Readers may be familiar with the Tartarus of Greek mythology, the realm below the underworld Hades. Tartarus was where the Titans and other figures who offended the gods were imprisoned. In the later versions, those imprisoned in Tartarus were violently tortured for their sins and crimes.
In the first few centuries B.C., the Enochian Jewish traditions borrowed the Greek names for the post-mortal realms and applied them to their own cosmos, and the early Christians subsequently inherited the concepts from them. Before we explore exactly what Tartarus was, we should distinguish it from the other realms in early Christianity. Hades, as in Greek mythology and Judaism, was the generic underworld; it was the general post-mortal abode of spirits. The traditional Christian concept of hell, on the other hand, was Gehenna, which the Gospel of Mark describes as “the fire that never shall be quenched” (Mark 9:43). Sinners would not be cast into Gehenna, however, until after the end of the world and God’s final judgment.
Tartarus should not be confused with Hades or Gehenna. Tartarus, in at least some early Christian circles, was quite separate from Gehenna, despite their similar attributes. Tartarus was considered the realm where God’s rebellious angels were imprisoned. (I should add a disclaimer here that later Gehenna became synonymous with Tartarus in Christianity, as evidenced in the pseudepigraphal Apocalypse of Paul. The concept of the angelic prison, however, was still understood.)
In the New Testament itself, the word ‘Tartarus’ appears only once:
For if God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to Tartarus, and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved unto judgment. And spared not the old world, but saved Noah the eighth person, a preacher of righteousness, bringing in the flood upon the world of the ungodly. (2 Peter 2:4-5)
The verse is actually an allusion to the Book of the Watchers in 1 Enoch, which itself is an embellishment of the fallen angel tradition from Genesis:
And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, That the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose. … There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown. (Genesis 6:1-2, 4)
As of a result of the “sons of God” (synonymous with “angels,” “Watchers,” and “holy ones” in other literature) sinning and producing offspring, God floods the earth and saves only Noah and his family. The Book of Enoch, which was compiled between 400 and 200 B.C., clarifies that God subsequently imprisoned these “sons of God” and flooded the world to destroy their abominable children.
According to 1 Enoch, God places the archangel Uriel “in charge of the world and Tartarus” (1 Enoch 20:2). Enoch subsequently sees Tartarus in vision:
I saw terrible things–a great fire burning and flaming there. And the place had a narrow cleft (extending) to the abyss, full of great pillars of fire, borne downward. Neither the measure nor the size was I able to see or to estimate. … And he [Uriel] said, “This place is a prison for the angels. Here they will be confined forever.” (1 Enoch 21:7, 10)
Although 1 Enoch is a pre-Christian text, it is significant because many early Christians considered the Book of Enoch to be inspired scripture. The New Testament’s Epistle of Jude even quotes 1 Enoch directly (Jude 1:14-15), and also alludes to the angelic prison:
And the angels which kept not their first cestate, but left their own habitation, he hath reserved in everlasting chains under darkness unto the judgment of the great day. (Jude 1:6)
The same concept is repeated in 1 Peter:
By which also he [Christ] went and preached unto the spirits in prison; Which were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water. (1 Peter 3:19-20)
Jude quotes directly from 1 Enoch concerning the Tartarus tradition, and both 1 and 2 Peter clearly allude to the text. This combined with the quotations and allusions in other early Christian texts (such as the Epistle of Barnabas) and the statements of early Christian leaders (including Tertullian, Irenaeus, and Clement of Alexandria) demonstrate 1 Enoch’s wide appeal among early Christians and its scriptural status.
And because of 1 Enoch’s status in scripture, combined with statements in the New Testament and other early Christian literature on the concept, it’s clear that the concept of Tartarus was a widespread belief among early Christians. Aside from the heaven and hell reserved for mortal saints and sinners, there was another foreboding realm reserved for those divine beings who rebelled against God.
In early Christianity, Tartarus was the angelic prison, the hell for the disobedient sons of God “whose souls are punished and bound there forever” (1 Enoch 22:12).