Observations on life; particularly spiritual

Sampling the abyss

The abyss 2 400pxThe abyss is the largest and deepest habitat on the planet, covering half the world’s oceans, but it remains the most unexplored environment on earth. During the “Sampling the abyss” voyage in 2017, over 100 different fish species were collected from the deep ocean at depths of up to 4800 metres in Australian waters. That’s an example of how the word “abyss” is used today. But what does this word mean in the Bible? For example, when Jesus cast the demons out of the demon-possessed man, the demons begged Jesus “not to order them to go into the Abyss” (Lk. 8:31NIV). So what is “the abyss”?

Old Testament usage

The equivalent Hebrew word is the noun tehom (Strongs #8415), which means deep. It occurs 36 times in the Old Testament and is used in three ways.

The first refers to the sea or the depths of the sea (Gen. 1:2; Ex. 15:5, 8; Ps. 135:6; Ezek. 26:19). For example, when Pharaoh’s army drowned in the Red Sea, the Israelites sang “The deep waters (tehom) have covered them” (Ex. 15:5). And the psalmist says that all the creatures of the ocean depths (tehom) praise the Lord their creator (Ps. 148:7).

The second refers to subterranean water from deep within the earth (Gen. 7:11; 8:2; 49:25; Dt. 8:7; 33:13; Ps. 33:7). For example, Canaan was “a land with brooks, streams, and deep springs (tehom) gushing out into the valleys and hills” (Dt. 8:7).

These are the most common meanings of abyss in the Old Testament. But there is a single instance of another meaning.

The third is a figure of speech for times of distress and trouble. In a prayer for help in old age the psalmist says that God will restore them from their troubles.

“Though you (God) have made me see troubles,
many and bitter,
you will restore my life again;
from the depths (tehom) of the earth
you will again bring me up.” (Ps. 71:20).

Here God has permitted troubles and “the depths of the earth” stands for the psalmist’s distress and trouble, and not subterranean water. Tehom is also used in this way in, “Deep (tehom) calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls (Ps. 42:7). Here the psalmist is depressed because of his troubles (Ps. 42:6, 11).

But the word “abyss” is used differently in the New Testament.

New Testament usage

The Greek adjective abussos (Strongs #12) means very deep or bottomless. It means “a deep hole”—so deep that it seems bottomless or immeasurable. Paul (AD 57), Luke (AD 60) and John (AD 95) used the word. It occurs 9 times in the New Testament and is used in two ways.

The place where demons are imprisoned

Luke says that the demons didn’t want to be sent to the abyss (Lk. 8:31). The NLT calls it “the bottomless pit” or “the underworld”. Instead, Jesus sent them into a herd of pigs who rushed into the Sea of Galilee and drowned.

Demons or evil spirits describe angels who rebelled against God. Some demons seem to be free to roam and others are locked in the abyss (Rev. 9:1-2). Their leader is called Destroyer (Rev. 9:11).

Jude said, “the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their proper dwelling—these He (God) has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day” (Jude 6). This seems to describe demons imprisoned in the abyss  until the day of judgment.

And Peter said, “For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell (Tartarus in Greek), putting them in chains of darkness to be held for judgment” (2 Pt. 2:4). According the NET, “Tartarus was thought of by the Greeks as a subterranean place lower than Hades where divine punishment was meted out, and so regarded in Israelite apocalyptic as well”. It seems as though “Tartarus” is equivalent to the “abyss”.

According to John, in the future, demons from the abyss will empower a great political leader who will persecute God’s people (Rev. 11:7; 17:8). After this Satan will be bound in the abyss for 1,000 years (Rev. 20:1-3). Then Satan is released “from his prison” (Rev. 20:7). Finally Satan will be thrown into the Lake of Fire to be “tormented day and night for ever and ever” (Rev. 20:10).

Demons are spirits who inhabit a different world to ours. And the abyss is where they are imprisoned pending their final judgement. It’s probably a spiritual place, and not necessarily a physical place.

Now we will look at the other meaning of abyss.

The realm of the dead

Paul taught that people don’t have to go to great lengths to obtain salvation – ‘Faith’s way of getting right with God says, “Don’t say in your heart, ‘Who will go up to heaven?’ (to bring Christ down to earth). And don’t say, ‘Who will go down to the place of the dead (abussos)?’ (to bring Christ back to life again)’ (Rom. 10:6-7). This is a quotation from Deuteronomy 30:11-14 where Moses says that the law of God was easy to understand and was readily available; “what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach … the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it” (Dt. 30:11, 14). So Paul is using this to say that the Christian gospel is also readily available. We don’t have to go up to heaven to get it because Jesus has already brought it down to earth. And we don’t have descend into the realm of the dead to bring Christ up from among the dead, because Christ has already risen from the dead. Faith will cause us to fully believe in the incarnation and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Because, if we declare with our mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in our heart that God raised Him from the dead, we will be saved (Rom. 10:9).

So in the New Testament the word “abyss”  is used as a metaphor for the place for the containment of demons and for the realm of the dead.

Lessons for us

In the Old Testament the abyss usually means the sea, the depths of the sea, or subterranean water from deep within the earth. In the New Testament it usually means the place where demons are imprisoned. This shows how words can change their meaning over time.

It also indicates that there is a spiritual world that’s different to our physical world. We ignore it at our peril. Because that’s where God dwells and He is the source of our salvation.

Do you realize that God’s salvation is readily available to us? (When Paul taught this he used the abyss to mean the realm of the dead) We just have to believe in what Jesus did for us (in coming to earth, dying, resurrecting back to life, and ascending to heaven) and accept it as payment for our sin. But we can’t do this after we die. It’s too late!

Meanwhile, we don’t need to be afraid of demons or evil spirits because God has ultimate power over them.

Reference
Thayer’s Greek Lexicon

Written, June 2018

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