There are three different words in the New Testament Greek that are translated “hell” in the King James Bible. They do not mean the same thing, but nonetheless, they are translated in the same way, because men did not want to make the distinction. The three words are: Hades, Gehenna, and Tartarus.
Hades is translated “hell” 10 times and “grave” once; Gehenna is translated “hell” 12 times; and Tartarus appears in its verb form, tartaroo (“to cast into Tartarus”) just once in 2 Peter 2:4. Two of these words (Hades and Tartarus) are from the Greek language. The non-Christian Greeks themselves applied these terms in their own way according to their own religious view. We cannot, of course, apply the Greek meaning of these terms to Christianity or to the Bible.
Tartarus in Greek mythology was a place below Hades, reserved for those who had affronted the gods, which was considered to deserve a worse punishment. For example, Tantalus stole Zeus’ ambrosia and was consigned to Tartarus, where he was made to stand in a pool of water. But each time in his thirst he reached out to take a drink, the water would recede from him. There were also trees laden with fruit, but whenever he reached out to pick the fruit, it would recede from him. We get our word “tantalize” from this Greek myth.
The Angels that Sinned
We ought not to conceive of Tartarus in the way the Greeks defined it, but we must think of it in terms of the place where God confined “the angels that sinned” in Genesis 6:2. This word Tartarus appears only once in the New Testament, and it appears only in its verb form. 2 Peter 2:4 says,
4 For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell [Tartarus] and committed them to pits of darkness, reserved for judgment; 5 and did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a preacher of righteousness. . . .
In Peter’s first letter he made reference to these “angels” without actually using the word Tartarus. He wrote in 1 Peter 3:18-20,
18 For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; 19 in which also He went and made proclama-tion to the spirits now in prison, 20 who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water.
In other words He was raised from the dead as a life-giving spirit (1 Cor. 15:45) and given a resurrected body, in which He made His proclamation to the spirits in prison—that is, in Tartarus. His very resurrection (or embodiment) was the proclamation. His resurrection into a physical body made of flesh and bone (Luke 24:39) was the proclamation of His enthronement over all, including the angels that sinned (or “spirits in prison”).
It was proclaimed that Jesus is King over all the earth, that all creation was subject to Him, and that He had been given a Name above every name. A few verses later, Peter confirms this in 1 Peter 3:22,
22 who is at the right hand of God, having gone into heaven, after angels and authorities and powers had been subjected to Him.
His resurrection subjected all things to Him, including the angels that sinned. In essence, that is when the proclamation went forth into all the earth and to Tartarus itself that He was Lord of all, that He had been given a name above every name in heaven, in earth, and under the earth (Phil. 2:10).
Who Were the Angels that Sinned?
The angels that sinned back in Genesis 6:2-4 were called “sons of God” in contrast to the “daughters of men.” This term, “sons of God” refers to spiritual beings that have access to the heavens—in contrast to earth-bound fleshly creatures. Thus we see the “sons of God” standing before God in Job 1:6. In the New Testament the term is used to describe men and women who can “become the sons of God” (John 1:12) through Jesus Christ.
Genesis 6:2 also says that these sons of God took “the daughters of men” as wives and produced children by them. The Hebrew word for “men” is awdawm, or Adam, which is the usual word for men or mankind. When the Bible refers to the man Adam himself, it says ha-awdawm, or “the (man) Adam.” The article “the” makes the term specific. Dr. Bullinger points out in The Companion Bible, Appendix 14,
“Adam, without the article, denotes man or mankind in general (Gen. 1:26; 2:5; 5:1). With the article, it denotes the man, Adam....”
With this in mind, let us read Genesis 6:1, 2,
1 Now it came about, when Adam [ha-awdawm] began to multiply on the face of the land, and daughters were born to them [Adam and Eve, Gen. 1:27; 5:2] 2 that the sons of God saw that the daughters of Adam [ha-awdawm] were beautiful; and they took wives for themselves, whomever they chose.
