The Gates of Hell is a real place, a large cave, located in Northern Israel, on the lower slopes of Mt. Hermon. The cave was named by ancient Canaanites who lived nearby and worshiped their fertility god Baal. I was amazed when first visiting the site in the area called Caesarea Philippi today.
But that’s getting ahead of the Biblical story. Growing up in the church, I never thought there was a spiritual war over the souls of men, women and children everywhere in the world. The “spiritual” reality of evil, the devil, and Hell were complete fantasy. But as I entered college, preparing for a career in chemical research, a book by C. S. Lewis, “Screwtape Letters”, changed my worldview.
Lewis, a former agnostic, became one of the great Christian apologists of the 20th Century, while teaching at Oxford and Cambridge Universities in England. In “Screwtape Letters”, Lewis imagined instructions from a senior tempter in Hell named Screwtape to his junior assistant on earth named Wormwood. Wormwood’s assignment was to tempt a new Christian away from God’s influence. It suddenly made sense to me, as I was experiencing the same temptations which Lewis humorously described. There was a personality of evil at work, deceptively drawing me away from God to serve the goals and objectives of an evil alien called the Devil. His devious plan was using humans in his battle against God. We were only collateral damage. Once I decided to trust Christ as my Savior and Lord in college, I had unconsciously switched sides in a spiritual battle that was real and challenging. And the Devil’s backlash was formidable and deceptive. So some years later when I visited this area known as The Gates of Hell pictured above, I already knew that Hell and evil existed. I was about to learn why the story of Jesus going there was very significant to the disciples then and to us today.
Jesus knew He would soon be confronting the enemy on His final trip to Jerusalem. His 12 disciples would be involved as well. To prepare them, He led the disciples along with others including women from Galilee to this spiritually significant place. As He stood on a solid rock foundation, staring into the large cave known as the Gates of Hell, it is recorded in Matthew16:13-18:
“When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” 14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist (this was what Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, thought after he had ordered the Baptist’s death); others say Elijah (Malachi 4:5-6 said that Elijah had to return before the Messiah arrived) ; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not overcome it.”
Why did Jesus take them to where the Gates of Hell was located? It was a long 2-3 days walk from Capernaum, Jesus’ home base on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. And Caesarea Philippi was one of the most violent, pagan, evil places in all of Israel!
First of all, when Caleb and Joshua led the people of Israel into the promised land, the area of Caesarea Philippi was called Banias. The Banias River, one of three tributaries forming the Upper Jordan River, emerged from the an underground spring at the bottom of the Gates of Hell cave. The surrounding area became a center of Canaanite idol worship of Baal, where ancient Canaanites built 14 altars to sacrifice babies to Baal. They hoped that by doing so, Baal, the god of fertility, would supply water for their crops each spring. Prostitutes were used as part of Baal fertility worship. Their babies were placed on red hot altars during these evil sacrifices.
Then in 330 BC, Alexander the Great, the famous Greek General, conquered the area, tore down the Canaanite altars, and replaced them with a temple beside the cave to worship the Greek fertility god, Pan. It was Alexander’s desire to introduce Greek culture, language, and religion to every conquered land. Beside the cave, one can still see remnants of this large temple, also housing prostitutes for fertility worship. To appease Pan, babies were thrown alive into the water at the cave’s bottom to drown. The hope was that Pan would emerge each spring bringing water from the cave for agriculture in the valleys below. Same evil, different god.
Finally, when Romans began their occupation of Israel in 64 BC, they brought Roman rule and religion. Herod the Great honored his patron, Emperor Caesar Augustus, by building in 37 BC a temple in front of this same cave for the worship of Caesar. This despicable idol worship brought great persecution among Christians in the 1st Century. Everyone throughout the Roman empire was required, on penalty of death, to burn incense once a year in a Roman Temple and declare, “Caesar is Lord!” But Christian who believed that only Jesus was Lord could never call Caesar “Lord”. After building this temple, Herod changed the area’s name from Banias to Caesarea. Later, Herod’s son Philip enlarged the Roman temple and modestly changed the name again to Caesarea Philippi, distinguishing it from Caesarea Maritime, the Roman Capitol which Herod the Great had built on the Mediterranean coast.
