Few promises of Jesus are as scary and yet so encouraging as the one made to Peter in Matthew 16:18.
“And I say to 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 first part of the promise—Peter and the rock—has been the source of much contentious commentary because it supports the Catholic teaching on the papacy.
But what about the second part? The very words gates of hell are harrowing, conjuring up in our minds a teeming realm of restive dark spirits—insidious agents of torment and temptation about to be released upon the Church. (One also thinks of the monstrous kraken released from Hades in the movie Clash of the Titans.) But what exactly does Jesus mean here?
The city of death
First, some geographical context is necessary. In the ancient world, unlike today, cities were encircled by defensive walls. The gates within these walls were centers of commerce and public debate. In ancient Israel specifically, the gates of the city were a public gathering spot, a market, and where the elders, judges, and king held court, according to biblical commentators. Since city authorities conducted their most important activities at the gates, one French Catholic commentator, Louis de Carrières, concludes that the gates signify the powers of a city.
Because gates were so closely associated with the essential activities of a city, Scripture sometimes refers to cities as gates. Hence in Genesis 22:17, when God promises Abraham that “thy seed shall possess the gates of their enemies” some translations read cities. In Isaiah 14:31, gates are directly equated with the city: “Howl, O gate; cry, O city: all Philistia is thrown down: for a smoke shall come from the north, and there is none that shall escape his troop.”
In returning to Matthew 16, we can now see that, by the phrase gates of hell, Jesus is referring to the entirety of hell—to its ruling powers.
But which hell does Jesus have in mind?
That question may not make much sense in the context of today’s simplified and impoverished understanding of the afterlife but, in the Bible, there are several “hells.”
In the Old Testament, the main word was sheol, which had a double meaning. It was a generic term for the underworld to which the souls of the dead went, including sinners. But it also had a specific meaning as the place where the souls of righteous Israelites awaited Christ (the “limbo of the fathers”).
In the New Testament, the Greek word hades was used instead of the Hebrew sheol. Hades retained the same double meaning as sheol. In addition to hades, the New Testament writers used the word gehenna as a specific term for the place of eternal punishment for sinners.
If this sounds confusing, it’s important to remember that “hell” is really not a physical place as much as it is a state of separation from God. In this context, we can speak of hell in several different ways. In a general sense we could talk about hell as the underworld where all souls go after death separates them from their bodies (sheol and hades in their broader meanings). But, of course, not everyone who died before the time of Christ suffered the same fate. There were those who died in faith and hope for their Savior and others who died in sin. So we can also distinguish between two specific types of hell—the hell of the damned (gehenna) and the hell of the dead fathers (also known as: sheol, hades, and the limbo of the fathers). (For more see, Light in Darkness, by Alyssa Pitstick.)
Usually, in modern usage, when we say hell, we are referring to hell in the sense of damnation. But in Matthew 16:18, the Greek word for hell is hades, so it could be hell in any of the three senses described above.
The eternal Church
Some commentators argue that Jesus means hell in a broad sense as the realm of all the dead.
This interpretation is reinforced by the Old Testament, which contains several references to the gates of sheol or the gates of death. For example, in Psalm 9:14, David prays, “Be gracious to me, Lord; see how my foes afflict me! You alone can raise me from the gates of death.” Again, in Psalm 107:15-18 we read:
Let them thank the LORD for his mercy,
such wondrous deeds for the children of Adam.
For he broke down the gates of bronze
and snapped the bars of iron.
Some fell sick from their wicked ways,
afflicted because of their sins.
They loathed all manner of food;
they were at the gates of death.
The phrase has a similar meaning outside of the Psalms. In Isaiah 38:10, King Hezekiah recalls the despair that enveloped him before he recovered from an illness, “I said: ‘In the midst of my days I shall go to the gates of hell: I sought for the residue of my years.’” It’s clear, from these passages, that gates of sheol (or hell) is a generalized reference to the underworld. When someone in the Psalms or elsewhere prayed to be spared the gates of hell, they were primarily asking to be saved from a physical death at the hands of their enemies—not damnation or the devil.
These Old Testament precedents lead some interpreters to read Matthew 16:18 as a promise that the Church will never perish or go extinct. “Some explain it of ‘the assaults of the powers of darkness’; but though that expresses a glorious truth, probably the former is the sense here,” concludes the nineteenth-century Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary.
The defeat of death
But the immediate context of Matthew suggests another hell—the hell of the fathers.
The chapter begins with the Pharisees and Sadducees demanding a sign of Jesus. He tells them that no sign will be forthcoming except the sign of Jonah—a reference to the three days that the prophet spent in the belly of the whale. Commentators have seen Jonah as foreshadowing the three days between the crucifixion and the Resurrection of Christ. And, in fact, Jesus himself tells the disciples of his forthcoming Passion in the next section of the chapter, starting with verse 21.
