What the Lord means when He says the”Gates of Hell will not prevail”and why the traditional Catholic understanding is more likely.

030613Recently I have found a persistent line of questioning in reference to the traditional understanding of the Lord’s promise to the Church: the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it (Matt 16:18) . Yesterday on the blog a reader stated the question quite well:

This is just a curiosity question, but why is it that “gates” is always phrased by Catholics as if they were an offensive weapon being wielded against the Church? I’ve never heard them used  as such ….

But in the normal usage of the word “gates” wouldn’t it be that the Church is doing the attacking against [the domain of] Hell, but that Hell’s gates will not be able to hold out (ie, prevail) against the Church’s onslaught [in Christ]? Gates don’t normally go around attacking things on their own…

As I said, this is a good summary of the objections that I am rather  consistently hearing recently. In effect, the objection amounts to taking the word “gates” in a rather literal sense. And thus, interpreting the word gates rather literally, our questioner humorously asserts the gates don’t normally go around attacking things. But language, as is true with many things human, admits of subtleties. And thus it may be helpful to explore the figurative meaning of the word “gates” as well.
The Greek word underlying our English translation “gates” is πύλαι (pulai). And “gates” is a fine translation of the word.
However Strongs Greek Concordance and Greek Lexicon of New Testament indicates that πύλης “gates” in antiquity was also used to indicate authority and power.

Further, while the word may simply refer to the large entrance gate to a city or fortress, it also typically refers to the exit the people go out of. And in this sense, word focuses on “what proceeds out of something.”

And thus we see some of the subtleties of the word pules. Now, for the translator, “gates” is a perfectly adequate translation. But for the reader and interpreter, more is required.

Contextually, it would seem rather clear that Jesus does not have literal gates in mind. First, Hell does not have literal iron gates. Further, since Jesus speaks of the gates as “not prevailing,” it would also seem that he has in mind something more than inanimate metal gates of some sort. For as our reader states, it does not pertain to gates to do much more than just sit there.

Further still, the verb κατισχύσουσιν (katischusousin = will prevail)  is a future, indicative, active verb. Now, inanimate objects tend to be acted upon, and thus they generally take passive verb forms, not active ones.  For  again it does not pertain to inanimate object to act, but to be acted upon.

And thus, contextually, it seems clear that our Lord here uses the word “gates” in a figurative, rather than a literal sense. Figuratively, he probably means that the powers of Hell would not prevail against the Church. And, as stated above this is a common figurative meaning of the Greek word  πύλης (gates) in ancient usage.

However, we need not understand this text in merely an “either-or” way. Many biblical texts admit of a number of different interpretations which need not be seen as mutually exclusive, even if they are rather different.  For, one of the geniuses of human language and expression is that it can admit of many potential meanings.

And so, there may be a certain pastoral sense in which we can read this text in a way that it describes the Church, attacking the strongholds of the Hell in this world, and of gaining back territory for the Kingdom.

However, in this interpretation, we would once again want to avoid an overly literal sense of the term “Gates of Hell.”   For in nowise, would the Church seek to storm The actual entrance of Hell so as to enter it. Rather, the gates of hell are to be sealed off by the Lord And locked from the outside  (e.g. Rev 20:3).  Of course, once again, these are not likely literal iron gates of some sort, But are at some sort of barrier or boundary marker indicating the limits of Hell, and it’s influence.

In this limited, and I would argue secondary sense, one might might see the Church as storming the “gates of Hell” and Hell not being able to prevail against her.

Another interesting question that arises in this passage is a precise definition of the Greek word used for “Hell” in this passage. The Greek Word is ᾅδου (hadou or hades).

Here too,  many insist that  the term only means “the place of the dead,”  and is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew concept of Sheol. Thus according to this position, Hades refers only to the place where all the dead went prior to the coming of Christ, and never means the place of the damned.

But again, the actual New Testament texts seem to bespeak a greater flexibility than an either-or argument would imply.

