THE TIME FOR ORTHODOX UNITY IS NOW!

AERIAL TOLL HOUSES, PROVISIONAL JUDGMENT, AND THE ORTHODOX FAITH

10

Source: Public Orthodoxy

A REVIEW OF THE DEPARTURE OF THE SOUL ACCORDING TO THE TEACHING OF THE ORTHODOX CHURCH

by Stephen J. Shoemaker  |  ελληνικά  |  ру́сский

quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est
–St. Vincent of Lérins (d. 445)

The monks of St. Anthony’s Monastery have recently published a beautiful and intriguing, if also deeply problematic, volume on the fate of the soul after death. Weighing in (literally) at more than 1,000 pages, the book compiles opinions from a number of Orthodox writers regarding the soul’s experience after its departure from the body, along with lavish reproductions of icons and other objects in over 200 color plates. Unfortunately, however, this compendium is a fundamentalist effort designed to mislead readers concerning the teaching of the Orthodox Church. The book’s primary agenda is to advance the notion of aerial toll houses, through which the soul must pass after death, as an essential component of the Orthodox Faith. Yet this claim is an error, despite the alleged mass of evidence that the monks have assembled and the copious academic and ecclesiastical endorsements (many of which, I understand, were obtained without full disclosure of exactly what was being endorsed).

The debate over toll houses has been a lively topic in modern Orthodoxy, owing especially to the propagation of this idea during the later twentieth century by Seraphim Rose and others in his circle. Simply put, this book seeks to demonstrate that the Orthodox Church has uncompromisingly professed a doctrine that the individual soul, following its departure from the body, must pass through some twenty or so toll houses staffed by demons. These demons will charge each soul with certain sins, and if the soul is found guilty of such unconfessed sins, the demons will not allow passage but will instead drag it away into hell. It is true that certain authorities of the Orthodox tradition have advocated such a view, but one must note that these are overwhelming from the second millennium. Such a doctrine was almost unknown during the first millennium, and even during the second, it remains but one vision of the fate of the soul among other alternatives. Accordingly, I propose, we should look to the Vincentian Canon cited above in order to evaluate the monks’ contention.

Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est: what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.” At the beginning of the fifth century, St Vincent of Lérins laid down this maxim as a standard that could reliably distinguish truth from falsehood in the Tradition of the catholic faith. Although St. Vincent’s principle for determining the orthodox faith has been especially revered among Christians in the West, its logic is certainly no less applicable for eastern Christians (who, after all, commemorate St Vincent on 24 May). Belief in aerial toll houses, quite frankly, fails spectacularly to pass this test. It is almost completely unknown during the first Christian millennium, at least among the orthodox writers of the undivided Church. The idea of aerial toll houses was quite popular, however, as others have noted, among “gnostic” Christians during the second and third centuries, when belief in such toll houses seems to have been one of the main principles that divided these gnostics from orthodox Christians. Otherwise, there is only a single reference to the toll houses in St Athansius’ Life of Anthony, where Anthony is said to advance this position, and there is a homily on the departure of the soul attributed to Cyril of Alexandria that describes the toll houses, but the homily’s attribution is widely regarded as spurious. A couple of pious tales attributed to a certain Macarius and Anastasius of Sinai mention them as well.

I think it is hard to dispute that a single mention in the Life of Anthony, similar references in two pious tales from Egypt, and a more extended discussion of the toll houses in a later homily falsely ascribed to Cyril of Alexandria fails dramatically to meet Vincent’s criteria for orthodoxy. In the first millennium, as far as we can tell, belief in the aerial toll houses was limited to a few individuals, in Egypt, in only a handful of instances. Accordingly, this belief must be regarded as an opinion, even if a sometimes popular one in particular times and places, rather than a fundamental element of the Orthodox Christian faith.

In addition to the toll houses, a second major theme of this new volume is the tradition that at death the individual soul is quickly met by angels and demons, who vie with one other for the soul, with the victors leading it to their respective domain. The sins of the recently deceased are crucial to the outcome as these powers battle, and ultimately, they will determine its final destination. With this tradition, the monks of St. Anthony’s are admittedly on more solid ground. This is a position expressed by a number of orthodox writers across the ages. Nevertheless, it must be clear that this belief stands as but one among many other orthodox opinions about what happens to the soul after it leaves the body.

