The Angels of the Bottomless Pit

by Kurt M. Simmons


  A previous article discussed the identity of Revelation’s great red dragon.  There we concluded that the dragon had a duel identity, first, as a metaphor for the prince of this world - sin and death - and, second, the embodiment of sin and death in the world civil power as the enemy of God and his people (viz., Egypt, Assyria, Babylon) or, more specifically for purposes of Revelation – Imperial Rome.  In this article we want to discuss the identity of the angel who bound the dragon and shut it up in the bottomless pit. 

And I saw an angel come down from heaven, having the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand.  And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years, and cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal upon him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years should be fulfilled: and after that he must be loosed a little season.   Rev. 20:1-3

Not the Lord Christ 

A common error in interpreting this passage has it that the angel is Christ.  This is the basic assumption of Postmillennialism.  Consider the following comments from Gentry:

In Revelation 20:1-3 John portrays the negative implications of Christ’s triumph over Satan, when “the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan (v. 2)” is spiritually bound (Gk. deo).  This binding restricts him from successfully accomplishing his evil design in history.  The angel from heaven who binds him evidently is Christ himself.  (1) Christ appears under angelic imagery elsewhere in Revelation (cf. Rev. 10:1 with 1:13-15).  (2) The struggle of the ages is ultimately between Satan and Christ (Gen. 3:15; Matt. 4:1-11; John 12:31-32; Acts 26:15-18), making it most appropriate for Christ to bind Satan.  (3)  Matthew 12:28-29 informs us of Christ’s binding of Satan during his ministry and in relation to the struggle between Christ’s and Satan’s kingdoms:  “If I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.  Or again, how can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up [Gk. deo, same word as in Rev. 20:2] the strong man?  Then he can rob his house” (Matt. 12:28-29; see preceding context for reference to Satan’s kingdom).[1]

Gentry’s arguments that Christ is depicted by the angel lack meaningful analysis. There is nothing about the present imagery that is uniquely applicable to Christ and cannot with equal validity be applied to any number of other historical personages.  That Christ may appear elsewhere under angelic imagery does not prove that he so appears here.  Numerous other figures appear under angelic imagery.  For instance, in chapter nine, the Roman Emperor, Nero, is figured as an angel given possession of the key to the bottomless pit to loose its armies, and the Roman legions themselves are described as four angels bound at the River Euphrates.  (Rev. 9: 1, 11, 14) If these “angels” are earthly figures connected with the world civil power, why makes the angel in Rev. 20:1-3 divine?  According to Gentry, the dragon is Satan, hence the angel that binds him must be Christ.  However, that the dragon is a demonic being is itself very doubtful.  Revelation is a book of symbols.  The passage veils spiritual and historical realities in the garb of symbolic imagery.  Reference to the dragon as the “devil and Satan” is no more literal than reference to its being bound with a chain and cast alive into the bottomless pit.  Thus, to place a literal construction upon the image is to violate the first rule of interpretation and confound our understanding.  The better view is that the dragon is the world civil power poised as the adversary of Christ and his church, not a demonic being.  Since any number of earthly figures might bind and loose the power of earthly kingdoms, there is no basis upon which to conclude that Christ is the angel who binds the power here.   

II Peter 2:4 Probable Source

  According to Postmillennialists, the imagery of Revelation 20:1-3 is adapted from Matt. 12:28, 29 and speaks to the whole gospel dispensation, beginning with Christ’s earthly ministry, concluding just before the purported end of time.  Although there is a superficial similarity between the texts, careful analysis will show that the points of contact are so few that they cannot justify the conclusion that the one is the source of the other’s imagery or that there is an identity of subject matter between them. Jesus’ parable in Matthew does not mention casting down, the bottomless pit, chains, a thousand years, etc.  Other than the image of binding the strong man, there is no further correspondence at all between the texts.  With so little similarity between them, upon what are we to base the conclusion that Matthew is the source of Revelation’s imagery or that the texts speak to the same spiritual and historical events?  Shouldn’t something more substantial be required upon which to base this conclusion? Because the similarity between the texts is so insubstantial, the better view is that the imagery of binding the dragon in the bottomless pit is derived, not from Matt. 12:28, 29, but from II Pet. 2:4 and various Old Testament sources:   “For if God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell (Gk. tartarus), and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved unto judgment.”  (II Pet. 2:4)

  Comparison of this passage with Rev. 20:1-3 shows the following points of contact:

