“The Gates of Hell Will Not Prevail”
Many Catholics today utter this phrase to justify their opinions about the crisis. Conservatives say that since the gates of Hell cannot prevail against the Church, an infiltration cannot possibly have happened. Sedevacantists say that since an infiltration has happened, and the gates of Hell cannot prevail, then the official Church must be a façade. The true Church is their underground sect. Still other Catholics, finally exhausted with the cognitive dissonance necessary to be an ultramontanist, become convinced that the gates of Hell have prevailed over the Papacy. They are then taken in by lies from the Greek schismatics and give themselves over to the imaginary unity of the Greek schism.
But in each of these cases a soul considers the phrase of the promise and relies on his own private judgment to determine what it means. As we shall see, the Church has only ascribed general meanings to this promise, not specific circumstances.
In times past, our fathers have thought things were so bad in their day that the end of the world was imminent. The early Christians were hunted down across the world and butchered. During the Black Death, thousands perished, and three popes fractured Christendom. Or the Protestants revolted and a small fleet of Catholics made a desperate attempt to meet the Muhammadan armada at Lepanto. Or again, the French Revolution massacred Christians and then captured Pope Pius VI. He died in France and the Church suffered with no pope for six months. It is hard for us to imagine the feeling of facing the type of widespread bloodshed that our fathers’ faced. Some lost hope, others perservered.
If we say that in those times the gates of Hell did not prevail, at what point would we say that they have prevailed? How bad does it really have to get? How can we trust in a promise whose object is unclear? Let us consider the Sacred Scripture and the Holy Fathers and, with God’s help, attempt to answer these questions. Every Catholic must face the fact that at least in one sense, the gates of Hell indeed have and will prevail over the Church. But how then can His promise hold true? We must contemplate deeply this mystery. Let us consider first the Word of God.
Our Lord has just multiplied loaves and miraculously fed four thousand on a mountain near the sea of Galilea. He comes to a nearby coastal town and is confronted by the Pharisees and Sadducees. They demand from him a sign from heaven. He rebukes them and promises no sign but the sign of Jonas. He then sails with his disciples and warns them against the doctrine of the Pharisees and Saduccees. They disembark and walk north together many miles. They reach the northern border town of Caesarea Philippi, near the ancient territory of the lost idolatrous tribe of Dan, where the pagans have dedicated the surrounding rocks and grottos to their many gods. It is here that our Lord demands and receives the confession of the Incarnation from St. Peter: “Thou art Christ, the Son of the living God.” Our Lord responds by calling him the Blessed Son of Jonas, the One Who Listens (Simon) to the revelation from “My Father in Heaven.” He then speaks of his person and his confession and utters these words over him:
I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
Ego dico tibi, quia tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram ædificabo Ecclesiam meam, et portæ inferi non prævalebunt adversus eam.
κἀγὼ δέ σοι λέγω ὅτι σὺ εἶ Πέτρος, καὶ ἐπὶ ταύτῃ τῇ πέτρᾳ οἰκοδομήσω μου τὴν ἐκκλησίαν, καὶ πύλαι ᾅδου οὐ κατισχύσουσιν αὐτῆς.
Here in the context of Caesarea Phillipi, we may observe a few things about these words. First, the immediate context is the grotto at Caesarea Phillipi, where a the rocky crags held the idols of many gods. The men who were killed and sacrificed to these demon gods were thrown into a pit in the rock known as the “gates of Hades.” In addition, the city itself was the site of large construction projects by the late king Herod Philip and the current king, Herod Agrippa II. All of these things would be immediately apparent.
The words also bring to mind the foundation rock of the Second Temple at Jersusalem (eben shetiyyah) which sealed off a long shaft in the earth leading to sheol (Hades). His words about building also recall the great kings of Israel, David and Solomon (in contrast to the false builder kings Herod). David laid the preparations and Solomon did the construction to the First Temple.
