Orthodox Theologies of the Afterlife: Review of “The Departure of the Soul”


Source: Ancient Faith Ministries

Paul Ladouceur

Editor’s Note: The following is a review of The Departure of the Soul According to the Teaching of the Orthodox Church, published April 2017 by St. Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery, Florence, Arizona. It was sent to us by Dr. Paul Ladouceur originally as four separate posts, but we have combined them here into one, since they are closely related and also since our readers are not unaccustomed to longer pieces here.

The Departure of the Soul

The Orthodox tradition contains several strands of thinking on the afterlife, based primarily on indications in Scripture, especially Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles, and also on writings Fathers and other saints of the Church over the centuries. But the only church dogmas on the afterlife which have received the formal approval of the Church-in-Council or an ecumenical council, are those in the Nicene Creed: that Christ “will come again with glory to judge the living and the dead”; and “I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” Teachings on the afterlife beyond the Creed are those of their authors, however prestigious they may be, which have not been the subject of conciliar discernment or pronouncements of the Orthodox Church. The tradition of the Orthodox Church, like that of the Catholic Church, consistently affirms the desirability and indeed the efficacy of practices such as the commemoration of the deceased and prayers and other pious acts for the repose of their soul, without any certainty concerning the mechanism by which such pious practices operate, but in the full conviction and faith in divine goodness that these practices are beneficial for the deceased. The Orthodox ascetic tradition also retains the practice of memento mori, the memory of death, the recollection that this life comes to an end, as an aide in the spiritual life.

This is the general context in which the book The Departure of the Soul according to the Teaching of the Orthodox Church should be considered. The Departure of the Soul (TDS), published by St. Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery in Arizona, is a massive tome of some 1,111 pages. The book has been meticulously prepared and lavishly published and includes 216 pages of colour illustrations. The main thrust of the book is to convey the message that the doctrine of the “toll-houses” is indeed the undisputable Teaching of the Orthodox Church. The toll-house doctrine is an expansion of the notion of the particular judgement immediately after death, a series of trials in which newly-deceased’s good actions and bad actions are assessed.

According to the toll-house teaching, the souls of the newly-deceased rise through the air, where they must pass through a series of trials or “toll-houses,” each devoted to a particular sin, on their way to their ultimate fate. The toll-houses are overseen by demons who examine the soul in relation to the sins in question, while the guardian angel brings forth evidence of virtue and repentance, a veritable “trial” (TDS, 34), modelled on human justice systems, with Christ as the judge. The demons allow the soul to continue on its way only if the soul or the guardian angel produce evidence of good actions which outweigh the evil accomplished – this is the “toll.” According to different sources, there are may be up to 20 or even 24 toll-houses. In some accounts, failure to pass any one of the toll-houses results in the soul being hurled into hell. At the trial, the soul “receives its allotment in the afterlife according to the life which it led on earth, either in Paradise, a place of repose and joy, or in Hades, a place of torment and sorrow” (TDS, 35), awaiting the general resurrection and the Second Coming of Christ.

There are several problems with the book. The first is that it represents a reductionist view of the richness of the Orthodox tradition concerning the afterlife, since it is limited to what we can call toll-house theology. This is only one strand of Orthodox approaches on the afterlife. One recent study of thinking about death and the afterlife in the Byzantine Empire states that “the Byzantines never produced a systematic theology on the post-mortem fate of the soul. Or, rather, they did so only in the fifteenth century, under duress at the Council of Ferrara-Florence” (Vasileios Marinis, Death and the Afterlife in Byzantium (Cambridge University Press, 2017), 2).

To support its argument that toll-house theology is the teaching of the Orthodox Church on the afterlife, the book relies almost entirely on extracts of writings by a wide range of Fathers of the Church, canonized saints, elders and other noted Orthodox authors. The list of saints “whose writings or lives refer to the trial of the soul at the hour of death” is impressive: 123, with some 178 texts (TDS, 1060-1063). For the purposes of this review, there is no reason to question the authenticity of the selected texts nor the accuracy of the translations. Undoubtedly every possible significant source which supports, directly, indirectly or only remotely the main theses of the book concerning the particular judgement and the toll-houses has been faithfully recollected here.

The book is a resurrection of a bitter polemic within the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) triggered by the publication in 1980 of Fr. Seraphim Rose’s book The Soul after Death. This book is credited with the modern revival of the toll-house teaching, even though the toll-houses are not the main focus of the book. The conflagration which followed its publication was fed mostly by the polemical writings, especially the book The Soul, the Body and Death, of the then ROCOR deacon Lazar (Lev) Puhalo (later priest and now retired OCA archbishop). In December 1980, the ROCOR Holy Synod attempted to put an end to the debate by forbidding access to ROCOR publications by both sides on the issue (TDS, 244-249).

The Departure of the Soul is not an academic study, nor a devotional publication, but rather a polemical work in support of the toll-house doctrine. Indeed, some 270 pages are devoted to critiques of Lazar Puhalo’s writings on the subject (TDS, 724-822 and 910-985), 50 pages to those of Fr. Michael Azkoul who follows Puhalo closely (TDS, 823-873), and 35 pages to other “ancillary authors” who raise doubts about toll-house theology (TDS, 874-909).

St. Mark of Ephesus and the Council of Ferrara

The book The Departure of the Soul according to the Teaching of the Orthodox Church is a reductionist view of Orthodox thinking on the afterlife because it does not even intimate the existence of other strands of thinking on the afterlife within the Orthodox tradition. Another major strand of Orthodox thinking on the afterlife reached a summit in the position of the Orthodox Church at the Council of Ferrara in 1438. This council, which brought into dialogue representatives of the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church, was intended to heal the rift between Eastern and Western Christianity. One of the items on the table for discussion was their respective doctrines concerning the afterlife, especially the Western notion of purgatory. The principal Orthodox theologian and spokesman on the issue was St. Mark of Ephesus (1392-1444). St. Mark prepared three documents on the subject and co-authored a fourth. These documents express the formal Orthodox position concerning the afterlife. Prepared in the context of a council, the writings of St. Mark on the afterlife, although never formally ratified by a pan-Orthodox council, constitute the most authoritative Orthodox texts on the subject. St. Mark did not speak on his own behalf at the council, but as representative of the Orthodox Church.

