A Bad Penny: Toll-Houses Again

by Dr. Michael Azkoul
Edited by Dormition Skete

For if while the soul dwells in the body the devil cannot bring violence about it, clearly when it departs from the body, he likewise has no power over it.
— St. John Chrysostom (Homily on Lazarus II, 2, PG 48:984)

We may wonder why certain false ideas return, even when they have been refuted time and time again. They return like a bad penny. Their advocates are not bad or stupid people. Yet they are strangely drawn to them, assuming that longevity proves its truth. In fact, there are no new heresies. So it is with the toll-house (teloneion) theory, whose antecedent is ancient Egypt, with the Gnostic heretics. It tempted members of the early Church for a brief time, emerged again amongst the Manicheans in late Byzantium, again in 19th-century Russia (along with Theosophy); and, in our recent experience, with Fr. Seraphim Rose and his retinue. Others, too, I suppose.

I am of the opinion that this pernicious error is, historically, part of an end-time grand alliance of heresies, which is making collectively one final assault upon the Church before the Lord returns.

1. Before dealing with the cut-and-paste propaganda of Fr. John Mack's "What Happens at Death? A Patristic Summary," a few remarks are necessary about the man largely responsible for this latest revival of the toll-house fallacy. His writings have reached other traditionally Orthodox countries. I refer to "Blessed" Seraphim Rose (as some have begun to call him). In particular, his "Answer to a Critic" concerns me. Fr. Seraphim has reposed. One might complain that it is unfair to reprove someone who cannot defend himself. I have seen too many of his "answers." His disciples stand by his every word, they have painted an icon of him, and call him "Blessed" (the first step towards canonization), let them bear the onus of the criticism.

The followers of Seraphim Rose and the toll-house theory are very sensitive to any criticism of him (and it). They defend him (and their "tradition") with every rhetorical strategy. We are told that no "responsible theologian" and no "competent scholar" would accuse him of "neo-Gnosticism" (Bishop Auxentios [the Cyprianite]).

The question must necessarily be asked: if Toll-housers read the Scriptures, the fathers, the divine services, and the spirituality of the Church one way, and their critics read it another, who must we believe? Can the reader get to the truth of the matter, when both sides insist that their opponent is projecting his personal theology into their common sources? Also troubling is the fact that numerous liturgical and patristic texts related to this subject, apparently, may be understood in different ways. For example, are "spirits of the air" or "aerial spirits" the same as toll-house demons? There must be some way to get at the truth.

We reply with a few simple observations: the toll-house theory is nowhere found in the Gospels, the prophets, or the apostles. We have shown that this theory has been read into the fathers. We have every reason to believe that the patristic sources have been mistranslated, abused, or confused with pseudographia (writings falsely attributed to the fathers). Again, we have discovered that Fr. Seraphim Rose (or Bishop Ignaty) has routinely tortured the service books to produce the results he wants. Moreover, Toll-housers have failed to explain why their thanatology (doctrine of death) does not occur before the 10th century; and also why the demonology of the Latin fathers has almost nothing to say about it. In fact, Fr. Rose, et al. treats the early Christian West as if it were not part of the Orthodox Church.

Toll-housers ignore the implicit synodal rejection of their theory, e.g., decree 18 of the 1672 Synod of Jerusalem: "We believe that the souls of those that have fallen asleep are either at rest or in torment, according to what each has wrought; for when they are separated from their bodies, they depart immediately either to joy, or to sorrow and lamentation; though confessedly neither their enjoyment nor condemnation are complete. For after the common resurrection, when the soul shall be united with the body, with which it had behaved itself well or ill, each shall receive of either enjoyment or of condemnation...."

There is a body of learning about Orthodox doctrine of death and demons which, if they do not simply refute the toll-house Gnosticism, views it as spiritual allegory. Also, Father Seraphim's "Orthodox" exposition of this theory exhibits a gross indifference to the necessity of grace. I cannot be certain that the word appears in The Soul After Death. Finally, the similarity between the toll-house theory and Gnostic after-life experience is remarkable.

