Many times in the Doctrine and Covenants we are told “the gates of hell shall not prevail against you.” What does this mean? Why this imagery? Are the gates of hell a physical location or a spiritual position?
Thank you for your question. This phrase is often interpreted as “powers of hell.” But I also believe this to be highly incomplete. I believe it is very important to view them as gates and remember what gates do.
The phrase is found once in the New Testament (the most famous one), seven times in the Doctrine and Covenants, and thrice in the Book of Mormon.
The Book of Mormon talks about them being “open” as a bad thing. Let’s review them.
May the gates of hell be shut continually before me, because that my heart is broken and my spirit is contrite! O Lord, wilt thou not shut the gates of thy righteousness before me, that I may walk in the path of the low valley, that I may be strict in the plain road! 2 Nephi 4:32
And whoso shall declare more or less than this, and establish it for my doctrine, the same cometh of evil, and is not built upon my rock; but he buildeth upon a sandy foundation, and the gates of hell stand open to receive such when the floods come and the winds beat upon them. 3 Nephi 11: 40
As living beings still in this mortal probation, we still make choices that could send us to spirit prison or to paradise. So, if the gates open for us, that is a bad thing. It means we’re going to be imprisoned by sin and addiction. We want them shut.
But when talking about the afterlife, the gates do something different. After our earthly trials are over, we want to open the gates.
When gates are shut, they have the function of preventing passage of people going in or out. Given that, who is inside and who is outside those gates? The Church will want to open the gates to release the captive spirits. And those imprisoned therein, will want them open to be released.
18 And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Matthew 16:18
Why would the gates not “prevail”? Why the church?
If gates fail to prevent passage, they did not prevail against the person wanting passage. They do not prevail against the Church because as members of the Church of Jesus Christ we perform a very important function for those imprisoned in those gates. Redeeming the dead. When we do the vicarious ordinances for the dead, we are forcing open the gates of hell and allowing passage from hell, those spirits for whom we have performed the work. They did not prevail against us because they cannot withstand the power of God.
I’d like you to see this extended to another perspective as well.
34 Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:
35 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
38 When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
39 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
41 Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: Matthew 25:34-41
What prison do you think the Lord was talking about? I believe the Lord meant more than the justice system of whatever nation we’re in. The Lord was talking about Spirit Prison. On earth, we are imprisoned by our sin through separation from God. After this life, there is a spiritual prison that will not open except to those performing the ordinances of the temple.
Through the temple, we have the opportunity to go to the gates of hell and release those spirits who have long since slumbered.
Baptism allows them to be released from prison. The sacrament of bread and water are part of that ordinance. They are spiritually fed and thirst abated (3 Nephi 18:9, 3 Nephi 19:13). Temple ordinances clothe the naked. We invite all the strangers to become part of the fold of God.
Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God; Ephesians 2:19
One of the great weaknesses of the Saints of this generation is that we simply haven’t taken advantage of the blessings of the temple. Lately, due to the pandemic shutdown, we are now forbidden from performing this most important service to our ancestors. They need us. And we await with eagerness the day when we can continue the work for the dead so that the Lord can say:
“Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”