In summary, the Orthodox position as expounded by St. Mark is that “the souls of people who die with unforgiven minor sins will experience spiritual sufferings in the afterlife, which, however, are not divine punishments but self-inflicted consequences of these sins” (Fr. Demetrios Bathrellos, “The Debates on Purgatory and the Forgiveness of Sins at the Council of Ferrara-Florence,” Journal of Theological Studies, NS 65, 1 (2014), 78). St. Mark and the other Orthodox at the Council of Ferrara did not elaborate on the mechanism or the geography of the sufferings or purification in the afterlife, but insist systematically on divine love and forgiveness. In the Orthodox position at Ferrara — as indeed in the Catholic position as well — the newly-deceased fall into three categories: the perfect or sinless, who receive a foretaste of heaven; those guilty of grave sins, who receive a foretaste of hell; and those in the middle (mesoi), who are guilty of minor sins and hence are in need of purification, and who can be assisted by the prayer of the Church. The Orthodox at Ferrara insisted little on a specific doctrine of a particular judgement, and in none of St. Mark’s documents is the toll-house doctrine even mentioned, and neither demons nor angels play a role. Instead, the emphasis is on the consciousness or awareness of the soul in a sort of self-assessment of its life, an internal process of the person, rather than an external process modelled on a human justice system, with an accused, prosecutors, defence attorneys and a judge, as in the toll-house narratives.

Fr. Demetrios Bathrellos characterizes the Orthodox position on the afterlife at the Ferrara Council as emphasizing “love, purification, and forgiveness,” whereas the Latin position stressed “justice, punishment, and satisfaction.” Toll-house theology, with its emphasis on the trial of the soul, demons, justice, judgement and punishment, is thus closer to the Latin position at Ferrera than to the Orthodox position, eloquently articulated by St. Mark of Ephesus. The thrust of The Departure of the Soul is a monolithic focus on the toll-house strand of the Orthodox tradition concerning the afterlife, disregarding other approaches, notably that of the Orthodox Church at Ferrara.

Fr. Seraphim Rose was well aware of the existence of this other strand of Orthodox thinking on the afterlife, since he included English translations of one of St. Mark’s Ferrara texts and part of another as appendices to his book The Soul after Death (Rose, 207-220). But he writes little about St. Mark’s theology. He does not reconcile the divine mercy and forgiveness strand of Orthodox thinking on the afterlife articulated by St. Mark with toll-house theology beyond the statement that “St. Mark’s writings concern primarily the specific point of the state of souls after death, and barely touch on the history of events that occur to the soul immediately after death” (Rose, 206). Thus Rose’s work on St. Mark remains incomplete. He was in part handicapped because he worked from Russian translations of St. Mark rather than from the original Greek texts, with the inherent risk of inaccuracies in such secondary translations.

Over the centuries since the Council of Ferrara, there has been an evolution in Catholic thinking on the afterlife, such that modern Catholic theology now seems closer to the Orthodox position at the Council than to the original Latin position. Bathrellos writes: “Today… many Roman Catholic theologians, including Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, understand purgatory in terms often more similar to those of Mark and the Greeks than to their Latin predecessors.” And Bathrellos concludes his fine study: “The mutual, ‘Greek’ and ‘Latin,’ contemporary emphasis on the healing transformation of the souls in the middle state and on the loving forgiveness of God – rather than on his punishing justice – is a beacon of hope for a common, and better, way forward” (Bathrellos, 120-121).

St. Mark’s exposition of Orthodox teaching on the afterlife at Ferrara validates the contention that there is not one Orthodox doctrine on the afterlife, but rather several different strands which have never been consolidated into a single coherent theological framework.

Unfortunately, St. Mark’s theology of the afterlife remains a neglected field in modern scholarship. For example, there is no definitive scholarly edition of his writings; the editions that exist are not readily available (they date from the 1920s); there are no complete translations; existing English translations are from Russian translations, not the original Greek; and, with the major exception of the Bathrellos article, there few Orthodox studies of St. Mark’s theology.

St. Mark of Ephesus is not in the index of saints in The Departure of the Soul (1060-1065), but there are nonetheless two extracts from his Ferrara texts, one dealing with prayers and intercession for the deceased (TDS, 867), the other with souls being “made clear” (an uncertain translation from a citation in French; TDS, 869). These fail to convey the main thrust of St. Mark’s teachings on the afterlife. The single-minded focus on toll-house theology evident in TDS results in the minimization or suppression of any other strand of thought on the afterlife. It is thus unfortunate that the profound theology of St. Mark on the afterlife risks being eclipsed by toll-house theology.

The New Ecclesiology

In the Orthodox tradition, the expression “the teaching of the Orthodox Church,” as employed in the book The Departure of the Soul According to the Teaching of the Orthodox Church, does not have the same theological sense as “the teaching of the Catholic Church.” Orthodoxy has no cathedraor magisterium corresponding to those in the Catholic Church, but rather a number of different sources of the faith or teachings, with varying degrees of authority attached to them. There are several slightly different orderings of these authorities, but foremost in importance is Scripture, especially the New Testament, and within the New Testament, the Gospels, especially the Gospel of John; then the dogmatic pronouncements of the ecumenical councils; the non-dogmatic declarations and canons of ecumenical councils and of other local councils of the church; the writings of the great Fathers on church dogmas; their writings on other theological issues; writings of other saints; the liturgy and icons; and the writings of other respected elders and theologians.

Grounded in Scripture and the conciliar nature of the Orthodox Church, the great universal dogmas of Orthodoxy, deemed essential for the self-understanding of Orthodoxy, and indeed for salvation, are those teachings that have been so proclaimed by the ecumenical councils: the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, the title Theotokos (Birth-giver/Mother of God) attributed to the Virgin Mary at the Third Ecumenical Council; the Christological formulae of the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Ecumenical Councils; and the proclamation on icons of the Seventh Ecumenical Council. Theologians argue that some dogmatic determinations of later councils, notably those concerning the distinction between divine essence and the divine energies of the Palamite councils between 1341 and 1351, should also be considered among the formal teachings of the Orthodox Church, even though these councils are not called ecumenical.

