Tuesday, June 28, 2005


The Gates of Hell

Preachers and writers look at Matthew 16:18 and find a battle between the church and Satan: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” All the forces of the devil, we are told, will attack and try to annihilate the church, but the church will survive.

Others challenge this interpretation and say, “Gates don’t attack. They are defensive structures. It is the church that is attacking the forces of evil, and we will not be held back.”

If we read with our eyes open we will see that both of these views miss the mark because they identify the “gates of Hades” with Satan and his forces of evil. Jesus is not talking about Satan, but about the death of believers, which is under the control of Jesus himself.

The primary meaning of the word “Hades” is the grave or the abode of the dead. Sometimes it refers to a place where souls are conscious after their death. Most of the time it refers to the place where the bodies are placed after death. We should expect the reference in Matthew, then, to be about physical death, unless the context forces us to look for another meaning. (It doesn’t.)

Probably the error of connecting this passage with Satan can be traced to older translations that had “the gates of hell” instead of “the gates of Hades.” However, that is no excuse because we know that Satan is not in any way the ruler of hell.

If Isaiah 14:9-21 connects the king of Babylon (Lucifer) with Satan himself, it would portray Satan entering the world of the dead (Hades). He is anything but a ruler. He who once made kingdoms tremble during his life finds himself in death with less power and less honor than any he meets in the grave. Thus, it would be ridiculous to associate Satan’s power with the phrase, “the gates of Hades.”

The Bible presents Jesus as controlling the death of men and women. Revelation 1:18 quotes Jesus specifically, “I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.” The gates are the point of entrance and are opened to allow (or require) entrance into the realm of the dead. The gates are closed behind us by the Lord. Far from being a fortress of evil in the hands of an enemy, this reference is to part of Jesus’ kingdom. He rules the point of death as well as everything else.

The context of Matthew 16:18 is obviously talking about physical death. Jesus tells the disciples about his impending suffering, death, and resurrection (v. 21). Peter rebukes Jesus to insist that Jesus should not be thinking about dying (v. 22). Peter’s concern leads Jesus to explain that God’s way of thinking requires an embracing of death (vs. 23-26). The “Satan” in this passage is not a supernatural foe mustering armies for a sortie against the church from behind the gates of hell, but is Peter advocating an avoidance of physical death. Both for Jesus and for his disciples, such avoidance would be deadly.

Jesus’ followers must not view themselves as so indispensable to the church that they can’t die. We must take up our cross and follow Him. The gates of Hades (Peter’s death, Matthew’s death, Philipp Melanchthon’s death, Bill Bright’s death, your death, my death) will not overcome the church. The church will continue through the generations, leaving behind a growing “underground church” in cemeteries all around the world. When the Son of Man comes, he will open the gates for the great reunion. Through death and resurrection we come to our rewards (vs. 27-28).

Let’s read with our eyes open.

I recently got your blog from "The Christian Mind" and greatly appreciate your work. I had never heard this interpretation before and even did a paper on the previous verses to discuss the papacy and whether or not protestants should honor it. In my research no one saw the emphasis on physical death. I am curious if you had a commentator who shared this view, or if you exegeted it yourself?
Thanks for the reply. I'm glad you enjoyed my site.
Actually, I have not read in any commentary the view I have put forward. I have heard and read the two views in my opening: Satan is attacking the church & the church is invading Satan's territory. I looking into it for myself (to see which view was more likely), I saw in the context that neither was correct. Once I checked out "Hades" and saw it didn't refer to Satan, I was drawn to the later references to death. This view may be in other works--I don't claim to be the only one who sees it this way--but I haven't come across them.
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