So, where was Jesus during those three days? Catholic tradition has always held that He descended to the hell of the fathers, releasing them from their prison into heaven. (Click here to read more about Jesus’ descent into hell.) Context, then, suggests that we are dealing with the hell of the fathers. This is significant because, according to what we profess in the Apostles’ Creed, Christ has already visited this hell.
Reading hell in this way reverses how we see the gates—the gates are not to be thought of as a monstrous opening from which hell vomits forth demonic armies upon the Church. Instead, the gates of death could be thought of as prison doors that once barred the way to heaven. According to this interpretation, Jesus is saying that the gates of hell can no longer hold back members of the Church—just as they could no longer contain the fathers in limbo.
As St. Paul exclaims in 1 Corinthians 15:55, “O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?” St. Hilary of Poitiers, commenting on Matthew 16:18, put it this way: “But in this bestowing of a new name is a happy foundation of the Church, and a rock worthy of that building, which should break up the laws of hell … and all the shackles of death.”
Of course, the phenomenon of physical death is closely linked to sin. Death, Scripture and Sacred Tradition teach us, is one of the consequences of sin. As St. Paul puts it in the next two verses from 1 Corinthians 15, “Now the sting of death is sin: and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who hath given us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Now we can read Christ’s words to Peter as a promise that His victory will be the Church’s victory.
Moreover, in a very direct sense, the Church does through the sacraments what Christ did by His visit to limbo, as Aquinas explained in the Summa Theologica:
Christ’s Passion was a kind of universal cause of men’s salvation, both of the living and of the dead. But a general cause is applied to particular effects by means of something special. Hence, as the power of the Passion is applied to the living through the sacraments which make us like unto Christ’s Passion, so likewise it is applied to the dead through His descent into hell.
Christ’s words thus were a promise that the Church would never fail to prevail in her mission, as an instrument for salvation for the world.
The Church against the kingdom of hell
The Church has also traditionally understood Christ’s promise in Matthew 16:18 as referring to hell in the third sense—the hell of the damned, the den of demons, and the domain of the devil. So, in pledging that the “gates of hell” would not prevail against the Church, Christ was promising that Satan and his minions would not defeat it. “The gates of hell are the torments and promises of the persecutors. Also, the evil works of the unbelievers, and vain conversation, are gates of hell, because they shew the path of destruction,” wrote Rabanus Maurus, a ninth century Benedictine theologian in France.
This interpretation was echoed in the nineteenth century by Pope Leo XII, who wrote, “The meaning of this divine utterance is, that, notwithstanding the wiles and intrigues which they bring to bear against the Church, it can never be that the church committed to the care of Peter shall succumb or in any wise fail.”
Again, both the immediate context and the biblical background also support this interpretation. In Matthew 16, after Christ makes His promise, He tells of His impending Passion—to which Peter cries out that that God forbid such a thing should happen. Jesus’ response is telling: “He turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.’”
This exchange suggests that beneath the surface of Matthew 16, Christ is engaged with a struggle over the future of the Church with Satan. In that context, the promise in Matthew 16:18 is about the hell of the damned, where Satan rules.
Another reason for this interpretation: Jewish interpreters who wrote the Talmud (a few hundred years after Christ) spoke of the “gates of gehenna” (the hell of the damned). “It had three gates, one in the wilderness, one in the sea, and one in Jerusalem,” according to the Jewish Encyclopedia. Against the three gates of gehenna stood the gates of the heavenly Jerusalem John witnessed in Revelation 21:11-13:
Having the glory of God, and the light thereof was like to a precious stone, as to the jasper stone, even as crystal. And it had a wall great and high, having twelve gates, and in the gates twelve angels, and names written thereon, which are the names of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel. On the east, three gates: and on the north, three gates: and on the south, three gates: and on the west, three gates.
Although Revelation 21 is talking about the heavenly Jerusalem, it’s not reading too much into these verses to see a connection between them and Matthew 16:18. Indeed, another way of putting the promise is to say that the gates of the kingdom of God will prevail against the gates of hell. At least this is how Origen read the verse: “But in heavenly things every spiritual sin is a gate of hell, to which are opposed the gates of righteousness.”
Three hells, one promise
We’ve now seen three ways of understanding hell in the phrase the gates of hell: as the hell of the dead, the hell the damned and the hell of the fathers. We need not insist on choosing one interpretation over the others. Instead, all are entirely compatible with each other because the three “hells” in a fundamental sense are the same thing: a state of separation from the grace and glory of God.
Indeed, the Church that endures to the end, the Church that frees the living from the power of sin and death is also the Church that prevails against whatever trials and temptations the devil and the other demonic powers of hell bring against it. Put simply, the gates of hell no longer can keep the people of God—the true members of His Church—out of heaven. What a wonderful promise this truly is!