As diverse as they were, all Gnostic theologies held a "toll-house" system as a standard principle of their thanatology. The Greek, "Jewish," and "Christian" Gnostic sects advocated the idea of an After-life in which the soul, in order to achieve beatitude, must endure a demonic trial. It must stand before "revenue collectors" at "places of retention" or "toll booths," situated somewhere within the planetary system, in the Zodiac plane, celestial levels occupied by "archons" or "cosmocrators" or, indeed, "demons." Passage through the spheres is guaranteed for the soul that utters "the secret word," and is baptized or has partaken of some other initiatory rite. Prayers offered by the religious community for the departed souls are also efficacious.[1] The primitive Orthodox Church, however, did not understand salvation in terms of "secret knowledge" or "rites" or litanies of a spiritual elite. Salvation comes to all by true faith, love and grace, and life in the Church. Salvation is deification or divinization that, as the Prayers before Communion declare, begins already in this life, through the Church and her sacraments, continuing after death with the ascent of the soul to divine consolation.

Why, then, did some of the Greek fathers, after the fourth century, mix "toll-house" imagery with their sermons and pedagogy? Such rhetoric was the result of the Church's collision with Hellenism. Before that period, the Orthodox Church was a "closed society," and we do not hear the language or ideology of the toll-houses; but after its union with the Roman Empire, she lost the protection of her seclusion. She met the influx of foreign ideas by adapting them. The fathers, East and West, disinfected the invading philosophical and religious words and concepts. They altered their pagan presuppositions and injected the alien material with Christian meaning.[2] For example, "the day of the sun" (Sunday) became "the day of the Son" (icon of the age to come). Aristotle's word homoousios ("same substance") was sanitized and used in the Nicean Creed.

But the Toll-housers have not been busy converting the Gnostic thanatology into a Christian idiom. They forged an ugly synthesis with Gnostic teaching. Nineteenth-century Russia gave us "Russian mystics" preoccupied with refining modern neo-Gnosticism, beginning with the very Bishop Ignaty Brianchaninov who "inspired" Fr. Rose's The Soul After Death ("Answer to a Critic," 1). I suspect that the latter, at least, knew that his mentor had overstated the "literal sense" and sought to protect himself with the subterfuge of the "metaphorical" or "figurative sense." He writes, "It is obvious to all but the youngest children that the name 'toll-house' is not to be taken literally; it is a metaphor which the Eastern fathers have thought appropriate for describing the reality which the soul encounters after death. It is also obvious to all that some of the elements in the descriptions of toll-houses are metaphorical or figurative. The accounts themselves, however, are neither 'allegories' nor 'fables,' but straightforward accounts of personal experiences in the most adequate language at the disposal of the teller" ("Answer to a Critic," 8).

Fr. Rose concedes that toll-houses "has never been defined as a 'dogma,' belonging rather to the tradition of Orthodox piety." The bewildered Fr. Pomazansky agrees that "the toll-houses are not specifically a topic of Orthodox theology: it is not a dogma of the Church in the strict sense."[3] Neither man explains his remarkable assertion. Are we to think that the "dogma" is not part of "Orthodox piety"? or that it is possible to be pious (eusebeia) without sound doctrine or dogma? What is "a dogma of the Church in the strict sense"? What is it in the broad sense? It would seem to me that a "dogma" (in the strict sense) is a teaching mandatory upon the faithful to profess. What it is in the broad sense, I have no idea. Some Toll-housers have categorized their beliefs as "pious opinion." But that is not the way Fr. Seraphim, "Archbishop" Chysostomos of Etna, et al. defend this theory. They hold it was "handed down from her very beginning…and taught uninterruptedly in the Church even down to our own day" (Preface to The Soul After Death). They attack opponents publicly and vigorously as if the toll-house theory is necessary to salvation.

