The gates of hell are no closer than they ever have been. No matter the crumbling of our culture or the dereliction of a pope, they have not moved a millimeter. Immobile, they remain where—and what—they were when life first erupted on the planet: an ineluctable border between life and death. Yet we go on invoking them as a talisman against institutional rot or, alternately, as the default comfort in a waning civilization.
What calls attention to the phrase just now is Cardinal Dolan’s February 3rd pastoral letter to all parishes in the New York Archdiocese. He wrote in response to New York State’s grisly Reproductive Health Act. Intended to deflect demand for canonical censure on a Catholic governor, the letter ended with this hedge: “Thank God we have the promise of Jesus that ‘not even the gates of hell will prevail.’” In effect, Dolan passed the buck to Divine Providence.
A Too-Familiar Painkiller
“Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” A familiar anodyne, Matthew 16:18 cries to be rescued from the lowlands of literalism. Prosaic use ignores the nature of figurative language, its ubiquity in the Tanakh on which Jesus was raised, and Jesus’ skill in employing it.
Heirs of the longue durée of translations, we lose our grasp of that citation by chiseling in stone words that Jesus did not utter—not in the sense that we are accustomed to using them. Set aside for now the first half of the citation. Start with the second half, if only because the Bergoglian pontificate is driving an uptick in ceremonial use of it among Catholics. Also because a cardinal confiscated it as an escape clause vis-à-vis the triggerman of an infanticidal bill.
Translations are not mathematical equations. Yet we tend to treat them as if they were. We assign the meaning of a conventional translation retrospectively to the original, taking our own backwards projection as definitive. The “gates of hell” has become a stock phrase, its significance inflected by time and its suppleness hardened for pedagogical uses.
Jesus’ Vocabulary vs. Our Own
Jesus did not use our word hell. He did not speak Old English, from which hell derives. Most reasonably, he said she’ol, Hebrew parallel to the Greek hades. (Sheol, often rendered as “the grave” or “the pit,” becomes hades in the Septuagint.) Both words, Greek and Hebrew, intimate a netherworld, the dark realm of the dead. The gates of which Jesus spoke are the same ones his audience recognized from sacred Scripture. They were common cultural symbols of death’s negation of life, of the power and intransigence of death’s realm:
I shall go to the gates of the grave. (Isa 38:10)
. . . and they draw near unto to the gates of death. (Ps.107:18)
Have mercy upon me, O Lord; . . . thou that lifteth me up from the gates of death. (Ps. 9:13)
At the same time, early Jewish intuition held hopes of deliverance from the tenacity of Sheol:
O Lord, thou hast brought up my soul from the grave; thou hast kept me alive that I should not go down to the pit. (Ps. 30:3)
But God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave; for he shall receive me. (Ps. 49:15)
The Lord killeth and maketh alive; he bringeth down to the grave, and bringeth up. (1 Sam. 2:6)
It is against the gates of death—a breathtaking dismissal!—that Jesus promises they will not prevail. His is a transcendent covenant that has everything to do with faith. It offers nothing to mundane desire for temporal ascendency in the material world.
Gates Are Not Weapons
Gates are stationary defenses, critical to the safety of ancient cities. Medieval cities, too, sheltered themselves behind walls. They protect those within from assault by enemies without. They are not combative; they do not assail or encroach. Gates are fortifications, not weapons. They can only be locked, guarding—or holding hostage—those within.
To say that gates will not prevail means simply that they will not hold. Their bolts will loosen, hinges break, bars twist and bend. Like the walls of Jericho, they will collapse, be crushed and ruined. Jesus uses reference to them evocatively: death itself, dreaded barricade between the quick and the dead, will be vanquished.
The Pictorial Canon
The truth inherent in symbols is sometimes better conveyed in images. Look carefully at medieval depictions of the Harrowing of Hell, a common motif. Beneath Christ’s feet lies a portal, most often rendered as a bolted door, to the stronghold of the dead. He has battered it down and released the souls imprisoned by it. Jesus’ gates are a metaphor, readily apparent to his Jewish listeners and signifying the nothingness from which there is no deliverance. None, that is, except by Him Who is the giver of life: “I am the Resurrection and the life; he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live. And whoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.” (Jn 11:25-26)
A joyous hymn by Christopher Wordsworth, Anglican bishop and brother of poet William, draws lyrically on this pictorial tradition. The critical line alludes to gates : “Now the iron bars are broken; Christ from death is born.” Every image in the canon of the Harrowing—alternately called descent into Limbo or descent into Hell—is an alleluia.
The Meaning of Ecclesia
Listen to Jesus’ words against the biblical framework to which they refer and within which they draw meaning: “Thou art Peter and upon this rock I build my church.” Set aside for now play on the word rock, and the prevalence of stone symbolism in the Hebrew Bible. Stay with the word church. There was no church, no such structure, in Jesus’ lifetime. The term evolved among post-Resurrection communities from the Pauline ecclesia, a word that originally applied to any like-minded, purposeful assembly gathered together in a common spirit. (The League of Women Voters or the Boy Scouts, had they existed in first century Palestine, could have been considered ecclesiae.) Only gradually did ecclesia come to specify the Christian community.
Jesus vowed invincibility to persons: to Peter, to Martha, to a community. He commissioned Peter to sustain the ecclesia—a believing fellowship—in the act of faith that Peter himself had just declared: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus’ great pledge was to his people, to those who placed their trust in him. To you and me. It was not a guarantee to the juridical and bureaucratic scaffolding of an as yet non-existent ecclesiastical system built on Roman models of governance.
Postscript: Caught between the ebbing of the Christian West and the resurgence of Islam, we grip the Matthean passage in melancholy, and no small degree of denial. Perhaps when our alleluias are written on the ground in blood, we will know better what it means to declare that the gates of hell will not prevail.