In this regard, we are fortunate to have several excellent studies of traditions about the fate of the individual after death, in both the early Christian and Byzantine periods, including those by Fr. Brian Daley (The Hope of the Early Church (Cambridge, 1991)), Fr. Maximos (Nicholas Constas; “To Sleep, Perchance to Dream,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 55 (2001): 91-124), and, most recently, a fine study by Vasileios Marinis (Death and the Afterlife in Byzantium (Cambridge, 2016)). Any one of these three works provides a much more accurate and authoritative view of Orthodox teachings on the fate of the soul during the first 1500 years, and interested readers would do well to turn to them rather than the monks’ slanted compendium.

The truth of the matter is that the state of the dead was never precisely defined in the Orthodox tradition, and just as in other matters related to the afterlife, “the Byzantines had no ‘system’ around the last things. Eschatology remained for them an open horizon within theology” (Constas 124). And with respect to the judgment of souls at the moment of their departure, “even the most cursory overview of Late Antique sources testifies to the coexistence of various ideas about the provisional judgment” (Marinis 15). The teaching of the Orthodox Church on these subjects is far more diverse than the monks would have us believe.

In the contest of angels and demons over the newly departed soul, then, the monks have admittedly identified a vibrant tradition that reaches back into the ancient church and has been witnessed by many authorities – in contrast with the aerial toll houses. The problem, however, is that this is not the only such tradition about the fate of the soul, and herein lies the fundamentalism that steers this volume and generates its misrepresentation of the Orthodox faith. It is a fundamentalism that insists on reading a part of the tradition, isolated from the complexity of the whole, in the most literal fashion, when perhaps more nuanced, figurative interpretations are warranted instead. For instance, how should one understand such a tradition, when read literally, in light of the well-established practice of prayer for the dead that does not mention the toll houses? The Orthodox tradition is much broader and diverse than its presention in this book. In seizing on a single strand of this tradition and investing it with absolute authority at the expense of legitimate, alternative perspectives, the book is fundamentally grounded in error, obscuring and distorting, rather than clarifying and disclosing, the full teaching of the Orthodox Church.


Stephen J. Shoemaker is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Oregon.

*Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

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10 Comments

  1. Fr. Benedict Simpson on

    Interesting. I always believed that it was the bishops who decided what was and was not Orthodox. Now I see that the laity can now make this claim. Deeply troubling.

  2. essentially there are two form of tollhouse concerns, the common one is shaped by the dubious vision of a woman to a man who existence is not established anywhere according to one investigator of this. I forget who. this is the one that gives precise number of tollhouses, and makes the demons out to be judges with divine authority and so forth.

    the earlier position which you describe is that demons and angels fight over the soul at death. This would apply to people with serious sins unconfessed and the nominal Christians and so forth. Near Death Experiences were chronicled by a man who was a first responder and had rescusitated many. Some had hellish experiences and were afraid, others heavenly. the former group, four hours later, had succumbed to traumatic amnesia (they chickened out and forgot) and remembered only the initial peaceful phase of death before confronted with trouble. Others of course remembered the whole thing, those rescued by calling on Jesus or some intervention by God on His own without being asked (maybe someone was praying for the person, maybe God had His own plans).

    the main thing dividing the gnostics from Christians was NOT that there were layers of danger in the air ascending, and potential attacks by either demons or by angelic guards that wouldn’t let you through without a password, which the gnostic heresiarchs proposed to be able to give you. This is lifted from Egyptian legends to some extent, and fits the idea sort of of a personal judgement as distinct from the Last Judgement after all are resurrected. SIMILARITY IS NOT IDENTITY.

    this of course deviated from Christianity in that knowing the right password got you through, not virtue vs. sins and not a relationship with Jesus Christ and the prayers and sacraments of the Church received in faith.

    The major issue was the theology that denied either Jesus’ full humanity or His full divinity, and the invariable DENIAL THAT THE MOST HIGH GOD IS CREATOR OF THE PHYSICAL REALM. this is always written off to some lesser being operating without permission or against orders.