Toll-house writers relentlessly smother us with paragraph upon paragraph from liturgical patristic writings, as if the sheer number of quotes made their case. More times than not, the expression "toll-houses" does even not appear in their citations. Usually the words and phrases they cite are figurative. It is worth repeating the traditional Christian conception of the soul after death: it does not deny the existence of "the accusing demons" in this world, in the air; nor does the Church deny their desire to capture every soul. Indeed, some souls at death are "bound" or given over to the demons that convey them to "darkest Hades." They take unbaptized souls, heretics, and individuals that have died unrepentant. Demons have no authority to judge any creature. They do not decide our fate. They neither cast anyone into hell nor grant souls passage to heaven. God alone is the Judge of all men.

2. When we study the toll-house books, articles and lettersin the USA nowadays largely promoted by the Platina or Etna [or Arizona] groupswe discover an ardent devotion to it, a devotion that overwhelms all intellectual caution and blinds its adherents to the legitimate objections to the toll-house fancy. In this state of mind, they can take themselves seriously when they claim to be uncompromising Orthodox consecrated to the spirit and authority of the fathersa "fidelity" that evidently justifies just a little intellectual dishonesty. They typically amass quotes from their workscustomarily without much bibliographical data. They write an article in which it is asserted that this or that father is a Toll-houser. Everyone who opposes them is guilty of "Punk Patristics," which is, I believe, the favorite epithet of Auxentios, editor of Orthodox Tradition (XV, 4, pp. 28-30).

They routinely fail to distinguish between what are authenticated treatises, letters, sermons (and fragments of otherwise lost patristic prose and poetry) and those that are falsely attributed to them (spuria), such as pseudo-Cyril (of Alexandria), "Homily on the Departure of the Soul," or the pseudo-Chrysostom's "On Remembering the Dead, Homily on Patience and Gratitude," so popular with Toll-housers. Literally thousands of spurious writings bear the name of Sts. John Chrysostom, Athanasius the Great, Ephraim the Syrian, etc., and they cannot tell them apartor perhaps quite intentionally do not wish to tell them apart since such pseudoepigraphica is absolutely indispensable to their dubious arguments. There are also many "patristic" writings that may not belong to the name on the cover (dubia). This bibliographical reality is a matter of the greatest indifference to the Toll-housers.

The number of patristic citations need not intimidate us, but rather our anxiety is their authenticity and verifiability. In addition, we ought to ask why the toll-house speculation lacks universal consent and antiquity, especially among the sub-apostolic fathers (Sts. Ignatius, Polycarp, Clement of Rome, etc.), among the anti-Gnostic writers (Sts. Hegesippus, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, etc.). Toll-housers do not invoke the early African theologians (St. Cyprian, Dionysius of Alexandria, or Tertullian). Saints Cyril of Jerusalem and Saint Epiphanius of Salamis are not among those to whom they point in behalf of their doctrine. To be sure, they appeal to Saints Athanasius, the Cappadocian fathers, Macarius of Egypt, John Chrysostom, Gregory the Dialogist, etc., but, on this score, the passages they cite are always ambiguous.

Toll-housers receive no comfort from Saints Maximus the Confessor, John of Damascus, Photius, Symeon the New Theologian, Gregory Palamas, Symeon of Thessalonica, Mark of Ephesus, Gennadius Scholariusunless they put it there, as they have with St. Gregory the Great. The Latin fathers (whom Toll-housers generally neglect) contribute nothing to their cause: not Saints Hilary of Poitiers, Jerome, Ambrose, Leo the Great, Faustus of Riez, Zeno of Verona, Nicetas of Remesiana, Peter Chrysologus, John Cassian, Benedict of Nursia, the Venerable Bede, Gregory of Agrigentum, Paulinus of Nola, none of the Spanish, British, or French fathers, etc. To the chagrin of many, there is no toll-house tutoring in the works of Augustine of Hippo.

