Skip to main content

Gates of Hell


This phrase occurs in the New Testament only at Mt 16.18: " upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." The Greek word here rendered "hell" is δης (hades), which in the Septuagint regularly translates the Hebrew še'ôl (sheol). In the Old Testament Sheol was conceived as the dark, underworld abode of all the dead; in later Judaism it came to be thought of as a place of punishment for the souls of the wicked, whereas the souls of the just awaited the resurrection in paradise. The earlier idea is seen in the New Testament at Acts 2.27, 31; the latter notion is found in Lk 16.2226, where the rich man is buried in Hades and there suffers torments, whereas Lazarus is carried by angels into Abraham's bosom.

The phrase "the gates of HadesSheol" occurs in the Old Testament at Is 38.10 and Wis 16.13, where it is a figurative expression for death. This is likewise its meaning in the apocrypha (Psalms of Solomon 16.2; 3 Mc5.51) and in classical Greek literature (Homer, Iliad 5.646; 9.312; Odyssey 14.156; Aeschylus, Agamemnon 1290; Euripides, Hippolytus, 56). Since death is seen as the passage through the gates of hell, which then shut to prevent all escape, the gates can stand, as pars-pro-toto, for the whole realm.

Exegetes differ as to the exact sense of the promise in Mt 16.18 that "the gates of hell shall not prevail." Noting that in the Old Testament and its apocrypha the gates of Sheol meant death, A. von Harnack and P. Schepens take it as a promise of immortality. (Von Harnack's conjecture that the original saying contained no reference to the Church, but only a promise that peter would not die, lacks solid foundation.) Schepens argues that a promise of immortality is a figurative way of promising the Church's indefectibility. J. Schmid [Regensburger Neues Testament, ed. A. Wikenhauser and O. Kuss, (Regensburg 1955) 1:249250] likewise takes the gates of Hades to mean the power of death, and the promise to mean that the Church will endure to the end of time. O. Cullmann agrees that Hades is the realm of the dead, but takes the promise to mean that its gates will not withstand the assault of the Church, which will force Hades to release its dead at the resurrection (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 6:107). Against this, J. Jeremias (ibid. 6:926) argues that the promise in v. 18c must be understood as developing the theme of the rock, which he explains in the light of the contemporary image of the cosmic rock that bars the flood of the nether world. Hence he concludes that the gates of Hades stand for the hostile power in the lower world, which will storm in vain against the rock. Until now there has been no general acceptance of the conjecture of R. Eppel and J. B. Bauer

that the original Aramaic word meant gate keepers rather than gates.

Bibliography: j. jeremias, TDNT 6:924928. m. saller, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 195765) 4:1305. j. dublin, "The Gates of Hades," The Expositor 11 (1916) 401409. p. schepens, "L'Authenticité de S. Matt. 16,18," Recherches de science religieuse 10 (1920) 267302. l. e. sullivan, "The Gates of Hell," Theological Studies 10 (1949) 6264. r. eppel, "L'Interpretation de Matt. 16:18b," Mélanges offerts à M. Goguel (Paris 1950) 7173. j. b. bauer, "Ostiarii inferorum," Biblica 34 (1953) 43031.

[f. a. sullivan]

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Gates of Hell." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . 2 Feb. 2019 <>.

"Gates of Hell." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . (February 2, 2019).

"Gates of Hell." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Retrieved February 02, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.