It is certainly true that “Hades” most often translates the Hebrew concept of Sheol.  In this sense, Hades does not mean the theological place of the damned, where Satan and the other fallen angels dwell.

But it would also seem that there are uses of “Hades”to refer to the place of the damned, to the place of utter and permanent exclusion from the presence of God.

For example, in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man is in torment in “Hades.” But here, the torment does not seem a mere temporary abode until the Messiah comes to call him. Jesus seems to describe a fiery place of torment,  and the rich man is not sleeping in death but is quite alive and aware.  Neither does he, or Father Abraham, seem to look to a day when this separation will be ended. Rather, there is mention of a “great abyss” over which no one can cross. The arrangement seems quite definitive, quite permanent, and the description more like that of Gehenna (γέεννα), the more common term Jesus uses to indicate Hell.

Further, in the Book of Revelation 20:14–15,  there is the description of death and Hades being thrown into the lake of fire. And thus, even if there is a distinction between Hades and Gehenna, they now seem, in a text like this, to be quite coterminous, indeed they become one reality.

So in the text that concerns us here,  when Jesus speaks of the powers of Hell not prevailing, it would not seen that he has in mind simply Sheol (Hades), or purgatory. For why would Sheol or purgatory wage war against the Church?

Hence, contextually, it seems stronger argument that the Lord in using “Hades”  to mean here what we moderns mean by the word “Hell,”  namely, the theological place of the damned, to include Satan, the fallen angels, and human persons who have chosen to exclude themselves from the Kingdom of God.

As with all Biblical texts, reasonable scholars will differ, even within the Catholic Church. What I have tried to do here, is to show that the traditional Catholic understanding that the powers of Hell would not prevail against the church is at least a valid interpretation of the text, and at best, a better interpretation of the text. 

31 Replies to “What the Lord means when He says the”Gates of Hell will not prevail”and why the traditional Catholic understanding is more likely.”

  1. Thank you Msgr. Pope. If Hades = Hell, and if the Apostle’s Creed is true and reliable (as we believe it is), and if the Church is the Bride of Christ (as we believe it is), then wouldn’t it also be fair to say that the “gates of Hell” have already been kicked in by the Bridegroom on behalf of His Bride…that Christ has deprived Satan not only of power, but also of refuge?

  2. Msgr. Pope,

    To show the indefectibility of the Church, we can use 1 Tim 2:3-4. If it is God’s will for ALL MEN to be saved and come to knowledge of the truth, the truth has to be there on Earth for them to learn at all times from Calvary to the End. There’s no Bible until the 5th century, and up until the 14th century, there’s no vernacular printed Bible; if you want to get the truth from the Bible, only the Catholic Church has it. The Church is the means of accomplishing God’s will of making the truth of salvation available to everyone. And that totally excludes the so-called great apostasy that non-Catholic Christians have to use to claim authority.

  3. To be fair, even in my question I never meant *literal* gates with hinges and bars and what not. 🙂

    The metaphorical use is clear, what isn’t quite as clear is whether the metaphor is for something like a stronghold that will be pulled down–think of the related scripture of Jesus razing hell, which is almost always figuratively portrayed as gates broken and cast down (cf. the broken gates at the beginning of Dante’s Inferno)–or of the view here, where the gates are a symbol not of a defensive stronghold, but of offensive, projected power, or perhaps a bit of both.

    1. Thanks.. To be sure I used your original question more as a launching pad for a roader discussion. Please forgive any interpolations or presumptions ascribed to you personally. As you make it clear, your questions are asked within an respectful and non hostile stance..

      1. Not at all! You do a good job of steering from my narrow question into a broader view of the issues and exegesis. I just wanted to post the comment to clarify how literally I meant ‘gates’ in my initial question (ie, not very).

        FWIW, your section on ‘katischusousin’ being an active verb is what most arrested my attention. That is a strong point in favor of an offensive (ie, acting) power being the most reasonable interpretation.

        Thanks again for going into this.

