The Bottomless Pit

 

Among the imagery of Revelation, the bottomless pit holds a prominent place.  The locust army bearing the image of “scorpion-centaurs” emerges from the pit.  (Rev. 9:1ff) Also, the beast and dragon are shut up in the pit and rise from thence to make war on the saints.  (Rev. 11:7; 17:8; 20:1-3; 7-11)  Because the pit is central in the imagery of Revelation, particularly to the millennial binding of the dragon and beast, it is important that we understand aright the meaning of this symbol.   

Old Testament Origins

The bottomless pit first occurs in Rev. 9:1, 2 where it is portrayed as a great smoking cavern, debouching smoke and fumes from the bowels of hell:

             

“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.” Emphasis added.

             

The basic imagery of the smoking furnace hales from Genesis nineteen and the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Scripture records that God rained fire and brimstone upon the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, turning them to ash.  In the morning, Abraham rose up and viewed the place where the cities had been “and lo, the smoke of the country went up as the smoke of a furnace.”  (Gen. 19:28, emphasis added.) 

The overthrown of Sodom and Gomorrah made a permanent impression upon the human psyche; all subsequent literature, pagan and divine, portraying hell as a place of sulfurous fumes and continuous burnings derives from this source.  Fire and brimstone thus become synonymous with the fate of the wicked.  The basic imagery of Sodom’s overthrow is picked up and developed in the prophets where it becomes identified with sheol (the place of the dead), the pit and destruction. Concerning the king of Babylon Isaiah writes:  

             

Hell from beneath is moved for thee to meet thee at thy coming: it stirreth up the dead for thee, even all the chief ones of the earth; it hath raised up from their thrones all the kings of the nations…Thy pomp is brought down to the grave, and the noise of viols: the worm is spread under thee, and the worms cover thee…all the kings of the nations, even all of them, lie in glory, every one in his own house [sepulcher].  But thou art cast out of thy grave like an abominable branch, and as the raiment of those that are slain, thrust through with a sword, that go down to the stones of the pit.”  Isa. 14:9-19, emphasis added.

             

Here, we see that hell (sheol), the grave, and the pit are closely related and involve the idea of a subterranean realm to which the dead descend.  There seems implicit in the language of a “pit” and covering of worms the notion of a mass burial site, similar to the puticuli - corpse-pits - of the Romans, where the bodies of criminals and those killed in the arena were carelessly flung to rot and putrefy.  In other passages, the image of a mass funeral pyre is employed.  Thus, concerning the destruction of 185,000 soldiers of the Assyrian host by the angel of the Lord, Isaiah wrote:

             

"For through the voice of the Lord shall the Assyrian be beaten down, which smote with a rod…For Tophet is ordained of old; yea, for the king it is prepared; he hath made it deep and large: the pile thereof is fire and much wood; the breath of the Lord, like a stream of brimstone, doth kindle it."  Isa. 30:31-33;  emphasis added; cf. Isa. 37: 36.

             

Tophet is another name for the valley of gehenna and answers to the lake of fire and second death.  (Cf. Matt. 10:28; Jam. 3:6;  Rev. 19:20; 20:14, 15)  (The Old Testament makes no distinction between the temporary place of the lost in sheol and their permanent destruction in gehenna.)  Tophet/gehenna was a place outside of Jerusalem’s walls where the Israelites sacrificed their children to Molech (II Chron. 28:3, 33:6; Jer. 7:31; 19:2-6); it was later polluted by Josiah (II King 23:10) and afterwards made a place in which the refuse of the city was burnt.  It was here that the Israelites buried and burned the 185,000 corpses of the Assyrian host, and for that reason became identified with the destruction and place of the lost. In a subsequent chapter, Isaiah refers to Tophet/gehenna and the mass burial and cremation of 600,000 Jews who starved to death during the siege by Titus, saying, “their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched.” (Isa. 66:24; cf. Mk. 9:44) The bodies of those who died in the siege were cast into Tophet beyond the city walls where they were eaten of fire and worms. 