Thus in the context of many rocks, gates of Hell and construction, our Lord tells of his own chosen rock and building. The gates (πύλαι) refer to the defensive structure seen at the entrance to any city, thus invoking the expansion of the City of God against the defenses of the City of Man of the Evil one. The verb overcome (κατισχύσουσιν) thus implies the failure of a siege to penetrate the gates of a city.
Moreover, our Lord calls Peter the “stone” (Πέτρος), which in Greek had a connotation of a weapon, such as was used in Homer and by King David to slay Goliath, thus connecting with the defensive imagery of the gates. And given the above context he refers to St. Peter’s confession as a “rock” (πέτρᾳ) which was the feminine form of the Greek “stone,” making its meaning refer to the rock foundation of a building. By using the same word in two forms, he also integrates the foundational person with the foundational confession.
Finally, the word used for build (οἰκοδομήσω μου τὴν ἐκκλησίαν) holds the meaning of constructing a building from a foundation, utilizing the same words used in reference to Solomon (I Para. xxii. 10). But the word also has the prefix οἰκο- which refers to the forming of a household. Thus the whole phrase brings together the persons (both the foundational person named Rock and the Church), the confession (foundation rock) and the institution to be built, all in opposition to the rival power of Hell whose defenses will not be able to withstand the expansion of the Church.
Immediately following this, our Lord tells of His coming death and resurrection, prompting the aforementioned Rock to rebuke Jesus Himself. Our Lord then calls St. Peter a different name: “Get behind me, Satan.” Herein is a mystery tied closely to our text on the gates of Hell. When Simon hears and confesses the foundation rock (the Incarnation), he is his own name: the Rock against the gates of Hell. When he denies the corollary of the Incarnation (the Cross of suffering), he becomes Satan. Yet his name was changed to Rock, not Satan. And although he can become Satan, his name and his person do not change. This is a great mystery to which we will return below.
When the Gates of Hell Prevailed
Among the many meanings of the gates of Hell, the most obvious and immediate is simply natural death. Thus the name for the pit of corpses at Caesarea Philippi. Jews and Greeks both believed that after a man died his soul passed through the gates of Hell (or “Hades”) and was left there indefinitely. There was no hope of getting out of this place.
When our Lord was crucified, the gates of Hell prevailed over the Church, the Body of Christ. Jesus Christ was dead. His soul went to Hell and his body was laid in the tomb.
Let us pause for a moment and consider the reality that the disciples faced here. They had left their families. They had left their homes and livelihoods to follow Jesus Christ because they believed and hoped in Him. And now He was dead. We hoped that it was he that should have redeemed Israel (Lk. xxiv. 21). Their hope was completely lost, and now they feared for their own lives also. What dark despair was theirs at this moment! Truly Hell had prevailed. No man could deny it. Everything visible showed clearly that the gates of Hell had prevailed.
The only person who would deny this would be our Lady, who should have seemed to the disciples drawn away into a mother’s excess. But it is the disciples that the Lord would rebuke: O foolish and slow of heart to believe in all things, Which the prophets have spoken (Lk. xxiv. 25).
Our Lady kept faith on Holy Saturday, and we celebrate her on Saturdays ever since. For the triumph of Hell was only for those seeing with the eyes of the flesh, not with the eyes of faith. On the contrary, our Lord descended into hell in order to destroy her gates. As it is said:
In the grave with the body, but in Hades with the soul; in Paradise with the thief and on the throne with the Father and the Spirit, wast Thou, O Christ, filling all things, Thyself uncircumscribed.
It is here that we know what is meant in the creed, “He descended into hell,” and in the phrase from St. Peter: In which also coming he preached to those spirits that were in prison: Which had been some time incredulous, when they waited for the patience of God in the days of Noe (I Pt. iii. 19).
But in the Body of Christ was contained all the Body of the faithful to come—the whole Church militant, triumphant and suffering. In the true death of Jesus Christ, the entire Church was scattered and destroyed and put to death. It was truly the case that there was not a single Christian remaining upon earth on that day—save only our All-Holy Lady.
