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Scripture Does Not Tell Us to Storm the Gates of Hell

April 2, 2017 18 Comments

Recently in my Our Sunday Visitor “Question and Answer” column came the following question from a Catholic convert, 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).

“Before my recent conversion, my (protestant) pastor said that Catholics misunderstand the text about the gates of Hell not prevailing against the Church. He said that it is silly that Catholics think of gates as if they were an offensive weapon being wielded against the Church. He said gates cannot attack us, they just sit there. Rather, he said, we are called to attack them. Gates are something to storm to enter a fortress. Thus, he said the text means that we are to storm Hell’s gates and take back territory from the devil and that the gates of Hell could not ultimately prevail against our attack.”

This interpretation has made the rounds in certain Protestant circles in recent years. In effect, it boils down to taking the word gates in a rather literal way. The pastor humorously pointed out that gates don’t normally go around attacking things. Such a comment elicits a good laugh, but humor or ridicule does not always disclose the truth. As it the case with many things, language admits of subtleties. Let’s explore the figurative meaning of the word gates.

The Greek word underlying our English translation is πύλαι (pulai), and gates is a fine translation.

However, Strong’s Greek Concordance and Greek Lexicon of New Testament indicates that in antiquity, pulai was also used to indicate authority and power.

Contextually, it would seem rather obvious that Jesus does not have literal gates in mind. First of all, Hell does not have iron or wooden gates. Second, because Jesus speaks of the gates as “not prevailing,” it would also seem that He has in mind something more than mere inanimate objects of some kind. As inanimate objects, gates do not prevail or lose; they just sit there. However, the powers of Hell can and do act.

Thus, it seems clear that our Lord uses the word gates in a figurative rather than literal sense. He likely means that the powers of Hell would not prevail against the Church, although they will surely try.

Finally, while there may be a certain pastoral sense in which the Church attacks the strongholds of the Hell in this world in order to gain back territory for the Kingdom, this is not really the best passage to make that point. Frankly, the Church should not seek to storm the gates of Hell! One storms gates in order to be able to get into the place they demarcate—but who wants to enter Hell? Should not the Church and her members seek to avoid going there? Is there not also an abyss that prevents those who enter Hell from escaping (see Luke 16:26)? Instead of hoping to storm the gates of Hell and get in, we hope that the gates of Hell are sealed off by the Lord and locked from the outside (see Rev 20:3)! There is no point in trying to enter Hell. Whatever is there is there permanently. There is no return from Hell.

Therefore, this rather trendy notion that we are to storm the gates of Hell should be set aside. Jesus clearly uses the gates of Hell as a metaphor for the power of Hell. Hell’s power will not ultimately prevail. God wins!

As for storming the gates of Hell—don’t do it! Our battleground is this world and the souls here for which we can still fight.

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Comments (18)

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  1. RAY - PORTSMOUTH - UK says:

    Yes! Msgr, – it seems to me that St Paul caught on pretty fast to what Jesus was teaching Peter (all of us!) about dealing with the ‘gates’ of hell!!
    He tells us, like you do, that –
    “We wrestle not against flesh and blood, (or ‘gates’! – my addition), but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Therefore put on the whole armour of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day.” Ephesians 6:12-13.
    It is the terrible evil that comes ‘out’ through those hellish gates, to do combat with us, that WILL NOT PREVAIL against the church – the ‘whole’ church – including you and me! – as long as we put on the ‘armour of God’!
    I can see no benefit in putting ourselves in harm’s way by ‘storming the gates’!! Let Satan try to come to us – if he has the guts! And Jesus promises us that He ‘will’ win the fight – in fact, already has done so! – John 16:33.
    So – “Put on the whole armour of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” Ephesians 6:11.
    Read the whole of this stirring and inspirational part of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians in chapter 6, verses 10–18.
    As ever, thanks again, Msgr Charles and – God bless all.

  2. Patty says:

    In thinking about the gates of hell will not prevail against the Catholic Church, I like to think that the Baptism of Jesus is an Act that doesn’t go away during our lifetime. It is an eternal imprint of Illumination that either we can act upon or Jesus can act upon since it is a covenant of both parties. If the human party sins, that is in essence opening the gates of hell. It give the devil rights to our soul. If a person repents and returns to Jesus, His Illumination through the Light of Baptism has not changed nor altered even if the human party left its safety. Satan has no rights over Jesus’ Baptismal Light in a human – ever. At the human’s death, if the human goes to hell, all God’s blessings do not exist in that person because they voluntarily gave them up.

  3. Dear Msgr. Pope, THank you for this…however; what about this ALSO? When I was on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with Franciscan Priest Guides, they took us to an ugly & appalling place; they taught us this horrible place was the probable location where Jesus gave this warning to his disciples: Cesaria Phillipi, where false gods like “pan” were worshipped. This view carries great depth of meaning & warning. KB

    https://www.pinterest.com/pin/25473554112705992/

  4. CJ says:

    Honestly, I don’t know of any Catholic who believes in the “Gates of Hell”.
    It is my understanding that there is more to this phrase. I believe it goes, “THOU ARE PETER AND UPON THIS ROCK I WILL BUILD MY CHURCH, AND THE GATES OF HELL NOT PREVAIL AGAINST IT”!
    The Gates of Hell is Satan, and God will not let Satan destroy HIS CHURCH

    • Msgr. Charles Pope says:

      Oh, there might just be a few of us Catholics who know a few things and breathe in your rarified air CJ

  5. David Finkelstein says:

    Thanks for the clarifcation. A translation of “power/strength of ..” rather than “gates off ..” does make more sense in context. In any case what I pulled out of the quote was that, while ultimate victory is assured, the battle is raging and that implies struggles and small scale losses. In other words the Church will survive and win; but I can’t be overconfident in my personal victory.