In Ezekiel, casting down to the pit (sheol) is a poetic reference to the destruction of an enemy army or nation.  Ezekiel describes the fall of Tyre thus:  “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; emphasis added.)  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; emphasis added.)  Other nations described by Ezekiel as being cast down to the pit also include Egypt, Elam, Meshec, Tubal, Edom, and Zidon.  (Ezek. 32:18, 22, 24, 26, 29, 30; cf. Isa. 14:9-23; 30:27-33)   

Among the pagan poets and writers, the similarity of Revelation’s image of hell as a great smoking, cavernous, furnace is equally pronounced.  Thus, Virgil’s Aeneid, an epic poem of the legendary founding of Rome, describes the underworld (infernus) as a pit, a deep cave, whose mouth gapes enormously, fuming up from its black throat lethal fumes to the vault of heaven, killing any bird that flies through its vapors.  Hell itself has a place of blessing (Elysium) and a place of torments (Tartarus), engirdled by a burning stream and flaming torrent.  (See generally, lines 219-622)  That the Greeks and Romans had partially correct conceptions about the after-life testifies to mankind’s common heritage; that all men are derived from a common stock, which, at its genesis, received certain basic truths about life-after-death that were handed down from a common source and later corrupted by pagan writers. 

In any event, it seems clear that both Jew and Gentile would have quickly recognized the imagery of Revelation’s bottomless pit as referring to sheol or hades. 

New Testament Testimony 

The phrase translated “bottomless pit” is from the Greek phreatos tes abyssou, literally, “pit of the abyss.”  Where the term “abyss” occurs elsewhere in the New Testament it refers to hades.  Thus, in Luke 8:31, the unclean spirit in the Gadarean demoniac implored that it not be expelled into the abyss, or tartarus, translated in our versions as “deep.”  Similarly, Paul speaks of Christ’s death as involving a decent to the abyss, saying, “Who shall descend into the deep? [Gk. abyssos] (that is, to bring up Christ again from the dead)."  (Rom. 10:7) 

Peter, in language very similar to Revelation’s binding the dragon in the pit (Rev. 20-:1-3) - indeed, its probable source - speaks of “angels” (probably the sons of Seth that sinned by marrying unbelieving women, Gen. 6:1-4), cast down to tartarus, reserved under chains of darkness unto the judgment of the last day.  (II Pet. 2:4; cf. Jude 6)  These same individuals Peter elsewhere refers to as spirits in prison.  (I Pet. 3:19)  Therefore, hades tartarus was not only represented by the image of a smoking cavern or pit, but a prison for the lost pending final judgment.

Finally, Rev. 9:11 describes the king of the locust army by the names of Apollyon (Greek) and Abaddon (Hebrew), which mean destruction or perdition, also plain references to sheol.  The eighty-eighth Psalm demonstrates best the relative identity of the pit, sheol, and abaddon, or destruction: 

               

"I am accounted with them that go down into the pit...free among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave...Thou hast laid me in the lowest pit, in darkness, in the deeps...Shall thy loving kindness be declared in the grave [sheol]? Or thy faithfulness in destruction [abaddon]?”  (Ps. 88:4-11; emphasis added.) 

                  

Thus, by both Old and New Testament sources, the bottomless pit is a clear reference to sheol or hades.

Significance of Symbology in Revelation 

In Revelation, the bottomless pit has a dual meaning.  First, as the sea is a geographic symbol for the realm of heathendom (pointing to the Mediterranean world inhabited by the Romans and Greeks), so the bottomless pit is a spiritual symbol pointing to these same peoples.   They are associated with hell because they are “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world.”  (Eph. 2:12)  Hence, they have citizenship in hell in the same way believers have citizenship in heaven.  (Eph. 2:19; Phil. 3:20; Col. 1:13)  Keys are a symbol of power and authority.  Thus, Jesus has the keys of hell and of death (Rev. 1:18), pointing to his power over the grave, and the key of David (Rev. 3:7; cf. Isa. 22:22), referring to the head of the king’s house who alone had power to admit individuals to the presence of the king, here referring to Jesus’ exclusive power to admit believers into the presence of  the Father in heaven.  The key of the bottomless pit (Rev. 9:1) therefore refers to authority over heathendom embodied in the Roman empire.  The king of the bottomless pit (Rev. 9:11) is the Roman emperor, specifically, Nero.  Nero looses the abomination of desolation in the form of the Roman legions to devastate Palestine with sword and famine, portrayed here by the invasion of the locust army. 