  4. I always understood Jesus’ words “the gates of hell” to mean that “the enemy” will never be able to take over The Church the way he has taken over every other enterprise throughout the history of mankind; governments come and governments go… the Catholic Church has endured.

    Many Protestants use Rev. 18:4 as justification for leaving the Catholic Church:
    ‘Come out of her, my people,’ so that you will not share in her sins, so that you will not receive any of her plagues;

    But, this interpretation incorrectly teaches that the “gates of hell” DID prevail against the church, contradicting what Jesus said. They fail to see that Jesus taught that the wheat would grow up with the tares. The Church is full of sinners as well as saints, but the Church itself is the pillar and bulwark of truth. Jesus warned His disciples repeatedly not to be deceived into following false shepherds.

  5. Thanks for the insight into this rather popular clause. The roots of the Greek word certainly help in understanding what the author was trying to say, and it does seem at odds with the modern interpretation of storming Hell’s “gates”.

    At the same time, the modern interpretation does help remind us that we in fact are the spiritual warriors piercing the sword of Truth into the hearts and minds of unbelievers, rather than keeping our faith to ourselves and holing up inside the safe walls of Mother Church.

  6. I never had any problem with understanding that “gates” was being used metaphorically by Our Lord to refer to the powers or kingdom of hell and Satan. It’s as if in medieval times you were to say figuratively that such and such kingdom or such and such castle or fortress prevailed over some other kingdom, castle or fortress — its obviously not the physical kingdom or building that is doing the fighting. And of course it’s helpful to know as I do from my Steve Ray-led Holy Land pilgrimage (highly recommended) that at Caesarea Philippi where Jesus said the words to Peter, there was a temple to the God Pan built in a cave of the cliff (which may have inspired the “Rock” reference, and that the Jews referred to the pagan site as the “gates of Hades”.

    1. Schaller deals with the differences betewen all sizes of congregations. He tells the differences betewen the pastoral roles and the expectations of pastors in such congregations. Then he concentrates on the large church with a multiple staff. He deals with the role of the senior pastor and the rest of the pastoral staff. As an intentional interim pastor I have found this book to be extremely helpful for lay people who are involved in personnel committees and pastor search committees. Although the book has been around a while it is still valuable.

  7. The image of the Nazgul bursting forth from Minas Morgul reflects the gates of hell quite well.
    The gates of hell is available near here in various shapes. One of them is postponing what has to be done today to another time.”There are bigger sinners out there. I am quite small. I wont die now. I still have time to repent.”
    When Jesus was faced with stones and hungry the tempter told to make bread. That was gates of hell speaking. In similar fashion the gates finds us in situations of sin and proceeds to entice us to sin. In such situation we have made the necessary first step into sin-dom. Each individual can be gates of hell to neighbours by poor example. Each can also be gate of heaven by example. Priests have special duty of being gates of heaven as in the sacrament of reconciliation and other sacraments.
    May you be blessed this Lenten Period Monsignor. Please greet your neighbour on my behalf. Amen
    Donna may remember that the church has been compared to a net that was cast into the world. It has caught various types of fish. Some are sin-loving that even Satan need not tempt them. Others are so holy that even the good angels approach them reverently. At the end of time the Lord of the harvest will separate the wholesome from the unfit. The unfit will be cast behind the gates of hell for all eternity.

    1. When I asked the question I can’t help but admit I had a picture of the Black Gate of Mordor in my mind… not the same as Minus Mogul, but pretty close.

  8. Leave it to my fellow Catholics to use this as an opportunity to wonder if there’s a hell or not. There is. The Church has always taught that there is. The more interesting question involves what scope is involved in this passage in Scripture. It says the Church will always exist somewhere, but we all should know from history that it doesn’t always endure in some places, for instance parts of North Africa where it died out and only now is coming back after more than a millennium. What does that mean for us? Anything?

  9. What thing I like about the coming Judgement is that it shows that God has a certain amount of respect for us. God wouldn’t judge us if He didn’t already know that He had already given us everything we’ll need to pass the Judgement, as long we are cooperative.