Revelation 20:1-3

II Peter 2:4

Matthew 12:28, 29


The Dragon

“Angels” that sinned

The “Strong man”


Cast down

Cast down



Shut up in bottomless pit

Shut up in tartarus



Bound with a chain

Bound with chains



Imprisoned for a thousand years

Reserved unto the judgment



 Angels are not subject to fleshly lusts and therefore are not tempted with sin.  Hence, the “angels” mentioned by Peter should not be construed as heavenly beings, but the righteous “sons of God” (children of Seth) who apostatized before the flood by marrying the unbelieving daughters of men.  (Gen.  6:1-4)  For their sin, these men perished in the flood and were confined to tartarus under chains of darkness.[2]  Evidence that these angels are a reference to the sons of Seth in the antediluvian world may be seen in the fact that Peter’s argument follows the record of sacred history.  Beginning with the “angels” that sinned, Peter next proceeds to the flood of Noah, and finally to Sodom and Gomorrah. (II Pet. 2:4-8)  This tracks precisely the order of the cataclysmic judgments recorded in Genesis. The flood narrative opens with a recital of the apostasy of the “sons of God” by marrying unbelieving daughters of men and the violence these men wrought in the earth (Gen. 6:1-4, 11), of which of the deluge was God’s answer, lest the righteous perish entirely from the earth.  (Gen. 6:9-9:29)  The judgment upon Sodom and Gomorrah follows a few chapters thence.  (Gen. 18, 19)  Since Peter’s argument mirrors the order events set out in Genesis, we may well conclude it is to these events he refers when he mentions the “angels” that sinned.  However, questions regarding the identity of these angels aside, an impartial analysis will own II Pet. 2:4 as the probable source of the John’s imagery before Matt. 12:28, 29.  There are no fewer than five points of contact between the imagery of Revelation twenty and II Peter two – more than twice the number of Matthew twelve.  Moreover, there is a correspondence in the basic imagery of Revelation twenty and II Peter two that is missing from Jesus’ parable in Matthew.  Matt. 12:28, 29 speaks merely to the binding of the strong man and is silent about him being cast down and shut up in the bottomless pit.   Revelation’s imagery contemplates more than the mere restriction of the dragon’s power postulated by Postmillennialism and Matthew 12:28, 29; it contemplates his imprisonment and internment in hades tartarus or the bottomless pit for a specific time.  The disparity between the imagery of Revelation and Jesus’ parable in Matthew militates against assigning the latter as either the source or substance of the former. 

  Being cast down to the bottomless pit is not unique to II Peter 2:4 and the “sons of God” or Rev. 20:1-3 and the dragon (Rome).  The same figure is encountered numerous times in the Old Testament prophets.   According to the usus loquendi of the prophets, casting down to the bottomless pit is a figure of personal or national defeat and debasement so complete as to all but equal death.  Concerning the fall of Egypt, Ezekiel provides the following description:  "Son of man, wail for the multitude of Egypt, and cast them down, even her and the daughters of the famous nations, unto the nether parts of the earth, with them that go down to the pit."  (Ezek. 32:18)  It also occurs in reference to Tyre:  “They shall bring thee down to the pit, and thou shalt die the deaths of them that are slain in the midst of the seas.”  (Ezek. 28:8)  Concerning Assyria Ezekiel said, "I made the nations to shake at the sound of his fall, when I cast him down to hell with them that descend into the pit."  (Ezek. 31:16)  Nations described by Ezekiel as being cast down to the pit also include Elam, Meshec, Tubal, Edom, and Zidon.  (Ezek. 32:22, 24, 26, 29, 30; cf. Isa. 14:9-23)  Isaiah uses similar imagery to describe the fall of Assyria.  (Isa. 30:27-33)  The point of Revelation’s imagery is that, as the “sons of God” who perished in the flood were confined to tartarus, and as various world civil powers had gone down to the pit in defeat, so the dragon suffered defeat in its war against the woman and the Christ child.  (Rev. 12:16, 17) This near mortal wound (Rev. 13: 3, 14)  caused the dragon to go down to the pit in defeat where it was symbolically confined for a time, only to be loosed for a little season to make a final assault upon God’s people (Rev. 11:7; 17:8) before dawn of the Messianic age and the new heavens and earth.   

The Angel as Emperor of Rome and King of the Locust Army

  As already noted, the angel in Rev. 20:1-3 is not the only angel in Revelation possessing the key to the bottomless pit.  In chapter nine, another angel is similarly depicted. 