In addition, the proponents of the toll-house theory too often provide us with no context for their citations. It is not difficult to catch Fr. Seraphim patently abusing a passage. His The Soul After Death is full of them.[4] He translates to taste. We must demand from him the context from which he took the quote, because his treatment of the sources has not won our trust. Without warning, he gives us an English version of patristic (and liturgical) works commonly rendered from more than one foreign language. His followers accept Fr. Rose's translation from the Russian of the famous Bishop Ignaty Brianchaninov (1883 edition of his works). Not knowing Russian, I cannot verify it, linguistically, what might have been lost in Vladika Ignaty's translation nor in Fr. Seraphim's renditionfrom the Greek, Syriac, and Latinif, in fact, they even did consult the originals. It is worth pondering what meaning might be missing in the English version?

3. Not long ago, I was sent another literary effort in behalf of the toll-house myth. This time by a certain Fr. John Mack, pastor of Saints Peter and Paul Mission of the ("most progressive") Antiochian Orthodox Church (Topeka, Kansas). It was printed by The Orthodox Christian Information Center (Etna, CA). He entitles his paper, "What Happens at Death? A Patristic Summary" (http://orthodox info.com/death/stjohnmax_asoul.htm).

Centering his article on the short pro-toll-house sermon by St. John Maximovitch ("Life After Death"), he adds six lengthy Endnotes to corroborate Vladika John's opinions. Fr. Mack fills nine pages with extensive quotes from the writings of the fathers (pp. 3-12). He also gives credence to the ostensible report of [the fictitious] Basil the New about the apocryphal tale of the "Toll-houses" dream of Theodora the nun (10th C.).[5] Curiously, he appeals to the Catechism of the ancient heretic, Origen of Alexandria (p. 7). He provides us with no analysis of their testimony, as if the mere recitation of important names was irresistible evidence.

I wish he had identified the books from which he took his many quotes; and, perhaps the title of the treatise or letter or sermon. Did he read them in the original Greek or Latin, I wonder? Did he examine the Migne patristic collection or some other edition? A page number for any of the citations would have been nice. I have the feeling that he did not do the research, but was fed the information from a center of toll-house studies.

There are a couple of other things that Fr. Mack should have done for us. He might have told us that he recognized the distinction between the activity of the devil and his horde in this life and their activity, if any, at the body's expiration. Are they able to shift back and forth between time and eternity? Typical of Toll-housers, he runs everything together. He does not answer the opposition, such as the argument that "the demons of the air" could not capture every soul, because "the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God" (Wis. 3:1). Fr. Mack seems to have no doubts about the fate of souls after their separation from the body.

But there are no demons lurking in the air to swoop down and snatch the soul on its way down the path to particular judgment. Christ was lifted upon the Cross "into the air" to sweep away the demons. As St. Athanasius wrote, "For thus being lifted up [on the Cross], He cleared the air of the malignity of the devil and of demons of all kinds. As He says, 'I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven'; and made a new opening of the way up into heaven; or, as he says once more, 'Lift up your gates, O ye princes, and be ye lifted up, ye everlasting gates'." (Incarnation of the Word, XXV, 5-6).

Fr. Mack has nothing to say about the implications of this redemptive action of the Savior. The demons are defeated and disorganized whatever their defiance. To be sure, we continue to fight against "the wiles of the devil" and "wrestle against principalities and powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world" (Eph. 6:12), but "in Christ" the victory is ours. Defeated, Satan has no power over the sons and daughters of God, "who have received the adoption of the Spirit whereby we cry, 'Abba, Father'" (Rom. 8:15).

Who can lay any charge against God's elect? If God justifies us, what demon shall condemn us or separate us from the love of Christ? If, too, each departed soul must tread "the dread path," as the Funeral Services of the Church declare, Christ accompanies the believing soul. It runs no gauntlet of lying demons whose judgments no one can trust. It is an obscenity to think that a moral God would give evil and perverse creatures such power. Why would He put in the hands of His enemies, whom He had defeated on the Cross, the destiny of man for whom He had suffered and died? With such authority, and because of their hatred for the human race, it is logical to believe that the demons would cast all souls into hell where they could torment them for eternity.