In addition to the formal conciliar proclamation of a teaching of the Orthodox Church, such conciliar decisions must be received by the body of the Church. This ecclesiology is supported by examples of seemingly canonical councils whose decisions were subsequently overturned by later councils or which were rejected by the body of the Church: the Second Council of Ephesus of 449, the iconoclast councils of 754 and 815, and the Council of Ferrara of 1438. The outcomes of these and other rejected councils pass into history, not the living tradition of the Church.

No ecumenical council or even local council has ever pronounced itself on the toll-house doctrine and indeed The Departure of the Soul, for all its thoroughness, does not cite a single conciliar statement on this subject. The best that the editors of the book come up with is a 1882 report of the Synodal Educational Committee of the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church (appointed by the czar and not composed entirely of bishops) approving a book by a Fr. Mitrophan, who refers to the toll-houses (TDS, 242-243), and the minutes of the 1980 synodal decision on the toll-house controversy by the ROCOR Holy Synod (TDS, 244-249). The decision censures Lazar Puhalo in particular for his theory of the insensibility of the soul “in some state of sleep” because of its separation from the body after death, and it refers in passing to the presence of the toll-houses in lives of the saints and liturgical texts, but it does not formally endorse the toll-house doctrine. Indeed, the decision contains a categorical statement which places the toll-house teaching in its proper dogmatic context: “Actually, no one can dogmatically establish the existence of the toll-houses precisely in accordance with the form described in the dream [of Gregory recounted in the Life]of Basil the New, insofar as no direct indication thereto is to be found in the Scriptures” (TDS, 247).

To support the contention that the toll-houses represent the teaching of the Orthodox Church, the editors of The Departure of the Soul advance a new ecclesiology. This ecclesiology is explained as follows:

Over the centuries, the Orthodox doctrine of the particular judgment of the soul was confirmed by the direct divine revelation granted by God to numerous saints in a mystery (1 Cor 2:7). Having been given the theoria, or spiritual vision, of the trial of the soul at the hour of death, the saints then described this spiritual reality with words and images. Guided also by God in their choice of words describing the holy visions – the expressions of nearly inexpressible spiritual concepts – the Fathers then proclaimed their edifying teachings in order to help the faithful attain to the Kingdom of Heaven. In this way, the saints’ experience of spiritual realities transmitted through their teachings has become the primary vehicle of testimony through which the Orthodox Church receives its doctrine. […]

Thus, the saints’ knowledge of the trial at death is empirical – a direct revelation from God. They then conveyed the revelation to the Church through their holy teachings. The transmission of this revelation has two components: one is pure revelation from God to his saint, and the other is a revelation or disclosure of the content of the experience in the form of a teaching that the saint then offers to the Church. (TDS, 35-36).

This ecclesiology is reiterated in several places in the book and is even generalized as a universal principle for the development of doctrine in the Orthodox Church:

The fundamental flaw in the ancillary authors’ writings is their exclusion of the primary body of evidence on the subject: the very record of the Orthodox saints’ personal knowledge in theoria (visions) of the trial of the soul at the hour of death. Since revelations given by God to his saints in theoria (visions) are sacred transmissions of spiritual knowledge impervious to infiltration by heretical concepts, they constitute an infallible witness to the Orthodox doctrine of the toll-houses (our emphasis) (TDS, 874).

The editors attach such importance to spiritual visions that they emerge as more significant than Scripture in the determination of the doctrines of the Orthodox Church, as in this statement: “The visions, or more accurately, the theorias granted by God to his saints — divine revelations of the spiritual realities beyond sense perception that are beheld with the inner eyes of the soul — are, after God himself, the very foundation of the doctrines of the Orthodox Church” (our emphasis) (TDS, 897). No mention of Scripture, the Church or councils.

And some pages later: “Spiritual realities experienced in theoria by the saints and transmitted to the Church through their teachings is the basis on which the Church forms its doctrine” (TDS, 944). Indeed, the writings describing the theoria-visions toll-houses have the same significance as Scripture itself, since their authors are “Guided also by God in their choice of words describing the holy visions” (TDS, 35).

The Departure of the Soul thus advances a new ecclesiology to buttress its contention that toll-house theology is the infallible teaching of the Orthodox Church. The thesis that Orthodox doctrines are founded on theoria-visions is not only historically inaccurate, it marks a radical departure from the ecclesiology of the Fathers of Church and the ecumenical councils. Their theology was based first and foremost on divine revelation in Scripture, expressed in councils of the Church and received by the entire Body of Christ. The new ecclesiology relegates Scripture to a decidedly marginal role and abolishes the conciliar nature of the Orthodox Church.

Despite the consistent emphasis in The Departure of the Soul on the unfailing and indeed binding nature of theoria-visions as the source of church doctrine, buried deep in the book an unsigned text appears to step back from the sweeping claim of the infallible authority of theoria-visions:

Certainly, visions are not accepted as doctrine automatically. Rather, they are revealed to the faithful through Holy Scripture, Ecumenical Councils, liturgical hymnography, theological texts, hagiography, and iconography, and subsequently the theorias of the saints are confirmed and received by the consciousness of the Church as Orthodox doctrine manifesting and upholding the truth about God and spiritual realities (TDS, 899).

But this timid acknowledgement of the existence of other sources of authority in Orthodoxy is inconsistent with the main thrust of The Departure of the Soul about the infallible and imperative nature of theoria-visions on their own, as exposed especially in the Introduction (TDS, 35-36). It is as though this passage (TDS, 899) had been written by a different author, with no care taken to harmonize the theology here with the rest of the book. In the Introduction and elsewhere in the book, the new ecclesiology of the infallible and imperative authority of theoria-visions in the determination of Church doctrine is clearly and unambiguously presented, with no mention of Scripture, the hierarchy or councils. This new ecclesiology has no basis in Scripture, the ecumenical councils, the Fathers of the Church or modern Orthodox thinking on the Church. It is a false ecclesiology.

The Life of Basil the Younger

The editors of The Departure of the Soul According to the Teaching of the Orthodox Churchhave benefitted from the publication in 2014 of a scholarly edition by the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library of the tenth-century work, The Life of Saint Basil the Younger (or the New). The editors include in TDS the entire chapter in which Basil’s disciple Gregory recounts his theoria-vision of the ascent of Basil’s faithful servant Theodora through the toll-houses before reaching Basil at an emerald banquet table in Basil’s heavenly abode (TDS, 370-417). Later in the book, the editors go to great lengths to defend the authenticity of The Life of Saint Basil the Younger and to criticize Lazar Puhalo for casting doubt on its Orthodoxy (TDS, 910-980).

