The Fallen Angels in “Tartarus”

The Fallen Angels in “Tartarus”

This piece was originally featured in the Southern Nebraska Register’s “Ask the Register” column on March 22, 2024, which can be found here.


Q. 2 Peter 2:4 says “God did not spare the angels who sinned but threw them down into Tartarus…” What is Tartarus and where is it?

A. The New Testament letter, 2 Peter, describes God’s judgment upon the fallen angels, or demons, who joined in Lucifer’s rebellion and were cast out of heaven as a consequence. Popular English translations of 2 Peter 2:4, such as the Revised Standard Version 2nd Catholic Edition (RSV2CE) or the English Standard Version Catholic Edition (ESVCE), tell us that these fallen angels were cast into “hell.” Other translations, such as the New American Bible, say that they were cast into “Tartarus.” Is ‘Tartarus’ the same thing as ‘hell,’ especially ‘hell’ as we understand it? Or is this a different place?

The Bible uses a variety of words to describe what we generally refer to as ‘hell’ today. This is a result of the Bible being written in different languages: the Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew and Aramaic, and the New Testament was originally written in Greek. It is also a result of the Biblical faiths, namely Christianity and Judaism, that believe in life after death, and, in reflecting on Scripture, found various ways to articulate those beliefs about life after death. Therefore, when reading the Scriptures, we encounter terms such as Sheol, Hades, Gehenna, the bosom of Abraham, Tartarus—each of them depicting a place departed souls go after death. 

A helpful way to incorporate all of these elements would be to picture the Old Testament concept of ‘hell’ as divided into three sections or concentric circles. The first and outermost circle could be referred to as “the place of the righteous dead.” In the Bible, this circle would be called by words such as ‘paradise’ or ‘Abraham’s bosom.’ It is the place in which righteous human souls who died before the death of Christ waited for heaven to be opened to them. It is only called ‘hell’ in that it is ‘not heaven’—it is not the eternal hell of damnation.

The second, middle circle could be referred to as “the place of the unrighteous dead,” that is, the place in which human souls resided who died without meriting heaven. The Bible refers to this place as Sheol (Hebrew), Hades (Greek), or Gehenna (Greek). Consider the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31. While Lazarus, the righteous servant, is “carried by the angels to Abraham’s side,” the rich man who treated Lazarus poorly is described as being in “Hades,” with a “great chasm” separating him from Abraham and Lazarus. Both of these figures died before heaven was opened, but one seemingly enjoyed rest in the interim in “the bosom of Abraham,” while the other was left in torment. 

The last and innermost circle of hell could be called “the prison for fallen angels,” or Tartarus, as 2 Peter 2:4 calls it in the New American Bible. This deepest part of hell is the place reserved for angelic spirits (not human souls) who denied the Lord God and were eternally banished from His company in heaven. 

A couple of necessary questions must follow, though, after clarifying what might be meant by ‘hell.’ In the Apostles’ Creed we profess that Christ “descended into hell.” Did Jesus descend into Tartarus? And who did he bring into heaven with him? Answers to these questions vary, so I will trace out the answer that is supported by the largest weight of the Western Christian tradition. 

In congruence with the Apostles’ Creed, St. Peter tells us in 1 Peter 4:6 that “the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.” Traditional Catholic interpretation has understood this verse (alongside others) to mean that upon expiring on the cross on Good Friday, Jesus continued His saving mission by descending into the realm of the righteous dead (‘paradise’ or ‘Abraham’s bosom’) to bring those souls with him into heaven. This interpretation is supported by figures as early as St. Irenaeus (c. 130-202), St. Athanasius (c. 296-373), and Pope St. Gregory the Great (c. 540-604). It is also taken up by the Roman Catechism (1566) and finally into the modern Catechism of the Catholic Church (1993; cf. §631–635). 

On the other hand, Tartarus as well as Hades (the lower circles), even if visited by Christ to pronounce His victory over sin and death (cf. 1 Pet 3:19), remain untouched and continue to hold captive those fallen angels and unrighteous souls, respectively, to form the eternal hell of damnation that we typically conceive of today.