Thus when we consider the question of the gates of Hell, we must recall this first triumph of the Devil, when our God allowed him to triumph. When our God permitted Himself to be carried captive through the gates of Hell. Can any tragedy in the Church compare to the silence of God On Holy Saturday? By every reasonable standard by which men can judge anything, the Gates of Hell had prevailed.
But against all expectations, our Lord kept His promise, and the gates of Hell were overthrown. Thus we see in the Greek Resurrection icon the gates of Hell being torn asunder and Satan bound in chains beneath. Adam and Eve are lifted up out of Hades.
This very real triumph of Hell—at least according to all things natural and visible—must be deeply contemplated by every Christian. We must consider: if while our Lord walked the earth, the gates of hell destroyed the Church so utterly and completely, how much more will the Church be overthrown in times to come? And yet how much more miraculous will be the Church’s glorious resurrection?
Having considered the meaning of the Scripture, let us rely now on our Fathers to give us the proper meaning of this promise. As it is written:
Stand in the multitude of ancients that are wise, and join thyself from thy heart to their wisdom, that thou mayst hear every discourse of God, and the sayings of praise may not escape thee. And if thou see a man of understanding, go to him early in the morning, and let thy foot wear the steps of his doors (Ecclus. vi. 35).
It is crucial to seize upon the fact that as Catholics, we are not free to make our own opinion about the promise. We are bound to hold to what our fathers held, and not presume ourselves wise enough to conclude something against their wisdom.
How have the Fathers understood this promise? As with other passages, there are multiple layers of meaning. Hilary says it means the triumph over death, while Origen and Jerome say it is sin and heresy that will not overcome the Church (Catena). St. John Chrysostom connects the promise to our Lord’s resurrection (Hom. LIV), as does Ambrose (Christian Faith IV 2.14) but Ambrose adds that the promise applies also to the person of Peter (2.26). Another gloss says that our Lord is promising that the gates “shall not separate the Church from the love and faith of Me” (Catena). Summing up the many interpretations of the Fathers, Bede says:
The gates of Hades are depraved teachings, which by seducing the imprudent draw them down there. The gates of Hades are also the torments and banishments of persecutors, which either by frightening or by cajoling any of the weak away from the stability of the faith, open to them the entrance into everlasting death. But also the wrong-headed works of the unfaithful, or their silly conversations, are surely the gates of Hades, inasmuch as they show their hearers and followers the path of perdition. Many are the gates of Hades, but none of them prevails over the Church that has been founded upon the Rock (Hom. I.20 Homilies on the Gospels, Bk One, 201).
St. Thomas also later writes about the many layers of meaning:
What are the gates of Hell? Heretics: for, just as through a door a man goes into a house, through them a man goes into Hell. Likewise tyrants, demons and sins. And however much through heretics other churches can be blamed, nevertheless the Roman Church has not been corrupted by heretics because it was founded upon the rock. Thus the heretics were in Constantinople, and the labor of the Apostles was lost. Only the Church of Peter has remained inviolate. Thus it is said I have prayed for thee, Peter, that thy faith fail not (Lk. xxii. 32). And this not only refers to the Church of Peter but to the faith of Peter, and to the whole Western Church. Hence I hold that the Westerners ought to have a greater reverence for Peter than the other Apostles (Commentary on Matthew).
But how can the Roman Church be inviolate if, even by St. Thomas’ day, Honorius had been anathematized, Stephen VII’s decree on ordinations had been invalidated, John XII had toasted Satan, and Paschal II’s erroneous investiture decree had been condemned by St. Bruno as “heresy”? In our own time, who can deny that heretics have corrupted Rome? This is a great mystery. Vatican I dogmatized it by placing stringent conditions on papal infallibility. But this left other questions unanswered. We have treated this in another place, but here let us bring to bear our passage on this question.