The editors of TDS focus exclusively on the first of two theoria-visions of Gregory, the celestial post-death journey of Theodora, omitting any mention of the much longer second vision (The Life of Saint Basil the Younger, 365-699). Gregory’s second vision is a vast portrait of the celestial Jerusalem, the preparation of the throne of God, the resurrection of the dead, the enthronement of the Lord and the Last Judgment, with the separation of the elect from the damned. Among those cast into hellfire are apostate Christians, murderers, robbers, adulterers, suicides, thieves, burglars, liars, perjurers, those prone to anger, sinful clerics and monastics, heretics, iconoclasts and the Jews. The judgment of the Jews is pronounced by God the Father who appears on the scene, vividly described in The Life of Saint Basil the Younger: “He [God the Father] passed judgment on them and commanded the fearsome angels in charge of the chastisement to lead them away to the fiery Gehenna, which they had prepared for themselves; and the angels, flying in groups like eagles, snatched them up and scattered them over the entire frightening sea of fire” (LBY, 633).

According to the new ecclesiology advanced by The Departure of the Soul, Gregory’s second vision, including the Last Judgment, should have the same credibility as his first, that of Theodora’s passage through the toll-houses, since it too is a “direct divine revelation” (TDS, 35) and hence “infallible” (TDS, 874). But this second vision contains elements far removed from the teaching of the Orthodox Church, notably Christ’s condemnation to hell of entire categories of humanity, and the Jews by God the Father. Orthodox teaching does not envisage the condemnation of categories of persons, but rather stresses divine love, mercy and forgiveness, as articulated by St. Mark of Ephesus at the Council of Ferrara in 1438, with the possible condemnation of individuals on the basis of their own lives, according to the measure of light accorded to each person individually. The dilemma of the editors is clear: if they mention approvingly Gregory’s second vision, they would endorse manifestly un-Orthodox teachings; but by rejecting the second vision, they would cast doubt on the validity of the first vision, which constitutes a cornerstone of their whole argument. They cut the Gordian knot by silence concerning the second vision.

The Life of Basil the Younger contains all the marks of an elaborate Byzantine literary construct. It combines hagiography, miracles, descriptions of imperial politics and social life in mid-tenth century Constantinople, visions of the afterlife, apocalyptic events, and anti-Semitism into a coherent narrative, likely to appeal to the literate elite of the Byzantine Empire. Indeed, there is no independent corroboration that Basil, Gregory and Theodora were real persons (LBY, 13-14).


Although Fr. Seraphim Rose presents the toll-house narrative in his book The Soul after Death(1980), this is not the main thrust of his book, which concerns rather the assessment of the then-contemporary fascination with near-death and after-death experiences in the United States. He was in fact very cautious concerning the significance of the toll-house narratives, warning in particular against a rational or literal interpretation as distinct from a metaphorical or spiritual interpretation.

At the beginning of the his discussion of the toll-houses, he writes: “The modern rationalistic over-emphasis on the ‘literal’ meaning of texts and a ‘realistic’ or this-worldly understanding of the events described in Scripture and in Lives of Saints – have tended to obscure or even blot out entirely the spiritual meanings and spiritual experiences which are often primary in Orthodox sources” (Rose, 75). He quotes approvingly from the nineteenth century textbook of dogmatic theology by Metropolitan Macarius of Moscow: “One must picture the toll-houses not in a sense that is crude and sensuous, but – as far as possible for us – in a spiritual sense.” Rose then states that both the toll-house and many near-death experiences belong to the category of “out-of-body” experiences, as distinct from “visions of the other world.” Rose rejects any crudely materialistic and literal meaning of the toll-house narratives: “Thus, of course, there are no visible ‘houses’ or ‘booths’ in the air where ‘taxes’ are collected, and where there is mention of ‘scrolls’ or writing implements whereby sins are recorded, or ‘scales’ by which virtues are weighed, or ‘gold’ by which ‘debts’ are paid – in all such cases we may properly understand these images to be figurative or interpretative devices used to express the spiritual reality which the soul faces at that time.”

Unfortunately, the editors of The Departure of the Soul have not followed Fr. Seraphim Rose’s sound advice about the interpretation toll-house narratives. Although in one place the editors of TDS refer to the theorias of the trial of the soul at toll-houses as “spiritual realities… expressed in material words and images,” and as “symbols” and “veils” (TDS, 38), the many hundreds of pages devoted to the theoria-visions and to their defence against Orthodox and non-Orthodox critics all support a literal and realistic understanding of the toll-houses, with demons and angels as prosecutors and attorneys at the successive trials of the soul.

Fr. Michael Pomazansky, in an essay on the toll-houses (reprinted in later editions of his Orthodox Dogmatic Theology), writes: “The subject of the toll-houses is not specifically a topic of Orthodox Christian theology: it is not a dogma of the Church in the precise sense, but comprises material of a moral and edifying character, one might say pedagogical.” This key sentence is omitted from the selections of Pomazansky’s essay in The Departure of the Soul (283-285) – the sentence comes immediately after the words “It is our duty to respond” and is signified by the ellipses (…) (TDS, 283).

One of the academic endorsements tucked away at the back of the book is a very direct and unambiguous statement by Fr. Vasile Raduca, Dean Emeritus of the Faculty of Orthodox Theology at the University of Bucharest, who correctly expresses the status of Orthodox teaching on the afterlife: “The Church has not formulated any dogmas regarding the soul’s departure for the afterlife, and what follows afterwards” (TDS, 1101). The editors of The Departure of the Soul implicitly reject this assessment but instead go to great lengths to advance a new ecclesiology whereby Orthodox doctrines repose on theoria-visions without the need for conciliar discernment and reception by the body of the Church.

