Jesus says that the gates of the place of the dead will not prevail against the church. He is talking not about some place that the Enemy lives but his descent into the grave. He broke the gates of Hades. He broke the gates of Sheol. He broke the gates of death. He wrested death out of the grip of its ruler—who is the Satan, so we aren’t that far away from what you thought it meant (Hebrews 2)—and now holds the keys of death and Hades himself (Revelation 1). He stole the keys to the gates and they are thrown wide open by the one who bears the words of life (John 6).
In Matthew 16 Jesus declares to Peter that he is the rock on which he will build his church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. What does that mean?
In popular piety it’s most often quoted when we feel under attack by the forces of the Enemy. We’re most likely under ‘attack’ much more often than most modern Christians would allow, the nature of being modern people means that we find the idea that the Satan is a real person confusing enough. Our demonology tends to be deficient in return—not least because you’re much more likely to find ‘demonology’ as a skill in role-playing game than in a book of theology.
That’s an important set of questions, but let’s pull back to what Jesus tells Peter. We use it to reassure ourselves that the church will stand despite assault. This is true, and the Bible affirms it multiple times (Ephesians 5 & 6, Romans 8, John 17, Revelation). However, as preachers are fond of pointing out, gates don’t attack things. In the saying the church is the one who is attacking these gates of Hell.
We could be diverted into a discussion of how the church should be advancing, taking the fight to the Enemy and his legions. I think that’s right as a disposition, though we’ll end up finding it more difficult to apply than we might imagine—I’d suggest doing things is probably where you start. Start by starting. Except, while I think that’s true too, that’s not what this means.
What are the gates of Hell, anyway? And where are they? And why does the lake of fire that the devil and his angels are thrown into (Revelation 20) have gates? And why can we attack them now when the Enemy is the Prince of this world not some place underneath it (e.g. John 16, Ephesians 2, 2 Corinthians 4)?
These are good questions. We should start by noting that Jesus didn’t say the ‘gates of Hell.’ Every other time the New Testament uses the word hades it’s translated as—no prizes for guessing—Hades (ok, technically it’s not translated at all). Jesus says that the gates of Hades won’t stand against the church.