    The present day Church and the Roman schismatic semiheretics, pray only for deceased members. But originally prayer was for other dead as well, since St. Perpetua didn’t hesitate to pray for her deceased brother she believed was in hell. whether her dreams of him in flames and after prayer when she woke the second dream of him in paradise were real, or only the result of her fears and hopes, doesn’t matter as much in this context as that HER REACTION WAS TO PRAY FOR HIM an unbeliever at his death.
    Initially she had assumed he was safe because of his youth, 9 years old when he died, but frankly that is getting a bit old to class as an infant of any sort though maybe a few might still be comparatively innocent. Then she had the nightmare. and she prayed for him. For him to be an unbeliever and her kid brother he must have heard the Gospel from her and rejected it. St. Gregory Nazianzus I think it was prayed for a dead pagan emperor he admired. while two saints are not infallible doctrine sources, their behavior says something about the tradition they were used to, which was closer to the Apostolic times than ours.

  3. So, >we come to this again. AS an old Priest the simple answer is this , are we judged by demons ?? then why did Christ die for our sins on the cross?? How can we be judged by demons ? was the cross not enough ? Who did Christ come to save? SINNERS, US ! REPENTANT sinners do face the PARTICULAR JUDGMENT RIGHT AFTER DEATH?? pardon me folks but what comes out of the Arizona group leaves much to be desired. FR Rose even wrote the TOLL Houses are not really real ??? The whole idea in an insult to the LOVE of GOD and HIS CROSS. Father BILL Clark.

  4. Antiochian Christian on

    I am glad to see these notes on this misleading book which I consider it a Masterpiece of deception for several reasons.
    I wish the authors had spent their time to teach and preach Orthodox teachings rather than non-Orthodox concepts that sneaked into our Church from several non-Christian sources.
    I would like to add that the authors, like the previous proponents of the Toll Houses, are promoting the fear of demons after death, the legalistic value of penances for sins, and the judging power of demons who are already under judgment! Also, they expressed several non-Orthodox teachings such as the infallibility of the saints writings, the lives of the saints, and the liturgical prayers, undermining the authority of the teachings of the Holy Church in universality, antiquity, and consent, according to St. Vincent of Lérins.

    They even believe that the Vita of Basil the New (the Young) is 100% Orthodox (just like another bible) in spite of many theological errors that contains.

    Many of the patristic quotations and the liturgical prayers presented in this book as supporting evidences are either irrelative, inaccurate, spurious, or altered as we will show in a future book.

    Noteworthy is that the authors of “The Departure of Soul” could not get any blessing from any Greek Orthodox Bishop in the States, not even from their own Bishop. This was the reason they solicited endorsement letters from every other Orthodox Bishop in the States, except their own! It is sad to see these letters from Church figures who either did not know anything about this misleading teaching, or are not interested in any theological debate about this subject.

  5. This review is very heterodox, and denies the Orthodox teaching through 2000 years and hundreds of fathers, liturgical texts, and other aspects of Tradition. The beauty of the book is that it has almost no commentary, but is purely a compendium of the fathers and Orthodox Tradition. Therefore, anyone who disagrees with the book is not disagreeing with the monks at St Anthony’s monastery, they are disagreeing with the holiest and most revered saints of the Orthodox church. In other words, they are disagreeing with Orthodoxy itself.

  6. Pretty sad day when BILLY GRAHAM is more solid on the truth of the Aerial Tollhouses than many “Orthodox” theologians and laymen…

    “At the moment of death the spirit departs from the body and moves through the atmosphere. But the Scripture teaches us that the devil lurks there. He is ‘the prince of the power of the air’ (Eph. 2:2). If the eyes of our understanding were opened, one would probably see the air filled with demons, the enemies of Christ. If satan could hinder the angel of Daniel for three weeks on his mission to earth, we can imagine the opposition a Christian may encounter at death…. The moment of death is satan’s final opportunity to attack the true believer; but God has sent His angels to guard us at that time.”
    — Billy Graham, Angels, God’s Secret Messengers , Doubleday, New York, 1975, pp. 150–51I

  7. All of the criticisms expressed in this review and in the comments are addressed in the book that is being criticized, indicating that the critics clearly have not read the book carefully. How can it be claimed that the toll house teaching is a “marginal opinion” in Orthodoxy when so many quotes from the saints, Fathers, and prayers of the Church from the first millennium were quoted in the book? If so many references to the toll houses are found in the Church’s prayers, are you accusing the Church of praying “in spirit and opinion” rather than “in spirit and truth”?

    So many of the claims in this review and in the comments, for instance the myth that the teaching was influenced by Gnosticism, or the myth that the toll houses teach a judgment by demons, are specifically and thoroughly shown by this book to be false.

