In our English Bibles, the Greek word abyssos [ἄβυσσος] is transliterated as "abyss" (RSV "bottomless pit") in every instance except Romans 10:7, where it is translated "the deep." In the Septuagint abyssos [ἄβυσσος] translates Tehom almost exclusively, but in rare instances ShuLam (Isa 44:27), MeshuLam (Job 41:22), and Racha (Job 36:16).
In the Old Testament abyssos [ἄβυσσος] is invariably descriptive of the watery depths of the earth, whether oceans or springs, in contradistinction to the land (e.g., Psalm 77:16; 78:15; 106:9; Isa 51:10; Amos 7:4), although in Psalm 71:20, "the depths of the earth" are spoken of in a manner almost signifying death (however, it probably means no more than the depths of one's troubles on earth). Abyssos [ἄβυσσος] never translates Sheol, so in the Old Testament it never carries the idea of the realm of the dead or the afterlife. In Genesis 1:2 the total inchoate earth is called "the deep, " over which the Spirit of God hovered.
During the intertestamental period the situation began to change and the meaning of abyssos [ἄβυσσος] broadened to include the idea of death as well as the realm of demonic spirits (e.g., Jub 5:6; 1 Enoch 10:4, 11).
In the New Testament the changeover is complete. Abyssos [ἄβυσσος] is never used to refer to the waters of the earth. Here it is used in two ways. First, in Romans 10:7 Paul uses it specifically to mean "the realm of the dead, " drawing from Deuteronomy 30:12-14, but not quoting exactly. He contrasts "ascent into heaven" with "descent into the abyss, " but because Christ was there, the abyss should not be conceived as an evil or demonic realm. Second, Luke (8:31) and John (Rev 9:1-2; 11:7; 17:8; 20:1, 3) describe the abyss specifically as the dwelling place of demons and the beast and as a place of confinement unto judgment that is under God's control. In lu 8:31 the demons beg Jesus not to send them into the abyss, knowing that they will no longer be free to wreak havoc on the earth. Here, abyssos [ἄβυσσος] is similar to tartarus [ταρταρόω] in 2pe 2:4, where the angels that sinned are confined until the judgment. In John's vision of the fifth trumpet (Rev 9:1-11), the shaft leading to the abyss is opened, releasing the demonic hoard of locusts. Their ruler is "the angel of the abyss, " whose name is Destruction (Heb. Abaddon; Gk. Appolyon). The beast who ascends from the abyss (Rev 11:7; 17:8) presents a complex picture. Combined, it represents the antichrist, demonic power, Rome (i.e., political power as supportive of the harlot), and ultimate evil. This beast is to be thrown alive into the "fiery lake of burning sulphur" (Rev 19:20). Satan is chained in the abyss for a thousand years (Rev 20:1,3), until he, too, is thrown into the lake of fire (Rev 20:10).
Walter A. Elwell
See also Abaddon; Revelation, Theology of