Theological Mistakes #10: “The Gates of Hell”

Today, I would like to discuss a Bible interpretive mistake that involves both translation and theology, the meaning of Matthew 16:18. This is part of the “Good Confession” account of Matthew, a pivotal section in which we find Peter identifying Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus’ response to this confession is to tell Peter that this has been revealed to him by the Father in heaven, and that Peter would be the “rock” upon which the church would be built. (I’m sure some of you disagree with this last part, but I will deal with it in another post.) Jesus then offers this promise, that the “Gates of Hell” (KJV translation) would not prevail against the church. How should we understand this?

In Greek, the phrase translated “gates of hell” is πύλαι ‘αίδου (pulai haidou). The first word, plural of pulē, is rather simple and means “gates” or “portal entrance.” It could be used to describe a gate of the Jerusalem temple (Acts 3:10) or a city gate in the ancient world (Hebrews 13:12, Judges 16:3). The idea of this word is more than a little gate to a backyard garden, but a fortification-style gate that is part of a walled structure. The word that gives us trouble is haidou, a form of the Greek word haidēs, which is quickly recognized as “Hades,” a transliteration of this name.

A common application of this verse is to take the KJV phrase “gates of hell” as representing the power of Satan. Therefore, we are taught that Jesus promised Peter that Satan and his armies would never prevail against the church. This has been used as a rallying cry for the church, invoking the promise of Jesus that we, the church, will win in the end and Satan will lose. Now that may be true (and seems to be a central message of the book of Revelation), but that is not what Matthew 16:18 is saying. Lest you think this interpretation is passé, I would point out that it is used as a central idea in Chuck Swindoll’s recent book, The Church Awakening: An Urgent Call for Renewal.

There are two problems with this interpretation, both of them types of theological mistakes. First, “hell” is a mistranslation of the word haidou. “Hell” is a rather undeveloped concept in the Bible, but we understand it as a place of punishment, perhaps the destination of those who are not granted eternal life and access to heaven. “Hades,” on the other hand, is just the place where dead people are. This image is used in Revelation 1:18, where we are told that the risen Christ has the keys to “death and Hades,” meaning he has the power to set the dead free from this place.

The second problem is the idea that hell is somehow the kingdom of Satan, that he is the ruler there and uses it as the home base for his legions of demonic armies. This concept  is not biblical. It comes from Greek mythology (and other similar mythologies) that imagine the place of the dead as a physical location ruled over by a god. For the Greeks, this god was named Hades. For the Romans, he was Pluto. (not the Disney star or demoted “planet”). In biblical thought, Satan is not the ruler of hell or Hades. Instead, it is promised that he will be one of the residents (Revelation 20:10).

So, when Jesus promises that the “gates of Hades” would not prevail against his church, he is not making a comment about the cosmic battle between the people of God along with the spiritual forces of good vs. the hoards of evil beings controlled by Satan. Instead, he means “the power of death.” A better translation would be “Upon this rock I will found my church and the power of death will not defeat it.” I think there are two implications to this. First, it is a prophecy of Jesus himself, that he would die but not be defeated by death. He would rise from the dead and give a hope and a resurrection message to his disciples. Second, Jesus is promising us (through Matthew) that death will not be the end for us either. We also have the promise of resurrection, so we need not fear death as the end of the road. Remember Paul’s take on this, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26).  As one of my favorite little poems says:

And death’s not the end ‘neath the cold black sod,
‘Tis the inn by the way on the road to God.

Mark Krause

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3 thoughts on “Theological Mistakes #10: “The Gates of Hell”

  1. It’s interesting to follow the idea that “the power of death” is in fact a real threat and upon us now. Not some fancy future cosmic battle but a real battle that eludes most of us. First we must recognize the reality of our condition and when we do what a great hope we have in Jesus’ promise that death will not defeat us. This was great, thanks for sharing clarity.

  2. Thanks, Mark. I have made this point many times with my students. A study of ancient Egyptian and Babylonian cosmology reveals the world-view background that was taken over into Greco-Roman hellenism via Hesiod’s Theogony (inter alia). It is the world of the first readers of the New Testament. The OT shares a lot of this general imagery also. On the OT side, though I don’t agree with him on everything, I have found most helpful Bernard W. Anderson’s classic, “Creation versus Chaos.”

  3. Totally agree with this interpretation. I am not sure if I ever gave you the link to this article. I thought it had some interesting points. http://aggreen.net/beliefs/heaven_hell.html

    Discovery of that article actually lead me toward near conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy which I had mentioned to you, but it was this concept you wrote about that really kept me from it, because Rome, the Orthodox and the Orientals base their authority and legitimacy on that passage and it pretty clearly seemed to be talking about not dying.

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