  10. My Byzantine Catholic tradition understands the gates as the power of death. In our iconography we often see this in The Lord’s descent into hades where satan is bound and gates of hades are shattered into many pieces. For us the word Church is not used as the institutional sense as it is used by Roman Catholic apologetics but rather as victory each baptized( member of Christ) experiences during death.

    1. I have my doubts about this interpretation. Indeed, the whole context of Matthew 16 seems to be quite ecclesial. The focus is on Simon Peter, Not the individual believer in some generic sense. Further, Peter is given juridical authority, an authority that will later be shared with the other apostles, To some degree. Further, Lord speaks of building his church Not merely confirming individual believers. And, if the powers of hell simply refers to the power of death It is hard to understand why the Lord Links An individual blessing, as you describe it, namely, the rising of an individual believer from the dead To what he describes as a corporate protection. In other words, it is not just you and I will triumph, But the Lord says the church Will triumph. Perhaps, in conclusion, I find your analysis far too individualistic, whereas I see the Lord describing Something more corporate, pertaining to the whole body, the church.

      1. ” the Lord says the church Will triumph”
        The church though is the people of God – those who listen with their whole heart and mind to the voice of God within and are aware that we are all one with each other and with God.


    2. This is totally unrelated, but I heard it said that Eastern Catholics are not bound to some of the recent Marian dogmas in the same way as Western Catholics. Is that correct?

      It would make sense, because the understanding and conceptual framework of some of the underlying issues is different East to West, but I also wasn’t sure how there could be such a thing as a non-universal dogma.

      (I do not mean Eastern Orthodox, which clearly are not, but the Eastern Catholics like Byzantine Catholic.)

    3. Yes, “Death”, then, being the gates. Punitive death, in the hands of of what was dead (world religion, sIn, world government, abused power; the world introduced to the entropy of sIn) was turned to martyrdom, fueling and NOT prevailing against the Church (the Bride, no denomination just love for her Husband, the Sheep of the Good Shepherd; the eventual Remnant of Adamah [Humanity]) as she makes her way down the “aisle”, the corridor in our Hi(gh)story that leads us to the great marriage of the Lamb. The purity gained in this trial of Fire will be presented to the groom, who has already covered us in His blood, breaking the power of sIn over us. We will be presented, incorruptible, to a new Creation, in a position a little higher than that of the angels, awaiting the glory that no ear has heard, nor eye has beheld…

      When He will be with us, and we will be with Him…

  11. This comment is not meant to contradict anything that Msgr. Pope has written, but just to add some potential further layers of meaning.

    While the Greek usage of the word “gates” is of course useful, let us not forget that Jesus would not have been speaking Greek. The largest literary (and therefore presumably linguistic) influence on Jesus was the Hebrew Bible. The word “gate” is used there primarily in three ways:

    1) to refer to the various gates of the Temple
    2) to refer to the gates of a major city either holding or not holding under sustained assault
    3) as the place where the city elders gathered to hear cases (the Old Testament prophets frequently lament the lack of justice ‘at the gate’ for the poor, the widow, and the orphan)

    The first is probably irrelevant to this passage. The second would lend support to the point of view that Hell is on the defensive against the Church. The third adds a new dimension so far not mentioned in this discussion. Just as St. Paul often saw the demonic “powers and principalities” as being behind many of the sufferings and evils of this world, Jesus could be referring here to the idea of the Church prevailing against the injustices of this world which are ultimately Satanic at their root. The gates of hell (or the dead) can be contrasted with the gates of the new Jerusalem where justice reigns.

    Again, none of this is meant to contradict anything said before, just to add a new layer.

    1. Interesting, but I find the speculation as to the Aramaic roots highly speculative and also something that the Holy Spirit has not chosen to supply us. Trying to read backward into an unsupplied text is guesswork. Further the inspired text is the Greek. Perhaps someday an Aramaic text will be found, but I doubt it and even if it was, its inspired quality would not necessary follow. The Holy Spirit, for reasons of His own chose Greek to convey what we must know and what is to be the basis of our meditation and for this reason I think we should stick to that text. I mean no disrespect to interesting speculations.

