Which “Gates of Hell will Not Prevail”? Bradley Jersak

I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades (Revelation 1:18).

Among the variety of images and meanings associated with the N.T. Greek words gehenna and hades, a significant aspect that gets eclipsed by eschatology is the sense in which “hell” represents “the kingdom of darkness” (Matthew 16:18; 23:15, Colossians 1:13, James 3:6). Elsewhere, I’ve called this theme the “missing motif—where the referent is not some afterlife place of fiery punishment, but rather, the realm of evil that shrouds the world in the here and now, igniting the world with flames of hatred, malice, and violence. Hell or hades in this model is not a mythological someday—it’s the “world of wickedness” that James describes and that we hear about daily in the world news.

So, what’s the good news? Jesus said, “Upon this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of hades/hell will not overpower/prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).

Now if we were to restrict ourselves to the narrow view of hades or hell that can’t think past a literal Lake of Fire, okay, let’s go there. So, we’d interpret this verse in light of the resurrection, where Christ descends, shatters the gates, binds ‘the strongman,’ plunders its goods (the people there), and comes back with a parade of captives in his tow. I’d buy that. It matches Jesus’ words in Matthew 12:29, Paul’s vision in Ephesians 4:8-10, and Peter’s message in 1 Peter 3:19-20. Works for me.

But is that what Jesus is referring to in Matthew 16? Is Christ really talking about his descent into and conquest of the underworld in this passage? I doubt it. The most significant hint is that it is the church that opposes and overcomes the gates of hades. When and where does that happen? He seems to address the advance of Christ’s kingdom of light by his church as our message of good news pushes back the darkness, dread, and death in this world (as in 1 John 2:8).

And it’s not as though the people of God are those under siege. The “gates of hades” are caving in as the church invades its territory. We get the privilege of participating in Jesus’ present-tense prisonbreak—the rescue that we, like the Colossians, have already experienced.

For more on this perspective, see Chris Hoke’s twelve-minute video, “What is Church? A Jesus Movement Invading Hades” on Clarion Journal.

Brad Jersak

Brad Jersak

Bradley Jersak is an author and teacher based in Abbotsford, BC. He serves as a reader and monastery preacher at All Saints of North America Orthodox Monastery. Read More