#18 – Tartarus

We have thus far looked at Sheol and Hades in both Scriptural and cultural contexts.  Those two words are basically the same concept, in two different languages.  They convey the concept that men are held in a place or state of sleep where they await the day of judgment.  At which point they will be released from death and its confines to face recompense for the deeds done during their earthly life.

But there is still one more concept/word that is closely related to these two.  That word is Tartarus.  It is used only one time in the Bible.  In 2 Peter 2:4,5…

“For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell (Gr. Tartarus) and committed them to pits of darkness, reserved for judgment; and did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a preacher of righteousness, with seven others, when He brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly…”

Tartarus is not used anywhere else in the Bible, this is the only Scriptural context that we have to discern its intended meaning.  The concept of Tartarus however, is found in detail outside of Scripture.  It comes from Greek Mythology, and as we will see, designates a very similar concept as it is employed here in 2 Peter.

So lets examine some Greek Mythology.  The ancient Greeks believed that the earth was hollow and that inside of this planet was another realm where other ‘beings’ were kept imprisoned.  The Bible employs a similar concept when it references the phrase “under the earth,” as used in Philippians 2:10 and Revelation 5:13.  This interior of the earth the Greeks named Tartarus.  Tartarus was a place of confinement for disobedient gods.  They believed that it was located below Hades and that it was reserved for only the worst and most wicked of beings.  According to Greek Mythology the gods lived in two places, the good or superior gods dwelt in heaven (where Mount Olympus was and Zeus ruled as king) while the inferior or rebellious gods (the Titans) were confined to the realm under the earth – Tartarus.   As Virgil says in his epic poem Aeneid.

“Tis here in different paths the way divides:-
The right to Pluto’s golden palace guides,
The left to that unhappy region tends,
Which to the depths of Tartarus descends –
The seat of night profound and punished fiends.

The gaping gulf low to the center lies,
And twice as deep as earth is from the skies,
The rivals of the gods, the Titan race,
Here, singed with lightening, roll within the unfathomed space.”

This mythology further held that while those who live on the outer crust of earth enjoy the cool breezes of the wind and the warm light of the sun, those banished to live under the earth, or inside of it, were confined to total darkness and still air (as is also referenced in the poem).  This is what Peter is speaking of when he says,

“For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell (Tartarus) and committed them to pits of darkness…”

The “pits of darkness” refer to Tartarus; that place under the earth where no light can shine and warm and no breeze can refresh.

Fallen Angels

Tartarus then was reserved for rebellious gods, so it is easy to see how Peter applies this place to fallen angels, for we see that angels are referred to as “gods” many times in the Bible (see 1 Corinthians 8:5; 2 Corinthians 4:4; Job 1:6, 2:1 and 38:7).  However, the Bible doesn’t usually make a habit of incorporating Pagan Mythology into its system of Divine Revelation.  We cannot begin to assume that all Mythology is true, this instance is definitely out of the ordinary.

The question that we now need to answer is, ‘If Greek Mythology isn’t the standard for truth…where did Peter get the notion that sinful angels were cast into pits of darkness?’  The New Testament is almost 99% directly taken from and expounded upon Old Testament truths and the Hebrew cultural mindset.  And Peter definitely didn’t find that idea in the Old Testament.  However, there is mention of these angels and their banishment to a place of darkness in other Jewish writings.

This is found in a book called the Book of Enoch.  The book of Enoch is part of the Apocrypha; which is a collection of books that the Jews did not consider inspired by God and therefore were not canonized with the Old Testament. However, they did consider them historical and were very familiar with them.

The book of Enoch deals with some prophecies that were allegedly given by Enoch in his “walking with God” before he was “taken” up by God (Genesis 5:24; Hebrews 11:5).  In fact Jude, the last epistle before the book of Revelation, actually names Enoch and quotes one of these prophecies from the book of Enoch (Jude 14,15).

The Book of Enoch also records how angels (called watchers) sinned by rebelling against God’s command to not interfere with the humans.  They were called watchers b/c the angels were constantly watching humanity (for references to angels ‘watching’ see Genesis 6:2; 1 Corinthians 4:9, 11:10; 1 Timothy 3:16 and 1 Peter 1:12).

This makes sense because the context of the passage that we are looking at in 2 Peter directly connects those angels that sinned with the ancient world that Noah lived in.  Notice that Peter calls Noah a “preacher of righteousness.”  Noah was preaching against the angels’ mating with humans to produce monstrous hybrid beings.

This is found in Genesis 6 where the “sons of God” came down and married the “daughters of men” and proceeded to have children with them.  Those “sons of God” were most likely angels for this phrase is used several times in Scripture to describe angelic, spiritual or heavenly beings (see also Job 1:6, 2:1, 38:7).

The children that were produced b/c of that sin were Giants called Nephilim and were considered an abomination to God.  God’s subsequent decision to destroy the earth with a flood was based upon this awful perversion of mankind’s genetics.  He wanted to remove their twisted dna from the earth.