    Furthermore, how can you read the detailed endorsements by so many hierarchs of several Orthodox jurisdictions and claim that they did not know what they were endorsing?

    http://www.thedepartureofthesoul.org/hierarchal/

    Met Jonah, for instance, said that this book finally resolves a conflict that has been going on in the Orthodox churches in America for the past 40 years. But, you are suggesting that he said such bold words without having read the book? You suggest that so many hierarchs would write bold endorsements of a book on a controversial (in America) subject that they hadn’t read? That seems quite far fetched.

    Aside from the hierarchical endorsements, the book had also been reviewed and endorsed by academics who are familiar with the subject matter. Some of these reviews are also available at the link above. But, I guess there will always be people who will cry “fundamentalism” anytime they do not want to believe or accept a teaching that they do not like or that seems too hard. Nevertheless, those who will buy and read the book will see just how widely the toll house teaching is attested to in Orthodoxy, and it remains that no saint or Church Father has ever spoken against this teaching. So, if we believe the toll house teaching, we can count ourselves among many saints and Fathers who believed and taught the same. If we speak against it, however, we are alone and have no saints or Fathers to turn to in support of our rebellion.

  8. Jason,

    Apparently you did not read fr. Stevens article very closely where he he answers your objections. This opinion about tollhouses Is causing much mischief in the church and is doing much more harm than good. It only serves to frighten new and old converts and cradle born orthodox alike. I can only guess as to why a group of monks would want to spend so much time and effort in promoting a supposed doctrine that does so much harm to the common believers conscience. The Scripture says that Christ made Satan his footstool. As to St. John Chrysostom, apparently they do not heed his Paschal homily where he very clearly announces that Satan is absolutely defeated . If the toll house theory were correct, then what Christ did on the cross loses much of its power. Also, nowhere in Scripture is this theory supported? To take the speculation of various Orthodox writers whether they be saints or not, and to make them absolutely authoritative, is in my opinion, very irresponsible and to ignore the context in which they made the statements. The fathers also teach to judge our thoughts by their fruits. I have yet to see how the theory of the toll houses brings any one joy or peace, especially when each of us is struggling again sin. No doubt the various Fr.’s used this metaphor as a motivator to recalcitrant christians of their day to “motivate them“ but to absolutize it as orthodox doctrine is very irresponsible. Saint Anthony’s monastery is known for their harsh penances given to their followers. I for one would have nothing to do with a monastery that does not spend their time encouraging believers in this troubled world with the glorious news of the absolute defeat of Satan and his ilk. Instead, they make them co-conspirators with God by judging both believers and nonbelievers alike. This strikes me as a very odd and anti-good news/gospel message and one where fear is the primary motivator. I look forward to other scholarly refutations of this over played a card by the monastery.

  9. From the Orthodox Theological perspective, understand this. All of our “images” to understand “spiritual realities” evolve around our mind which only understands this PHYSICAL WORLD. Therefore, “toll houses” as the soul passes on a “journey.” In reality, we must turn to the words of Christ and the Gospels. As he told the Good Thief on the cross, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” Not after you pass through tolls and extensive examination, but “TODAY” or NOW. So, the crux of our salvation lies within CONFESSING JESUS AS THE CHRIST and following Him. At the end of the world when Christ will come again with all of His angels, all the living & dead will endure the FINAL JUDGMENT for all eternity. AND, this will occur in the “blink of an eye.” Time will no longer exist. All will be dominated by the SPIRITUAL realities, not physical. The key to our salvation is accepting Jesus as “KING AND GOD” and following Him through his teachings; not paying tolls like the RCs have by paying off their bad deeds with good!

  10. “Public Orthodoxy” is published by the “Orthodox Christian Studies Center” at Fordham University, a Jesuit run institution. Their articles have featured a two former Orthodox priests: One who was defrocked, one who “resigned.” Another of their authors has abandoned the Orthodox Church to join a “religious” organization where the “rules” are more in line with that author’s “sexual proclivities.” Jesuits have a long history of persecuting the Orthodox, as well as attempting to fool the Orthodox into the accursed Unia. Apparently now, they’re on the “Progressive Liberal” deal … IN short, no respectable Orthodox related organization should have anything to do with Public Jesuitry. NOT “Orthodox” at all …

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