Adam and Eve had both sons and daughters. Adam’s daughters were beautiful, and these angels took them as wives. Verse 4 says that they had children by them. Ultimately, the earth was so corrupted by this genetic mixture that God sent the flood to destroy them. Only Noah was found to be “perfect in his genealogy” (Gen. 6:9, literal).
The question immediately arises: How can spiritual beings (angels) have children with physical women on earth? The answer is that all through the Bible we have examples of angels manifesting as men. In Genesis 18 we read that three “men” came to Abraham on their way to Sodom. Abraham fed them, and they prophesied that Sarah would have a child in the following year.
Two of them then continued toward Sodom, but one of the “men” stayed behind to tell Abraham of Sodom’s coming destruction. Hence we read in Genesis 19:1 that only two of them actually arrived in Sodom:
1 Now the two angels came to Sodom in the evening as Lot was sitting in the gate of Sodom. . .
They had manifested themselves in human flesh and were recognized as such even by the people of Sodom, as the story shows. They even ate with Lot (Gen. 19:3) as they had eaten with Abraham.
Angels are said to often appear in human flesh. Other examples include the angel that appeared to Balaam in Numbers 22:31 and another to Manoah and his wife in Judges 13. If spirits have the ability to manifest in human flesh, and if they can even eat food, then it follows that they could also have the ability to have sexual relations with women and even to produce children by them. Of course, they only had this ability after taking human flesh.
These angels (or perhaps their offspring) were called Nephilim, or “giants” in Genesis 6:4. This is the plural form of nephil, “a feller,” or one who cuts others down; hence, a bully or tyrant. The root word is naphal, “to fall.” This is probably the origin of the idea of “fallen” angels. Though Nephilim applies primarily to their actions in cutting down others, it carries this secondary meaning of having been felled by God in the flood.
The angels are thus “fallen,” but this is not to enter into the debate about whether or not angels have free will. That is a separate question. If angels do have free will, then they fell of their own free will. If not, then they were caused to fall for purposes known fully by God alone. We must limit our scope for now to the simple assertion that they are “fallen.” The nature of their “fall” in the sense of their disobedience is given in Jude 6,
6 And angels who did not keep their own domain, but abandoned their proper abode, He has kept in eternal bonds under darkness for the judgment of the great day.
In other words, these angels desired to become flesh and dwell with the daughters of Adam. Why? Because angels are spirits, and they have the ability to manifest in flesh, but what they did not have was a soul. Nowhere in the Bible do we find that angels were given souls. The soul is in the blood, Leviticus 17:11 tells us. Angels do not have blood. They coveted a soul in order to gain authority over the earth, for God made man a living soul (Gen. 2:7) and gave man dominion over the earth (Genesis 1:26). In that sense, angels “fell” from heaven to earth—but then fell from earth to Tartarus.
Jude then relates the fallen angels to Sodom and Gomorrah, where the people “indulged in gross immorality and went after strange flesh” (Jude 7). The term “strange flesh” simply means foreign flesh—that is, in the Biblical sense, forbidden sexual relations or marriages. The angels were not allowed to marry the daughters of men, even as the men of Sodom were not allowed to marry other men in homosexual unions. This is, of course, one of the major social and moral issues facing us today. In the name of liberty we are once again going the way of Sodom.
Another intriguing question is the fact that Jesus said the last days would be “as in the days of Noah” (Matt. 24:37). We know that there were Nephilim even AFTER the flood, for Genesis 6:4 says,
4 The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown.
So we see that even after God brought correction by means of the flood, there were Nephilim who again took the daughters of men and had more children by them. The Nephilim’s children thereafter usually were called Gibbor, “mighty men,” and Rephaim, from rapha, “to heal, invigorate.” The twelve spies in Israel saw these Nephilim when they spied out the land, and this is what made the people most afraid to enter the land at that time. We read of this in Numbers 13:32, 33,
32 So they gave out to the sons of Israel a bad report of the land which they had spied out, saying, The land through which we have gone, in spying it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants; and all the men whom we saw in it are men of great size. 33 There also we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak are part of the Gibbor); and we became like grasshoppers in our own sight, and so we were in their sight.
