected with the Hebrew *QDŠ include God, his name, and his divine actions (see Exodus 15; Leviticus 20); holy places outside of the temple, including the city of Jerusalem (see Isaiah 48) and the land of Israel (see Zechariah 2); things directly associated with sacred places, such as the temple furniture (see Exodus 30; 2 Chronicles 35), the altar (see Exodus 29; Deuteronomy 9), anointing oil (see Exodus 30), incense (see Exodus 30), priestly vestments (see Leviticus 16), and the bread of the presence (see 1 Samuel 21); persons directly associated with sacred places, such as the priests (see Leviticus 21) and the people of Israel (see Jeremiah 2; Psalms 114); and holy days and festivals (see Isaiah 58; Exodus 35). Of course, Deity is always the ultimate source of holiness in a temple setting—“The holy or the Holy One are simultaneously that which awakens fear and that which draws to itself”—as Sigmund Mowinckel has shown, Religion and Cult, trans. John F. X. Sheehan (Milwaukee: Marquette University, 1981). The work was originally written under the title Religion og Kultus (Oslo: Land og Kirke, 1950). For a scholarly definition and treatment of the concept of holy, see Rudolph Otto’s classic work, The Idea of the Holy, trans. John W. Harvey (London: Oxford University Press, 1958); and Roger Caillois, Man and the Sacred, trans. Meyer Barash (Westport: Greenwood, 1980).

6. On the definition of real in a temple setting, see John Lundquist, “What Is Reality?” in this volume.

7. For instance, “Moses, as an incubant, spent the night in the sanctuary (Exodus 24), offered sacrifices (Exodus 24), purified himself (Exodus 19), and washed his clothing (Exodus 19), thus fulfilling the four ‘constitutive parts of the procedure’ of incubation. In return, Yahweh revealed his law to the prophet” (Donald W. Parry, “Sinai as Sanctuary and Mountain of God,” in BSAF, 1). For an extensive study of dream incubation in the ancient Near East, see Robert K. Gnuse, The Dream Theophany of Samuel (Nashville: n.p., 1980).

Lead image from Getty Images

Find out more fascinating facts about temples in Temples of the Ancient World.

Three essays by Hugh Nibley, plus papers presented at the 1993 FARMS symposium, other important papers on the temple, a keynote address by Elder Marion D. Hanks (former president of the Salt Lake Temple), striking illustrations by Michael Lyon (who illustrated Nibley's Temple and Cosmos) -- these features and more make Temples of the Ancient World: Ritual and Symbolism one of the most significant volumes ever published on the temple. Twenty-four essays in this 1994 publication focus on the temple in the Hebrew Bible and ancient Near East, the New Testament, Jewish writings, and the Book of Mormon and ancient America.

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