Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Debunking Heavenly Mythology II: Saint Peter and the Pearly Gates

In a previous post I spent a few hundred keystrokes on the things of heaven, trying to point out how very ill-equipped the best of us is to fully comprehend them, even with the aid of the imagery of scripture, since “No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him.”

But our inability to fully apprehend everything about heavenly things is not a license to manufacture any old view of heaven wholesale. The only reliable source of knowledge about things outside current human experience is the word of God itself.

Myth #2: Saint Peter and the Pearly Gates

“The pearly gates is an informal name for the gateway to Heaven … The image of the gates in popular culture is a set of large, white or wrought-iron gates in the clouds, guarded by Saint Peter (the keeper of the ‘keys to the kingdom’). Those who are not fit to enter heaven are denied from going into the gates, and will descend into Hell.”

The root of this extremely popular misunderstanding is a passage in the gospels in which Peter makes his confession of the Lord Jesus. The Lord asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter correctly answers, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” to which the Lord responds:

“Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

One (very large) school of interpretation reads the Lord’s words to refer to Peter himself as the ‘rock’ on which the church is to be built, basing their conclusion on the fact that here the Lord changes the name of Simon son of Jonah to Peter, meaning ‘rock’. According to that line of thinking, the rock is the man. This is the formal position of Romanism:

“In order that the episcopate itself might be one and undivided he (Christ) put Peter at the head of the other apostles, and in him set up a lasting and visible source and foundation of the unity both of faith and communion.”

Further, this school of interpretation has the Lord give the keys to the kingdom of heaven to Peter personally, along with the power to ‘bind on earth’ and ‘in heaven’, which is taken to mean that Peter gets to decide who goes where.

The whole thing about Peter guarding the gates of heaven follows from that.

Again, the question of where to start becomes rather overwhelming. One wrong conclusion leads to another wrong conclusion, leading to a bunch of foundationless extrapolation, leading to 2000 years of error. So far.

Okay, let’s start with the words “this rock”.

Upon this Rock

Suppose that, instead of referring to Peter, the man, the Lord was actually referring to something monumentally more important: the confession Peter had just made.

The rock on which the church is built is not a man. It is the truth that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. It’s amazing to me that this even has to be stated, but since well over half of Christendom believes otherwise, it is worth repeating:

The rock is not Peter. The rock is Peter’s confession.

That Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God, God in the flesh, the promised Redeemer, the only way to God — this confession is the thing that distinguishes Christianity from every other religion on earth. It is the very foundation of Christianity. Without believing it, you are not a Christian at all: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

If you don’t believe this, you are simply not saved, no matter what wonderful things you may do in the name of God.

The confession of Christ is the rock on which the church is built.

Sorry, but Peter was just a guy, that’s all. He caught fish, and then he “caught men” and “fed sheep”, like millions of other servants of Christ over the last couple of millennia. The “sainthood” conferred on him is nothing special. The word of God teaches that all believers in Christ are saints, not a special class of preferred Christians.

Would it not have been so much easier and so much more natural for the Lord to say to Peter, “Upon YOU I will build my church”, if that was the truth he meant to convey? But he didn’t. He said “this rock”, the rock of Peter’s confession. To make it Peter, you have to imagine the Lord pointing to him in front of the other disciples, or perhaps putting his arm around Peter’s shoulders to single him out. I say “imagine”, because there’s no indication in scripture that the Lord did any such thing.

The entire New Testament bears out the truth that this confession is foundational to the church. The whole book of Acts is about believers contending with Jews, over what? Over the issue of whether Jesus actually is the Christ. Why was Stephen stoned? Why did so many others go to jail? Why were they persecuted and killed? Because they kept insisting that Jesus Christ was the Son of the living God, that’s why. What do the epistles have to say about Peter? What doctrines are laid out concerning him? In what way is his ‘primacy’ established in the remainder of scripture?

