Smashing the Gates of Hell


Perhaps it seems early to be talking about smashing the gates of hell (isn’t that something to be left until Pascha?), but the Church engages us as “gate smashers” much earlier in the Lenten season than just Pascha itself. The memorial Saturdays (“Soul Saturdays”) that we observe in which we pray for the departed (it’s nearly every Saturday in Lent) are small reminders that the Pascha of our Lord has smashed the gates, and we are thus able to pray freely for the departed.

The statement in Scripture (Matt. 16:18) when Christ says that the “gates of hell will not prevail against the Church,” are frequently interpreted to mean that the Church will be preserved from the attacks of the enemy. That is one way of translating the passage. The passage literally says, “gates of Hades” rather than “gates of Hell,” which to me signifies less an issue with the enemy and more an issue with the power of death and all the nothingness that comprises hell.

This morning as we prayed yet again for the departed I realized that this was not just a “memorial event” in which we were indulging our grief and praying for our departed loved ones. This was essential a Paschal act, proclaiming the good news, by our prayers, that Christ has trampled down death by death.

We pray for them – and they pray for us. The Church is One – on earth and in Heaven. Saturday by Saturday we are praying our way to Pascha. And this cycle of “Soul Saturdays” will not be complete until the last one which is offered on the weekend of Pentecost. And at the “Kneeling Vespers” on Pentecost Sunday, we will pray for all those in “Hell” from the beginning of the world. It’s bold, but that’s the prayer as it stands written.

In prayer – we soldier on.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.





10 responses to “Smashing the Gates of Hell”

  1. Mary Avatar

    For those in Hell from the beginning of the world?!? Yes, that is bold. But there is a time when boldness is right.

    One of the reasons I became Orthodox, actually, is BECAUSE of prayer for the dead. The idea that I had NO relationship with the dead (and especially that the dead could not be prayed for), made God somewhat distant and cold to me. It was as if He was saying, “My mercies are at an end when you die.”

  2. Jack Avatar

    Praying for people in hell. That rocks. What does the prayer say?

  3. handmaidleah Avatar

    When I first became Orthodox I wondered how far back I could go when I handed Father Nicholas the list of names of our family diptych! How many generations?
    Newbie zeal, gotta love it. I actually got excited when my relatives were prayed for because that, I am sure had never happened before.
    Glory to God for all things!
    the handmaid,

  4. Clark Avatar

    Forgive me, Father. I agree completely with your post, but it seems to me that we have a rather difficult problem in regard to language. In the Scriptures as well as in most of the Greek Patristic literature (including our liturgy) there is a clear distinction between *hades* (ie. the abode of the dead) and *gehenna* (ie the state [place?] of final damnation *after* the Last Judgment. While “hell” is indeed the correct English translation for Hades (or *Infernus*), in modern parlance it has come to be identified almost exclusively as the place of final damnation. This goes back to the very first vernacular translations of the Bible and services: all (except for the most recent) render both Hades and Gehenna as “Hell.”

    Unfortunately this common English usage has also infected Orthodox translations. The OCA translations are very bad in this regard (as are the Mother Mary/Bp. Kallistos trans. of the Triodion and Menaion). You can bet your bottom dollar that anytime “Hell” appears in the Octoechos (esp. for Sunday [Sat. night] vigil]the original word is Hades.

    If we further consider the fact that for us Gehenna is actually the glory of God experienced in a negative fashion, then need for distinguishing between Hades and Gehenna becomes even more essential. My not so humble suggestion is that we simply transliterate the terms and forgo the use of “Hell” altogether.

  5. Michael Avatar

    But if “Gehenna” is only after the Last Judgment, that means that *no one* is beyond the power of our prayers and of the love of Christ! And that is awesome.

  6. Michael Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    I would also like the words of the Kneeling Vespers on Pentecost regarding all those in hell. Sounds like an amazing prayer. It also brings new light to the words in Matthew 16, which I believe should be rendered, “the gates of death cannot hold out against it”. In other words, by the prayers of the Church, the land of death is invaded, raided and conquered. Christ is in our midst! And ever shall be!

  7. Fatherstephen Avatar


    Absolutely correct about the translations – and it is those in Hades for whom we pray. The first time as a priest that I did the service of kneeling vespers, I had not read the service first, and was overwhelmed by what I was saying.

    Anyway you slice it, it is still the love of God, reaching to the very depths of wherever we hide ourselves to draw us to Himself. Of course, some refuse to be drawn, but I personally take it as a gift of grace if I am moved to pray for anyone, and assume that if my heart is inclined to pray, God has inclined it. My home state, South Carolina, has the state motto: Dum Spiro Spero. While I breathe I hope.

  8. D. Burns Avatar
    D. Burns


    Slightly off topic, but wanted you to know that you used my favoite festival icon. I get a thrill from the imagery/theology of the “Harroing of Hell” and the message it represents. That Christ councured death. Something rarely proclaimed in my protestant past. I can’t wait till Pascha when we get to sing with joy the good news that Christ is risin from the grave, trampling death by death, and upon those in the tombs, bestowing life.

  9. Jeff Lee Avatar
    Jeff Lee

    Here’s an excerpt from the service:

    “The glorious wisdom of the Father, You are the great help of those in peril, giving light to those in darkness and the shadow of death. Lord of everlasting glory, beloved Son of the Most High, eternal light of eternal light, Sun of righteousness, hear our supplications and give rest to the souls of Your servants, our fathers and brothers and other kin by blood, and all of the household of faith who have since fallen asleep and whose memorial we keep this day. For in You is the strength of all and in Your hand You hold the far reaches of the earth. Almighty Master, God of our Fathers and Lord merciful Lord of the living and the dead, Creator of all mortal nature, composed and again dissolved, of life and of death, of earthly existence and of the departure hence, You measure out the years for the living and set times of death, bringing down to Hades and raising up, fettering in weakness and liberating in power; You provide aptly for the present and fittingly dispose what is to come, restoring those who are wounded by the sting of death with the hope of resurrection.

    Master, Lord of all, our God and Redeemer, the hope of all, at the ends of the earth and far away at sea, on this latter great and saving day of Pentecost You disclosed to us the mystery of the holy, consubstantial, co-eternal and life-giving Trinity, indivisible yet distinct, and in the descent and presence of Your holy and life-giving Spirit poured out its grace upon Your holy Apostles in the form of fiery tongues, making them proclaimers and confessors of our holy Faith, of true knowledge of God. On this universal and salutary feast, deign to accept petitions for those imprisoned in Hades, thus giving us great hope, and relief to the departed from their grievous distress and Your comfort.”

    The whole service can be located here.

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