THE GATES OF HELL IN MATT 16:18

PMT 2014-115 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.gates of hell

In Matthew 16:18 our Lord spoke these famous words to his leading disciple:

“And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it.”

This passage has generated significant debate because of grammatical difficulties within it. Some scholars even emend the text to “straighten out the problem.” There is an awkwardness in having stationary gates actively attempting to prevail or conquer the church. How can gates attack?

Another problem is determining what Jesus means by hades. This Greek word is the common translation for the Hebrew word sheol in the OT. Sheol (and therefore, its Greek translation hades) can refer to the place of the dead, signifying either the place of rest for God’s people or the place of torment for the sinner (hell). Or it may simply mean “the grave,” without any other connotation one way or the other (it represents death irrespective of reward or punishment). The NT uses each of these meanings in various places.

I believe hades here effectively signifies the place of torment for the evil dead, that is, what we call “hell.” We see this usage clearly in Jesus’ teaching in Mt 11:23: “And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You shall descend to Hades; for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day.” This obviously means “hell” for two reasons:

(1) Hell is the direct opposite of heaven, and here Jesus is rebuking Capernaum for thinking it will be exalted to heaven. That evil city (its population) will receive the opposite of heaven: it must, therefore, receive hell.

(2) In the immediate context Jesus is clearly talking about judgment, for he warns of God’s judgment: “Nevertheless I say to you, it shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment, than for you” (Matthew 11:22). This involves hell.


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Now back to Mt 16:18. The word translated “prevail” is katischusousin (from katischeuin which is formed from the intensive pronoun kata and joined with the Greek word for “strength,” ischus). It has a wide range of meaning in the Greek version of the OT, the Septuagint (LXX). It can mean: “be strong against, resist, withstand.” Therefore, it does necessarily present an active image (how can gates be active?).

Though this is a minority view of the defensive use of katischusousin , it is not necessarily a view unheard of in exegetical discussion. H. A. W. Meyer (Critical and Exegetical Handbook to the Gospel of Matthew, pp. 297–80; italics his) holds a different conception of “hades” as representing death. Yet he interprets katischusousin as defensive resistance that fails: “The gates of Hades will not be able to resist it, will not prove stronger than it. . . . When [the Church] becomes perfected in the Messianic kingdom at the second coming, then those gates will be burst open, in order that the souls of the dead may come forth from the subterranean world to participate in the resurrection and the glory of the kingdom . . . when death (who takes away the souls of men to imprison them in Hades), the last enemy, has been destroyed (1 Cor. xv. 26).” He goes on to say: “If we adopt the no less grammatical interpretation of: to overpower, to subdue (Luther and the majority of commentators), a most incongruous idea emerges in reference to the gates. . . . For the gates of Hades would thus be represented as the attacking side, which would hardly be appropriate.”

In addition, W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, Jr., in Matthew: The international Critical Commentary (2:631) notes this defensive strength as an option held by some: “According to L. E. Sullivan (v), our text pictures the church on the attack, reaching into Hades to draw up its members.”

John Nolland (Matthew: New International Greek Text Commentary, 674) notes: “katischusousin: is a common verb in the LXX (more than ninety times). It is used in quite a range of constructions and with a surprising variety of meanings).” He goes on to comment: “Th main question is whether to view the gates as initiating the action or as recipients of/respondents to the action. The latter makes for a more natural image, but the former is possible. . . . Do we have an image of the church under divine protection or of the church militant?”


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He continues: “The alternative, which makes the church the aggressor, requires no appeal to what is not certainly present in the text. Arguably it offers a better (contrasting) pair for possession of ‘the keys of the kingdom of heaven’: the church can batter down the gates of Hades and can (in the person of Peter) open the gates of the kingdom of heaven; on this understanding, the church, once founded on the rock, has the vision set before it of rescuing people from the grip of Hades and opening up for them a future in the kingdom of heaven. Though scholars have recognized the difficulty with ‘the gates of Hades’ as an image of an aggressor, most of them have felt obliged to take the image this way because of what they have understood to be the semantic possibilities of katischusousin. It seems to me that the range of LXX usage removes this obstacle and allows ‘the gates’ to have a more natural function.” (Footnote 361: “Confronted by the church, the gates of Hades will not prove to be so unassailable.”)

Returning to my own view, the idea here, then, is that the gates of hell (Satan’s kingdom) are not strong enough to withstand the onslaught of the church (Christ’s kingdom, Mt 16:19). Two kingdoms are in view, and the kingdom of heaven will be the winner. With the coming of Christ appears the power of the kingdom of God to unbind the sinner under Satan’s control and to usher him into Christ’s kingdom: “But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. Or how can anyone enter the strong man’s house and carry off his property, unless he first binds the strong man? And then he will plunder his house” (Mt12:28-29). Christ’s kingdom will plunder Satan’s kingdom. See also: Col 2:14-15; Heb 2:14; 1 Jn 3:8.

In the passage, the “keys” are an image of the agent for entering the kingdom of heaven. Whereas the “gates” are an image for “protecting” those within the gates (which are the gates of hell). The idea of keys v. gates makes a nice play on concepts.

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3 thoughts on “THE GATES OF HELL IN MATT 16:18

  1. weads September 23, 2014 at 10:06 am

    “Attacking gates” never made sense to me. The teaching I received on this when young was similar to what was stated in the article, but was more specific. It taught that Jesus would build his church and not even his death would prevent its establishment. He would be the one imprisoned in Hades for three days but would defeat death, break open the gates and his church would be established some seven weeks later at Pentecost. However, the text doesn’t say “the gates of hell shall not prevail against me” but “shall not prevail against it [the church]”. Thanks for the article.

  2. Vance October 18, 2014 at 9:16 am

    Couldn’t Jesus have the glorified assembly (church) in view here? The gates of Hades (Sheol, the universal grave) will break open and release the dead in Christ at His (second) coming. Jesus “builds” His assembly by gathering the resurrected/transformed saints “from one end of heaven to the other.”

  3. Kenneth Gentry October 20, 2014 at 4:36 pm

    Yes, this is certainly a reasonable interpretation. But it appears to me that he is speaking of a rock foundation for the church (in history), the building of the church (in history), and the discipline of the church (in history). This suggests to me that he is teaching the assured perpetuity of the church in history against the assaults of Satan (who has the power of death, Heb 2:14-15).

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