In Matthew 16:18, Jesus says to Simon:
“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.”
Lots of ink (and blood) has been spilled on the issue of Peter’s role as the Rock, and that’s usually where the debate ends. Catholics say that Simon is the rock, since Jesus just renamed him Peter (which means Rock), and this is pretty clearly what’s meant. Protestants deny this, claiming that Peter’s Greek name means small rock. Nevermind that Jesus named Peter in Aramaic, not Greek (as John 1:42 tells us), and that Petros is the masculine form of the Greek word for rock (petra).
For now, just set that issue to one side. My concern is that we get so hung up on the Petrine/papal aspect that we ignore the broader context. I’ve raised this point before, asking, “Why Did Jesus Build His Own Church?” The answer to that question has some pretty profound implications for how we understand the idea of Church – and yes, how we understand the necessity of the papacy. But today, I want to approach this verse from a third angle: What does Jesus mean that the Gates of Hell won’t “prevail”?
Mormons and Protestants tend to argue that this passage just promises final triumph: that in the end, the good guys win, evil is vanquished, and Christ is glorified. As this LDS website argues:
Did death (the word “hell” referred to here is really the Greek word Hades) prevail over Jesus Christ? Of course not. He triumphed over death. But He DID die – yet returned to life, an immortal, glorious, resurrected Being. If Christ, against whom the gates of death did not prevail, could die, then is it not possible that His Church could also die – and later be brought back to life (restored)?
But there are two problems with this interpretation.
First, death didn’t prevail over Jesus, even temporarily. In John 10:17-18, He says: “The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.” The Cross wasn’t Jesus losing, even for an instance. Rather, the Cross was the moment in which Jesus’ victory is made visible, in which “having disarmed the powers and authorities, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the Cross” (Col. 2:15).
Second, overcoming an enemy temporarily is still prevailing. The King James Version of Judges 6:2 says that “the hand of Midian prevailed against Israel.” The Mormon version is identical. But obviously, Midian didn’t finally triumph over Israel. Israel’s still around, while Midian is long dead. The Book of Judges even shows us that Midian’s victory was temporary. But no matter: Midian prevailed against Israel.
If the entire Church fell into apostasy as Mormons and many Protestants claim, even for a little while, then the Gates of Hell prevailed. Doesn’t matter if they claim that the gates prevailed for an hour or a millennium. Christ promised that the Gates of Hell would not prevail. We can trust Jesus that the Apostasy that these Mormons and Protestants never happened. “Let God be true and every man a liar” (Romans 3:4).
Update: I’m going to be talking about this subject on Son Rise Morning Show on Thursday morning at 8:40 AM Eastern. Feel free to listen in! Go to the website and click “On the Air” to listen live, or tune in to hear it re-broadcast on EWTN Radio later on.