“The gates of hell”: Just how won’t they prevail?

by K.W. Leslie, 19 April

Matthew 16.18.

Jesus once asked his students who they thought he was. Simon Peter, his best student, correctly identified Jesus as Messiah and Son of God. Mt 16.16

(Since we Christians recognize Jesus is the Father’s only-begotten son, Jn 1.18 we tend to read that into it, rather than recognize “Son of God” as one of Messiah’s titles. In historical context it’s not what Peter meant. But I digress.)

In response Jesus pointed out how awesome this was (KJV “blessed”) because Peter hadn't just deduced it; this was a case of supernatural discernment, or special revelation. The Father had personally revealed this to Peter. Mt 16.17 Which is kinda awesome.

Then Jesus said this:

Matthew 16.18 KJV
And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

The words Jesus used were pýlai ádu/“hades’s gates.” Latin turned this into portae inferi/“inferno’s gates.”—inferno being their word for the underworld, but in the day’s popular culture, this’d be hell. So that’s how Martin Luther, John Wycliffe, the Geneva Bible, and the King James interpreted it; and the ESV, ISV, Message, and NLT follow their lead.

But as I explained in my article on the four hells, that’s not what hades means. Hades is the grave. The afterlife. The place of the dead. That’s why other translations went with “the powers of death” (Expanded Bible, J.B. Phillips, NCV, RSV) —although that interpretation also has its problems.

What are gates?

I learned this joke when I was a kid: “When is a door not a door? When it’s ajar. Get it? ‘A jar’? It’s a jar, not a door! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.” And the adults would be more amused at my naïve sense of humor than the joke itself.

So, when is a gate not a gate? When a preacher hears an odd bit of explanation which sounds like useful historical context. But isn’t really.

What they’ve been told is “gates” refers to the gates of a city. And in this situation, it doesn’t literally mean gates. It means the people who sit at the gates: The leaders of the city, who sat there to see who came in and out, and who were in a convenient public location in case anybody wanted their judgment. So “gates” means leaders. Or powers. “And all the powers of hell will not conquer it,” as the NLT puts it.

So that’s how these preachers imagine “hell’s gates”: The assembled forces of hell. Satan and its angels, leading the attack against God’s kingdom, just as it was described in Paradise Lost. And, they figure, Revelation 12.7… although Revelation doesn’t actually describe the dragon on the offense, but on the defense. Seriously; read it again.

Revelation 12.7-9 KWL
7 War came to the heavens: Michael and its angels battling the dragon;
the dragon and its angels battling back 8 and failing.
No place was found for them anymore in the heavens.
9 The great dragon was thrown out, the primeval serpent which is called devil and Satan.
The deceiver of all civilization was thrown to earth,
and its angels were thrown out with it.

War came with Michael and its angels polemísai/“making battle” with the dragon: They went on the attack. Not Satan. Satan would’ve been happy to stay in heaven, accusing anyone and everyone. But it’d worn out its welcome. It had to go.

Another thing contrary to popular culture: Satan’s not the ruler of hell. It’s not even in hell. It got thrown to earth; Rv 12.9 it’s here. Helping make the world hell, but that’s hardly the same as seated on a throne, reigning at hell’s gates.

So who’s in leadership at hell’s gates? Well, nobody yet. It doesn’t exist yet. It doesn’t come to exist till the End, when the devil and the rebellious get thrown into it. Rv 20.11-15 Meanwhile there is no hell. There’s the bad part of the afterlife, and for angels there’s the Abyss. Lk 8.31 NLT But these places aren’t cities. They’re prisons. Their gates aren’t a place where the leaders sit around and plan assaults. They’re locked doors, keeping creatures within.

So the idea of “hell’s gates” referring to the leadership of hell—of the collected forces of evil coming to attack us Christians, though Jesus promises they’ll never be able to defeat us—is bunk. It’s some nice imagery when we Christians wanna indulge our siege mentality, and imagine we’re victims instead of conquerors. But it’s not at all what Jesus means. It’s our way of keeping ourselves weak instead of going on the offensive.

