On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it! (Matthew 16:18)
In the Apostles’ Creed, the early Church confessed that Jesus “was crucified, dead and buried.” But that was not enough to describe what happened. The Creed goes one step further and affirms that he “descended into hell.” This was considerably more than being shrouded and entombed. The Greek word for “hell” is Hades and refers to the place of the dead. While the lifeless body of Jesus lay in the grave, his soul descended to Hades. And what did he do there? Here is how Paul puts it in speaking of Christ’s ascension gifts to the Church:
But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says: “When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people.” What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe. (Ephesians 4:7-10)Paul is referring to Psalm 68:18 and taking it as concerning what Christ had done. Before he ascended to the highest heavens, Jesus first descended to the lowest depths, that is, to Hades. However, he did not descend into hell as a captive but as a conqueror. He came to free the captives, and he did it by taking captive the captors themselves.
Who were these captors who have now been made captives of Christ? They are the “principalities and powers” (the demonic forces that are behind ungodly kingdoms and cultures) whom Christ disarmed at the cross (Colossians 2:15). They are the works of the devil, which Christ came to destroy (1 John 3:8). It is the devil himself, who held the power of death (Hebrews 2:14). The power of death has been broken so that it no longer has its victory, and the power of sin, which is the sting that brought forth death in the first place, has been defeated (1 Corinthians 15:55-56).
All of this causes me to see Matthew 16:18 in a new light. Jesus announced to the disciples that he would build his Church, “and the gates of Hades will not overpower it!” How could they? For Christ has shattered the gates and stripped death and hell of their power. They cannot keep anything in, they cannot keep anything out. They cannot overpower the Church or keep it from plundering hell.
In the wake of his resurrection from the dead, Christ builds his Church, and the gates of Hades cannot prevent it. In the end, all things in heaven and on earth will be reconciled to God though him, and God will be all in all.