One of the most well known verses in the Gospels is this:
“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.” (Matthew 16:18 ESV)
Protestants often spend their time arguing about the meaning of the rock and why it does not lead to papal authority. That is fine but what about the “gates of hell”?
What does Jesus mean by the gates of hell?
Well, that is easy. I have heard many sermons touch on this. It means that the church is so powerful that Satan and his demonic kingdom of hell cannot vanquish it. Jesus is talking about the powers of evil organized and led by the Devil.
Except that is not what the Bible says.
Yes medieval authors enjoyed using their imagination when it came to hell. They put Satan on the throne and discussed how demons would be used to torture the damned. Modern writers continue to work with the theme.
But what does the Bible say?
The Bible does talk about hell as a place of punishment for those who refuse God’s offer of salvation. But where does the Bible suggest that Satan is the ruler of hell? Where does the Bible even suggest that Satan has ever been to hell?
There is only one passage that makes a connection between Satan and hell.
“And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” (Revelation 20:10 ESV)
Satan goes to hell after Jesus returns and punishes Satan and those who served him. As far as I can see, this is the first time that Satan enters hell.
But what about that gate of hell? That kind of sounds like a demonic kingdom.
Hades, the word used for hell in this passage, refers to the place of the dead. Jesus may be echoing Isaiah 38:10 which speaks of the gates of sheol, sheol referring to the grave.
New Testament scholar R.T. France explains that it means the church “will not die, and be shut in by the ‘gates of death’.” (Matthew, TNTC p. 255) Robert Gundry argues that this is a reference to persecution and martyrdom which will not destroy the church. (Matthew, p. 335) Leon Morris even suggests that this could be speaking of death’s inability to prevent Jesus’ resurrection. (Matthew, PNTC, p. 425)
Whatever Jesus means, he is referring to the power of death and not to Satan’s kingdom. Satan is not in hell yet but according to Revelation, when he does go to hell, it won’t be as a king.