Matthew 16:18, The Gates of Hell

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.

//Ever wonder about this verse? What is it saying? That the fiery armies of the underworld cannot overcome the church?

Not likely. It’s actually sort of the opposite.

The word “hell” is a translation of the Greek word Hades, which in New Testament writings replaced the Hebrew concept of Sheol, so “hell”, here, should be understood as the realm of the dead. But the important thing to grasp is that, with very few exceptions, everybody went to Sheol/Hades/hell in the Old Testament! It was a holding place where you awaited resurrection; or, if you don’t believe in resurrection, it was where you slowly faded away into forgottenness.

Today’s verse is not saying that evil beings down in hell cannot prove victorious over the church, because in Hebrew thinking, there were no evil beings governing the underworld. Just dead people. Rather, it is saying something extraordinary, making a bold claim: that the gates of hell cannot keep the souls of believers from escaping back to the realm of the living … being resurrected again!

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6 Comments

  1. Tim Walker

    You nailed this one.

  2. Lee Harmon

    :) Glad you agree!

  3. I like that.
    Could it also be saying “even death wont stop the church from growing”? I think the Good News translation says “even the power of death will not stop it” or something similar, meaning “even if my followers are persecuted and killed, my message will keep going strong”.
    (My 2 cents)

    I remember years ago being at a church leaders event, and someone presented a talk on “spiritual warfare” and how the church should be praying against evil spirits etc and his whole talk was based on this verse. During Q&A, I pointed out that the word is hades, not hell, and simply means death or the abode of the dead. I felt bad for him, because he had no knowledge of that, had no answer, and his whole talk disappeared like a puff of smoke.

  4. Lee Harmon

    Hi Martin! If there was an understood figure of speech regarding the “gates of Hades”, then your interpretation makes a lot of sense. Otherwise, the image of a gate (locking people in or out of the underworld) is picturesque. :)

    Re your church leader, I have a habit of categorizing sermons as either historical/informative (in which case I am a stickler for facts) or as spiritual/inspirational (in which case how a verse makes you “feel” through the guiding of the Spirit is more important than proper interpretation) so I’d say the “whole talk” he gave is perhaps still quite helpful, ha!

  5. Excellent post Lee! It’s been a while since I read something that so definitively challenged my thinking. I suspect you are right about this, but it is certainly different from how I thought about this before. I will need to process this a bit before formally abandoning my previous position, but at this point it looks pretty inevitable.

    For the king,

    Chris

  6. Lee Harmon

    Thank you, Chris!

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