The roots of self-governance, and nearly everything we think of in western civilization, can be traced to the 8,500 square miles of land known as Israel. Whatever one thinks of their modern politics in the context of the geopolitical fights of the day, the history of the western world is tied inextricably with the ancient history of Israel. And so are our allusions and metaphors.
From Shakespeare to the Constitution, biblical stories and phrases fill our language. None has intrigued me more over the years than variations around the phrase the gates of hell. It’s a curious phrase, used to indicate a measure of resolve. “We’ll storm the gates of hell,” you’ve heard countless heroes in movies and books say about the impossible task ahead.
It’s also a very real place, and I am not talking metaphysics. You can go there right now. (Empower Texans will be leading another group there in the spring of 2020!) It’s located in the archaeologically protected area of Caesarea Philippi, and the entire area is actually quite beautiful.
But 2,000 years ago… it was the site of nasty forms of pagan worship. The caverns were believed to be gates to the underworld – to hell – and so acts of grotesque bestiality were performed at the mouth of the cave to call forth the fertility god Pan.
To Jews living in those ancient times, the entire area was considered unclean as a result. They stayed far away. Yet in Matthew 16 we find Jesus took His disciples there, overlooking the pagan site, and told those Jewish men they would be the basis of His church. That had to be a little uncomfortable.
Rather than ignore places of unspeakable evil, Jesus wanted His disciples to overcome them – and doing so required acknowledging they exist. To stand against evil, we must be willing to fight it.
As an aside, this is the place where Jesus tells Peter – a nickname meaning “the rock” – that he will be the “rock” on which a church is built “and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Congratulations, eh? They were literally standing at a rocky structure, wholly unclean – the picture of evil – and Jesus is saying, “You will overcome places like this, and we’ll build the church on top of those efforts. Now get to work!” This isn’t exactly the comfortable suburban gig we were hoping for, Jesus…
There is nothing comfortable or safe about prevailing against the gates of hell. But we’re not called to lives of comfort and safety; we’re called to be faithful. We must engage culture and politics with the conviction we’re fighting a righteous fight for the very soul of our nation. Ready to go do some storming?