No; rather the journey of the soul, as it passes with trepidation through the unknown, is something strange and awful, full of wonder. This "path," according to Fr. Michael Pomazansky, "is a direct path to the attainment of the kingdom of glory." The grace of God, the intercession of the saints, our guardian angels, liturgical prayers, and memorials of the Church assist the soul. "The enemies of the air are powerless against such help," he adds.[6] The love of God bears the righteous safely to its rest. The unrighteous are taken "in a place of torment."

There is no joy in Fr. Mack's paper, nor in any other toll-house apology. If they are members of Christ, where is the optimism that should belong to a child of God? At death, they should expect the blessed marvel of deliverance.

"Come, behold what is coming to pass," writes St. Andrew of Crete, "and beholding, be silent. Do not disturb this our mystery. An awesome thing, brethren, is what is come to pass before us: radiant angels come from above, bearers of royal scepters, magnificent to behold. Choirs of hosts, clad in white, whose form is the likeness of light, breathing fire, robed in flame, these hasten and surround him who is lying there, and immediately deposit the soul, and we do not now show reverence?" ("Hom. On Human life and the Departed," 1, PG 97:1284D-1285B).

Their unhappy thoughts might be altered also by some other facts. The toll-house after-death scenario is false, beginning with the absent distinction between "Hades" (the temporary abode of the dead) and Gehenna or "hell" (the condition of eternal separation from God); and between "Abraham's bosom" (Paradise) and the kingdom of heaven. Furthermore, Fr. Mack ignores the fact that salvation and condemnation involve both soul and body. They were inseparable partners in good and evil. God will judge "body and soul together," wrote St. Ambrose of Milan ("On the Death of His Brother Satyrus," II, 88; Cf. St. Ephraim, Hymn on Paradise, 5). According to the Toll-housers, demons judge only the soul, casting the unworthy into hell while others are released to heaven. In the Orthodox teaching, the Particular Judgment foretells the future, but in neo-Gnosticism, satanic judgment ordains it.

So great is Fr. Mack's confidence in the toll-house theory that he seems completely oblivious to the "problems" that surround it. He likes to play the "I have more patristic quotes than you" game. This "debate" must be settled according to sound theological principles whose foundation is the holy Tradition of the Orthodox Church. One aspect of holy Tradition corroborates the other. I am sure he will agree. I assume that he believes that the subject of toll-houses deserves responsible scholarship and is, therefore, willing to follow where the evidence takes us. Unfortunately, we observe a certain swagger in the Introductory Note of his paper, "It is important for us as we approach this all-important subject to lay aside all preconceptions and to be willing to accept what the fathers of the Church teach. Your opinion and my opinion are just that: OPINIONS; what is presented here is TRUTH!" We need to discover whether his boast has any weight.

4. Fr. Mack hopes to intimidate us with a sermon of St. John Maximovitch. How do we dare reject the toll-house theory if a saint of the Church espouses it? But St. John was educated in Russian seminaries dominated by Protestant and Papist scholasticism. He also emerged from a Russian milieu invaded by Western theosophy. Also, we cannot forget that saints err. They sin. There is no man who lives and does not sin. I remember the story of St. Gerasimus of the Jordan, the wonderworker, who was served by a lion. He rejected the Fourth Ecumenical Council, misleading thousands of Palestinian monks. He was corrected by St. Efthymius the Great and repented.

In any case, this is not a very good sermon. Vladika John (and Fr. John Mack) should have heeded the wisdom of St. Andrew of Crete: "If God is light, which indeed He is, and there is no darkness in Him whatsoever, and 'in Him we live and move and have our being' (Acts 17:28), and to Him we are taken, and the souls of all 'are in His hand' according to the Scripture (Wis. 3:1), then...do not investigate the condition of the soul after its departure from the body. It is not for you or me to inquire about such things. There is only One Who knows them. If we cannot know the essence of the soul, how shall we understand the state of its repose?" ("Homily On Human Life and the Departed," PG 97:1289BC).

