“For God did not spare even the angels who sinned. He threw them into hell [Tartarus], in gloomy pits of darkness, where they are being held until the day of judgment.” (2 Peter 2:4 NLT)
The Tartarus Mythos
Tartarus was said to be as far from the Earth as the Earth was from Heaven. It was reserved for the vilest of sinners in Greek thought. It also served as a prison for the Titans, the first generation of Greek gods. According to myth, Zeus and his comrades defeated the Titans in a war called the Titanomachy to take over as supreme gods of the Universe. There was a second war in which Gigantes (giants) fought Zeus, but they too were defeated or destroyed.
Tartarus vs Hell
Tartarus was considered the deepest area of Hades, the Greek underworld. Now Hades does not equal the modern Christian conception of hell, because both the just and unjust went to Hades after death. Mythological Hades was more like a fantastical expansion of the Hebrew idea of “the Grave” (Hebrew Sheol). People have always believed in some form of afterlife, so since corpses were buried in graves, it made sense to them to imagine they lived on in a world down there.
Now 2 Peter 2:4 is the only spot in the Bible where Tartarus is mentioned. Many translations will use “hell” here, like the above one. But Tartarus would’ve been recognizable to the early Christian as from the Titanomachy myth, not as the fiery pit we today call “hell”. Although the Jews did not believe Greek mythology, Tartarus was part of their cultural vocabulary since for so long they’d been Hellenized, that is, influenced by the Greeks. Rome, who conquered the Greeks, even carried on the traditions and myths, so the Jews of Peter’s time were still immersed in Greek ideas like Tartarus and the Titanomachy.
Now if Tartarus is not exactly “hell” as we understand it, what is it? Peter invoked the image to paint a terrifying picture: These angels sinned so much that God banished them as far from the Earth as far as the Earth is from Heaven. Here those angels were the furthest possible from God’s presence, love, and forgiveness. They were that depraved. So we can think of biblical Tartarus as the deepest part of Sheol, the grave. Those angels haven’t been thrown into “hell” yet, not until the day of judgment.
Angels who Sinned
Who are these angels that sinned? Some believe they’re the ones that rebelled by satan’s side before the creation of the world. Some believe its the angels in Genesis 6 (there called “sons of God”) who left heaven in lust to seduce women and produce hybrids called Nephilim, which means giants. If we follow the account in 1 Enoch, an ancient book which expands on the events of Genesis, the angels who sinned were the second group. It’s in this ancient book that the banishment of these angels is detailed.
The Apostle Jude wrote a summary of the story:
“And I remind you of the angels who did not stay within the limits of authority God gave them but left the place where they belonged. God has kept them securely chained in prisons of darkness, waiting for the great day of judgment.” (Jude 1:6 NLT)
Remember the Titans
I believe it’s likely that as humanity spread from the Babylonian plains that their memory of the world before and immediately after the Flood evolved. Stories were shared like a great game of Telephone, with characters and events altered, sometimes still remaining recognizably like their origins, other times morphing into something altogether new. I suspect the story of the Titans and the Gigantes was a transformation of the Genesis and Enochian history. The Nephilim (Gigantes?) were destroyed in the flood, but the Angels (Titans?) were immortal so survived. But God in the Flood swept them away into the Abyss to be locked away in the deepest part of the underworld, later called by the Greeks as Tartarus. And like Peter wrote, these Tartarans await judgement for their sins, which according to 1 Enoch is a fiery punishment. Perhaps later generations misidentified the defeated angels as being ancient gods, which we today remember as the Titans.