Peter, Satan and the Roman Papacy
First, let us briefly review the meaning of the Petrine primacy. Because of second millennium emergencies, the Roman has been obliged to emphasize her own primacy more and more, and it can be forgotten that this passage refers to every bishop as well. The Fathers see every bishop as holding the Petrine promise as long as they are united to the body of Church. The determining factor for this is communion with the Roman See. Other Sees were founded by St. Peter but here alone did the Prince of the Apostles receive his crown of martyrdom. Thus very early (2nd century) the evidence is clear that the prerogatives of the Roman See included governing the entire Church.
Sometimes non-Catholics will emphasize other aspects of this passage to attempt to exclude the Roman aspect, such as saying the promise refers to his confession, not his person, or such things. It is true that the Fathers appear to make a distinction between the confession and the person. And yet, a confession is without effect unless it is confessed by a person, and so the Fathers also identify the Roman See in a particular way with this promise (in addition to every bishop in a different sense).
One of most famous instances of this is the formula of Hormisdas. This was the confession which ended the Acacian schism, the first prolonged east-west schism. It lasted nearly two generations from 484-519. The confession reads like this:
The first condition of salvation is to keep the norm of the true faith and in no way to deviate from the established doctrine of the Fathers. For it is impossible that the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, who said, “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church,” should not be verified. And their truth has been proved by the course of history, for in the Apostolic See the Catholic religion has always been kept unsullied. [Here follows a list of condemned heretics.] Following, as we have said before, the Apostolic See in all things and proclaiming all its decisions, we endorse and approve all the letters which Pope St Leo wrote concerning the Christian religion. And so I hope I may deserve to be associated with you in the one communion which the Apostolic See proclaims, in which the whole, true, and perfect security of the Christian religion resides. I promise that from now on those who are separated from the communion of the Catholic Church, that is, who are not in agreement with the Apostolic See, will not have their names read during the sacred mysteries. But if I attempt even the least deviation from my profession, I admit that, according to my own declaration, I am an accomplice to those whom I have condemned. I have signed this, my profession, with my own hand, and I have directed it to you, Hormisdas, the holy and venerable pope of Rome.
This confession formed the basis for reunion with the Church of 2500 Eastern schismatic bishops in 519, invoked in 869 and again at Florence in the 15th century. The documentary evidence for Rome’s special place in this promise is evident for those who have eyes to see (see Resources for more information).
The important point we wish to draw out here is the adjoining verses about “Satan.” Because although it is clear that the Pope of Rome has from the earliest times been the point of infallible unity, it is also true that the popes have lapsed into error of various kinds as we have already mentioned. Perhaps this is why our Lord, after his majestic exaltation of St. Peter on the mountain, quickly rebukes him when he denies the cross and calls him “Satan.” We may infer from these passages that our Lord does indeed promise the indestructability of St. Peter and His Church, but he does not promise impeccability of the Roman Pontiff.
In other words, His promise will be fulfilled, one way or another, but this does not personally force the will of the pope (or any bishop) to be without sin and error. The pope retains his free will. Insofar as he confesses the faith that his name bears, he unites his person and the Church with the rock of truth. This, of course, is the work of God’s grace and Providence, and is not ascribed to his human will. Our Lord has promised that this rock will never truly be shaken, even if it is completely killed as He Himself was.
On the other hand, insofar as the person of St. Peter according to his human nature denies the cross of suffering, he becomes Satan. Soloviev summarizes this beautifully when he says:
Simon Peter as supreme pastor and doctor of the Universal Church, assisted by God and speaking in the name of all, is the faithful witness and infallible exponent of divine-human truth; as such he is the impregnable foundation of the house of God and the key-bearer of the Kingdom of Heaven. The same Simon Peter as a private individual, speaking and acting by his natural powers and merely human intelligence, may say and do things that are unworthy, scandalous and even diabolical. But the failures and sins of the individual are ephemeral, while the social function of the ecclesiastical monarch is permanent. “Satan” and the “offence” have vanished, but Peter has remained (Russia and the Universal Church, Ch. 3).