Jesus has its keys, y’know.

In John’s vision of Jesus, he saw this.

Revelation 1.17-18 KWL
17 Once I saw the Son of Man, I fell to his feet like a dead man.
He placed his right hand on me, saying, “Don’t fear!
I’m the First and the Last 18 and the Living. I became a dead man and look: I’m living!
Forever and ever. I have the keys to death and the afterlife.”

You might know Jesus mentioned keys when he was blessing Peter.

Matthew 16.17-19 KWL
17 In reply Jesus told him, “You’re awesome, Simon bar Jonah.
For flesh and blood didn’t reveal this to you; instead my heavenly Father did.
18 And I tell you you’re Peter. I’ll build my church upon this pétra/‘rock’
and the afterlife’s doors won’t have the strength to stop it.
19 I’ll give you heaven’s kingdom’s keys.
Whatever you might bind on earth will be bound in the heavens.
Whatever you might loose on the earth will be loosed in the heavens.”

They’re part of a set. Keys to the kingdom; keys to hades. If we have access to the kingdom, we have the power to plunder the afterlife.

’Cause that’s what Jesus meant by ádu: The afterlife, the place of the dead. Not the idea of hades and hell in pagan mythology, nor Christian mythology. Jesus doesn’t mean Dante’s Inferno, where devils torture evildoers in inventive ways, where Satan sits in the ninth circle, trapped in ice and gnawing on Brutus, Cassius, and Judas Iscariot. Jesus doesn’t mean Paradise Lost, where Satan declares it’s better to reign there than serve in heaven. Those are human ideas, and they’ve leached into the church and given us a warped idea of how mighty we imagine Satan and death to be. They’re conquered foes: Jesus is alive!

Hades’ gates are sheol’s gates, Is 38.10 the doors of the grave. When Jesus told Simon Peter hades's doors won't prevail against his church, he isn't saying the forces of hell are coming to attack us Christians—but relax; they’ll never win. That’s some nice imagery when we wanna indulge our siege mentality, and play the victim instead of be the conquerors our Lord empowers us to be. Still not at all what Jesus means. He’s saying the afterlife can't stop us from plundering it.

Hades is the grave, the place Jesus went when he died, the place he left when he rose again, and the place he’s taking his people out of when he returns. Hades’ gates are nowhere strong enough to stop Jesus’s church from pouring out of it when Jesus gives the word.

Nor are they strong enough to stop Jesus’s church from regularly busting ’em open and pulling people out of it. When death has a hold on someone, we’ve been empowered to break that hold. When someone dies, we can pray and sometimes raise ’em from death.

Peter did it himself.

Acts 9.36-42 KWL
36 In Joppa was a student of Jesus named Tavidá, which is a translation of Dorkás.
She was full of good works, and acts of mercy.
37 In those days she became weak and died. Washing her, they put her in the attic.
38 Lýdda being near Joppa, the students heard Simon Peter was in Lýdda.
They sent two men to him, calling to him, “You can’t hold back from coming with us.”
39 Rising, Peter went with them. When he arrived, they took him to the attic.
All the widows stood by him, weeping,
showing the many tunics and robes Dorkás made when she was with them.
40 Peter threw everyone outside and took to his knees to pray.
Turning to the body, he said, “Tavidá, rise up.”
She opened her eyes. Seeing Peter, she sat up. 41 Giving her a hand, Peter raised her up.
Calling the saints and widows, he presented her alive.
42 It became known to the whole of Joppa, and many believed in the Master.

Our Master defeated sin and death. His church can defeat ’em too. So why don’t we? Unbelief. Fear. The usual. Stuff we need to get rid of ’cause they don’t reflect who Jesus is, or who he intends us to be.

Puts the shoe on a whole other foot, doesn’t it?