The second meaning attached to the bottomless pit points to tartarus as a prison for the dead, a place where the defeated enemies of God were cast down, as we saw above in Ezekiel.  Rev. 13:3 describes the beast (the persecutor of God's people) as having received a mortal wound (death blow).  Those who receive such wounds go down to the dead in sheol, and this is what happened to the beast.  It went down to the bottomless pit.  The dragon went down with it.  (Rev. 20:1-3)   We submit that this refers to the collapse of the persecution that arose over St. Stephen.  This occurred by the removal of Caiaphas from the high priesthood, Pilate’s departure from Palestine, and the conversion of St. Paul about A.D. 37-38.  After Paul’s conversion, Luke reports “Then had the churches rest throughout Judaea and Galilee and Samaria, and were edified; and walking in the fear of the lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost, were multiplied.”  (Acts 9:31)   

The period of peace and stability represented by the dragon’s and beast’s confinement in the pit was enforced by Claudius Caesar’s policy prohibiting persecution of the church, affording it protection of law (the religio licita).  This same period is represented by the four angels holding the winds of heaven until the 144,000 were sealed, after which the Great Tribulation ensued.  (Rev. 7)  Claudius is “he who lets” and “what withholdeth” of II Thess. 2:6, 7.  As long as Claudius was upon the throne, the church enjoyed the protection of law.  Jews were banished from Rome for rioting against Christians.  (Acts 18:2; Suetonius, Claudius, XXV, 4) Claudius is the angel of Rev. 20:1 which has the key of the bottomless pit to bind the dragon (the world civil power, imperial Rome), preventing it from persecuting the church.   The thousand years speaks to the timeless nature of the spirit/hadean realm (cf. Ps. 90:4) and represents the period between the persecutions. Greco-Roman notions about hades had it that the dead remained there a thousand years, after which they were reincarnated to earthly life.  This is exactly what happens with the dragon and beast.

Claudius would be removed and the “man of sin” and “son of perdition” (Apollyon/Nero) would come to the throne and the church would come under empire-wide persecution.  This is represented by the beast’s deadly wound being healed.  (Rev. 13:3, 14)  The beast (and dragon) would rise anew from the pit to persecute God’s people; a sort of antithesis of Christ’s resurrection to save his people from sin.  The period during which the dragon and beast were confined to the pit is described, saying, the beast “was and is not and yet is and shall ascend out of the abyss.”  (Rev. 17:8; cf. 11:7)  “Was” points to the earlier persecution under St. Paul; “is not” points to the period when John wrote during which the beast/dragon were prevented to persecute the church; “yet is” points to the fact that Jewish hatred for the church had not ceased to exist, but was merely repressed – “the mystery of iniquity” was restrained, but  still at work.  (II Thess. 2:7)   “Shall ascend out of the abyss” points to the coming eschatological crisis when the beast would temporarily revive in the persecution under Nero.

Conclusion

The bottomless pit is a reference to the hadean realm of the lost dead (tartarus).  In Revelation, the pit is a spiritual symbol of the realm of heathendom over which the Roman emperors sat as kings, holding the keys to the abyss.  The pit is also a symbol of death and defeat of the church’s enemies, during the period it is restrained to persecute the church; viz., from Claudius to Nero. 

Notes:

  Josephus, Wars of the Jews, V, xii, 4; V, xiii, 7

  See our article “Revelation’s Millennia and Greco-Roman Notions of Hades.”   The “first resurrection” (Rev. 20:4-6) symbolizes the souls of the righteous in hades paradise.

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