METAPHOR OR ANGEL THUG LOCKDOWN
There is one last Greek word, a noun, rendered “hell” in the New Testament of which we have yet to speak. You will recall that there are three Greek words that were rendered as such: Hades, Gehenna, and Tartarus. I decided to include this discussion in an appendix, not because it is unimportant – quite the opposite. I held off discussing it because it is very special.
Here is the only time Tartarus is used in the entire New Testament:
For if God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to [Tartarus], and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved unto judgment; 2 Peter 2:4 KJV
Peter, in this passage, offers three rapid fire examples of God’s willingness to deal with evil – two well-known historical events and one not as familiar. He assured his audience that false teachers would be judged. After all, God was willing to make an example of Sodom and Gomorrah, overthrowing the cities of the plain with fire and brimstone, and He did not spare the old world, but destroyed the antediluvians with a flood. We are told, also, that the angels that sinned were cast down to a place called Tartarus, translated “hell” in most English Bibles, bound in chains of darkness to be held for judgement.
It is interesting to note that W.E. Vine says that the angels that sinned were consigned to Tartarus, which is neither sheol, nor hades nor hell1. You will recall that Vine said that sheol and hades were “unhappily” rendered as hell. He obviously considers this rendering of Tartarus to be melancholy as well.
So, what is Tartarus, then, if not hell. Vine, again, said that it is that place where those particular angels whose special sin is referred to in this particular passage are confined “to be reserved unto judgement”2.
Who says that early 20th century theologians do not have a sense of humor?
One resource of my study offered the following: Tartaroo (verb) – sent or hurled into Tartarus (noun), hell. These definitions are dependent on Greek mythology. Tartarus was a dark abyss, deep below Hades, to which rebellious gods and disobedient humans were sent for torment and punishment. It was surrounded by a brazen wall and encircled by impenetrable darkness. Specifically, the Cyclopes and Titans were imprisoned there by Uranos, Kronos, and Zeus.3 Although the verb does not occur in the Septuagint, the noun, Tartaros, does (see Job 41:31) where it refers to the depths of the sea that Leviathan plays in and (and Proverbs 30:16) where it translates [sheol], or the grave, as one of the aspects of reality that is never satisfied,4 [the others being the barren womb, the earth ever thirsty for water, and the fire which never says, “Enough”.]
A Few Observations:
Based on a quick survey of 61 English translations of 2 Peter 2:4, the language in the passage seems conclusive. The angels that sinned, all of them, have been cast down and are held bound in darkness, waiting judgement. Here is a small sampling:
- For if God didn’t spare the angels who sinned… (HCSB)
- For if God did not spare the angels when they sinned… (RSV)
- For if God did not [even] spare angels that sinned… (AMP)
- For if God spared not the angels that sinned… (KJV)
- When angels sinned, God did not let them go free without punishment… (ERV)
It seems clear enough that ALL the angels that sinned were cast down to hell.
The trouble is, we experience the wiles of the devil and his angels (the angels that sinned) right now. They are busy in their nefarious work today. So, either all of the evil spirit beings working against humanity today are something other than fallen angels or something is amiss with the way we are interpreting 2 Peter 2:4.
A literal interpretation of this passage would require the validation of Greek mythology. It would mean that the Cyclopes and Titans were real and that Uranos, Kronos, and Zeus all exist. Either that or something else is going on with 2 Peter 2:4.
Tartarus, borrowed from Greek mythology [and applied by Peter here], is a temporary holding place (“held for judgment”), not a place of final punishment.5 A rendering of Tartarus as hell is theologically problematic. The traditional understanding of hell is that of a place of perpetual torment beneath the earth where the wicked are punished after death. Something else seems to be going on with 2 Peter 2:4.
Peter does not mention the souls of the wicked and neither are they mentioned in the parallel passage in which Jude says, “And the angels which kept not their first estate, but left their own habitation, he hath reserved in everlasting chains under darkness unto the judgment of the great day.” (v. 6) The rendering of Tartarus as “hell” seems to be theologically problematic again, given that this place is described as being reserved for fallen angels. Something else is happening with 2 Peter 2:4.
The Encyclopedia of the Bible, in its treatment of this passage, suggests that care should be taken to avoid allowing non-Christian concepts of the underworld to govern the interpretation of the NT.6
Kenneth Barker wrote, “In any case, Peter probably does not want us to think of the angels as literally confined in dark caves or dungeons. The language is metaphorical; he is using a popular ancient conception of the afterlife to denote God’s judgment…The presence of a metaphor here is further suggested by the Greek word that lies behind the NIV’s ‘but sent them to hell.’ This word is tartareo, ‘consign to Tartarus.’ In Greek mythology, Tartarus was the subterranean abyss to which disobedient gods and rebellious human beings were consigned.”7
My burden here is a light one. All I must do is show there is enough evidence to call into question the rendering of Tartarus as “hell”. We have seen how that this “melancholy” rendering requires a validation of Greek mythology, does not square up theologically with the traditional doctrine of hell with regard to its occupants and the duration of their stay, and it requires a departure from the traditional teaching that evil spirits, demons, fallen angels and such are the “angels that sinned” in 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 6. I think I have borne the burden well, and more.
I have also offered another plausible interpretation of the passage as a metaphor to support God’s willingness to judge the wicked and not a literal description of hell.
This passage and its rendering of Tartarus as “hell” is not an effective rebuttal to my assertion that there is no hell in the New Testament.
1W.E. Vine, Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, ©1996, p. 543.
3Colin Brown (editor), The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, ©1979
5Douglas J. Moo, NIV Application Commentary: New Testament Series, 2 Peter and Jude, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, ©1996.
6Encyclopedia of the Bible, BibleGateway.com, Abyss, (retrieved 5/10/2021), https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=2+Peter+2%3A4&version=KJV
7Kenneth L. Barker, et al., NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible, Zondevan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, ©2020.