The editors of The Departure of the Soul fail to distinguish between canonically-expressed and duly-received dogmas of the Orthodox Church and the content of the tradition of the Orthodox Church. Orthodox tradition is much broader than proclaimed dogmas, but does not have the same authority. Toll-house imagery and symbolism is certainly within the Orthodox tradition — The Departure of the Soul eloquently demonstrates this — but it is not the sole strand of thinking on the afterlife within the Orthodox tradition. It is not unusual in Orthodoxy to have different and even apparently overlapping elements within the overall tradition, on matters on which there exist no formal church dogmas. It is thus misleading and erroneous to present toll-house theology as “the teaching of the Orthodox Church” when in reality it is only part of Orthodox tradition concerning the afterlife. As we mentioned earlier, the only portions of the Orthodox tradition which have canonical status are contained in the Nicene Creed: that Christ “will come again with glory to judge the living and the dead”; and “I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” Anything beyond this falls into the category of theologumena, the private teachings of those who espouse them.

In conclusion, an anthology of patristic and other writings, however numerous, attesting to the toll-house doctrine does not establish a teaching of the Orthodox Church, nor can such an anthology become a substitute for the proclamation of doctrine or teaching by a duly-constituted conciliar authority received by the body of the Church. The new ecclesiology of The Departure of the Soulwould abolish the primacy of Scripture and the conciliarity of the Orthodox Church and replace them with the theoria-visions of saints and elders. This ecclesiology is unsustainable in the Orthodox tradition. The doctrine of the toll-houses is not the teaching of the Orthodox Church; it is the personal theological opinion (theologumenon) of, yes, a large number of Fathers and elders of the Church, but it has never been proclaimed and received as a doctrine or teaching of the Orthodox Church.

Paul Ladouceur

About Paul Ladouceur

Dr. Paul Ladouceur teaches at the Orthodox School of Theology at Trinity College (Toronto) and the Montreal Institute of Orthodox Theology (Quebec).



  1. This is a great article and brings to mind a few questions and observation:

    1. Are the theologians associated with the Greek Orthodox Church going to address this question, or are they waiting to see who will win the war?

    2. Will the “Headquarters of the Ephraimite movement in North America”, i.e. the Monastery of Elder Ephraim be reprimanded, censured or rebuked by any of our Hierarchs for publishing a book based upon promulgating heretical teachings?

    3. How long will it take the internet trolls of the Ephraimite movement to rush to defend this heresy and attack those who are protecting the Faith against heresy?

    4. The entire false theory of Aerial Tollhouses makes Orthodox Christians look like a cult and flies in the face of the what not millions, but billions of Christians believe around the world. The furtherance and promotion of Aerial Tollhouses is an affront to the sacrifice that Christ made for us.

    I wish that those who have the responsibility of defending our Faith, our Hierarchs, step up and show us that they care about their flock. Because the further we descend into this morass of heresies, the more difficult it becomes to correct it. Our Parishes are emptying at an alarming rate. The fracturing of our Church under the guise of healthy monasticism is an accelerant to our demise.

    Finally thank you Dr. Paul Ladouceur for your fine work.

    • Fr. Timothy Cremeens on

      Hear, Hear, Bill Stotis, “The furtherance and promotion of Aerial Tollhouses is an affront to the sacrifice that Christ made for us.”

      • I see the “Aerial Tollhouses” in the same light that I see the despicable visions of the Medieval Roman Church and their “seers” who saw God as divine torturer rather than loving Father who chastens and correctsHis children with the fires of His love rather than roasting them forever for His “glory.”

  2. I’m not sure if you saw, but there are a number of bishops listed in the beginning of the book that endorse the work.

    • Jubilee I am a fully aware of the endorsements you are referencing. Every major heresy of our Faith has at some point in time been endorsed by a hierarch. The heresy of aerial toll houses appears to be no different. Interestingly enough one of the people who have lent their name to this book is Metropolitan Joseph of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese. I have read his letter when he was Bishop of Los Angeles and the West as a pastoral warring about confession at the Monasteries of our Jurisdiction, the GOA. While he does not specifically name the Monasteries, one can only logically conclude the source of his concern. Yet even after this letter he “endorses” the work of the same monks that he writes a warring letter about. An irony not lost on observers. Here is a link to his letter:


    • There were also a number of bishops, archbishops, and even emperors in the Byzantine East who were Arian heretics!!!

      Don’t try to impress me with the waving of a bishop’s mitre. Holy Tradition and the Councils of the Orthodox Church are our guides, not someone’s title!!! Wearing a mitre is no guarantee against error, unless, of course, you embrace some sort of affinity for that faux RC idea of “infallibility.”

  3. Anthony Carris on

    Thank you OCL for informing me of another book I was not aware of. I will be ordering five books for my five children with families. “Departure of the Souls According to the Teaching of the Orthodox Church”….published April 2017 by St. Anthony’s Monastery, Az Anthony Carris

    • Anthony Carris,

      I hope you are kidding. Prepare for your kids and grandchildren either to become raving fundamentalist Orthodox or atheists.

      • Sadly I do not believe he is kidding.

        Once someone becomes an adherent to Ephraimite “theology”, it is nearly impossible to have a fact based conversation with them. Their Ephraimite “spiritual father” becomes their one and only source of truth. All others are against true monasticism. All others just don’t understand, are prejudice or view the movement of Elder Ephraim from a non-Christian perspective. Some who don’t accept their “theology” are called modernist, others, such as Greek Orthodox Priest who question this “theology’ are insulted in the Metropolis of Chicago and called “Catholic”.

        There will be no end to this heretical movement and the heretics that follow it until they are dealt with by the Hierarchs. From what we are witnessing coming out of the Patriarchate we are in more trouble then the average Parishioner knows!

  4. Anthony Carris on

    Vasilli, I am not kidding…Most of Athos is not kidding so why should I accept some contemporary learned men who came to their own conclusions change the will and theology of thousands of years of witness. I do not demean your thinking for it shall live or die on its merits…give it time Vasilli. What have you done to enhance American Orthodoxy…I see my Elder Ephraim build on stone and not sand. His blessings give much fruit and give joy for many. He came here knowing he would be attacked and degraded by the simple minded who lack deep spirituality. Their are hundreds of young American apple pie Monks and Nuns inspired by The Athonite movement in America. Look for the positives in life and you will breath better. Have you spent time living with the Bees of Orthodoxy..spend a week praying, working, eating and breaking bread with the Monastery you loath…you might wake up and be aware there are two sides of the story. Nothing is perfect in this fallen world, only Jesus Christ or The Trinity is “Perfect”…..Anthony [email protected]

  5. Mr. Carris,

    First and foremost, please give my best to your daughter Helice. As I am certain you remember we were fellow Parishioners at a Parish in Chicago.

