The Gates of Hell
In Baptism for the Dead in Ancient Times
Hugh W. Nibley
Reprinted by permission from Mormonism and Early Christianity, vol. 4 of The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and F.A.R.M.S., 1987), 100–67. It also appeared in the Improvement Era 51 (December 1948): 786–88, 836–38; 52 (January 1949): 90–91, 109–10, 112; 52 (March 1949): 146–48,180; 52 (April 1949):212–14.
To the Jews "the gates of hell" meant something very specific. Both Jews and Christians thought of the world of the dead as a prison—carcer, phylake, phroura—in which the dead were detained but not necessarily
It is the proper function of a gate to shut creatures in or out of a place; when a gate "prevails," it succeeds in this purpose; when it does not "prevail," someone succeeds in getting past it. But prevail is a rather free English rendering of the far more specific Greek katischyo, meaning to overpower in the sense of holding back, holding down, detaining, suppressing, etc. Moreover, the thing which is held back, is not the church,for the object is not in the accusative but in the partitive genitive: it is "hers," part of her, that which belongs to her, that the gates will not be able to contain. Since all have fallen, all are confined in death which it is the Savior's mission to overcome; their release is to be accomplished through the work of the church, to which the Lord promises that at some future time he will give the apostles the keys. In one of the very earliest Christian poems Christ is described as going to the underworld to preach to the dead, "And the dead say to him, …'Open the gate to us!'" whereupon the Lord, "heeding their faith," gives them the seal of baptism.Baptism for the dead, then, was the key to the gates of hell which no church claimed to possess until the nineteenth century, the gates remaining inexorably closed against those very dead of whose salvation the early Christians had been so morally certain. In passing it should be noted that this poem in its conclusion definitely associated the release of the dead with the "rock."
Thus thy Rock became the foundation of all; upon it didst thou build thy kingdom, that it might become a dwelling place for the saints.
The same idea is even more obviously expressed by Ignatius in what is perhaps the earliest extant mention of the rock after New Testament times, making it equivalent to the high priest…to whom alone the secrets of God have been confided… This is the Way which leads to the Father, the Rock…the Key…the Gate of Knowledge, through which have entered Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, Moses and all the host of prophets.
From which it is clear that Matthew 16:17–19, with its combination of gates, keys, and rock, definitely hinges on the subject of salvation for the dead, and the work by which they are admitted to the presence of the Father.
Those who fondly suppose that "the gates of hell shall not prevail" is a guarantee of the security of the church on this earth are inventing a doctrine diametrically opposed to the belief of the early church. If there was one point on which the primitive saints and their Jewish contemporaries saw eye to eye, it was the belief that Satan is "the prince of this world," nay, "the god of this world." It is here that men are under his power, and here that he overcomes the kingdom of God by violence. "The days are evil," says the Epistle of Barnabas, "and Satan possesses the power of this world." Beyond this earth his power does not extend: Jehovah alone rules in the spirit world, according to the Jewish doctrine, and his angels stand guard over the wicked ones. It is on this earth that the devil is to be conquered and his power finally broken—he has no other stronghold to which to flee. When he goes to hell, it will not be in triumph, but to be bound and imprisoned there. His bonds are the "snares and deceptions" that "bind the flesh of men with lust," and which will be meaningless after the judgment, when none may enjoy the prerogative of being deceived. When the devil rules hereafter it will be only over those "sons of perdition" who willingly follow his example.
The medieval idea that the devil is the proper ruler of the dead is a borrowing from obvious pagan sources, popular and literary. In the earliest versions of what eventually became the medieval Easter drama, the Harrowing of Hell, Satan and Death appear as rulers of different spheres: in the dialogue between them Death begs Satan to retain Christ in his realm, which is the earth, so that he might not descend and cause havoc in the underworld. This idea appears in the very old pseudo-gospel of Nicodemus, wherein Satan, boasting that he has overcome Christ on earth, asks Death to make sure that the Lord's mission is likewise frustrated in his kingdom below. No less a scholar than Harnack after prolonged searching declares that he knows of no passage in which "the Gates of Hell" signifies the realm of Satan, or is used to refer to the devil himself or to his hosts.
"The gates of hell," then, does not refer to the devil at all; though his snares and wiles might lead men sooner or later to their death, delivering them "to the destruction of the flesh," his power ends there. The gates of hell are the gates of hell—the "holding back" of those who are in the spirit world from attaining the object of their desire.
There is a great wealth of oriental legend and liturgy recalling how a divine hero overcame Death in a knock down and drag-out contest-the central episode of the famous Year-drama. Sometimes the hero smashes the door of the underworld as part of his campaign. Contamination from these sources was sure to occur in the Christian interpretation of Christ's mission to the "underworld," but as Schmidt has shown at length, the early Christians never connect the two traditions: there is no fight when Christ goes to open the way for the release of the dead; he meets absolutely no opposition, and does not have to smash the gates, since he has the key. How incompatible the two versions are is apparent in those early accounts which, characteristically, attempt to combine them. Thus when Prudentius, the first great Christian poet, tells of Christ's visit to the underworld, he includes the gate-smashing episode, derived not from any Christian source, however, but borrowed from the tragedy Hercules Furens of the pagan Seneca.
