What is the meaning of Tartarus?

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By BibleAsk Team


Tartarus, a term often associated with the afterlife in Greek mythology, appears only once in the New Testament of the Bible, specifically in the book of 2 Peter. Its usage in this context has generated considerable discussion and speculation among theologians and scholars. To fully grasp the meaning of Tartarus in the Bible, we’ll delve into its historical and cultural background, explore its biblical reference, and consider various interpretations within Christian theology.

Historical and Cultural Context

In Greek mythology, Tartarus was a dark abyss located deep within the earth, serving as a prison for the Titans and other malevolent beings. It was depicted as a place of punishment and torment, reserved for those who defied the gods or committed grave offenses. Tartarus represented the furthest reaches of the underworld, distinct from Hades, the realm of the dead.

Biblical Reference: 2 Peter 2:4

The only direct mention of Tartarus in the Bible occurs in 2 Peter 2:4 (NKJV), where it is used in the context of divine judgment:

“For if God did not spare the angels who sinned, but cast them down to hell and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved for judgment…”

In this verse, the Greek word translated as “hell” is “Tartarus” (Τάρταρος), indicating a place of confinement for rebellious angels who sinned against God. The imagery of chains of darkness suggests a state of imprisonment and spiritual bondage awaiting divine judgment.

Different Interpretations

Interpreting the meaning of Tartarus in 2 Peter 2:4 has been a subject of debate among theologians and biblical scholars. Several interpretations have emerged within Christian theology:

  1. Symbolic Interpretation: Some theologians view Tartarus as a symbolic representation of the ultimate fate of disobedient and rebellious beings. Rather than a literal location, Tartarus symbolizes the state of separation from God and the consequences of sin.
  2. Angelic Imprisonment: Another interpretation posits that Tartarus is a realm where fallen angels are temporarily confined pending final judgment. This view aligns with the biblical narrative of angelic rebellion, such as the account of Lucifer’s fall from heaven (Isaiah 14:12-15) and the angels who sinned in the time of Noah (1 Peter 3:19-20).
  3. Historical Context: Understanding the historical and cultural context of 2 Peter provides insight into the author’s intent. The letter was likely written during a period of intense persecution of Christians, and the reference to Tartarus may serve as a warning against false teachers and moral corruption within the Christian community. It emphasizes the certainty of divine judgment for those who lead others astray.
  4. Jewish Influences: Some scholars suggest that the concept of Tartarus in 2 Peter reflects Jewish apocalyptic literature, which often depicted a realm of punishment for rebellious angels and wicked souls. The author of 2 Peter may have drawn upon these Jewish traditions to convey the seriousness of divine judgment.

Biblical Support

Writing to people who lived in a Hellenistic atmosphere, Peter employs a Greek term to convey his thought, but does not approve of either the Greek idea of Tartarus or the popular Jewish concept of Gehenna. Peter’s language is only figurative, and does not refer to any specific place as the abode of the fallen angels.

The angels that rebelled in heaven and “abandoned their proper dwelling” (Jude 1:6), God cast them into Tartarus where they are held “in pits of gloom” for a later judgment. This place was feared by the demons (Luke 8:31). In 2 Peter 2:4, the apostle Peter looks to the future, when the judgment will come upon Satan and his angelic followers will finally be executed (Revelation 20:10).

In the course of 2 Peter 2, the apostle refers to many of the heresies propagated by false teachers—denial of the Lord (verse 1), licentious teachings (verses 10, 18), turning from the holy commandment (verse 21), etc. And he adds that these false teachers will also suffer a final destruction with the evil angels in Tartarus.  The end of all untruth is destruction, both to its teachers and to their followers. “Then he (God) will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41).

Conclusion

The meaning of Tartarus in the Bible, as found in 2 Peter 2:4, carries profound implications for understanding divine judgment, the consequences of rebellion, and the sovereignty of God over spiritual realms. It underscores the seriousness of sin and the reality of divine judgment. It serves as a reminder of the consequences of moral disobedience and the importance of remaining faithful to God’s commandments. Ultimately, the meaning of Tartarus invites believers to reflect on the nature of God’s justice, mercy, and redemption, and to live lives that honor and glorify Him.

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In His service,
BibleAsk Team

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