Question: What are the "gates of hell" or "gates of Hades?"

Table of Contents

Question: What are the "gates of hell" or "gates of Hades?"

Postexilic Judaism reserved a particular section of hell for the punishment of sinners

Both Sheol and Hades refer to a general dwelling place of souls after death (Gen. 37:35; Acts 2:27)…. Postexilic Judaism reserved a particular section of hell for the punishment of sinners (emphasized in 1 Enoch 22:10-11). In the New Testament, the synoptic Gospels and James in twelve places name this place of pain Gehenna (Matt. 5:22; James 3:6). Among the New Testament examples of Hades, there are three in which punishment is the point, so that Hades corresponds to Gehenna (Matt. 11:23; Luke 10:15; 16:23). In the other passages where Hades occurs, however, it is used in the neutral sense of a space where all dead are kept (Matt. 16:18; Acts 2:27, 31; Rev. 1:18; 6:8; 20:13, 14; also the variant reading in 1 Cor. 15:55 [cf. Hos. 13:14]).[1]

"Hades" was not the place of final punishment: It corresponds to what Latter-day Saints call the Spirit World

So "Hades" was not the place of final punishment, the domain of Satan. It corresponds to what Latter-day Saints call the Spirit World-a place where the spirits of both the righteous and wicked dead are kept until the Resurrection. Tertullian (ca. AD 200) explained the early Christian concept of Hades when he wrote,

All souls, therefore; are shut up within Hades: do you admit this? (It is true, whether) you say yes or no…. Why, then, cannot you suppose that the soul undergoes punishment and consolation in Hades in the interval, while it awaits its alternative of judgment?[2]

Roman Catholics are even more interested than Evangelicals in demonstrating the continuity of the Church from New Testament times, but after reviewing various usages of "Hades" around the time of the New Testament writers, Catholic apologist and scholar Michael M. Winter had to admit that "although some writers have applied the idea of immortality to the survival of the church, it seems preferable to see it as a promise of triumph over evil."[3]

Christ "burst open" the gates of Hades

What did the "gates of Hades" do? Saint Athanasius (fourth century AD), the famous proponent of the Nicene Creed, gave the following rendition of Christ's visit to Hades during the three days between His death and resurrection. "He burst open the gates of brass, He broke through the bolts of iron, and He took the souls which were in Amente [the Coptic equivalent of the Greek Hades] and carried them to His Father…. Now the souls He brought out of Amente, but the bodies He raised up on the earth."[4] A first-century Christian collection of poems, the Odes of Solomon, described Jesus' visit to Hades in the following way.

And those who had died ran towards me: and they cried and said, Son of God, have pity on us, and do with us according to thy kindness, and bring us out from the bonds of darkness: and open to us the door by which we shall come out to thee. For we see that our death has not touched thee. Let us also be redeemed with thee: for thou art our Redeemer. And I heard their voice; and my name I sealed upon their heads: For they are free men, and they are mine.[5]

According to the early Christians, the "gates of Hades" kept everyone, including the Church, inside Hades until Jesus would come and release them into a glorious resurrection

Therefore, according to the early Christians, the "gates of Hades" kept everyone, including the Church, inside Hades until Jesus would come and release them into a glorious resurrection. So when Latter-day Saints apply Matthew 16:18 to the release of Spirits from the Spirit World rather than to the survival of the earthly Church, they are taking the passage quite literally.


Notes

  1. The Oxford Companion to the Bible, edited by Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 277.
  2. Tertullian, On the Soul 58, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10 volumes, edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Buffalo: The Christian Literature Publishing Company, 1885-1896), 3:234-235. Hereafter cited as ANF.
  3. Michael M. Winter, Saint Peter and the Popes (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1960), 17.
  4. Discourse of Apa Athanasius Concerning the Soul and the Body, in E.A.W. Budge, Coptic Homilies (London: Longmans and Company, 1910), 271-272.
  5. The Odes of Solomon 42:15-26, in The Forgotten Books of Eden, edited by Rutherford H. Platt, Jr. (New York: Random House, 1980), 140.