    For the record, I realize that you are serious and not kidding about “ordering five books for my five children with families.” This is of course your prerogative as a Father and Grandfather. Clearly, it is also the right of Herschel and me to question this. In Herschel’s words, “I hope you are kidding. Prepare for your kids and grandchildren either to become raving fundamentalist Orthodox or atheists.”, is a concern many share.

    But now Mr. Carris, let me take issue with the statement “Most of Athos is not kidding so why should I accept some contemporary learned men who came to their own conclusions change the will and theology of thousands of years of witness.” First, most of Athos does not adhere to the heresy of Aerial Toll Houses for the practice of our Faith. Next, the heresy of Aerial Toll houses is more contemporary than the accepted theology of God judging us. The fact that we have a movement that introduces a new form of a discredited heresy of purgatory should incite all Christians to speak. The Monks of Mount Athos were in fact some of the most vehement opponents to this Catholic heresy. So now you represent to all our readers that they are now in favor of the Orthodox version of this heresy. Interesting dressing the argument in the guise of what a majority of Athos believes.

    Next you seem to attack me personally by saying: “What have you done to enhance American Orthodoxy…I see my Elder Ephraim build on stone and not sand. His blessings give much fruit and give joy for many. He came here knowing he would be attacked and degraded by the simple-minded who lack deep spirituality.” Mr. Carris, I can tell you what I have not done, that is I have not started a schismatic movement within the Greek Orthodox Church in America! Oh, that would be the Ephraimite movement. Then you attempt to obfuscate the truth by again suggesting that those who question Elder Ephraim are “the simple-minded who lack deep spirituality.”

    I could go on here point by point, but what good would that do? Your reality is controlled by what the followers of Ephraim teach. By the way, Monks who leave their monastery, even coming to North America, are acting in direct defiance of their vows. Perhaps that should be clue number one about what is occurring here.

    Defending a heresy promoted by a schismatic is exactly like pouring gasoline on a fire. Our Church is suffering. Parish after Parish is experiencing the loss of adherents. Why not promote a movement that only further destroys our base? Mr. Carris, based upon what I see, the Church that our Grandchildren will inheret after this Ephraimite movement will be a mere shadow of what we have today. This movement is an unmitigated disaster upon the Church. Dressing it up and confusing the truth is only doing harm.

    For those that wish to understand Ephraimite Monasticism contrasted with that practiced on Mount Athos my wish to read the article linked below: http://gotruthreform.org/ephraimite-fallacies-part-one.

    • Bill, I pray I did not offend you by referring to you as Vasilli…love that name. I am not alffended by your comments even though we are at opposite sides of thought. I do respect the time and effort you give this simple believer…better to be active with intensive writings than like most apathetic, do not care so called Orthodox Christians….I will visit you if God so chooses and will show my appreciation for your response. Presently, please spend one week living with the Monastics of choice…it will be an experience. I suggest The Holy Archangels Greek Orthodox Monastery in Kendalia, Tx or The Holy Cross Monastery in West Virginia…ROCOR…May our Lord Jesus Christ bless us with clarity and Agape for each other….Andoni

      • Mr. Carris, thank you for your thoughtful responses to my posts. I was not offended by you referring to me as Vasilli. It is my baptismal name. Many of my friends use it instead of Bill, here there will never be a problem.

        I will need to caution you about the running assumption that you are making that I need referrals to Monasteries. I have been going to Monasteries all my life. I just don’t go to one’s that promote heretical teachings or practices. I also don’t pray at places under the spiritual guidance of a schismatic Elder.

        Anytime I speak my mind to protect the Faith from those who preach heresies I am assumed to be anti-monastic. I am not, but, I only visit Monasteries that do not defile our Faith. I have spend time in Monasteries all over Greece. From Kefallinia to Meteora, to a small Monastery operated by one nun near my Father’s village.

        You see Mr. Carris please stop assuming that those with a voice and knowledge are disconnected from a believe and understanding in Monasticism. I respect all things that are within the boundaries of are Faith. I will not go to Monasteries that re-baptize and violate the cannons of our Faith. At some point in time the Lord will bless us with a clarity that will wipe the fog from those who are blinded by false messengers. Please remember “The road to Hell is paved with the bones of priests and monks, and the skulls of bishops are the lamp posts that light the path.” St. John Chrysostom

  6. Vasilli, Though we are oceans apart on Monastism I do so respect your position…When my daughter Athena bakes me Vasilopeta come January I will slice a piece on behalf of your good father and his Son. If God grants me the coin I will travel to Helices home at the Ukrainian Village and you then come and break bread with Andoni…let us appreciate our heritage and give glory to God…no agenda Vasilli.

  7. Mr. Carris,

    Are we both really “oceans apart on Monasticism” or is it that we “oceans apart” on just one Monks theology and movement? Because Mr. Carris I do not appreciate the subtle way you try to cast me as someone who is “oceans apart” on something that I believe in. You can “couch” your message in language about a beautiful Vasilopeta event without resisting the urge to delicately, yet distinctly make me look as if I am anti-monastic. I am always very direct and lay out the issues. Let’s please stick to the issues without the veiled or hidden messages. Mr. Carris do you believe in Aerial Toll Houses, because I do not. Your favorite Monks at St. Anthony Monastery just published a 1200 page book promulgating this heresy. Let’s try to stick to facts and not paint me as some person that has no appreciation of the sacrifices that our monastics have made.


  8. Peter Manousos on

    Let’s be clear, Bill Stotis. Do you reject the testimonies of saints from the earliest centuries of Christianity, all the way up to the present (e.g. Saint Paisios) in support of the aerial toll houses (which, by the way, are not to be interpreted strictly literally)? Were they all heretics? The book by St Anthony’s is mostly an anthology of the writings of these saints, in addition to examples of iconography and liturgical hymns. If our icons, hymns, and saints are “heretical”, then I wonder which Church you think you belong to. Additionally, although I disagree in several respects with the above review, the author does admit that “Toll-house imagery and symbolism is certainly within the Orthodox tradition — The Departure of the Soul eloquently demonstrates this — but it is not the sole strand of thinking on the afterlife within the Orthodox tradition.” This is obvious, and nowhere does the book state that there is nothing more to be said about the afterlife than toll houses. To call the doctrine heretical, however, is ridiculous to say the least.

