In Matthew 16, Jesus asked the disciples who they thought He was.
Did Jesus and Satan fight over the keys to the kingdom? What are the keys to the kingdom?
Simon Peter replied, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." And Jesus answered him, "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." Matthew 16:16-19
There are several confusing parts to this passage, including who or what is the rock, what is the kingdom of heaven, and what is binding and loosing. Not least of these is "What are the keys to the kingdom?"
First a short word on what is the kingdom of heaven. It is synonymous with the kingdom of God and refers to every moment, on heaven or earth, where God's power, sovereignty, and authority are evident. Obviously this would include heaven where God dwells, and the new heavens and the new earth where we will spend eternity with Him. But it also means moments on earth where a truly godly act is experienced. A "key" to the kingdom of heaven, then, would be a tool used to experience God's sovereignty. When used in this particular context, however, it refers to the authority to send people to heaven or hell.
There is a popular story that says that in between Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection, He went down to hell and wrestled the keys to the kingdom from Satan. It implies that Satan held the power of death and the power to condemn men, and only after Jesus' death could He take that power. The story is based on a sequence of a few verses:
In 1 Peter 3:18-19, Peter says, "For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison…"
Psalm 16:10 in the King James Version says, "For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption."
In Revelation 1:17b-18, Jesus tells John, "Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades."
The prophecy in Revelation 9:1-3 says, "And the fifth angel blew his trumpet, and I saw a star fallen from heaven to earth, and he was given the key to the shaft of the bottomless pit. He opened the shaft of the bottomless pit, and from the shaft rose smoke like the smoke of a great furnace, and the sun and the air were darkened with the smoke from the shaft. Then from the smoke came locusts on the earth, and they were given power like the power of scorpions of the earth." The passage goes on to say the locusts tormented unbelievers for five months, but left the plants and the Christians unharmed.
Preachers have used these passages to say that Jesus went down to hell and wrestled with Satan, taking the authority to send people to heaven. There are several things wrong with this theory.
First of all, Satan is not in hell and never has been. Hell doesn't exist yet. Revelation 20:11-15 explains that hell is the permanent place of torment for demons and those humans who reject God. But it will not be used until after the millennial kingdom (Revelation 20:7-10) and the Great White Throne Judgment (Revelation 20:15). Until then, the dead are kept in a temporary place, often referred to as hades. Believers go to a part of hades known as paradise (Luke 23:43) and Abraham's bosom (Luke 16:22), while unbelievers go to a place of torment (Luke 16:23). The word interpreted "hell" in the King James Version in Psalm 16:10 is actually "sheol," which is another term for hades—the temporary dwelling place of the dead.
The 1 Peter passage says that Jesus visited the spirits in prison between His death and resurrection. "Spirits" is a term used of angels, demons, the spirit of Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. The only spirits on this list who could have been imprisoned at this time were the demons mentioned in Jude 6: "And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day…" The Bible is unclear as to who these demons are exactly, but since their actions are compared to the sexual sin of Sodom and Gomorrah in Jude verse 7, it's speculated that these are the "sons of God" of Genesis 6:2—demons who came to earth and mated with human women, perhaps resulting in the Nephilim.
Language issues and ancient speculation have added to the confusion. An old story about Jesus descending into hell appeared in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus from AD 425, and was passed around so much it was added to the Apostles' Creed. Although both the Greek and Latin versions of the Apostles' Creed say Jesus went to "those below" or the "abode of the dead," the modern version includes the line "he descended into hell." It's likely the Old English "hell" refers to hades, not the eternal lake of fire. But since the use of terms such as sheol and hades had fallen out of style, the word "hell" was taken literally.
Much of this is speculation on the part of Bible scholars, but we do know this: between Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection, Satan was not in prison. And there is nothing in the Bible to indicate Jesus interacted with him at that time.
The passages in Revelation 1 and 9 seem related, but they're not. In Revelation 1, Jesus is saying that He has authority over death and the temporary holding place of the dead. He has authority over where people in that place go—to eternity with God or to hell forever. Revelation 9 says that Satan (the "star fallen from heaven to earth") is given permission to release awful scorpion/locusts to torment unbelievers during the Tribulation. The "bottomless pit" is not hades; it is not where dead humans go. It is possible it refers to the prison of the spirits referenced in 1 Peter, and the locusts might be the demons held there, but it has nothing to do with the eternal fate of humans. This key and the authority affiliated with it are retrieved by an angel—not Jesus—in Revelation 20:1, who then binds Satan and throws him into the pit until the end of the millennial kingdom (Revelation 20:1-3).
Finally, the entire concept of Jesus having to fight Satan for the key and the authority to atone for our sins defies logic and gives far more importance to Satan than he warrants. When it comes to fallen man, Jesus' sacrifice, and our sin, Satan is a secondary character only. He does not have control over the eternal destiny of humans. He does not have control over hell—hell was created by God to hold and punish Satan and the other demons (Matthew 25:41). Satan influences people to rebel against God because he wants the attention and because he wants to defy God. But he has no spiritual authority over men except what men give him directly.
So Satan never had authority over who could enter the kingdom of heaven. Jesus, whose sacrifice covered the sins of those in the Old Testament as well as we who live after His resurrection, always had that authority. The only keys Satan will hold are to the bottomless pit—the abyss—and only because he will be granted them for a specific time period.
It is unclear where the story of Jesus, Satan, and the keys to the kingdom of heaven originated. It was mentioned in an apostolic magazine in 1980 and has spread around the Word of Faith Movement ever since. Wherever it originated, it is a misinterpretation of Scripture passages. Jesus did not fight Satan for the keys to the kingdom of heaven.
Did Jesus go to hell between His death and resurrection?
Where was Jesus for the three days between His death and resurrection?
What was the temple veil? What is the meaning of the temple veil being torn in two when Jesus died?
Did Jesus ever claim to be God? Is the deity of Christ biblical?
Is it true that Jesus is the only way to heaven?
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