  6. Nicholas says:

    Well, Samson ripped the gates off Gaza city and carried them away in Judges 16:3. How humiliating for the enemy. I’m thinking that Jesus already tore out the gates of hell when He went there to strip the devil of the keys of death and hell. Jesus already trashed the place and bounced the demons off the walls. He has all authority, and we’re with Him. Yes, no need to storm hell; their defenses have departed from them (Numbers 14:9).

  7. Maria 3 says:

    Thank you for bringing up an interesting question, answer to which most Catholic assume they know , yet the question does one ponder .
    Bl.Mother has a tile as The Gate of Heaven, thus , could not the gate of hell be whatever , who ever opposes
    The Mother and The Church for which She stands as personification .

  8. The “Gates of Hell” constitutes the “Power of Death”, which is the Satanic power that the crucified Jesus overcame for us when he rose again from the dead. Thanks to Jesus, all the faithful; through him, with him, in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, to the greater glory of God the Father, are (now) also able to overcome death. That’s the whole point of our faith and our Catholic Church. This is also powerfully expressed at the very center of the Mass, immediately before to the “Great Amen”, where we similarly offer up the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus to our Father in Heaven, for the needs of the faithful and of the whole world.

    Thank you for your great work.

  9. Maria 3 says:

    If hell is eternal separation from God , would not our Lord be assuring us too that by remaining faithful to Him through The Church for which Peter is given the keys , such a separation could not occur !

  10. Nick says:

    Catechism 552 …Our Lord then declared to him: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” Christ, the “living Stone”, thus assures his Church, built on Peter, of victory over the powers of death…

  11. Tony says:

    I agree. The gate is a metaphor for the power of Hell, wherever we find it. The metaphor takes on meaning, as Kathleen refers above, with Caesaria Philippi situated at Mt. Hermon, where the Cave of Pan – which the pagans called the Gate of Hades was found. By making this declaration there, Jesus is telling his disciples that no demons such as those summoned up from the cave’s abyss or any demonic stronghold on earth (as Msgr Pope notes) will be able to withstand his power acting in and through the Church. Wherever we go, He is with us to vanquish the forces of evil.

  12. louis says:

    I do not agree that this is a metaphor. I believe it is pure presumption to say that there are no “gates of hell”. It is akin to saying that there is no Garden of Eden and no angel guarding the path. Let me just say this… We do not know all of God’s creation, most of which is invisible… not metaphorical or allegorical, real, just invisible. When St. Paul refers to the weapons which have been given to us which are “enormously powerful, capable of destroying strongholds…” Do you think those weapons are real? Of course they are.
    Msgr. I think you should tread lightly with your opinions regarding matters such as these. It is a short leap from what you are saying to saying that there is no personified evil. The Church does teach that we are to attack the “Gates of Hell”. This is our mandate and why we are called the Church Militant! We are not called the “kick back and wait for the devil” Church! Yet that has been attitudes of most Catholics. The reason is that they have not been formed correctly and it is sad to say that neither have our priests.
    Peace

    • Msgr. Charles Pope says:

      I didn’t say that there are no gates of hell, only that they are not likely metal or wood. The term Gates of Hell is a metaphor for the powers of Hell. I do think we need to be to be taking back territory in this world from Satan, which I indicate in the article. But as for trendy Protestant notion of storming the gates and going into Hell and taking back territory, I don’t think that is what this text is saying. As for your more sweeping concern that if one metaphor exists there is a danger that all is considered metaphor, I take exception to your implication that I or other readers, or the Church for that matter, lack sophistication to understand what is and what is not metaphor. Clearly there IS use of metaphor in Scripture, as in almost any written document. If I tell you it was raining buckets, or raining cats and dogs, you know it is a metaphor, for raining hard. Do you presume that nothing else I say is literal? No, you know how to distinguish. You seem to be engaging in all or nothing logic rooted in fear

      • Louis says:

        Scripture is written on different levels. One level is at the visible and one at the invisible. My point was that we do not know if there are literal gates of hell or not. There are many mysteries which cannot be answered and our attempts to do so are left wanting. The fact is that there is a kingdom of light and a kingdom of darkness. Our job is to attack that kingdom of darkness.

  13. Margaret A says:

    Thank you, Monsignor!!

  14. Peter says:

    There is also another way to look at the Gates of hell or the Gates of wherever shall not prevail…
    The Gates of wherever also speaks to a kingdom or entity sending its army against another kingdom or entity. So, in Antiquity it could be said that the Gates of Babylon were sent against Egypt. Meaning the army of Babylon was being sent against Egypt. As a convert myself, that is always how I have understood that phrase, that satan would send his army against the Church, but that they would never succeed in destroying the Church. Yes, satan will inflict damage to the Church, but satan will never destroy the Church. Besides, the Church is Jesus and we already know that Our Lord has defeated the evil one even with all that was inflicted upon Him!!!

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