QUESTION: Please explain 2 Peter 2:4 (NIV): “For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them into gloomy dungeons to be held for judgment …”
In this connection we should also consider a similar passage in Jude 6 (NIV): “And the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their own home—these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day.” Let’s examine the context, discuss the nature of the prison, and comment on the sin of the angels.
1. Context: Peter is discussing the work of false teachers. According to him, their presence among God’s people is not new (2 Peter 2:1). One thing is certain, however: they will experience the judgment of God. To support his argument, Peter uses three biblical examples of sin leading to judgment: the experience of the an-gels, the punishment of the antediluvians, and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
The context in Jude is similar. He also deals with false teachers, and his three examples of divine judgment are: the rebellion of the Israelites in the wilderness, the fall of the angels, and Sodom and Gomorrah. These cases show that God will intervene against false teachers. These passages are not specifically about the nature of the sin of angels, or about the place they are sent.
2. The Prison: Peter uses vivid language to describe the fate of evil angels. God “sent them to hell, putting them in gloomy dungeons.” In the Bible “hell” is the realm of the dead, the tomb. The common Greek word for “hell” is hades, which designates the place of the dead, the underworld. But in this case Peter uses a different word, a verb: tartaroo, “to cast into/to hold captive in tartaros.” In Greek mythology tartaros designated the deepest area of hades, reserved for the punishment of disobedient gods. Peter uses this image to express the idea that fallen angels are now in prisons of darkness and death, separated from the divine source of life. This is not a literal prison, because demons are still active in the world of humans (e.g., 1 Peter 5:8; Jude 9).
This is supported by Jude, who simply says they are chained and imprisoned in darkness. By the way, the phrase “gloomy dungeons” in Peter is sometimes rendered in Greek manuscripts as “fetters of darkness.” In the ancient world, prisons were in many cases dark dungeons, an appropriate symbol for the tomb (cf. Rev. 1:18). Apparently, ancient prisons did not have the purpose of incarcerating criminals as a form of punishment. Those in jail were often committed to hard labor. But in most cases, the prisoners were awaiting judgment or the execution of the penalty already pronounced against them (cf. Lev. 24:10-12; Num. 15:32-36). According to Peter, fallen angels are incarcerated in spiritual darkness, in the realm of death, awaiting the execution of their sentence. They have already been judged.
3. The Sin: Neither Peter nor Jude tells us the nature of the sin of the angels. According to Jude, the angels “did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their own home.” The fall of the angels from heaven is described as abandoning their appointed roles in heaven, their original home. The common view among scholars is that Jude used Genesis 6:1-4, as interpreted by Jewish intertestamental literature, to refer to the fall of the angels when they abandoned heaven and had sexual relations with women. They argue that the context in Jude is about sins of immorality. That interpretation hardly fits the context of Peter. Although one cannot totally rule out that possibility for Jude, it is always better to go with the witness of Scripture itself and avoid speculation. The idea expressed in both passages seems to fit Isaiah 14 better, where the fall of Lucifer is narrated: “You are brought down to the grave, to the depths of the pit” (verse 15, NIV); as well as Revelation 12:1-4, 7-9, where the casting out of the angels is preceded by a war in heaven.
To conclude: The final fate of evil angels is fixed. Meanwhile, beware of false teachers in your church, and beware of their greed (2 Peter 2:2)!