Recently in my Our Sunday Visitor “Question and Answer” column came the following question from a Catholic convert, in reference to the traditional understanding of the Lord’s promise to the Church: the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it (Matt 16:18).
“Before my recent conversion, my (protestant) pastor said that Catholics misunderstand the text about the gates of Hell not prevailing against the Church. He said that it is silly that Catholics think of gates as if they were an offensive weapon being wielded against the Church. He said gates cannot attack us, they just sit there. Rather, he said, we are called to attack them. Gates are something to storm to enter a fortress. Thus, he said the text means that we are to storm Hell’s gates and take back territory from the devil and that the gates of Hell could not ultimately prevail against our attack.”
This interpretation has made the rounds in certain Protestant circles in recent years. In effect, it boils down to taking the word gates in a rather literal way. The pastor humorously pointed out that gates don’t normally go around attacking things. Such a comment elicits a good laugh, but humor or ridicule does not always disclose the truth. As it the case with many things, language admits of subtleties. Let’s explore the figurative meaning of the word gates.
The Greek word underlying our English translation is πύλαι (pulai), and gates is a fine translation.
However, Strong’s Greek Concordance and Greek Lexicon of New Testament indicates that in antiquity, pulai was also used to indicate authority and power.
Contextually, it would seem rather obvious that Jesus does not have literal gates in mind. First of all, Hell does not have iron or wooden gates. Second, because Jesus speaks of the gates as “not prevailing,” it would also seem that He has in mind something more than mere inanimate objects of some kind. As inanimate objects, gates do not prevail or lose; they just sit there. However, the powers of Hell can and do act.
Thus, it seems clear that our Lord uses the word gates in a figurative rather than literal sense. He likely means that the powers of Hell would not prevail against the Church, although they will surely try.
Finally, while there may be a certain pastoral sense in which the Church attacks the strongholds of the Hell in this world in order to gain back territory for the Kingdom, this is not really the best passage to make that point. Frankly, the Church should not seek to storm the gates of Hell! One storms gates in order to be able to get into the place they demarcate—but who wants to enter Hell? Should not the Church and her members seek to avoid going there? Is there not also an abyss that prevents those who enter Hell from escaping (see Luke 16:26)? Instead of hoping to storm the gates of Hell and get in, we hope that the gates of Hell are sealed off by the Lord and locked from the outside (see Rev 20:3)! There is no point in trying to enter Hell. Whatever is there is there permanently. There is no return from Hell.
Therefore, this rather trendy notion that we are to storm the gates of Hell should be set aside. Jesus clearly uses the gates of Hell as a metaphor for the power of Hell. Hell’s power will not ultimately prevail. God wins!
As for storming the gates of Hell—don’t do it! Our battleground is this world and the souls here for which we can still fight.