I posted this in a Facebook note (remember those?) on September 25, 2011. I’ve already run out of things to say, so I’m recycling old stuff. I just love blogging.
This portion of Jesus’ speech in Matthew’s Gospel after he has been recognized as Messiah is often quoted: ” I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” What usually goes along with this is the explanation that this is a powerful image because gates don’t go out against anything, so the picture is of the church “storming the gates of hell,” or something like that. This gets passed around quite a bit but I’m not sure if anyone has actually checked this idea out to see if it actually holds any weight. I don’t have the time now to do any sort of research on this, but I did check my commentary The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007) by R.T. France, a wonderful intepreter of Matthew, and this is what he has to say:
The gates of Hades [France is simply giving you the Greek word here, which is Hades. To translate it “hell” is an interpretive move.] is a metaphor for death, which here contrasts strikingly with the phrase ‘the living God’ in v. 16. In the OT the ‘gates of death’ describes the place to which dead people go (Job 38:17; Pss 9:13; 107:18), and in Isa 38:10 the phrase ‘the gates of Sheol’ is used in the same way. ‘Hades’ is the NT equivalent of Sheol … [The mistake is repeatedly made to associate ‘Sheol’ with ‘hell.’ The OT does not know of ‘hell.’] The ‘gates’ thus represent the imprisoning power of death: death will not be able to imprison and hold the church. Still less does it support the romantic imagery, sometimes derived from the traditional butincorrect translation of ‘gates of hell,’ of the church as a victorious army storming the citadel of the devil. The imagery is rather of death being unable to swallow up the new community which Jesus is building. It will never be destroyed. (624-25)