Recently 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…
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.