St. John prefers to believe that the soul "finds itself among other spirits, good and bad. Usually it inclines toward those which are more akin to it in spirit, and if while in the body it was under the influence of certain ones, it will remain in dependence upon them when it leaves the body, however unpleasant they may turn out to be…" (p. 1). Interesting, but with no support from the fathers for this speculation. None is to be found in the entire sermon, only 19th-century Russian Christian writers are his resource: "For the course of two days the soul enjoys relative freedom and can visit places on earth which were dear to it," he explains, "but on the third day it moves into other spheres. At this time (the third day), it passes through legions of evil spirits which obstruct its path and accuse it of various sins, to which they themselves had tempted it. According to various revelations, there are twenty such obstacles, the so-called 'toll-houses,' at each of which one or another form of sin is tested; after passing through one, the soul comes upon the next. Only after successfully passing through all of them can the soul continue its path without being immediately cast into Gehenna" (p. 2).

A better example of Gnosticism cannot be found anywhere.[7] Noteworthy in this paragraph are the words "According to various revelations." This is precisely the pretension of the Gnostics: their doctrine is the result of "revelation" which is discerned by the gift of spiritual knowledge (gnosis). Western theosophy invaded Russia in the 19th century and is largely responsible for the toll-house revival. In any case, St. John continues in his sermon with greater detail about the experience of the soul in the hereafter. He maintains that the Theotokos was conducted to heaven by her Son precisely to avoid the toll-houses. Apparently, she was not permitted, as other souls, to spend 37 more days visiting "the heavenly habitations and the abysses of hell, not knowing yet where it will remain, and only on the fortieth day is its place appointed until the resurrection of the dead" (p. 2). I have never before read or heard about this adventure of the soul.

A friend has written some interesting comments: "Some additional thoughts on the toll-house references. In the Greek Efchologion's prayers for the release of the soul, i.e., to separate the soul from the body for a peaceful death, there is not the slightest hint or trace to be found of impending toll-houses and the like into which the prayers of the priest would dispatch the released soul. If there is one place where this toll-house stuff would belong more than any place, if it were literal fact, this is the place. Yet the toll-house…is totally absent from memorials and funerals, even the memorial on the first day or hour of death. No question of literal or symbolic or metaphorical meanings; the stuff simply isn't there. The prayer for the real separation of the soul from the body is typically read over one who has been in death throes or coma…. Why no references to toll-houses? If toll-houses are literal and dogmatic truth, why are they absent from the very services that are expositions on death and corruptibility and the departure of the soul? Is the Church's soteriological dogma absent from the resurrectional Saturday-Sunday cycle of hymns and prayers? In the burial services…why is there no toll-house stuff, even as metaphor? The Church does not want to send the wrong message to the living: that the soul of the newly reposed is at that very moment, even as the service is being said, at some Gothic toll station in a dark sky, struggling to break through the specialist demons grabbing at it and judging it.…"

We need to pay attention when we hear constantly from the holy fathers that the bodiless soul cannot wander freely nor obtain a preview of hell, if only because it (Gehenna) is not yet open. In the prayers for the dead, during the Liturgy there is no petition to God for peripatetic souls. There is not one petition for them even suggesting that they move from place to place, roaming about "the heavenly habitations" or touring "the abyss of hell," nor after forty days to be escorted by demons to undertake the interrogation of "toll-booth" judges. There is nothing in the Trisagion Prayers for the Dead (panikhidas) that allows us to draw this conclusion. I have read there only that the Church prays, "O God of spirits and of all flesh, Who has trampled down death and overthrown the devil, and given life unto the world,…give rest to the souls of Thy departed servants in a place of brightness, a place of verdure, a place of repose, whence all sickness, sorrow, and sighing have fled away" (Hapgood, p. 565). The word "hell" is employed by Hapgood, but it is a common mistranslation of "Hades" (ibid., p. 568). After death, the soul is either carried by the angels to Paradise, or by demons to "the abode of the dead," "a place of torment," or "outer darkness" (Gk. ades), that is, the Particular Judgment of the damned. More will be said about this later.

