An older translation of a famous line from today’s Gospel reads: “The gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Catholics sometimes read this phrase as a guarantee that, whatever challenges we face in any period in history, the Church will ultimately endure until the coming of our Lord. Read this way, it asks us to envision a vast army pouring out of the gates of hell but ultimately dashing itself impotently against the walls of the mighty fortress that is the Church.
It’s all very Lord of the Rings. But it’s probably not what Jesus meant.
The word in Matthew’s Gospel that we now translate as “netherworld” is the Greek word hades. It was used in Greek versions of the Jewish Scriptures to translate the Hebrew word Sheol, the realm of the dead. The Old Testament depicts Sheol as a place where the dead are in isolation, cut off from the common life and worship of the living. In the Book of Isaiah, the prophet faces a serious illness where he fears being “consigned to the gates of Sheol for the rest of my years” (38:10).
Jesus’ vision of the Church is not a community that trembles in fear behind its own walls but one that ventures out courageously to break down the walls that hold others captive. When we reach out to others in need, we are acting on Jesus’ promise that the gates that imprison us—even the prison of death—will not ultimately prevail.