Thus in the Odes of Solomon:
And I opened the doors that were closed; I rent asunder the iron bolts…and nothing appeared closed to me, since I myself was the gate of everything; and I went to all my imprisoned ones to free them, so that I left none in bonds; and I imparted my knowledge without stint…sowing my seed in their hearts and turning them to me.
Christ would hardly smash the gate if he himself were the gate.
 1 Peter 3,19; Tertullian, De Anima (On the Soul) VII, 35, 55, in PL 2:697–98, 753–54, 787–90; The Wisdom of Solomon 17:15; Book of Enoch (1 Enoch) 10:13; 69:28; Jerome, Commentarius in Osee (Commentary on Hosea) 1, 13, in PL 25:938: "a lower place in which the spirits are confined, either in rest or punishment, according to their deserts."
 4 Esdras 4:35–36; 7:75–99; cf. Josephus, Jewish Antiquities XVIII, 1, 3.
 Tertullian, On the Soul 55, in PL 2:790: "From the prison of death, thy blood is the key of admission to all paradise." He is speaking of the blood of the martyrs, with which they are baptized. It has been common at all periods of the church to speak of baptism as "the gate."
 Isaiah 45:1.
 Matthew 16:18.
 Odes of Solomon 42:15–20.
 Odes of Solomon 22:12, quoted at length in Carl Schmidt, Gespräche Jesu mit seinen Jüngern nach der Auferstehung: Ein katholisch-apostolisches Sendschreiben des 2. Jarhhunderts (Leipzig: Hinrich, 1908), 565–66.
 Ignatius, Epistle to the Philadelphians 9, in PG 5:836; the same combination as in Hermae Pastor (Shepherd of Hermas), Similitudo, (Similitude) 9, 12, and 16, in PG 2:992, 996; cf. Clement of Alexandria, Stromata VI, 6, 46, in PG 9:269.
 Thus Migne, Scripturae Sacrae Cursus Completus 21:814: "There is no doubt that 'the gates of hell' refers to all the power of the devil." He then proceeds to cite in support of this only the following: Psalm 147:13; Genesis 22:17; 24:60; Judges 5:8; 1 Kings 8:37; and Psalm 107:16, none of which refers to "all the powers of the devil," but every one of which refers to the real gates and the functions of gates.
 Matthew 12:26–29; Luke 10:18; 11:18; 13:16; 22:31; Mark 3:23–27; John 12:34; 14:30; 16:11; 1 John 2:13; John 14:4–6; 5:19; Ignatius, Epistola ad Ephesios (Epistle to the Ephesians), chs. 9, 17, 19, in PG 5:656, 657, 660, 745, 752–53.
 2 Corinthians 4:4.
 John 12:31; 16:11.
 Barnabas, Epistola Catholica (Catholic Epistle) 2, in PG 2:729–30.
 1 Enoch 20:2. This subject is fully treated by Schmidt, Gespräche Jesu, 547–48, 507, cf. 285–87.
 John 12:31; 16:11; Schmidt, Gespräche Jesu, 549–50, 556, 573, 462, 571; Gall, Basileia tou Theou, 290–301, treats the subject at length.
 Matthew 25:41; Schmidt, Gespräche Jesu, 548, 550, 576.
 Romans 2:16; Psalm 44:21; Jeremiah 23:24; 49:10; Ezekiel 28:2, etc.
 The literary motif is frankly pagan, as in Dante. In folklore it is no less of popular pagan origin, cf. Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1934) G 303.25.19. Cf. Gall, Basileia tou Theou, 290–301.
 Schmidt, Gespräche Jesu, 572 cites a text of this in use in the Syrian Church as early as A.D. 340.
 Gospel of Nicodemus 15; virtually the same dialogue is found in Ephraim and in a Descensus of the 2nd or 3rd century, K. von Tischendorf, Evangelia (Leipzig, 1876; reprinted Hildesheim: Olms, 1966), 394–97.
 Harnack, "Der Spruch über Petrus als den Felsen der Kirche," 638–39.
 1 Corinthians 5:5; Luke 13:16.
 For the best general treatment of this much-handled subject, see Samuel H. Hooke, ed., The Labyrinth (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1935).
 Ignatius, Epistle to the Philadelphians 9, in PG 5:836; the "keys of the kingdom of the heavens" of Matthew 16:19 would be useless unless "the gates of hell" of the preceding verse were opened to give up their dead. Indeed, the first words of verse 19 show a wide variety of readings in the manuscripts, with a strong indication that Christ said, "I shall also give you the keys to the kingdom of the heavens."
 The references to Prudentius and Seneca are given by F. J. E. Raby, A History of Christian-Latin Poetry (Oxford: Clarendon, 1937), 70.
 Odes of Solomon 17:8–15.