“What did Jesus mean when he said that ‘the gates of hell shall not prevail against [my church]’?” Ensign, Aug. 1993, 52–53
Charles Muldowney, professor of comparative religion, Valley Forge Military Academy, and Church public affairs director, Philadelphia Pennsylvania Region. Some Latter-day Saints may wonder how to respond to people of other Christian faiths who find support in Matthew 16:18 for their belief that there would never be a general apostasy.
The Greek word used to denote church in Matthew 16:18 is ecclesia, which literally means a “calling out” and originally referred to a civil assembly. Thus Jesus’ use of the phrase “my church” referred to an assembly “called” by him.
In the present dispensation, the Lord used church in this same sense. He revealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith that “whosoever repenteth and cometh unto me, the same is my church. …
“Behold, whosoever is of my church, and endureth of my church to the end, him will I establish upon my rock, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against them.” (D&C 10:67, 69.)
In these instances the “church” is not so much an institution as it is a group of individuals who repent, come unto Christ through the ordinances of the gospel, and endure in faith to the end. Upon them the adversary has no claim.
Thus Matthew 16:18–19 does not relate to the continuity of the relationship between Christ and his church organization in time. Instead, the passage refers to the protective and saving bond between Christ and repentant sinners—his sons and daughters—now and throughout eternity. [Matt 16:18–19] (See Mosiah 27:24–29; D&C 138:23.)
The phrase “gates of hell” refers to the place of restriction for the unjust dead. The barrier that separates them from the paradise of the dead is the justice of God. This idea is expressed in the Savior’s parable of the beggar Lazarus. The parable teaches, among other things, that communication between paradise and hell, or spirit prison, is restricted because there is “a great gulf fixed” between the two places. (See Luke 16:19–26.) Lehi and Nephi witnessed a very similar “gulf” in their visions of the tree of life. (See 1 Ne. 8:26; 1 Ne. 15:28–34.) Nephi described it as “a representation of that awful hell. … The justice of God did … divide the wicked from the righteous.” (1 Ne. 15:29–30.)
Jesus’ atonement bridged the gulf and breached the “gates” so that the repentant in prison could be liberated through the vicarious ordinances. The gates of hell could not prevail against them.
Shortly after making the statements recorded in Matthew 16:18–19, Jesus was transfigured before Peter, James, and John. [Matt. 16:18–19] (See Matt. 17:1–9.) Of that marvelous occasion, latter-day prophets have said that priesthood keys and sealing power (see Matt. 16:19) were bestowed upon those leading Apostles (see Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 158; Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie, 3 vols., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1955, 2:110–12).
It is not surprising that Peter, later as senior Apostle, the equivalent of the President of the Church and possessing sacred priesthood keys and sealing power, was the Apostle who clearly spoke of Jesus’ mission to the dead in the spirit world. (See 1 Pet. 3:18–20.) President Harold B. Lee said: “The gates of hell would have prevailed if the gospel had not been taught to the spirits in prison and to those who had not had ample opportunity to receive the gospel here in its fulness. It would have prevailed if there was not a vicarious work for the dead … [or] other vicarious work pertaining to the exaltation which those who accept the gospel might receive, both ordinances for the living and for the dead.” (In Conference Report, Apr. 1953, pp. 26–28.)
In this great redemptive work we see the fulfillment of Isaiah’s promise that the Messiah would “bring out the prisoners from the prison, and them that sit in darkness out of the prison house.” (Isa. 42:7.)
Matthew 16:18–19 [Matt. 16:18–19] sets forth clear and important doctrine, and both verses are best understood in relation to each other and in light of modern revelation. The passage is also a beautiful testimony of Christ’s love—for both the living and the dead. The Apostle Paul provides eloquent summary: “I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come,
“Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8:38–39.)