“Gates of Hell” and Another Look at Matt. 16:18 & Rev. 9:1-11

         Although I am not an expert on English translations of the Bible, there are a couple of well known examples where the King James translators truly got it wrong in their rendering of a particular verse or phrase.  What is especially ironic is when a contemporary preacher, study group, or translator who otherwise would not be caught dead carrying, using, or preaching from the King James Version continues to employ a poor translation from the KJV.  I suspect this irony could arise from either an ignorance of a particular issue, or, they could know better, but just don’t want to abandon some favorite religious/homiletical jargon or doctrine associated with it.

In this post I am referring to the KJV’s [although not in the NKJV] phrase “gates of hell” in its rendering of the Gospel of Matthew 16:18, “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18).  A glance at some post-KJV translations reveals a few that continue this mistranslation: Bible in Basic English, “doors of hell,” English Standard Version, “the gates of hell,” New Living Translation, “all the powers of hell,” Webster Bible, “the gates of hell,” and Douay-Rheims-1899, “the gates of hell.”

         The Greek term used in Matt. 16:18 and translated “hell” in the KJV is ᾅδης, transliterated hades, a term for the underworld, the grave, the place of the dead (even where Jesus went when he died, Acts 2:27, 31); in Greek mythology Hades is the god of the underworld.  Accordingly, the phrase “gates of hades” refers to the imagined doors or portal to the region where all the dead go, an idiomatic usage that is also well documented in Classical Greek literature (see ᾅδης in BDAG, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd Edition, p. 19 and the term for gate, πύλη, p. 897).  The word “gates” is a synecdoche that represents the entire underworld.  Thus, Jesus is saying, according to my view, that the region of the dead, or death will never triumph over his disciples.  Strangely enough, the ESV renders Matt. 16:18 “gates of hell,” but in the notes says it means death.  I guess those editors haven’t seen the problem with trying to have both “gates of hell” and death as the meaning.

The commentary on the Gospel of Matthew written by W. D. Davies and Dale Allison, The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (vol. 2, pp. 630-32) lists a dozen various interpretations of this phrase “gates of Hades” expressed over the past 2000 years of Christian history.  Davies and Allison suggest that the view I argue for in this post is probably the one held by “most contemporary expositors” (p. 632), but it is not the one they prefer.  They prefer the idea that Hades is not used here as a term to refer to the realm of the dead, inhabited both by the righteous and the wicked, but a term referring to the location of demonic powers who will assault the church in the last days.  They argue, relying upon illustrations from Rev. 9:1-11, that,

  • “One should probably think of the end-time scenario, when the powers of the underworld will be unleashed from below, from the abyss, and rage against the saints. . . . even the full fury of the underworld’s demonic forces” (p. 633).

There seems to be more than one serious problem with this interpretation advocated by Davies and Allison.  The idiomatic association of the phrase “gates of hades” with the realm of the dead is so overwhelming in Classical literature and the LXX [=Septuagint, the Greek translation of the OT] that it would take extraordinary evidence from Matthew’s Gospel to render this phrase other than “gates of hades.”  They certainly do not furnish any such evidence from the context of Matthew.

When turning to Revelation and their use of chapter 9, the lexical evidence becomes even more problematic for the interpretation of Davies and Allison.  While the phrase “gates of hades” is a hapax legomenon in the NT at Matt. 16:18, the general term hades, Greek ᾅδης, occurs only four times in the book of Revelation and none of these is found in Rev. 9 (Rev. 1:18; 6:8; 20:13; 20:14).  It is significant that every time it occurs it is used in conjunction with the general Greek term for death, θάνατος (thanatos).  Thus, in Revelation it is always “Death and Hades,” and in at least three of the four occurrences “Death and Hades” are clearly personified.  These four instances of “hades” associated with “death” appear to argue that John closely associated “hades” with death and not primarily with the location of demonic beings.

John’s prophetic book has words for the location of evil and demonic beings prior to the return of Christ, and it is not hades.  Terms like “bottomless pit” (Rev. 9:1, 2, 11; 11:7; 17:8; 20:1, 3; cf. Luke 8:31) and “lake of fire and sulfur” (Rev. 19:20; 20:10; 21:8; Matt. 25:41) are the idioms of John for the place where demonic hordes reside.

Finally, the text of Rev. 9:1-11 used by Davies and Allison, which depicts the fifth angel with a trumpet, hardly seems to be focused on saying that the saints will be protected from demonic assault.  Believers, of course, will be protected since these demonic beings are sent to punish “only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads” (Rev. 9:4).  There is nothing, however, in John’s text of Rev. 9:1-11 about these demonic, underworld beings coming to “rage against the saints” (Davies and Allison, p. 633).  In fact, this 5th trumpet is in a series of 7 trumpets where the objects of wrath in all of the “7 angels with 7 trumpets” scenes are non-believers; if these demonic creatures of the 5th trumpet are coming to rage, they are coming to “rage against the non-believers.”

As it states at the end of chapter 8, “Woe, woe, woe to the inhabitants of the earth, at the blasts of the other trumpets that the three angels are about to blow!” (Rev. 8:13).  The phrase “inhabitants of the earth” in Revelation points to those whose names are not written in the book of life; they are clearly not followers of the lamb (on this idiom see Oster, Seven Congregations in a Roman Crucible, pp. 178-80).  It would be the strangest turn of events if the very next scenario after 8:13 were one where God himself unleashed demonic forces against the saints through the actions of one of his angels.  Rather, the activity of these angels is to punish the wicked directly, moving inexorably in the plot of chapters 6-11 toward the revelation of the 7th angel of the 7th seal: “Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, ‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever’” (Rev. 11:15).

Since the episode of Rev. 9:1-11 does not even contain the term “hades,” and since this episode is not designed to fundamentally assure the saints of their protection against demonic hordes from the bottomless pit sent to “rage against them,” it strikes me as inappropriate to interpret the promise of Matt. 16:18 through an end-times paradigm of later Christian eschatology and a very questionable understanding of the Greek term ᾅδης, hades.

9 thoughts on ““Gates of Hell” and Another Look at Matt. 16:18 & Rev. 9:1-11

  1. It seems to me that, for people holding Scripture in high regard, there could be no more important undertaking than preparing a scrupulously accurate, non-agenda driven, modern English Bible.Yet, serious errors continue to crop up with each “New” latest and greatest translation.

    As someone who has difficulty with proper English, much less ancient Greek; and decidedly more “Pew-Packer” than “Pulpit Proclaimer,” I am acutely aware that requesting is easy–doing is incredibly difficult.

    But please, somebody, give us a reliable “Light for our path.” The consequences are just too great!

  2. Dr. Jack Lewis brought this shortcoming to our attention in his Matthew commentaries. Unfortunately traditionalism seems to hold sway over the obstinate and or uninformed. Excellent, Dr. Rick. Thank you. Joe Tomlinson

  3. I agree that “gates of hades” refers to death. However, with the proximity of Jesus’ statement in Matthew 16:18 to Matthew’s in verse 21 (“From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”), I’ve considered the possibility that Jesus is referring to his death in verse 18 (“I will build my church, and even my death will not prevent it.”).

    1. That is an interpretation I have not thought of before. Usually interpreters have thought “gates of death” was hostile to Jesus’ intent to build the church. Jesus’ own death, from Jesus’ point of view would be necessary to build his church.
      In any case I will think more about this.
      Thanks for the visit to the blog and your comments.

  4. Excellent analysis. I see a possible connection with Revelation 1:17, where Jesus says he has the keys of death and hades. Seems to be a similar idea (gates, keys). The realm of the dead can’t hold the church.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s