This verse equates the Nephilim with the Gibbor. Joshua destroyed most of the Anakim in Joshua 11:21, 22,
21 Then Joshua came at that time and cut off the Anakim from the hill country, from Hebron, from Debir, from Anab and from all the hill country of Judah and from all the hill country of Israel. Joshua utterly destroyed them with their cities. 22 There were no Anakim left in the land of the sons of Israel; only in Gaza, in Gath, and in Ashdod some remained.
Some yet remained until the time of David. Goliath of Gath came from this family of Anak, where some of these giants remained. David slew Goliath, and in a later battle Goliath’s brother was killed along with their sons (1 Chron. 20:5-8).
If we are living now in the days comparable to those of Noah, then perhaps this may have bearing on the question of UFO’s and so-called “extra-terrestrials.” If these really do exist, claiming to be from other star systems, then the most logical explanation from a Biblical standpoint would be that they are a reappearance of the conditions during the days of Noah. But it is far beyond the scope of this study to continue down that path of inquiry.
The Word Becomes Flesh
By way of contrast and comparison, in the New Testament the angel Gabriel (representing God) came to Mary (Luke 1:26) as the messenger of the seed of God, and the Holy Spirit impregnated her (Matthew 1:18, 20). She then gave birth to Jesus, the Word made flesh. This was done at the command of God and at the proper time according to the plan of God. So it was done in the lawful manner.
It is apparent, then, that the angels who sinned in Genesis had attempted to counterfeit the incarnation of Christ. It was an attempt to usurp authority in the earth, for this was one reason Jesus had to be born through a daughter of Adam. Adam had been delegated dominion over the earth (Genesis 1:26). He did not subject the world to angels (Heb. 2:5), but rather to “the son of man (Adam).” But the purpose of the fallen angels was to “distort the rule of Adam” (Gen. 6:3) and ultimately to subject Christ, the “Son of Man” to their rule as well.
Jesus was the “Son of Adam,” called also the Last Adam (1 Cor. 15:45). Unlike the angels that sinned, Jesus was willing to pay the price by dying on the Cross, in order to give man immortal flesh. In His resurrection Jesus had a body of flesh and bone (Luke 24:39) but was no longer limited by this new spiritual flesh. He could change at will into a spiritual form and, as it were, “go to heaven.” The purpose of creation was to manifest the glory of God in both heaven and earth. This He achieved in a lawful manner, whereas the angels who tried to do this in Genesis 6 failed because they did it unlawfully.
And so when He at last triumphed over death itself, His resurrection proclaimed final defeat to the Nephilim. Also, in Genesis 6 the angels’ motive was to subject mankind to their despotic rule. But Jesus’ motive was to set men free.
So first, it is clear from 2 Peter 2:4 that the angels that sinned were put into a prison of darkness to await their judgment. We also read in 1 Peter 3:18-20 that Jesus’ resurrection proclaimed to “the spirits now in prison” that He was King of the earth. The angels were the first to attempt to usurp the throne by unlawful means. They took the daughters of Adam as wives in order to lay claim to authority over the earth. But God destroyed the earth by a flood and imprisoned them in chains of darkness.
So it is obvious in studying this more carefully that Peter was not talking about Jesus preaching to men in Hades, but about a proclamation to the spirits or angels enchained in Tartarus.
It has long been taught—based upon these verses—that Jesus went to Hades and preached a sermon to the dead. Hades, they say, is divided into two compartments: Hell for the unbelievers, and Paradise for the believers. Then after three days of preaching, Jesus rose from the dead, emptying Paradise of believers, and taking them to heaven with Him at His ascension.
All of this is a nice legend, but unfortunately, it is based primarily upon Peter’s statements that we have already quoted. And here we run into a problem, because Peter was not referring to men in Hades but of the angels (or spirits) that sinned. But as we will see in chapter three, Jesus went to Hades, but did not preach any sermons there.
Tartarus, then, is not the place where men are judged either before or after the Great White Throne Judgment. Peter’s Tartarus differs from Greek mythology, yet the Bible borrows the Greek terminology in order to describe a place that is different from Hades, the place where “spirits” and “angels” are imprisoned.