This is the fifth in a series of articles on biblical terms that describe the afterlife and the unseen world.
If Sheol or Hades is the temporary abode of deceased people, is there a transitory place of punishment for some demons?
It seems the answer is yes, in a place the New Testament refers to as Tartarus.
Tartarus is mentioned only once, in 2 Peter 2:4. Many translations render it “hell,” including the King James Version and the New American Standard Bible, while others, like the English Standard Version and the New International Version, provide footnotes linking the English word “hell” to the Greek name Tartarus.
The Holman Christian Standard Bible simply transliterates the Greek word in this passage, which reads: “For if God did not spare the angels who sinned, but threw them down into Tartarus and delivered them to be kept in chains of darkness until judgment …”
A footnote in the HCSB reads: “Tartarus is a Greek name for a subterranean place of divine punishment lower than Hades.”
In the apocryphal Book of Enoch (20:2), Tartarus is used as a place where fallen angels are punished, an interpretation Peter affirms.
So, Tartarus seems to be a place separate from Sheol, the Hebrew term for the abode of the dead; Hades, roughly the Greek equivalent of Sheol; and Gehenna, the lake of fire created for the Devil and his angels (Matt. 25:41) where wicked people also spend eternity (Rev. 20:15).
Ancient Greeks regarded Tartarus as a place where rebellious gods and other wicked ones are punished. Peter refers to Tartarus as the abode of certain fallen angels.
Pits of darkness
Peter reminds us that while Satan’s ultimate destiny is hell, currently he roams the earth like a lion, seeking anyone he may devour (1 Peter 5:8). In a similar fashion, many of his demons are relatively free – tempting, tormenting, and even possessing individuals.
At the same time, the New Testament teaches that some demons are incarcerated as they await the Day of Judgment.
Note first of all in 2 Peter 2:4 that God has cast some angels into Tartarus, committing them to “pits of darkness” or, as some translations render it, “chains of darkness.” This Jewish apocalyptic phrase refers to a place of mental anguish and terror in the underworld.
Second, these angels are confined until the Day of Judgment. The word “confined” is in the present passive participle tense, meaning they are continually kept or reserved for judgment. No “soul sleep” for angels or humans, and no annihilation.
We find a similar passage in Jude 6, where we read God has “kept, with eternal chains in darkness for the judgment of the great day, angels who did not keep their own position …”
We should note there may be other places of confinement for demons. For example, demons possessing the man called Legion beg Jesus not to banish them to the “abyss,” an unfathomable pit mentioned nine times in the New Testament. In Revelation 9, 11, 17, and 20, we see that an angel called Destroyer rules over the abyss; that it is a fiery place kept under lock and key; that the beast is released from the abyss to foment great wickedness on the earth; and that Satan is temporarily imprisoned there.
Finally, in Rev. 9:14, an angel is commanded to release four demons confined at the Euphrates River.
A dark recess of hell?
We might ask: Is Tartarus an especially dark recess of hell, or a separate temporary abode until the final judgment of Satan and his demons?
If Tartarus is a compartment of hell, then why are demons kept there until judgment day, only to be returned? Why are some demons released from imprisonment in the abyss and at the Euphrates River, while those in Tartarus are offered no parole?
Finally, if there is no escape from Tartarus, how does this place of temporary confinement differ from the lake of fire?
While we may ponder these issues, it’s always good to stick with what the Bible clearly teaches. First, Christ has defeated Satan, sin, and death for us; there is no redemption for the angels who rebelled. Second, Christ judges angels as well as people. And third, we may rest assured that Satan and his demons have a place prepared for them – the lake of fire – where they will be cast one day and tormented forever.
If some especially vile fallen angels are kept in a temporary place called Tartarus and never allowed to carry out their evil intentions, so much the better for us.
Next – Does the Bible teach Purgatory?