The answer is in no way at all. The teaching that Peter is the rock is based on a misinterpretation of a single statement.

In contrast, the teaching that his confession is the rock is based on not just the entire New Testament, but the Old Testament as well, for it is there that Christ is called “the rock” over and over again.

Further, church history bears out this interpretation: Very few chapters of the book of Acts have anything to do with Peter. He had a significant role in the early church and in the recognition of Gentiles as members of the body of Christ, but he wrote less than Paul, and we have no evidence that he travelled or preached and taught to the extent Paul did. Comparing one apostle to another is a waste of time and energy, but the point is that even church history recorded in scripture fails miserably to bear out this alleged ‘primacy’ of Peter.

The Keys

Equally incomprehensible is the conflation of the “keys to the kingdom of heaven” with the “keys to heaven”, and the confusion about who is addressed with the word “you”.

The explanation of the meaning of the “keys to the kingdom” is right there in the subsequent clarification of the Lord. He goes on to clarify what having the ‘keys’ means: “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

They are not literal keys to a literal gate. The keys are the power to receive heavenly ratification of those things asked of God in the name of Christ in order to facilitate the work of the kingdom on earth.

And there is zero evidence that by “you” the Lord meant Peter exclusively, or even primarily. None.

I believe he meant the disciples generally, and the future church specifically. The proof of this comes two chapters later, when he tells his disciples in the very same language:

“And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

Here the “you” is definitely plural, the future church is referred to specifically, and the terms upon which this binding is to take place are clearly specified. There is no reason to take the same language two chapters earlier as being directed at Peter personally. The most natural reading favors the explanation that the disciples gathered in the name of Christ enjoy this privilege, not any single individual.

Further confirmation that this is the correct interpretation again comes in the book of Acts, where we see not just Peter, but all the apostles “binding” on earth, with the immediate ratification of heaven, over and over again. Demons were bound and driven out, poisonous snakes failed to poison, death and disease were bound, as people were raised from the dead and healed of diseases. Heaven confirmed the apostles repeatedly, as they bound various things in the advancement of the kingdom on earth.

The ratification of heaven distinguished the true church from impersonators. In Acts 19, others tried to “bind on earth”, and this was the result:

“Some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists undertook to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, ‘I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.’ Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. But the evil spirit answered them, ‘Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?’ And the man in whom was the evil spirit leaped on them, mastered all of them and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded. And this became known to all the residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks. And fear fell upon them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was extolled.”

Notice that the evil spirit said, “Paul I recognize.” Because Paul, like Peter and other believers, had the keys. The sons of Sceva didn’t.

Peter is not the “rock”. “You” is the church, not Peter. And the “keys” are employed on earth, not at the gates of heaven.

So What Happens at the Gates?

Finally, the idea of Peter guarding the gates and making decisions about the final fate of the dead is just plain horrendous. We read that the dead will be judged not by Peter, but by the Lord Jesus. Ironically, it is Peter himself who declares this in his letters, saying, “They will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.”

So where is Peter then? I suspect he is busy in heaven enjoying the presence of his Lord like the rest of those who believe, not standing at the gates with a set of keys in his hand. What happens at the gates of heaven? Not judgment. No decisions are made there. We haven’t a scintilla of evidence that the wicked, destined for Hades and eventually the Lake of Fire, even get within spitting distance of them.

I so wish that before people engage in speculation about the meaning of heavenly things, they would look first at the rest of the word of God for understanding!

No, ‘Saint’ Peter is not standing at the gates of heaven with a set of keys turning his thumb up or down as the dead make their appearance one by one before him.

This myth is simply not taught in the word of God.

But forget Peter. There are many, many more popular misconceptions about heaven.

Next: More on that. Possibly

1 comment :

  1. Excellent post, Sir. The reference to the sons of Sceva was especially entertaining. Can you imagine these seven attempting ANYTHING in Jesus' name and the demon calling them out in such a way? Absolutely hilarious.