“And the fifth angel sounded, and I saw a star fall from heaven unto the earth: and to him was given the key of the bottomless pit.  And he opened the bottomless pit; and there arose a smoke out of the pit, as the smoke of a great furnace; and the sun and the air were darkened by reason of the smoke of the pit.  And there came out of the smoke locusts upon the earth: and unto them was given power, as the scorpions of the earth have power…And they had a king over them, which is the angel of the bottomless it, whose name in the Hebrew tongue is Abaddon, but in the Greek tongue hath his name Apollyon.”  Rev. 9:1-3, 11

 In chapter seven, the four winds are restrained to blow upon the land (Palestine) until the servants of God are sealed in their foreheads.  (Rev. 7: 1-3)  Once all who would obey the gospel had done so, the winds of war would be loosed to sweep across Palestine, destroying Biblical Israel forever.  The imagery of chapter nine depicts the invading armies of Rome in the form of a locust army from the bottomless pit (the “abomination of desolation”), which denudes the land, subjecting it to sword and famine.  The king over the army is the angel of the bottomless pit, the emperor Nero.  The bottomless pit answers to the sea in Revelation; both serve as descriptive terms for heathendom.  The sea is a geographic description and refers to the Great Sea, a symbol of the Gentile nations of the Mediterranean.  (Isa. 11:10-12) This was the land occupied by Gomer, Magog, Tubal, and the other sons of Japheth after the flood. (Gen. 10:2-5)  It is set in contradistinction to the earth or land, the place of God’s people.  The bottomless pit (tartarus) is a spiritual description based upon heathendom’s association with sin and death.    In proof that the angel of the bottomless pit is the Roman emperor we note that the angel is described as a “star” (Rev. 9:1); stars are among the ruling orbs and are a common figure for ruling powers.  (Cf. Isa. 14:12-14; 34:4; Matt. 24:29) 

The angel possesses the key to the bottomless pit; keys are figures in token of governmental authority (cf. Isa. 22:22).  The angel is called the “king” of the locust army (Rev. 9:11).  The locust army swarms across the land, denuding it, not of trees and vegetation, but men who do not have the seal of God (Rev. 9:4). The "seal of God" is obedience to the gospel, and in chapter seven it is placed upon the remnant from the Jews who received Christ as Savior (Rev. 7:1-8; cf. 14:4). Allowing that the locust army are Roman legions employed by Titus in the Jewish war, it naturally follows that the angel who is king over them is the Roman emperor.  At the beginning of the Jewish war, when the locust army was loosed, the emperor was Nero.  But if the angel in Rev. 9:1 looses, in Rev. 20:1 another angel binds.  And if the angel with the key to the bottomless pit in Rev. 9:1 is the Roman emperor, Nero, does it not follow that the angel who binds in Rev. 20:1 is yet another emperor?  Indeed, we believe it does. 

II Thessalonians and “He who Letteth”

  There is a general correspondence between II Thessalonians two and Revelation twenty such that we believe that the latter is a symbolic representation of the essential facts underlying the former. Rather than reproduce the whole section, we give a brief synopsis of the relevant points:  The Thessalonians were looking for the second coming of the Lord and the gathering of the church into the kingdom of the Messiah. However, Paul warns that that day was not immediately at hand; first there was to be a falling away, a renunciation of Christ and return to Judaism by many believing Jews and the full and final rejection of Christ by national Israel.  This final rejection would come in the form of a persecution instigated by Jewish intrigue, conducted by the authority of Nero Caesar, the “man of sin” and “son of perdition.”  Although this “mystery of iniquity” was already at work and the Jews were actively seeking to procure official censure of the church that they might destroy it, they were unable as yet to accomplish their objective: The ruling emperor was unsympathetic with Jewish calumnies against the church and acted to protect it by the religio licita, decrees affording the protection of law to the religious observances of the Jews and different peoples.  This is the meaning of Paul’s language to the effect that “only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way.  And then shall that Wicked be revealed, who the Lord shall consume with the spirit of his mouth, and shall destroy by the brightness of his coming.”  (II Thess. 2:7, 8)  To “let” is to hinder.  “He who letteth” was Claudius Caesar.  Claudius was unsympathetic to the Jews and actually banished them for their continuous rioting against Christians.  (Acts 18:2; Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars, Claudius, XXV, iv)  However, Claudius would be “taken out of the way” – Nero would take him off by poison, ascend the throne, and be revealed as the man of sin with “all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish.”  (II Thess. 2:10)  Nevertheless, Christ would destroy both Nero and the Jews at his coming: Nero would commit suicide and the Jewish nation and temple, which stood in denial of Christ’s divine Sonship, would be forever destroyed. 

