What Did Jesus Mean by “Gates of Hell”?

“Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah!… 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” (Matt 16:17–18). The “gates of hell”? Why did Jesus respond to Peter’s confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” in this way? (16:16)

The Gates of Hell in Cosmic Geography

When we read “hell,” we naturally think of the realm of the unbelieving dead. But the Greek word translated “hell” (ᾅδης, hadēs) is also the name for the Underworld—Hades, the realm of all the dead, not just unbelievers. The Hebrew equivalent to Hades is Sheol—the place “under the earth” where all went after this life ended.

Sheol had “bars” (Job 17:16) and “cords” to tie down its inhabitants (2 Sam 22:5–6), preventing any escape (Job 7:9). Both the righteous and the unrighteous went to Sheol. The righteous believer, however, could hope for deliverance and eternity with God (Psa 49:15).

While the imagery associated with the Underworld would have unnerved the disciples, Jesus’ reference to the gates of Hades would have jolted them for another reason. If they knew their Old Testament well, they understood that they were standing before those very gates as Jesus spoke.

The Gates of Hell in Terrestrial Geography

Matthew 16 takes place in Caesarea Philippi, situated near a mountainous region containing Mount Hermon. In the Old Testament, this region was known as Bashan—a place with a sinister reputation.

According to the Old Testament, Bashan was controlled by two kings—Sihon and Og—who were associated with the ancient giant clans: the Rephaim and the Anakim (Deut 2:10–12; Josh 12:1–5). The two main cities of their kingdom were Ashtaroth and Edrei, home to the Rephaim (Deut 3:1, 10–11; Josh 12:4–5).

These cities and their Rephaim inhabitants are mentioned by name in Canaanite (Ugaritic) cuneiform tablets. The people of Ugarit believed the Rephaim were the spirits of dead warrior-kings. They also believed that the cities of Ashtaroth and Edrei were the entryway to the Underworld—the gates of Sheol. Also, during Israel’s divided kingdom period, Jereboam built a pagan religious center at Dan—just south of Mount Hermon—where the Israelites worshiped Baal instead of Yahweh.

For the disciples, Bashan was an evil, otherworldly domain. But they had two other reasons to feel queasy about where they were standing. According to Jewish tradition, Mount Hermon was the location where the divine sons of God had descended from heaven—ultimately corrupting humankind via their offspring with human women (see Gen 6:1–4). These offspring were known as Nephilim, ancestors of the Anakim and the Rephaim (Num 13:30–33). In Jewish theology, the spirits of these giants were demons (1 Enoch 15:1–12).

To make the region even spookier, Caesarea Philippi had been built and dedicated to Zeus. This pagan god was worshiped at a religious center built a short distance from the more ancient one in Dan—at the foot of Mount Hermon. Aside from the brief interlude during the time of Joshua through Solomon, the gates of hell were continually open for business.

Jesus Declares War

The rock which Jesus referred to in this passage was neither Peter nor Himself; it was the rock on which they were standing—the foot of Mount Hermon, the demonic headquarters of the Old Testament and the Greek world.

We often presume that the phrase “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” describes a Church taking on the onslaught of evil. But the word “against” is not present in the Greek. Translating the phrase without it gives it a completely different connotation: “the gates of hell will not withstand it.”

It is the Church that Jesus sees as the aggressor. He was declaring war on evil and death. Jesus would build His Church atop the gates of hell—He would bury them.

***

why is the bible hard to understandDr. Michael S. Heiser is a scholar-in-residence for Faithlife, the makers of Logos Bible Software. He is the author of The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible and has taught many Mobile Ed courses, including Problems in Biblical Interpretation: Difficult Passages I.

This article is excerpted from Dr. Heiser’s book I Dare You Not to Bore Me with the Bible.

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Comments

  1. Dr. Heiser has rendered a service by researching many biblical things that correlate with the “gates of Hades” that are worth considering, and Christ undoubtedly took the disciples there as a shot fired over the bow of the whole pagan world system, including the powers of spiritual darkness and death. But on an immediate level, my understanding is that Herod the Great was given what became Caesarea Philippi by the Emperor (Caesar) Augustus, and that Herod gratefully built a marble temple to Augustus there that would have been standing when Jesus took the disciples there. Augustus had been emperor when Jesus was born, and was hailed as “divine” and “Son of God”—thereby placing himself in direct conflict with the Kingship of Christ. (The tetrarch Herod Philip later named the place after Augustus and himself.) Augustus himself was gone by then, but Jesus’ proclamation was made in the face of his world order, the Pax Romana or Pax Augusta. Herod had first sought to destroy the baby Jesus under Augustus’ authority. He was soon to be crucified with Roman nails under the authority of Tiberius Caesar AUGUSTUS, and His followers would soon suffer persecution from Augustus’ many successors and the cult of emperor worship centered around Roma and Augustus temples throughout the eastern Empire. But Rome would not prevail against Christ and His gospel—nor any other worldly power following in its train!

  2. Tim Walsh says:

    I have for a long while viewed these statement of Jesus as.
    1) referring to “rock” as revelation from the Father thru the Spirit and
    2) the location as merely a opportunistic or planned visual aide (jn the context of this article’s frame of reference) by the Lord.
    And I have to say,
    I still do.

  3. Robert Carter says:

    I have mixed feelings about some products like this. Whilst the research into the Greek is excellent what is often not told gives people wrong impressions. Bashan was in fact a rich fertile area 1600 to 2300 feet high. Its borders are not precisely known. It had above average rainfall and was capable of good agricultural produce including wheat, perhaps giving its nickname as breadbasket. It was also renowned for its cattle and other herds and its forests. It was well known for its oak trees.
    Bashan was given to the half tribe of Manesseh for its inheritance and two of its cities were given to the Levites.
    For such reasons, I wonder why Dr. Heisler would say that the disciples considered it an evil domain that unnerved them! Evil worship existed of course
    I found the discourse on sheol interesting, but wonder at the reference to prevailing against the Church or withstanding her, linking it with a declaration of war.
    I thought that the word used is katischyo that simply put means to overpower or resist/prevail against it. If light simply dispels darkness, there is no warfare needed. Darkness simply cannot prevail.
    The text does not stop with the words prevail against it, but continues with the word AND, immediately followed by a statement that Jesus would give them the keys of the kingdom of heaven etc.
    Perhaps I have missed something…or should Dr Hestler explain more?

  4. Ross Purdy says:

    Interesting but I prefer Jesus as referring to the gates as failing to hold dead saints in that state and that they would rather rise from the dead like Jesus Himself.

  5. Thank you for this clear and courageous interpretation

  6. Steve Cross says:

    This interpretation of the passage re ‘the gates of hell’ provides a sound hermeneutical counter to the historic Roman Catholic use as a Biblical backing and precedent for Papal apostolic succession. Great excerpt!

  7. ” These offspring were known as Nephilim, ancestors of the Anakim and the Rephaim (Num 13:30–33). In Jewish theology, the spirits of these giants were demons (1 Enoch 15:1–12).”

    These things cannot be true if one accepts the story of Noah and the Flood, since Noah and his family are from whom all mankind descended.

  8. Outstanding article!