Further to my previous post on interpreting Jesus’ words in Matthew 16:18b, I’ve come across a Greek inscription which seems to add support my view. Jesus’ words to Peter express the hope of resurrection, that death cannot stand in the way of Jesus’ building of his church:
And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it. Matthew 16:18
The ‘gates of Hades’ is a mythic image of a barrier between the underworld and the land of the living. The Gates of Hades prevent the dead from returning. The image represents the irreversible power of death. However, Jesus’ words express his confidence that death will not prevent God’s purpose for a redeemed people (the ekklesia of Jesus), living in a redeemed world from being accomplished.
The Greek inscription that adds weight to my interpretation appears to be anti-Christian polemic from the early years of the Church (Lattimore, Themes in Greek and Latin Epitaphs, 75). It expresses the common ancient view that death is the end – there can be no return to the realm of the living – and paints the Christian hope of resurrection as a fantasy.
This, friends, is it. For what more could come afterward. Not even this remains. For it is the stone and stele that tell you all this, not I. The gates are here, and the trodden ways to Hades by which none can come back to the light. But all pitiful wretches (long) for resurrection.
The important point is that, again, gates are portrayed as preventing a return to life for the dead. Perhaps just as important is that here in this inscription, the imagery is linked specifically with the hope of resurrection. It’s the same imagery that is found in Homer and in the Sibylline Oracles. This is the imagery that Jesus employs: the power of death over the bodies of the deceased will be broken. The grave will not overpower the Church.
A few important points can be briefly made:
Matthew has Jesus speaking of Hades, not hell. It’s most likely (despite the word play on Πέτρος/πέτρα) that Jesus speaks in Aramaic here, so the Greek word Hades (ᾅδης) is a translation of Aramaic. Hades therefore represents the Hebrew view of Sheol as the grave, the destination of the dead. Jesus is not referring to a place of eternal punishment here. Translations of Hades as hell often lead to confusion.
This emphasis on the necessity of the defeat of death through resurrection reminds us that the Church, the ekklesia of Jesus, is not merely something for this life, an organisational necessity whilst we wait for salvation. The ekklesia is the People of God, an entity destined for a new earth.
The ekklesia of Jesus is not merely a spiritual reality, but a physical reality (this dichotomy is not very helpful, but it’s how most Christians tend to think). The human being as human being (body and soul) is the object of God’s redemption.
The ekklesia of Jesus is finally an eschatological reality. God’s people are not destined for a ‘spiritual’ existence in heaven, but a salvation that involves the redemption of the human body. Membership of the ekklesia is mediated through the sensory experience of the human body. Death interrupts this. Only at resurrection do we take our place finally and fully in the ekklesia of Jesus.
All this has implications for ecclesiology and offers a cogent challenge to the Protestant concept of the invisible church (and the related idea of a spiritual, as opposed to visible, unity). Can there be such a thing?