This morning, I picked up a copy of a book on one of the shelves at Cornerstone. The book is on church planting and is entitled Planting Growing Churches for the 21st Century (second edition). Yes, I know, crazy that I’m reading a paper copy of a book these days. It does happen…a little.
Even crazier just might be the fact that I’m reading an American author on church planting. Planting churches is something deeply embedded within me, but in the past, I would have been quite closed to engaging with American thoughts around church planting and growth. It’s mainly because I have not been pleased with the normative approach in such discussions – a more capitalistic focus. But, in what I hope is an effort in growth in humility, I have begun to let down my guard to being so anti-American on things to do with the church. It’s somewhat hip to find yourself in such a camp today (even if you are a part of the American church). And while I don’t think I will find all the answers to church planting and growth in this book, I am convinced I can, and will, learn something from this book.
But rather than talking too much about church planting or growth, at least at this moment, I’d rather touch on something that caught my attention as I read the introduction of the book.
In the few pages of the introduction, author, Aubrey Malphurs, goes on to share some thoughts on the decline of the church in America. But, he also shares that there is hope. The church will survive and thrive. Why? Well, Jesus promised it in Matthew 16:18. Malphurs goes on to state:
While on the one hand, we need to be aware of the severe problems facing the American church, on the other hand, we can claim the promise found in Matthew 16:18. Jesus says to Peter and to us, “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” Regardless of one’s interpretation of this passage – and there are many – Jesus is saying that His church will survive. It has survived in the annals of church history. It has survived tremendous oppression in other countries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. And we will survive in America as we enter the twenty-first century. (p15)
There are 2 thoughts I want to share:
1) Hades is not ‘hell’
It seems that many have the tendency to equate hades with our more modern notion of what we call ‘hell’. I suppose it could be true of the author, though it is definitely true of the person who wrote the foreword to the book. The foreword specifically puts forth the notion that our Lord declared that the ‘gates of hell’ would not be able to withstand the attack of the church. Well, we could even nitpick that this verse in Matthew mentions nothing of an offensive attack of the church. But there might be this bigger concept to tackle.
Does it sound weird that I would argue that ‘hell’ (or gehenna, to transliterate the Greek) and hades are not equal terms in Scripture?
Well, I think that’s the overall biblical picture.
But let me share why I would conclude such.
Hades, or sheol (the OT Hebrew equivalent), simply refers to the grave, the place where all dead go. That’s it. No fire and brimstone in hades. Of course, we do get somewhat mixed in our thinking when we note how some versions of the Bible have translated hades as ‘hell’ in the Matt 16:18 verse (see KJV, ESV, and the HCSB translates the phrasing as ‘forces of Hades’, which probably leaves the impressions of ‘demonic forces of hell’). But to translate hades as ‘hell’ is not very helpful. ‘Hell’ gives all kinds of wrong impressions.
To clarify before moving on, I do believe Scripture’s teaching about gehenna (or ‘hell’). But it is interesting to note that the the word shows up a mere 8 times in the NT – 7 times in the Gospels (not counting the few repeats across the synoptics) and once in James 3:6 (the reference in 2 Pet 2:4 is the word tartarus). That’s it. And there is much discussion of whether Jesus’ words in the Gospels were referring to what would take place in the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD or if this is a more abstract, future judgment.
Still, having noted these things, I do believe in a final judgment. I don’t think one can escape Scripture’s teaching on it, however one interprets the Gospel passages on gehenna, especially the ending words of John in Revelation.
But, suffice it to say, and getting to the larger point here, it seems highly unlikely that hades is equivalent to gehenna, as well as the lake of fire in Revelation. Some might ask about Luke 16:19-31, the parable about the rich man and Lazarus. There we read that the rich man is being tormented in hades. It’s a good question. Yet, in just a brief comment for now, I would remind us that this is a parable and it would probably do us well to not use it as a strong foundation stone on the details about hades. Parables normally have one major point, rather than giving us detail by detail descriptions of reality. And remember, everywhere else, hades is simply the place of death, the grave.
Now, even if gehenna (‘hell’) is a place of final judgment, equivalent to John’s vision of the lake of fire, let me also state here that Satan and all his angels are not the ‘forces of hell’. Hell, or gehenna, has no forces. It’s funny because I even found myself making such a reference yesterday evening in a prayer gathering. It’s more to do with normative thinking within evangelicalism rather than actual biblical teaching. Therefore, when one feels a demonic, even Satanic, attack, this is not an attack of ‘hell’ (or gehenna). Gehenna and the lake of fire are places of judgment. Neither represent a realm holding a legion of demons to launch an attack on Christians.
Gehenna and hades are difficult to discuss. Not every question can be answered. But we do need to stop equating hades with hell, as if hades is an overall place of tormenting judgment. Nor is it a place hosting demonic forces. Hades, or again, sheol in the OT, is simply the place of the dead, the grave.
2) Matt 16:18 is not essentially about church growth
Even if one could not fully agree with my thoughts above, I think point #2 is a little more easily accepted. What Jesus is communicating in that last part of the verse is that his ekklesia, his gathering of people (we call the ‘church’) will not be overcome by the grave, by death. As Paul reminds us – death has been swallowed up in victory (1 Cor 15:54). Whereas the wages of sin is death, for those of us participating in the resurrection of Jesus, death has no sting or victory (Rom 6:23; 1 Cor 15:55).
Therefore, Matt 16:18 is not about an ‘offensive attack of the church on hell’. Of course, Jesus promises to build his church, and the gifted ministries of Christ (as in Eph 4:11-13) will help build the church (1 Cor 3:5-15). But, briefly looking at a Greek lexicon, this word ‘build’ (Greek oikodomeo) is more in the sense of edification. It’s also plausible that vs19 is more about an offensive stand the church takes with the keys of the rule of heaven. But those particular words about hades communicate to us that death will not overcome the church. That is not our end. Our end is resurrection, restoration and renewal, along with the whole of creation.
That being the case, as the author of the book suggests, of course the church will survive. Our destiny is not death, but resurrection. But this passage is probably not about the numerical growth of the church, even in the midst of opposition (though I would argue a built-up, healthy church will reach out to our world).
So, as God leads, let us see apostolic endeavours of church planting take place. Let’s see people drawn into the rule of heaven, and thus, see our local expressions of ekkelsia grow, both as disciples and making more disciples. But let us also hold a healthier biblical theology around the concept of hades (and gehenna, for that matter) and let us better grasp Jesus’ well-known words in Matt 16:18.