Jesus, standing on a large rock platform facing the Gates of Hell, symbolizing the worst of Canaanite, Greek, and Roman worship, asked His disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus acknowledged that the Father had revealed this to Peter. He declared, “You are Peter (petras in Greek) and on this rock (petra in Greek means rock) I will build my church and THE GATES OF HELL will not prevail against it!”
The cave was truly a Hell hole, symbolizing the evil schemes of the devil himself. But who or what was the rock? Roman Catholic tradition states the rock is Peter, the founding spiritual leader of the church, beginning Papal succession. Protestant reformers, living in the early 1500s when the papacy was often corrupt and Biblically ill-informed, said the rock was not Peter. It was Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. As the Apostle Paul wrote in I Peter 2:5, each new believer who makes this same confession is like a living stone or rock, building up the church.
What a surprising insight as I first stood on that solid rock with the remnants of the temples to Pan and Caesar, and THE GATES OF HELL staring me in the face! I realized something different was going one between Jesus and His disciples which most Catholic or Protestant scholars had seemed to miss.
Matthew 16:21 states,“ From that time on, Jesus began to explain to His disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”
Jesus would soon leave the Galilee for Jerusalem and the Cross. He knew what lay ahead when He faced the Devil there who was committed to kill Him. The Gates of Hell symbolized the spiritual powers of evil not only aligned against Him, but also against people around the world held in spiritual bondage. Jesus was prepared to confront these gates on the Cross. He was about to face the enemy on our behalf, experiencing the worst weapon in the Devil’s strategy, death itself. He was trusting that His Father would bring Him back to life on the third day.
Therefore His journey to Caesarea Philippi would later remind the disciples that nothing could stop the building of the Kingdom of God on earth through their ministry, even the Gates of Hell, which kept people in spiritual darkness and bondage. The mission of the church was to release prisoners and invite those in bondage to enter His Eternal Kingdom.
I saw this happening in Brazil, in a small church near the city dump where adults and children sort garbage at night to make enough to put bread on the table. Several blocks away, there is a church and Christian school, shining like a light in spiritual darkness. As I shared the Gospel, many came to trust in Christ. And children were provided an education and job skills so they could move out of the slums. The Gates of Hell lost its little prisoners! You can see the smiles on the children’s faces.
In Tirana, Albania, my wife and I helped train the first class of seminary students following the collapse of a most restrictive Communist government. Sunday morning, children, youth, and college students gathered in the basement of a monument built by the Communist Party to celebrate the victory of communism over all religions. As these new young Christians sang praises to Jesus, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Gates of Hell lost another battle!
In China, the fastest numerical growth of Christianity in history is underway, all under a communist government. In India, thousands of “untouchables” are coming to Jesus and forming new churches, despite Hindu persecution. Throughout the Middle East these days, more Muslims are coming to Christ than at any time in Islamic history. More Jews are turning to Jesus as Messiah in Israel than at any time since the First Century. Jesus is building His church, and the Gates of Hell and the Devil himself can not stop Him.
What is the mission of the church today? Not to flee from the enemy and the powers of darkness, hiding inside church doors. No! It is to go on the offensive, outside the church, over the wall, with the saving GOOD NEWS of Jesus, Lord and Savior. It is confronting the enemy wherever the Gates of Hell are holding people in spiritual darkness. Are you ready? Are you prepared?
You need to understand that the choices are limited in the spiritual warfare raging around us. There are no seats for spectators or pew sitters. You are either: 1) A POW, that is a prisoner of war of the enemy. 2) An ineffective Christian, sometimes aiding the enemy unknowingly. 3) Or you are a Christian soldier, marching behind the King of Kings into battle, proclaiming: “THE GATES OF HELL WILL NOT PREVAIL! ALLELUIA!”
Which of these do you want to be? Everyone is in this game. No spectators allowed!
Dr. Larry Selig