Prevailing against the Gates of Hell?

“And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 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. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” – Matthew 16:17-19

Matthew 16:17-19 is one of the most controversial passages in the Bible. Rome bases its claims to Petrine authority primarily upon this entry. But today I would like to focus on just a small portion of the passage:

“…the gates of hell shall not prevail against (the church).” – Matthew 16:18

I listen to a lot of Catholic talk radio strictly for research purposes and over and over again I have heard Catholic apologists present this verse as a prophetic promise of the alleged perpetuity and authority of the Catholic church, that from the time the church was founded on Pentecost to the papacy of Francis, the Catholic church would perpetually withstand the onslaughts of Satan and his demons.

But is that what the verse is actually saying? The Greek word for “gates,” Πύλη, pýlē, literally means “door-gates,” which Catholics interpret in a metaphorical sense as the “seat of power” of Satan. But “gates” can be interpreted more literally and properly here as the entryway into hell.

John MacArthur comments on this verse:

“Gates of Hades: Hades is the place of punishment for the spirits of dead unbelievers, entered at death. This Jewish phrase then refers to death. Even death, the ultimate weapon of Satan, has no power to stop the church. The blood of the martyrs, in fact, has led to the growth of the church in size and spiritual power.” – p. 1155, The MacArthur Bible Commentary

In his commentary compilation, J. Vernon McGee writes of Matthew 16:18:

“The ‘gates of hell’ refers to death. The word used for hell is the Greek word hades, the sheol of the Old Testament, which refers to the unseen world and means “death.” The gates of death shall not prevail against Christ’s church. One of these days the Lord Himself shall descend from heaven with a shout. That shout will be like the voice of an archangel and like a trumpet because the dead in Christ are to be raised. The gates of death shall not prevail against His church.” – Thru-the-Bible with J. Vernon McGee, Vol. IV, Matthew Through Romans, p. 92.

There are some American evangelicals who interpret this portion of Matthew 16:18 as a battle-cry for the church to storm Satan’s kingdom and “reclaim America for Jesus,” but is that the sense that Christ meant? See Kevin DeYoung’s article below:

A Closer Look at the Gates of Hell

“The promise in Matthew 16 is not about venturing out on some Dungeons and Dragons spiritual crusade, but about Christ’s guarantee that the church will not be vanquished by death.” – Kevin DeYoung

So Matthew 16:18 is not a prophecy of the perseverance of the Roman Catholic church or a triumphal rallying cry for the militant evangelical church in America to reclaim the country, but rather a promise to the Body of genuine believers (church/ekklasia/called out ones) that death will not prevail over them, thanks to the Lord Jesus Christ, who overcame the gates of hell (death) for all who trust in Him.

“When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” – 1 Corinthians 15:54

“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me, because the Lord has anointed Me, to preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.” – Isaiah 61:1

While I personally believe there has always been a remnant of genuine believers since Pentecost, the Catholic church as an institution devolved long ago into anti-Scriptural legalism, ritualism, and worldiness to the point of being the antithesis of the New Testament church.

Do you have a different view of “…the gates of hell shall not prevail against (the church)”? Comments are welcome.

19 thoughts on “Prevailing against the Gates of Hell?

    1. Thanks, Maria! Yes, I hear this verse used by Catholic sources as a prophetic “proof” of their church’s perpetuity quite often. In my fundy Baptist days, I often heard this verse used as a rallying cry for Christians to retake America. The third interpretation, that of Jesus overpowering death in His resurrection and believers/the church also able to overcome death through Him, is the simplest interpretation but it seems to “fit” the best.

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  1. Tom, I’ve always thought that the gates refer to the powers that bind us and take us captive. When Jesus ascended into heaven, He took “captivity captive” for us. Just MHO. 🙂

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    1. Thanks for chiming in, Hope. Well, I think we’re pretty close on this. “Gates of hell” could be referring to death as the entryway to hell or it could be referring to the powers of Hell of which death is the most terrible? I’m fine with either one of those. It’s the interpretation that claims to guarantee the continuance of Catholicism or the claim that it’s a rallying cry for today’s politically-focused Christian that don’t hold water.

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    1. Thanks, Jimmy! I learned some things myself in studying this verse. What prompted me to dig into it was constantly hearing the boastful Catholic interpretation.

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  2. I’m good with this. As you know, in our work, we dispute the fact that we are Protestants in the first place. Just ask next time you come down, Tom. If you were to ask any member of our congregation: Are you a Protestant, the immediate answer would be…absolutely not. We would tell you that we never came out of the Roman Church and that we protested nothing. We would maintain that the church formed by Jesus Himself during His earthly ministry never died out and that a remnant of the True New Testament churches always was there, just somewhat buried in the shuffle so to speak.

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    1. Thanks for chiming in, Wally! Yes, I’m very familiar with the Baptist successionism/Landmark Baptist view. I read James Carroll’s “The Trail of Blood” shortly after I accepted Christ and also “The Baptist Faith and Roman Catholicism” by Wendell Holmes Rone a couple of years ago and both espoused Baptist successionism. For others who read these comments, I will mention that not all Baptists hold to successionism with some tracing the Baptist movement to English Separatist John Smyth in 1609. But Baptists generally don’t consider themselves Protestant whether they follow successionism or not, the idea being that Baptists get their beliefs and practices directly from the New Testament and that Luther, Calvin, and the other 16th-century Protestant Reformers included or adapted a number of non-Biblical Roman Catholic traditions into their doctrine and ecclesiology.

      Wally, I might be wrong but I would imagine Landmark Baptists would overwhelmingly interpret this specific portion of Matthew 16:18 to mean that the genuine church of Christ would survive through the ages?


      1. First, Tom, it’s nice to talk again. I have been missing my friends and our conversations very much. As to your last paragraph; our roots are deep in the Landmark Baptist teachings, so yes I would absolutely say that is exactly what that passage says to us. Having said that, I would not really lay claim to being a dogmatice Baptist successionist at all. I fully agree that Jesus’ genuine New Testament churches survived, but I wouldn’t say they were necessarily Baptist churches. Some honestly get a bit over the top with that teaching, and it can get pretty squirrely to tell the truth. I would say the key element remains adherence to the teachings of the New Testament. Baptists has become a big umbrella over the years, and one has to be careful there, as some are quite out in left field yet claim the designation.

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      2. Thanks, Wally! Yeah, I’m glad you piped in and it’s great to converse with you again. I’m obviously not a church historian (although graduating with a PhD in church history doesn’t make anyone a believer or Biblically orthodox), but it’s my belief that there was always a remnant of genuine believers even in the darkest days of medieval Europe. I imagine there were monastic scribes who genuinely trusted in Christ after copying the Scriptures over and over. As I mentioned before, I believe many followers of religious legalism figuratively threw themselves at the feet of Christ in desperation after becoming exasperated at trying to merit their salvation.

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