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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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