At 1 Peter 3:19, we read about ‘spirits’ (literally, breaths) that were put into ‘prison’ for the bad acts they committed during the time of Noah. Genesis 6:1-4 speaks of them as ‘sons of/the God’ (gr. ouioi tou Theou), and it tells of these spirit creatures coming to earth and taking ‘the daughters of/the mankind’ (gr. thygateras ton anthropon). Then in the Greek version of 2 Peter 2:4, we read that they were put into ‘Tartarus.’
What does Tartarus mean?
In other Bibles, this Greek word is mistranslated as Hell or Hell Fire. However, it refers specifically to the place where ‘gods’ (not humans) were sent in Greek mythology. Therefore, that must have been the thought that Peter was trying to convey.
Over the centuries, people exploited this mistranslation to support the idea that the Devil and his demons are in Hell, watching over its flames, and torturing human souls for all eternity. Yet there is no suggestion of any of this here.
Then, why did Peter use a pagan term from Greek Mythology to describe the condition of unfaithful messengers (angels) of God?
Greek Mythology seems to tell highly distorted versions of real ancient events that are more accurately recorded in the Bible. These events are from Genesis chapters 2 through 6. Stories such as Hercules and the Golden Apples, Pandora’s Box, Medusa, immoral Gods that came to earth, and so on, are distorted versions of:
- Adam and the forbidden fruit
- Eve who brought evil upon all mankind
- The snake in the Paradise
- The sons of God that came to earth and lived as humans
Therefore, it could be that they also had a name for the place where these sons of God (the ‘gods’) were sent after the Downpour: Tartarus. Since this correct idea was common at the time, Peter may have used the word to convey what he was talking about to his readers.
However, there is the possibility that Peter’s letters were originally written in Aramaic, and only translated into Greek. Even if not, the Aramaic translation was very early, so it tells us what people thought it meant at the time.
Well, the Aramaic version does not say Tartarus. It just says that they were cast down, in chains, into darkness. Either way, this is not Hell Fire.
For a discussion of what it means for the spirits to be in prison, please see the commentary, Demons.