The points of contact between Rev. 20:1-10 and the historical setting underlying II Thess. 2:1-12 include the following: 

Revelation 20:1-10


II Thessalonians 2:1-12

An angel with the key to the bottomless pit

Roman emperors Tiberius, Caius, Claudius


Casts down to bottomless pit

Persecution that arose over Stephen suffers defeat


Binds the dragon

Claudius restrains persecution, protects church


Dragon loosed to deceive nations and institute persecution of church

Claudius taken off by poison, Nero ascends throne, persecutes church at instance of Jews


Fire falls from heaven, consuming enemies of Christ

Nero and Jews destroyed by breath of Christ’s mouth and brightness of his coming


 The reader will observe that the emperors Tiberius, Caius (Caligula), and Claudius occupy the place in the above chart that answers to the angel of Rev. 20:1.  This is because it is not strictly necessary to construe the angel as a single individual; as head of the empire, the throne of the emperor had a life and continuity of its own that existed independent of any particular occupant, and itself may be understood by the angel.   During the reigns of Tiberius, Caius, and Claudius, the Jews were under imperial displeasure, Tiberius and Claudius both banishing them from Rome or Italy,[4] and Caius threatening to destroy the nation if they did not allow his image to be set in the Jerusalem temple and worshipped as a god.[5]  Because of these emperors’ animosity toward the Jews, after the collapse of the persecution that arose over Stephen, the Jews were unable to obtain imperial assistance in their war against the Lamb.  Hence, these emperors, but Claudius in particular (for it was during his reign that II Thessalonians was written), “bound the dragon,” not allowing its powers to be enlisted against the church.  However, upon the ascent of Nero, the Jews found imperial favor and gained access to the throne:  Nero’s wife, Poppaea Sabina, was a Jewish proselyte who ingratiated the Jews to Nero and obtained favors from him on their behalf on several occasions.[6]  To gratify the Jews, and to divert suspicion that he had ordered the burning of Rome, Nero thus became the first emperor to persecute the church, loosing the dragon from the bottomless pit.  (Rev. 20:7-9)  


  The angels of the bottomless pit were the Roman emperors, specifically Nero (Rev. 9:1) and Claudius.  Nero loosed the locust army to begin the invasion of Palestine and destroy Jerusalem; Claudius restrained Roman officials from persecuting the church at Jewish instance.  (Rev. 20:1-3)  As long as Claudius was upon the throne the dragon was bound.  However, the mortal wound to the beast’s head suffered in the defeat of the persecution that arose over Stephen would heal.  Nero would come to power, the Jews would find imperial favor, and enlist the emperor in the war against the Lamb.  Nevertheless, the battle belonged the Lord: Nero and the Jews would go down in defeat and the church enter into its blessed rest in the eternal kingdom of the Son.


[1]  Kenneth L. Gentry Jr, Three views on the Millennium and Beyond (1999, Zondervon, Grand Rapids MI),  p. 52.  Cf. Keith A. Mathison, Postmillennialism - An eschatology of Hope (1999, P&R Publishing, Philipsburg, PA), p. 155; David Chilton, Days of Vengeance (1987, Dominion Press, Tyler TX), pp. 499-506.

[2] Tartarus is the realm of the lost “dead,” the place of binding over until execution of judgment and sentence. 

[3] Titus employed four legions in his siege of Jerusalem - The fifth, tenth, twelfth, and fifteenth - drawn from the region of the Euphrates where they were wont to the quartered.  (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, V, i, 6; III, iv, 2; Tacitus, Histories, V, i; Annals, V, v; Dio Cassius, IV, xxiii.)  Cf. J. Stuart Russell, The Parousia (1887), p. 415; Milton S. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics (1890), p. 362; Foy E. Wallace, The Book of Revelation (1966) p. 200.


[4]  Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII, iii, 4, 5; Tacitus, Annals, II, lxxxv; Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars, Tiberius, XXXVI; Dio Cassius, Roman History, LVII, xviii, 5a; Acts 18:2; Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars, Claudius, XXV, iv.

[5] Philo Judaeus, Flaccus, X; Yonge ed; cf. On the Embassy to Gaius, XVI-XX; Yonge ed. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII, viii.

[6] Josephus, Life, 3; Antiquities of the Jews, XX, viii, 11.

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