  9. Bill George Stotis on

    Peter why are you misrepresenting my statements?

    Theologians will tell you that not every single statement attributable to every saint is accepted Orthodox Theology. Why are you “baiting me”? What is your goal, to discredit me? I believe that Ariel Toll-House are a heretical teaching. I believe that proponents of any Heresy are damaging the Church and our Faith. I see anything or anyone that advocates for a heresy as heretic.

    To many people, me included, the “book” The Departure of the Soul is a work of fiction. An example of a theory (at best a “Theologumenon), not a proclamation or a pronouncement of our accepted Faith. The author of the article we are commenting about agrees with me as do many of the commentators to his article and to the subject book. The theologumenon of Toll-houses is a tool used to manipulate, albeit in a skillful manner, those who are easily manipulated.

    In this comment section the most Theologically accurate comment is the following:

    FR. TIMOTHY CREMEENS on AUGUST 30, 2017 2:56 PM
    Hear, Hear, Bill Stotis, “The furtherance and promotion of Aerial Tollhouses is an affront to the sacrifice that Christ made for us.”

  10. First of all, I was not “baiting” you, but attempting to critique your reasoning. Let’s set out your arguments in the form of a syllogism, and see the absurd conclusions that we are led to:

    Point 1. “Anyone that advocates for a heresy” is a heretic (your words, not mine)

    Point 2. The toll houses are a heresy (your point of view, not mine)

    Point 3. Many saints (including writers of the Philokalia, if it makes any difference to you), liturgical hymns, and iconographers of the Orthodox Church believed in the toll houses (not necessarily, again, in an overtly literal fashion! The main teaching is that demons and angels contest over the soul after death). This is irrefutable.

    C. (Conclusion): Countless saints, liturgical writers, and iconographers of the Church are heretics.

    This conclusion is inescapable IF a person adopts your reasoning. Like it or not, you’re led into anathematising your own Church. I am not.

    • Bill George Stotis on

      Here is the concluding paragraph of an article written by Fr. Steven C. Salaris, M.Div., Ph.D.
      Protopresbyter of the All Saints of North America Antiochian Orthodox Church
      Maryland Heights, MO. The article is called “Contra Toll-houses: The Orthodox Funeral Service”

      “If the aerial toll-houses were real, the Orthodox funeral service would be a great place for the elaboration of that theology. In that case, the hymnography should be full of ominous references to the trials and tribulations that the departed soul must undergo. The silence on this subject is deafeningly clear. It is also worth noting, even if it is beyond the scope of this paper, the absence of other bizarre toll-house related teachings such as 1) the soul remains near the body for three days and 2) then wanders the earth for 40 days before ascending through the aerial toll-houses. This is how some have tried to explain the reason for the 40-day memorial service. Like the toll-houses, this has no basis in Scripture or the salvific dogma of the Church. Instead of such deviant teachings, the Orthodox funeral service offers the genuine Orthodox Christian teaching on the soul after death. If the notion of lex orandi est lex credendi (Latin for “the law of prayer is the law of faith”) is true in Orthodoxy, and we really do pray what we believe, then the funeral service is clearly a refutation of the toll-house heresy. We lament for the fallen human condition of death yet at the same time we rejoice in the hope of salvation through the life-giving death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus was sent to save us, not to condemn us via toll-houses. The entire message of the Orthodox funeral service is, in my opinion, an elaboration of verses from chapter 5 of the Gospel of John: “The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son,” and “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5:22, 24). To Christ our True God Who has dominion over death and has opened the gates of paradise to the thief and to us be all glory, honor, and worship, now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.”

      Fr. Steven C. Salaris, M.Div., Ph.D.
      All Saints of North America Antiochian Orthodox Church
      Maryland Heights, MO

      If people associated with Elder Ephraim’s movement wish to destroy our Faith, then continue to advocate this and all the other heresies many of those who are now commonly referred to as “Ephraimites” espouse. Peter please quit conflating issues and points. Demons and Angels fighting over souls is very different than the heresy of Ariel Tollhouses. Placing them together is only meant to confuse those who are already confused enough to buy this heresy.

      • If toll houses exist why were they absent from the preaching of our Lord as well as the preaching of the apostles. Could they have just forgotten to mention them? If they exist, they would have surely been mentioned. The central aspects of the preaching by Jesus and the apostles was the call to repentance and faith in Christ as the messiah–no mention of toll houses. Finally, why were toll houses not mentioned to the thief on the cross? Rather, our Lord told Him: today you will be with me in paradise.

        • Johnkal: An argument from silence in this case is not very convincing in my opinion. Christ and the apostles did not (or they may have, but it is not described in the scriptures) elaborate upon the precepts of the Jesus Prayer, monasticism, iconography, etc. but of course that does not mean that they are unimportant/false. Additionally, patristic commentary on certain biblical passages interpret them in favour of the tollhouses (again, not necessarily in a literal manner. See my posts above). For patristic commentary, see


          One other example is St Theophylact on Luke 12:20:

          “Notice also the words “they will require”. Like some stern imperial officers demanding tribute, the fearsome angels will ask for your souls, and you will not want to give it because you love this life and claim the things of this life as your own. But they do not demand the soul of a righteous man, because he himself commits his soul into the hands of God and Father of spirits, and he does so with joy and gladness, not in the least bit grieved that he is handing over his soul to God. For him the body is only a light burden, easily shed. But the sinner has made his soul fleshy, something difficult to separate from the body. This is why the soul must be demanded of him, the same way that harsh tax collectors treat debtors who refuse to pay what is due. See that the Lord did not say, “I shall require thy soul of thee,” but, “they shall require”” (The Explanation of the Holy Gospel According to Luke).

          I do not know about the thief on the cross as I am only a man – all I know is that the Fathers were obviously aware of this example and didn’t think that it posed an obstacle, so why should I?

          • Peter, of course not all things are mentioned in scripture. However, the Jesus prayer and the roots of monasticism come directly from scripture—no mention of toll houses. Is it possible our Lord and His apostles had memory lapse.

