“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” —Matthew 16:18 ESV
This verse, in particular, is one of the most reassuring verses in all the Scriptures. It is a promise—one with which many have found solace. In these turbulent times, many fall back on the victory of Christ. We rest in it, as we should. However, many have come to trust in this promise for all the wrong reasons.
In ancient times, walls protected cities from those who were without. Like any other wall, there was a door/gate that served its duty. These cities were not prisons, by design, but more of a refuge from danger. When times of trouble came, the gates were closed—to separate the town’s people from their enemies.
Since the protection of the city was dependent on the strength or power of its gates, during times of war, the gates of these cities would usually be the first place of assault.
As such, the “gates of hell or Hades” means the power of Hades. The name “Hades” was originally the name of the god who presided over the realm of the dead and was often referred to as the “house of Hades.” It designated the place to which everyone who departs this life descends, regardless of their moral character. In the New Testament, Hades is the realm of the dead, and in this verse Hades or hell is represented as a mighty city with its gates representing its power.
Many Christians believe that Jesus is referring to His impending death in the verse above, which is highly likely, but is there more here than prevalent presuppositions allow to be seen?
Though He would be crucified and buried, He would rise from the dead and build His Church. Jesus was emphasizing the fact that the powers of death could not hold him in. Not only would the Church be established in spite of the powers of Hades or hell, but it would also thrive in spite of these powers. The Church will never fail; though generation after generation succumbs to the power of physical death, yet other generations will arise to perpetuate the Church.
This line of reasoning is sound enough, but it isn’t thorough. Thanks to the doctrine of endless conscious torments (ECT), this is the primary understanding of this passage. This doctrine restrains the depths of this passage and it has blinded many from the scope of God’s plan for his Church.
Jesus’ Church or “called out ones” are not merely on the defensive; we are also on the offensive. Many read the passage above as though we are merely surviving attacks from the evil one. However, it does not say the gates of life shall prevail. Rather, it states that the gates of hell shall not prevail. The kingdom of God is on the offensive; the Church is the aggressor. It is striking the gates of hades, the gates of death; and death shall not prevail over life. Death and Hades shall be thrown into the Lake of Fire and Brimstone/Sulfur. Death will be swallowed up in victory.
What does it mean for death and hades to be thrown into the Lake of Fire and Brimstone? Most Christians assume that this is the place where the lost shall suffer eternally when they die. If so, it doesn’t make sense for death and Hades to be thrown into the same torture pit.
Consider Boyd Purcell’s insight:
To use a modern analogy, if the Bible would have said that, after the Final Judgement, all those infected with sin will be casted into a fiery lake of penicillin, would that not logically symbolize healing sin infection? Sulfur was the wonder drug in the ancient world as penicillin is today.
That makes sense concerning the sin-infected souls who have died while thirsting for the life-giving water that only Jesus could give, but what of death and Hades?
If brimstone is the penicillin for sin, consider the following verse:
“The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.” —1 Corinthians 15:56 ESV
In order to fully cure humanity from their sinful condition, God must do far more than heal each individual. He must annihilate sin, which is a two-step process.
Firstly, he must destroy the power of sin—the Law. Although Jesus did not do away with the Law/throw it out as though it was meaningless, he removed its power by forgiving sin; thus destroying its power. Thereby, he had removed the sting of death (step two) and is continuing with that endeavor as each person is gradually being drawn to the him. Once all of humanity is finally drawn to Christ, once all are in him, death will have been fully swallowed-up in victory and its power will reign no more.
The Gates of Hell shall not prevail. The Church will conquer Hades and not a stone shall remain unturned.