These watchers in the Book of Enoch are the angels that sinned during the time of Noah.  These angels, in Peter’s eyes, are comparable to the gods who rebelled in Greek Mythology.  And thus, just as the disobedient gods were confined to a pit of darkness under the earth – Tartarus; so these disobedient angels were confined to the pits of darkness comparable to Tartarus.  Peter thus found no problem in using this term, for it already fit perfectly with his Jewish understanding of this issue.  It is as if he considered the Greek Mythology about rebellious gods as a sort of secularized version of the truth about the rebellious angels.

So to reiterate, Peter is referencing the Book of Enoch, concerning angels who were disobedient.  Tartarus, therefore, has to do with disobedient angelic, or spiritual beings – not human beings.  Even so, the language used in no way expresses endless duration.  It says that these angels were cast into Tartarus and committed to pits of darkness; which are “reserved for judgment.”  That word ‘reserved’ is a present participle; they are presently being kept under guard until the judgment day.

Jude also uses this exact imagery concerning this very same topic in verse 6 of his epistle;

“And angels who did not keep their own domain, but abandoned their proper abode, He has kept in eternal (aiodios – endless) bonds under darkness until the judgment of the great day.”

It is the exact same imagery that Peter employs, disobedient angels who are confined in darkness until a day of judgment.

We have seen previously that the usual words that we translate as “eternal” do not mean endless, but age-long.  Furthermore we saw that there are words in the Greek language that do mean endless, which the Bible employs, but (almost) never in the context of hell or judgment.  This verse is the ONLY instance where a Greek word meaning endless is used in connection with judgment.  However, the context itself makes it quite clear that these “eternal” bonds are only to last “UNTIL” the judgment day.

Therefore we must understand that Tartarus is a place of darkness where gods (fallen angels) who were disobedient are kept under guard.  And secondly it is a place where they are confined until the judgment day.  It is not a place where the majority of mankind will go.

Mankind and the Black Darkness

Having said that, there appears to be a select few of the race of men whose wickedness qualifies them to be partakers of this confinement along with the fallen angels.  Both Peter and Jude speak of them, following their description of fallen angels.  They both also go into great detail at great length about such men!  You can read the whole description yourself if you wish, but we will refrain our quote to their immediate usage,

“…These are springs without water and mists driven by a storm, for whom the black darkness has been reserved.”  (2 Peter 2:17)

“…These are the men who are hidden reefs in your love feasts when they feast with you without fear, caring for themselves; clouds without water, carried along by winds; autumn trees without fruit, doubly dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up their own shame like foam; wandering stars, for whom the black darkness has been reserved for the age.”  (Jude 12,13)

The aspect, which interests us, is the fact that, like the “angels who left their proper abode” these men have also left their proper estate.  Angels know God, for they exist in His realm, yet they chose to rebel against His decrees.  These men likewise have come to the knowledge of God and then chose not to obey.  In fact Peter’s whole exposition on the fallen angels and Tartarus stems from his exposition on these ungodly men (see 2 Peter 2:1-3, and all the rest of this chapter).  Peter then ends his exposition saying…

“…For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world by the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and are overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would be better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn away from the holy commandment handed on to them.” (2 Peter 2:20,21)

So we see that like the angels before them, these men forsook the way of truth that they knew to be right and good.  Not only this, but like the angels in the days of Noah, they seem to go out of their way to entangle others in their wickedness. They delight in causing others to fall to their level of depravity.  It is this aspect most of all, I believe, that earns them this special holding place – until the day of judgment.

May God have mercy on their souls.  For if there is one description that feels like the modern concept of hell, it is Tartarus.  But again, we must recognize that this confinement is not endless, but only until the day of judgment.  Thus Tartarus, though using elements that seem closely akin to our concept of Hell, is yet actually more like Sheol and Hades, a place of confinement where its inhabitants await the day of judgment at the Great White Throne.

This is now the 3rd concept in Scripture that has been unfortunately mistaken to be a reference to hell.  The next concept that we will be looking at is Gehenna.  Out of all the concepts that we mistake as Hell this one is the most prominent.  And yet Gehenna, more than any other concept, is the furthest from the idea of hell!  It also happens to be the easiest to prove as such!  In the next blog we will begin a serious look at Gehenna with its fascinating history in the Old Testament.

About Luke Kessler

Luke Kessler has a bachelor's degree in Biblical Studies (not that that matters to God) and spent some time as a missionary in Asia. It was there, through unique circumstances that God began to reveal His glorious plan to save all men. God brought his time of missions to an end and Luke now works in Construction on the Central Coast in California. He enjoys spending his free time studying God's Word and the signs of the times, and sharing what God has shown him every opportunity he has. If you can figure the following out, feel free to contact him by email (his Yahoo account spelled out so as to avoid spam is "luke" then "land" then the number "7") :)
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