Apostasy/The "gates of hell"

FAIR Answers Wiki Table of Contents

Apostasy and the "gates of hell"

Summary: Is Jesus' teaching about "the gates of hell" prevailing against "the rock" inconsistent with a belief in a universal apostasy?

Jump to Subtopic:

Question: Does the fact that Jesus said, "upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" mean that universal apostasy was impossible?

Jesus' teaching about the rock is not a reference to any individual church or group of believers, since even well-intentioned mortals must fail

Some Christians argue that a universal apostasy is impossible, because Jesus told Peter, "upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." (Matthew 16:18) It is claimed that this means the Church organized by Jesus would never suffer apostasy and loss.

Jesus' teaching about the rock is not a reference to any individual church or group of believers, since even well-intentioned mortals must fail. Christ is the only sure foundation upon which a church can be built, and the knowledge of Christ must come as it always has, as it came to Peter—by direct revelation from the Father. Christ's Church will then be built upon those who have such revelation of Christ, including prophets and apostles.

The gates of hell prevailing against the church must refer to keeping the church in or out of the Hades, the dwelling place of departed spirits

The gates of hell prevailing against the church must refer to keeping the church in or out of the Hades, the dwelling place of departed spirits. Gates do not force people to enter or leave, but they do keep people from going in or out. Therefore, the Catholic and Protestant interpretations are not very intelligible whereas the Latter-day Saints can interpret the passage in at least two logical, Biblically sound ways.

It is not surprising that this issue revolves around how one interprets Jesus' remark. There are several options. Key to understanding the passage, however, is figuring out what the final "it" refers to: the church or the rock. Does the passage mean "the gates of hell shall not prevail against the church," or does the passage mean "the gates of hell shall not prevail against this rock?" If it refers to the "rock," then one must determine what "the rock" refers to. Similarly, the word "prevail" can be interpreted in a number of ways.

Catholic perspective: "this rock" is literally Peter

The Catholic church, of course, thinks that "this rock" is literally Peter, and have based their claims to apostolic succession on the unbroken succession of bishops of Rome back to Peter. Other churches must necessarily define a different meaning, because they cannot claim apostolic succession in this way.

Churches (such as the Protestants) who believe that the Church of Rome is somehow flawed or in apostasy from the pure truth must adopt a different reading.

Protestant perspective: "the rock" refers to the Christian Church

Protestant readers have generally interpreted "the rock" to refer to the Christian Church. Under this reading, Jesus is promising that the church will never be entirely overcome by death and/or the forces of Satan.

Latter-day Saint perspective: the only true, unmovable rock that exists is revelation from God

Latter-day Saints have generally read this verse as referring to the only true, unmovable rock that exists--revelation from God. That is the rock upon which any Church must be built, and it is evidenced by the verses just before this one. In Matthew 16:13-17, the subject is literally revelation given to Peter as to who Jesus Christ really is. This knowledge came by revelation from God (Matthew 16:17), and Christ taught Peter that this revelation is the rock upon which He would build His Church. This is confirmed by Joseph Smith's teachings.

Jesus in His teaching says, “upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” What rock? Revelation.[1]

Both the Protestant and Catholic versions must contend with the fact that other Biblical authors taught an inevitable apostasy. It would seem strange for such Biblical authors, including Peter, to teach something which Jesus here denies.

One must also notice that gates only prevail against something by keeping it out or by holding it in. It makes little sense for gates, which by nature keep inhabitants in or out of a place, to "prevail" by forcing something to enter is completely illogical. The Catholic and Protestant interpretations force an interpretation that isn't logical, namely, that gates prevail by forcing someone to enter or someone to leave. Gates, of course, serve no such function. Gates keep things in or out, but they do not force things to go in or to go out.

"Prevail" meaning "to keep out"

The word translated as "hell" in the KJV is actually Hades, the dwelling place of all departed spirits. For the gates of Hades to not prevail against them could mean that the gates would not be able to stop the church from entering therein. (By comparison, in The Gospel of Nicodemus the "gates" mentioned in Psalm 24 refer to the gates of Hades and the attempt made there to keep out Jesus in the period between his death and resurrection.[2] In other words, Christ’s Church, his disciples, would preach the gospel not only among the living, but also among the dead—not even the gates of Hades could keep them out.

