The first time I heard the word “Tartarus,” I thought, No thanks. I don’t need tartar sauce. In Greek mythology Tartarus, like Hades, is both a deity and a place in the underworld. Whereas Hades is the abode of the dead, Tartarus is far lower and functions as a prison for unfortunate captives and punishment for those who committed crimes. The Greek’s Tartarus is a lot closer to our modern concept of Hell than the Greek’s Hades. Jewish traditions borrowed this concept of Tartarus, a place where mythical figures were punished for their sins, and applied it to angels who sinned. The first instance is in the pseudoepigraphal book of 1 Enoch 20:2.
Early Christians inherited this term, and the New Testament employs the word and concept of Tartarus for a very specific case—the state of fallen angels, or demons. The only biblical occurrence of the term Tartarus is 2 Peter 2:4, where it is forever mistranslated “Hell.” This adds more confusion to the word. Here is the verse as it should read: “God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to Tartarus, putting them into gloomy dungeons to be held for judgment.” Is this a place? Or is it a condition? After all we’re talking about spirits, and spirits aren’t physical.
Without using the actual term, Jude 6 makes the only other reference to this place or condition in which fallen angels are kept in a kind of bondage: “The angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their own home—these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day.”
If demons actively afflict people in the Bible, and demonic manifestations still occur today, what do we make of this? Are they in a prison and can’t get out? Or are they in a state of bondage, like vicious dogs on short leashes? Charles Dickens was not known as a theologian, but his image of Jacob Marley, who visits Scrooge, may help us imagine at least one possibility. Marley roams the physical world, but he is in bondage, shackled to chains and locked boxes—and more significantly, he is imprisoned in a state of spiritual judgment. The difference here is that Marley was not a demon but a dead person in a novel. The demons that afflict humans may similarly be in a state of bondage—in Tartarus. Imagine if they weren’t.
Because Tartarus is for angels and not humans, and because demonic activity is evident in daily life all over the earth, I suggest that Tartarus is not a lower level of Hades. Nor is it a part of Gehenna, where “the devil and his angels” will be thrown at the end of time (Matthew 25:41; Revelation 20:10). Rather it seems to be some sort of bondage for demons in this world—contrasting the free condition of the angels of God who also operate in this world. This bondage may be some kind curse or judgment along with a confinement or limitation that yet allows them to roam the earth.
Everyone Should Know
Let’s make the whole equation more complicated. Contrasting the specific revelation of Jesus as Lord, known as “special revelation,” we also have “general revelation.” As the term implies, this is the aspect in which God reveals himself in general ways through nature and through the human conscience. Psalm 19:1 says, “The Heavens declare the glory of God.” Acts 14:17 echoes, “He has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from Heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.” And Romans 1:20 expresses God’s resulting expectation: “Since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” Though people in many countries can be excused for not having heard the gospel, they cannot be excused from seeing and responding to evidence of God in creation.
Romans 2:14–16 speaks of God working in the human conscience in a kind of natural law: “(Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves . . . since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.) This will take place on the day when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.” That day may be at their death or at the end of time.
What do we do with this? There’s not much we can do; it’s something that God does. But this does demonstrate God’s sovereign work in people’s hearts beyond even gospel ministry, presumably among those who don’t receive an adequate hearing of the gospel message. These verses also show God’s expectation of a response to what they understand of God, even among those who have not adequately heard. The inclination of their heart’s response to their God-given consciences seems to indicate the direction they would take in the afterlife.
For those who hear the gospel in this life, it means responding positively. For those who do not hear the gospel in this life, could it mean responding in the afterlife? Or could it mean God will judge their response to the law “written on their hearts”? Either way, God will handle it.
Photo credit: www.stock.xchng.com jonathan pineda