  12. The phrase “gates of hell” is recalls two similar usages in quite different cultures. In Japan, the “mikado,” meaning “palace door” refers to the emperor. In Ottoman Turkey, the “Sublime Porte” refers to the gates of the diplomatic quarter in Istanbul where foreign ambassadors were received and thus to the sultan himself. In language we often use a part to refer to the whole (synecdoche) or one word to suggest another closely related to it “metonymy.” Hence we speak of the White House, Capitol Hill, the Vatican, the Elysee, the Kremlin, Kasumigaseki, Nagatcho, Whitehall, Foggy Bottom, 10 Downing, Wall Street, and “the City” to refer to their respective powers. In Jesus’ time, the gates of hell may be a clear reference to the temple or rather various shrines of Pan at Caesarea Philippi, in which region he was literally standing when he made the gates of hell reference.

  13. “Further, since Jesus speaks of the gates as “not prevailing,” it would also seem that he has in mind something more than inanimate metal gates of some sort. For as our reader states, it does not pertain to gates to do much more than just sit there.”

    Gates can prevail. One of the definitions of prevail is to “maintain” or “be more powerful than.” A gate can both “maintain” in the face of opposition and “be more powerful than” its opposition.

  14. When the shepherd sits in the gateway, he becomes ‘the gate’ for his flock.

  15. We all have a mind and a free will, but the will is a “blind faculty”. We all need light for the mind for the will to choose. Where do we get the light? The Magisterium. The Light will never go out. Christ could/ can neither decieve nor be deceived, and neither can the Church. The gates of Hell will not prevail against It.

  16. This article has corrected some misinterpretations, I have had about this verse. However, I cringe intellectually and to the depths of my soul when reading the statement, “as with all Biblical texts, reasonable scholars will differ”! Being raised Catholic, leaving the church at eighteen and becoming an Evangelical and returning to the Catholic Faith after receiving a degree in philosophy from a prestigious Evangelical college, it must be true that after 2000 years of Catholic research and development into the truth of God and His Revelation, not “all” biblical texts are up for differing opinions. This was the philosophical weakness of protestant/evangelicalism and one of the many reasons I returned to the Catholic Church in that there exists an authority that does have dogmatic and doctrinal assertions that must be true objectively. The monsignor implies only subjectivity in “all” understandings of biblical texts!!! The fact that there is no differing on whether Jesus rose from the dead, claimed to be God etc. implies that there are some texts WHICH NO ONE CAN DIFFER or scripture is rendered a subjective enterprise; the logic consequence of protestantism/evangelicalism without authority outside one’s own interpretation.
    From a philosophical and objective standpoint, the whole intent of the article is to clarify WHAT DID JESUS MEAN! If the Catholic Church is unable to come to agreement on SOME of the intent of Jesus, our faith drowns in subjective meaninglessness.
    God bless, Michael

    1. Ok “all” was a poor choice of words. But why all the venom? Why not just ask me to clarify. Why not address me personally instead of referring to me in the 3rd person as “the monsignor” ??? Capital letters indicate yelling. Why yell? Why not just ask: “Dear Monsignor, did you really mean to say “all”” ?? And then I could have said no.

  17. The “gates of hell” shall not prevail against it (Matt 16:18) The gates shall not keep the Christ from rising from the dead on the 3rd. day. The catholic church is built around Christ (the true body and blood of Christ). Christ is present in every catholic church. The Catholic Church has Divine living authority and power that came down from heaven and made dwelling place with us. Remember that Christ was speaking before entering into the abyss. It was about locking the Christ into the abyss.

  18. The gates of hell shall not prevail against it alludes to an offensive meaning rather than defensive. Defensive by hell to keep the church in its offensive against hell to free those in bondage to Satan. Gates are for defensive purposes & not offensive; so here we see two actions: a defensive hell & an offensive church.

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