St. John Maximovich pleads with his listeners to hold a memorial after forty days for the peace of the deceased. In the sixth endnote to this sermon, Fr. Mack traces this practice to The Apostolic Constitutions. But it is quite clear in this reference that the memorial service is not performed in order to determine the eternal destiny of the soul. Here is an example of how any source may be manipulated by a writer's enthusiasm. It calls, Fr. John asserts, for "Memorials for the dead to be served with 'psalms and readings and prayers' on the third day after the death of our beloved one, on account of the Lord Jesus 'Who rose after three days.' They prescribe memorials on the ninth day 'in remembrance of the living and the dead,' as well as 'on the fortieth day after death according to ancient practice.' This is how the people of Israel mourned for the great Moses." Are we expected to read the toll-house ideology into this practice? Such a presumption is not warranted by the text (The Apostolic Constitutions, Bk. VIII, sec. 4:41-42). There is no meandering soul and no demonic judges. The prayers for the dead are petitions for God's mercy. As to the "ungodly," such prayers benefit them not at all, for, in this life, they looked upon God as their enemy.

When Fr. Mack informs us that "this teaching is also given by Isidore of Pelusium, St. Symeon the New Theologian, and St. Gregory the Theologian," we are to assume these fathers were proponents of his neo-Gnosticism. As usual, he gives no bibliographical data.

5. Having examined St. John Maximovitch's sermon, we ought to learn, regarding the question of the toll-houses, where stands the Church on this theory. I do not want to go over the ground already covered in my The Toll-House Myth: the Neo-Gnosticism of Fr. Seraphim Rose, or The Return of the Toll-Houses. To some extent, however, that may be unavoidable.

Let us begin with the much-abused St. John Chrysostom as our first witness. He affirms that "a soul which departs the body does not come under the tyranny of the devil."

"Nor indeed is it possible for a soul, torn away from the body, to wander here any more. For 'the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God' (Wis. 3:1),…and the souls of sinners are also led away hence. This is evident from the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man; and elsewhere also Christ says, 'This day your soul shall be required of you' (Luke 12:20). Therefore, when the soul has gone forth from the body, it cannot wander here; nor is the reason for this hard to understand: for if we, going about on the earth (which is familiar and well known to us), as once we did when encompassed by the body, journeys down a strange road, knowing not the way to go unless guided; how should the bodiless soul, having lost her accustomed condition, know where to walk without someone to show it the way" (Commentary on Matthew, homily XXVIII, 2, 3, PG 57:373-374).

In another discourse on this Lucan parable, St. John states that the beggar departed a "champion" and the rich man was "bound" as a slave. In Luke 12:20 the Lord says that the soul of the rich man will be "required" or "demanded" (apaitousan) of him on this night. These verses certainly do not involve, as Toll-housers think, the intervention of demons. They read the idea of demonic compulsion into it. God alone has control over life and deathand judgment (Homily on Lazarus, 984). Incidentally, neither does the reprobate give an account to the devil and his cohorts who, although they accuse every soul at the time of death, have, at the pleasure of God, no other role to play than to accompany the damned to his Particular Judgment.

In this genuine Matthew commentary, Chrysostom might have said more about the parable, but he was preoccupied with dispelling any notion that the soul should expect an earthly "out of body experience." Combine this with his exegesis of the parable from Luke's Gospel, and it becomes evident what Chrysostom had in mind about the future of the departing soul. "And it came to pass," the Lord said, (Luke 16:22-23), "that the beggar died and was carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades (Sheol)…being in torments…." In both of St. John Chrysostom's works, then, the righteous soul is escorted by holy angels immediately to Abraham's bosom (Paradise) and (apparently) the wicked by demons to the "darkest Hades" (the condition of "torments").[8]

St. Macarius the Great reconfirms this truth: "When the soul of man departs out of the body, a great mystery occurs. If it is yet under guilt of sins, there come bands of devils and (fallen) angels from the left, powers of darkness take over the soul, descend upon the soul and drag it as a prisoner to their own place. No one ought to be surprised at this, for if, while in this life, a man lives in subjection to them, and was their obedient slave, how much more when he leaves this world shall he be captive to and controlled by them. When the righteous leave their bodies, bands of (good) angels receive their souls and carry them to their side, to pure eternity. And so they are with the Lord forever. Amen" (Spiritual Homilies, XXII PG 34 660AB).