Thus “Satan” and “Rock” are two names for the Apostle, yet not in the same way. Rock is according to God’s grace and providence, Satan is according to Peter’s own frail human nature. From a purely human perspective, the gates of hell do prevail in this sense, but not from the perspective of God. Man can truly see the triumph of Hell according to his eyes of flesh. Considering the death of our Lord, we must expect the most awful tragedy imaginable to overcome the Roman Church, so that it becomes absolutely impossible for the Church to survive. Only then can we look for the glorious resurrection. Only then can God receive all glory. As it is written, Power is made perfect in infirmity (II Cor. xii. 9) and again, What is impossible for man is possible with God (Lk xviii. 27).
Our fathers have indeed seen the gates of hell prevail with their eyes of flesh. They have seen the papacy overrun by heretics. Destroyed by pagans and Iconoclasts. They have seen the popes murdered, or the popes as murderers and adulterers. They have seen the pope teach heresy, order public debauchery and toast Satan. The eyes of the flesh see that this is the gates of hell prevailing. But the eyes of faith see what is unseen. As St. Paul says, faith is the substance of things to be hoped for, the evidence of things that appear not (Heb. xi. 1).
In the midst of this, our fathers were willing to shed their blood for these popes. St. Thomas More was beheaded for a pope with mistresses and multiple children. The Japanese Church endured two hundred years without priests, keeping the faith. Although they could see that the gates of hell were indeed prevailing, their faith told them that whatever happens, they will not prevail in the end. This is the reasoning of faith.
As we have seen, the Fathers and saints have never defined exactly what the triumph of the gates of hell means. With the death of the Son of God, all manner of evil done to the Church is foreshadowed. It has not been revealed to us in what way the gates of hell could prevail, we have only been promised that they will not prevail in the end.
We must have the faith of Abraham who believed that God would raise up seed for him even though he was as good as dead (Heb. xi. 12). Then we must be willing to sacrifice that seed in faith, reasoning through faith that God would reconcile the former promise of seed and the present command to sacrifice–only by raising the dead back to life (Heb. xi. 19). Faith and hope will deliver us through this crisis, as they delivered our fathers.
The Church is a perpetually defeated thing that always outlives her conquerers. — Hilaire Belloc
Timothy S. Flanders
 In both Old Testament and Greek thought, “Hades” (Sheol, “the grave,” “the netherworld,”) was a place where all souls went after death, whether good or bad. It was a place under the earth for these souls to stay indefinitely. Both Greek (Odysseus) and Roman (Aeneaus) heroes traveled to Hades and conversed with the souls there. “Hell” as the grave (sheol) or “Hades” is different than the Hell of eternal punishment (Gehenna). Unfortunately these two different places get tranlslated into English with the same word “Hell.” Nevertheless Hell as “Hades” and Hell as Gehenna bare a certain resemblance in their lack of hope, and sometimes they are used interchangeably in a more general sense.
 The definition of “dead” is the moment when the soul separates from the body.
 Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom
 Et qui sunt portae Inferi? Haeretici: quia sicut per portam intratur in domum, sic per istos intratur in Infernum. Item tyranni, Daemones, peccata. Et quamvis aliae Ecclesiae vituperari possint per haereticos, Ecclesia tamen Romana non fuit ab haereticis depravataquia supra petram erat fundata. Unde in Constantinopoli fuerunt haeretici, et labor apostolorum amissus erat; sola Petri Ecclesia inviolata permansit. Unde Lc. XXII, 32: ego rogavi pro te, Petre, ut non deficiat fides tua. Et hoc non solum refertur ad Ecclesiam Petri, sed ad fidem Petri, et ad totam Occidentalem Ecclesiam. Unde credo quod Occidentales maiorem reverentiam debent Petro, quam aliis apostolis.