Before we look at the word, ‘Tartarus’, we need to think about the meaning of the word, ‘Hell’ itself, because a little thought will help us to clear up some of those misconceptions and erroneous theories which, for centuries, have been sources of needless confusion and unnecessary anxiety, unnecessary that is, if one is a Christian!
There are, in fact, three Biblical words, the meanings of which are often confused because people tend to use them very loosely. Two of the words are New Testament Greek words and the third is an Old Testament Hebrew word. For instance, in the New Testament, we have these words.
1. ‘Gehenna’, which occurs 12 times, and, in the A.V., is always translated ‘hell’, and
2. ‘Hades’, which occurs 10 times, and which is also always translated as ‘hell’.
3. The third word is the word ‘Sheol’, found in the Old Testament, and which sometimes is erroneously said to be the word that corresponds to ‘Gehenna’.
You clearly see the confusion that has been created about the meaning of this word when you understand that, in the A.V., out of the 65 instances it occurs, 34 times it has been translated ‘hell’ and 31 times it has been translated ‘the grave’!
Now, although the word ‘Sheol’ literally means ‘the Place of the Dead’, you don’t need much intelligence to recognise that Hell and the Grave are not the same place! When a body is placed in the grave, it has not been consigned to Hell!
But there is a history behind this inconsistent rendering of the word ‘Sheol’. Whilst the translators of the A.V. believed Hell to be the place of punishment for the wicked, they recoiled from the idea of saying that good people also go to Sheol, and so in passages that related to the death of good people, they decided to translate ‘Sheol’ as ‘the grave’!
Hell Like I just noted, the word ‘hell’ is, unfortunately, a bad translation in many places. The New Testament clearly describes the destination of the wicked after the Judgment and their place of punishment, as ‘eternal banishment from the presence of God’. 2 Thessalonians 1:9-10
The wicked will be denied the fellowship and blessing of ‘everlasting life’, ‘the life of the ages’, and, there will be no need for fire and brimstone, for they will know that their banishment is something they have deserved because of their rejection of God’s offer of forgiveness. What will add to the pain of banishment will be the knowledge that it could have been so very different.
No fire! No burning! But the pain and suffering of experiencing the loss of what might have been will be painful enough. This means that the future of those who reject the Gospel and refuse to accept the Lordship of Christ isn’t annihilation and not extinction.
In other words, it’s not the cessation of being, it’s exclusion from the presence of God and all the redeemed, those faithful souls who have accepted His offer of forgiveness. The alternative to this enjoyment of the bliss of salvation shouldn’t be overlooked because it’s horrible to contemplate.
Eternal punishment involves spending eternity in the presence of all those who have chosen to reject God’s grace and His love. In other words, with the unforgiven, this means the immoral, murders, liars, and all the vicious, cruel and evil in the history of the world. Surely, that is the most appalling punishment imaginable!
In Greek mythology, Tartarus was both a ‘primaeval deity’ that existed before the Olympians, as well as a name to describe a region of the ‘underworld’. As a god, he was third in rank after Chaos and Gaea, preceding Eros.
As a place, it was far below where Hades resided, and it was used as the most horrible prison. Some accounts say that the distance between Tartarus and Hades was the same as between the earth and the heaven. Although the kingdom of Hades was the place of the dead, Tartarus was where ferocious monsters and horrible criminals were banished, or where the gods imprisoned their rivals after a war.
The three judges of the ‘underworld’, Rhadamanthus, Aeacus and Minos, decided who would go to the realm of Hades and who would be banished to Tartarus.
The Greek word, ‘tartaroo’ only occurs here in 2 Peter 2:4 and has unfortunately been translated as the word ‘hell’ in several different translations.
In fact, it’s nowhere found in the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament and the only place where there’s anything about it is in Greek classical literature, where writers such as Homer, describe it as ‘a place of darkness, with iron walls and a brass gate, deep under the Earth, where rebellious angels have been confined’.
And please note, this was a place solely for these rebellious angels, it’s never used in connection with sinful mankind!
Peter is speaking about the work of false teachers, 2 Peter 2:1-3, and he’s saying that these false teachers will face God’s judgment. We know this because he gives three examples of sinfulness from history, which led to judgment, Noah, Sodom and Gomorrah and Lot, 2 Peter 2:5-7.
Notice the similarities between 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 6. Jude is dealing with false teachers, and he also gives three examples of God’s judgment, the Israelites who rebelled against God after being brought out of Egypt, Jude 6:5, the rebellious angels, Jude 6 and Sodom and Gomorrah, Jude 7. Both Peter and Jude are reminding us that God will move against false teachers and judgment will come upon them.
We don’t know when this angelic rebellion against God took place, but we know that it did because both Jude and Peter tell us so, and God condemned them for it because they ‘didn’t keep their positions of authority’.
We know Satan was the leader of these sinning angels, and we know it because of pride that he fell, Isaiah 14:12-15 / 1 Timothy 3:6.
I’m sure you are aware that there are many theories concerning, ‘Tartarus’, but little information, some believe it’s actually Hades, that is hell, where the Rich Man was, Luke 16:23, but notice, the rich man was ‘in agony because of the fire’, Luke 16:24.
Both Jude and Peter mention nothing about ‘fire’, these angels were ‘awaiting their judgment’, whilst the Rich Man had received his final judgment.
Some believe Tartarus is ‘the deepest part of hell,’ this can’t be right because whether it’s the deepest part of hell or the highest part of hell, it’s still located in hell, it’s still hell. Others believe that Tartarus is actually describing the condition of the angels and not an actual location.
Wherever or whatever Tartarus is, it’s not nice, it’s a place of temporary torment for these rebellious angels until they are judged with everlasting torment, Matthew 25:31-46 / 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10 / Revelation 20:10 / Revelation 14-15.
Who knows! Maybe by using Greek mythology, he wanted to help the Greek Christians to understand there’s a place of torment for these rebellious angels until the final judgment comes.
All we know about Tartarus is what Peter writes in 2 Peter 2:4, and we know this much, there are no humans in Tartarus, only fallen angels, those in Tartarus are bound by chains of darkness, there are no flames of fire mentioned, it’s dark there, which means it’s not ‘hell’, Matthew 13:50, and finally their restraint in chains isn’t forever, they are ‘being held for judgment’, Leviticus 24:10-12 / Numbers 15:32-36, in other words, they haven’t been judged as yet, but they will be, Revelation 20:10.
Remember Tartarus is the place where certain sinful angels are presently kept bound, awaiting final judgment. It has no reference to the final destination of the wicked, hell, Tartarus isn’t even the final destination of these angels.
It’s, unfortunate that some English versions translate the term ‘Tartarus’ as ‘hell’ because it confuses this place with the place of the final judgment of the wicked, Matthew 25:41 / Revelation 20:10.