            Forgiven people will populate Heaven and that forgiveness must be experienced in this life. St Isaac said, “Heaven is a prepared place for a prepared people.” Preparation takes place in this life through repentance and participation in the sacramental life of the Church.

            • I agree with most of what you said here, but if you read what I posted, according to some of the Fathers the bible does indeed support the core doctrine of the toll houses. If you decide to disagree with their exegesis that’s your choice (I am not a clergyman and will not tell you what to do) but the disinformation that has been spread by some people on this thread needs to be addressed.

      • My first point of response is that in Elder Ephraim’s book “Elder Joseph the Hesychast”, the glossary defines the toll houses as follows:

        “Several of the holy Fathers used the word τελώνια, (lit. “custom-houses”) to describe the spiritual reality involving the “taxing” or examination of the soul by accusation from demonic powers that occurs when a person dies.”

        Again, according to Professor Jean-Claude Larchet:

        “Overall, the teaching on the toll-houses and tax-collectors expresses the fact that each person, after his death, will have to render a very precise account of all the sins he has committed in his life and all the passions that reside in him, and of which he has not repented. This will have to be done not only in Christ’s presence, but also, beforehand, in the presence of the angels and demons, the latter accusing him and the former coming to his defence.”

        I have conflated nothing.

        B. If you think that toll house imagery/symbolism is heretical, then you are anathematising your own church through its saints, iconographers, and hymns. You did nothing to respond to my post above.

        C. The core doctrine AND the symbolism of toll houses are prominent in many different services – for example, the Office at the Parting of the Soul from the Body. One example from this service is: “Show mercy on me, all holy angels of God all-ruling, and release me from the wicked tollhouses.” [VII.2]

        The core doctrine itself is also apparently present in the full version of funeral services. Although your proof-text states that the funeral service is silent on any “ominous references to the trials and tribulations that the departed soul must undergo,” this is incorrect. For example:

        – Funeral for a Layman, Stanzas following the Last Kiss, Hapgood p. 390:

        “When the soul from the body is about to be rent with violence by Angels dread, it forgetteth all its kinsfolk and acquaintance, and is troubled concerning its appearance before the judgment which shall come upon the things of vanity and much-toiling flesh …”

        Elsewhere, we read:

        “If journeying from a home-land we stand in need of guides, what shall we do when forth we fare to a land to us still all unknown? Many leaders wilt thou then require, many prayers to accompany thee, to save the wretched sinner’s soul; until thou come to Christ and say to him: Alleluia.”


        – Funeral for a Priest, The Ikos, Hapgood p. 410

        “They who are in thrall to the material passions shall find no pardon whatsoever there. For there are the dread accusers; there, also, the books are opened. Where, then, around about thee wilt thou gaze, O man? And who then shall succour thee? Unless thou hast led an upright life, and hast done good to the needy, singing: Alleluia.”

        Retrieved from: https://archive.org/details/cu31924029363128

        D. The “bizarre” teachings mentioned by your copied-and-pasted segment have been very clearly explained in works such as Fr Seraphim Rose’s “The soul after death,” where he cites many patristic testimonies and comments on them.

        Ultimately, before labelling something as a “heresy” (a very severe charge) – especially something that is a part of the patristic tradition – at least show some good will and make an effort to understand it.

        Thank you

  11. In a balanced analysis of the toll houses, Metropolitan Hieroheos Vlachos notes that:

    “On the one hand, they [customs houses] are the passions of the soul which, because of the non-existence of the body, cannot be satisfied, and therefore stifle the soul. On the other hand, they are the evil demons which have gained mastery over passionate people, and it is natural that after the soul’s departure they have greater mastery over them. The righteous people, who during their lives have purified their souls and bodies from passions of the soul and body and have been clothed in the pledge of the Spirit and united with God, escape the power of the customs houses, since the demons have no power over them. The souls of the righteous are led, free and undistracted, towards God, with whom they are united. So the whole problem is not to be afraid of the customs demons, but as long as we live, to cure our soul and our whole being of passions, to partake of the uncreated grace of God, so that the departure of our soul from our body may be a matter of joy and delight.”

    He then makes 4 key points about the doctrine:

    “First. We should not be thinking only of today’s customs houses, through which everyone has to pass at the national borders. The symbolic image is intended to present something, but it must be interpreted in an orthodox way.

    Second. There are demons, which are dark angels. They are persons and therefore have freedom, and with God’s permission, but also through the wrong use of freedom by man, they have been able to dominate him. That is to say, after the soul’s departure from the body, the demons demand to possess a soul which they have mastered because of its unrepentance. In Christ’s well-known parable about the foolish rich man there is the sentence: “Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?”. According to the patristic interpretation it is the demons who demand possession of the soul of the foolish rich man after its departure from the body.

    Third. The demons have no authority over the men of God. All who are united with God and have within their soul and heart the uncreated energy of God are outside the control of the demons. So the deified will not go through the so-called customs houses.

    Fourth. According to the teaching of the Fathers, as we have seen before, the demons, which are real spirits, act by means of the passions. The fact that the passions cannot be gratified after the soul’s departure from the body is a suffocation of the soul.”

    What, I ask, do you dispute about this doctrine (taking into consideration my above post about patristic testimony)?

    • Constantinos on

      A balanced analysis of the toll house heresy is to reject it outright. If anyone teaches this pernicious heresy, they are a heretic of the first order. This disgusting heresy is sheer blasphemy, and, if it continues, will surely empty the Orthodox Church of all true Orthodox Christians.

  12. Anthony Carris on

    Contantinos, Christos Anesti! Your 4/11/18 reply to the worthy man Peter Manousos is simply not Christian in substance…yes Constantinos the Greek Orthodox Church in America is in a free fall decline for many reasons and the Orthodox Church in America had its fall in stewards and now with Christ Centered Autocephalous worthy Humble Bishops is on the mend. Saint Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery has a twenty year history of historical growth and one now needs advanced reservations to pilgrim for multiple days to this Holy desert Monastery. Constantinos, the biblical fig tree without bearing fruit is presently being pruned and we the Laity/Archons and you are responsible….Anthony Carris

    • Thank you Anthony! Though of course I am not at all worthy.

      Constantinos: You ignored everything that I said. Are you really willing to label the saints as heretics “of the highest order?” Think very carefully before you end up sounding even more fanatical than the old calendarists.

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