Catholics and other Christians living in the United States today often feel as though they are under assault, but the deeper reality is just the opposite: they are the ones who should be confident of their victory. Why? Because that’s what their Captain promised in the sixteenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel.
Before getting to His words, though, let’s set the table by looking at the cultural context in which we find ourselves today.
As is both well-known and well-commented on, the last several decades have seen a growing fissure between American culture — both popular and elite — and Christian sensibilities. Today we live in a society in which the common understanding of morality diverges widely with the Christian understanding, and does so in ways that would’ve been shocking to the World War II generation of Americans. We needn’t catalogue or document this fissure… its current scope and extent is evident.
For many Christians — including many Catholics — this is a development that is both unwelcome and (seemingly) unstoppable. Despite our best efforts, there seems little that we can do to derail this cultural train that is so at odds with traditional Christianity. No matter the direction we turn, the losses seem to mount.
The understandable consequence of this reality is a growing sense of defensiveness and need to circle the wagons against the ever-encroaching culture. For many Christians, it’s time to return to the monasteries, spiritually-speaking: to retreat to spiritual oases from which we can continue to draw strength and nourishment in an increasingly harsh and barren cultural landscape. And not just monasteries, but castles with moats and ramparts to protect us from the cultural barbarians at the gate.
There is much truth in this scenario.
And yet, it is a lie.
A subtle lie, laced with truth, but a lie all the same, and one which many Christians have unwittingly accepted, assimilated and internalized.
For this lie would have us believe that, under constant barrage from a hostile culture, we are but moments away from the collapse of our gates, moments away from the forces of darkness breaking into and penetrating our last remaining strongholds, moments away from spiritual devastation and desolation at the hands of a godless culture.
As apparently life-like as this portrait may appear, it is nonetheless false, and deeply so. It is a facade.
For the greater truth is this: it is not we who are under attack, it is not we who are moments from defeat, it is not we who should be cowering in fear… it is our enemies. Not our political enemies, nor our ideological enemies, nor our theological enemies, but rather our spiritual enemies, the only true enemies that we face: satan and the other demons. They are the ones who should be afraid, not us, for they are the ones who — despite the appearances — are under assault.
How, one might ask, can this be so? Look at what’s going on in our culture… on what grounds do I make the claim that this is the greater truth and the earlier truth is the lie?
On the grounds of the words of our Lord Jesus Christ as we find them in Matthew 16.
In the world of Catholic and Protestant apologetics, Matthew 16:18 is one of the most-discussed and commented on passages in the Bible, because of its reference to the place of the Apostle Peter in the church established by Jesus. As the passage tells us, Jesus states that it is on Peter that He will build His Church.
A proper understanding of this passage is important for understanding the role of the pope — the bishop of Rome — in Jesus’ Church. But there’s another significance to this passage, directly relevant to the topic at hand.
After Jesus tells the fisherman that he is Peter and that on this rock He will build His Church, Jesus says this: “and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” Because of the sense of solidity given in the previous verse, many Catholics envision the Church as a mighty fortress, as the pillar and bulwark of truth, and rightly so. But in the second verse Jesus switches the metaphor in a subtle change that most Catholics miss.
For most Catholics, the image — perhaps inchoate — that comes to mind in these passages is the one sketched above: of the Church under assault from the powers of hell. Fortunately, we can trust in the promises of Jesus that the power of hell will not prevail. And we are right.
But Jesus’ words paint an even more grand reality.
Look again: “and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”
As Jesus tells it, it is not the gates of the Church that are under assault from the power of hell, but just the opposite: it is the gates of hell that are under assault from the power of the Church, which is the power of Almighty God Himself. And the gates of hell will not prevail.
Consider anew, then, the words of Jesus. If we take His words seriously — if we trust them, if we embrace them, if we believe them — then we not only need not fear being conquered by the enemy, but we can have confidence that we are the conquering ones, that we are the ones pressing in on the gates of hell, that — by the power of Jesus Christ — we will be victorious.
At the Easter Vigil, Christians celebrate the Harrowing of Hell: Jesus’ descent into hell to free the captive souls of the just who were awaiting His redemptive work on the Cross by which the gates of Heaven would be opened to them.
But the Harrowing continues, and will continue until the end of time. For while it is true that we can suffer setbacks in the battle against our enemy, the greater truth, the deeper truth, is that all of spiritual warfare since the Resurrection is one great mop-up action: while the enemy can still inflict harm, he is nonetheless running — fleeing, even — in full retreat.
We need not cower in fear behind the walls and ramparts. Rather, we ought to raze the bastions and — with prudence — engage our foe with the full confidence of final victory. We need not be on the defensive, but instead, should be marching forward, confident in the knowledge that our Captain has already routed the foe.
In the words of the Easter hymn,
“The strife is o’er, the battle done, the victory of life is won; the song of triumph has begun. Alleluia!”
Do not believe the lie of the enemy; live your faith boldly, confident in the knowledge that Christ has already overcome the world and has promised that the gates of hell will not prevail against us!
What are the ways that you are called to live out the victory of Christ in your own life?