In this context, Jesus gives Peter the sealing power to bind on earth and have it bound in heaven. For Latter-day Saints the word "bind" in Matthew 16:19 is synonymous with "seal." This passage has reference to priesthood authority to perform ordinances or sacraments, such as baptism, echoing the Shepherd of Hermas’ usage of the word "seal."[3] When a baptism (seal) is performed vicariously for the dead by proper priesthood authority, the seal (baptism) is recognized in heaven. Thus, Joseph Smith explained, "there is a way to release the spirit of the dead; that is, by the power and authority of the Priesthood—by binding and loosing on earth."[4]

As extreme as this interpretation may seem, this was not a foreign concept to early Christians. Clement of Alexandria (AD 160-215), among others, believed that the apostles of Christ preached the gospel to the departed spirits in Hades. "And it has been shown also…that the apostles, following the Lord, preached the Gospel to those in Hades. For it was requisite, in my opinion, that as here, so also there, the best of the disciples should be imitators of the master..."[5]

"Prevail" meaning "to keep in"

Another interpretation is that "prevail" has reference to keeping inhabitants inside. In this thought, gates could only prevail against something that is already inside of them and not external to them. This interpretation would be that Christ was saying that His Church would soon be inside the gates of the spirit world alone because of apostasy on earth, but that the Church would later come out from the world of the dead and back to earth—that His Church would shortly be confined to the spirit world, held back by its gates, but that later, members of Christ's Ancient Church (such as Peter, James, and John) would come, by revelation, out from behind the gates of Hades to restore the gospel to the earth.

Both of the above readings are distinct possibilities. Both reconcile all the Biblical data.

"Prevail" meaning "shut up against"

A literal translation of the passage reads as follows:

"You are Peter or a small stone broken from a larger rock and upon the original larger rock I will establish my church and the gates of the world of spirts, or sheol, will not be shut up against my church or overpower the dead saints."[6]

In this context the passage could be Christ teaching that the spirits of the departed will have the chance to hear the gospel. This is supported by Peter's teaching about Christ's ministry to the world of spirits just prior to his resurrection in 2 Peter 3:18-22 through 2 Peter 4:1-6).

Latter-day Saints believe that this sealing power given to Peter is the same power and keys that can seal families on both sides of the veil.

Jesus is also the Rock

It is not just revelation, however, that is key, but the revelation of Christ by God the Father.

The image of a rock is found throughout scripture, and bears directly on Jesus' remark to Peter:

But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us; Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace; And that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby: And came and preached peace to you which were afar off, and to them that were nigh. For through him we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father. Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God; And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:13-22)

Paul argues that the Church is built on a foundation of, among others, apostles and prophets, who were grounded in Christ as the cornerstone. Thus, Christ is the rock, as are those who receive revelation of Christ (such as the apostles and prophets) and His mission as part of their calling. Significantly, the apostasy resulted in the loss of apostolic authority (unless one accepts the apostolic succession of Rome).

Paul cautioned the Corinthian saints against presuming they could build on anyone or thing besides Christ:

For we are labourers together with God: ye are God's husbandry, ye are God's building. According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon. For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; Every man's work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man's work of what sort it is. If any man's work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man's work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire. Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are. Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, He taketh the wise in their own craftiness. And again, The Lord knoweth the thoughts of the wise, that they are vain. Therefore let no man glory in men. For all things are yours; Whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come; all are yours; And ye are Christ's; and Christ is God's. (1 Corinthians 3:9-23) (emphasis added)

Paul tells the saints that they are building the Church; but the Church cannot be built on man or men, even great men like Paul, Apollos, or Peter. (Of course, one cannot reject the testimony of the prophets and apostles either. But, relying on a mortal, fallible man alone will not suffice.)

Only Christ is a sufficiently firm basis for faith, practice, and belief. And, Christ cannot be found through the "wisdom of this world," but only through on-going revelation.

Paul noted the use of the same symbol later in the epistle, tying the Christians to covenant Israel:

MOREOVER, brethren, I would not that ye should be ignorant, how that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; And were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea; And did all eat the same spiritual meat; And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ. (1 Corinthians 10:1-4) (emphasis added)

One must ask again, How was Israel guided? By a prophet, who provided knowledge by revelation of the Rock of Israel. This symbol was a common one, of course, for the Israelites:

Therefore thus saith the Lord GOD, Behold, I lay in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tried stone, a precious corner [stone], a sure foundation: he that believeth shall not make haste. Judgment also will I lay to the line, and righteousness to the plummet: and the hail shall sweep away the refuge of lies, and the waters shall overflow the hiding place. (Isaiah 28:16-17)

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]).[7]

"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?[8]

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."[9]

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."[10] 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.[11]

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.

To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here


  1. Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of Joseph Smith, 2nd Edition, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1996), 156–158.; Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 5:258. Volume 5 link; Joseph Smith, Jr., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, selected by Joseph Fielding Smith, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1976), 274. off-site
  2. See The Gospel of Nicodemus, Part II, 6 in ANF 8:436-437.
  3. The Pastor of Hermas, ANF 2:49. See also, Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2nd edition, (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), 615-616. GL direct link and D&C 128:.
  4. Joseph Smith in The Essential Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature, 1995), 151-152.
  5. Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata, or Miscellanies VI. in ANF, 2:490.
  6. Personal translation taken from Blueletter Bible and BYU Professor Wilf Griggs.
  7. The Oxford Companion to the Bible, edited by Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 277.
  8. 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.
  9. Michael M. Winter, Saint Peter and the Popes (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1960), 17.
  10. Discourse of Apa Athanasius Concerning the Soul and the Body, in E.A.W. Budge, Coptic Homilies (London: Longmans and Company, 1910), 271-272.
  11. 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.