St. Macarius augments this passage with another: "Just as the winds, blowing powerfully, all creatures in the sky shall produce a very loud sound; likewise does the power of the enemy shake our thoughts, and carry them away, stirring those thoughts, stirring the depths of the heart at will, while scattering those thoughts for his own purposes. Like the tax-collectors (telonia) who sit along the narrow streets, extorting money from passers-by, so also the demons watch carefully and grab hold of souls. And when the thoughts pass out of the body, if they have not been completely purified, they are not permitted to reach heavenly mansions where they reach the Master. Rather they are driven down by the demons in the air. If, however, they are yet in the flesh, they shall…" (Spiritual Homilies, XLIII, 9 PG 35 777BC).[9]

The implication of these passages is that in this world the power of the demons is limited to tempting, taunting, and deceiving. When a person dies, the soul separates from the body and the demons rush to accuse it of many sins. If their accusations are right, God permits them to take the soul to the "left" (Particular Judgment). St. John Chrysostom says nothing more; and neither do the Gospels of Luke or Matthew. During this temporary and intermediary period the soul is conscious and exercises its own energies, so as to enjoy bliss or endure pain. The Pauline expression "falling asleep" applies only to the body. The terms "heaven" and "hell" are conspicuously absent from these discourses.

6. Let us concede that the expression "toll-houses," "toll takers" and "aerial spirits" or "demons in the air" sometimes appear in patristic spiritual literature and liturgical prayers. Fr. Mack tells us that Ignaty Brianchaninov cites 20 references to toll-houses in the divine service books "and this is not a complete list!" (Fr. Seraphim Rose says he gives twenty pages of liturgical and patristic citations.) Does he also tell us which reference is to be understood literally and which figuratively? Are there some passages to be taken in both senses? Does Bishop Ignaty give us any criterion for distinguishing between them? For example, how shall we interpret this hymn (Glory) from the Office at the Parting of the Soul from the Body (Ode IV)? "O Conqueror and Tormentor of the fierce prince of the air, O Guardian of the dread path, and Searcher of these vain words," it petitions, "help Thou me to pass unhindered, as I depart from earth."[10]

Later, in the Troparion of Ode VIII: "Vouchsafe that I may escape the hordes of bodiless barbarians, rise through the abysses of the air, and enter into heaven; and I will glorify thee forever, O holy Birth-giver of God."

They seem quite Orthodox to me. Fr. Seraphim Rose provides a different meaning because he offers a different translation. Words and phrases are dropped or altered so as to explain away the absence of "out of body experience" and the expression toll-houses.[11] Fr. Mack is blasé. He is not curious about the difference in translations. That the hymnographer employs the phrase "the fierce prince in the air" (i.e., Satan) seems to be sufficient for him to validate his position. Yet, the hymn states that demons threaten and frighten the soul, not that it waits to seize and bind it, or drag it before a toll-house jury. Also, notice that the soul traverses "the dread path" with the assistance (grace) of "the Guardian."[12] No demon would dare to approach the soul accompanied by the Savior, the prayer of the Theotokos, or angels under the command of God to bear the soul to "the place where His countenance watches over it."

This fact is confirmed by the words of Ode VIII in which the soul pleads with the Theotokos to help it "escape the hordes of bodiless barbarians" who occupy "the abysses of the air." The "dread path" and "the abysses of the air" are the same. No doubt the visage of the "fierce prince" frightens it, but it is "dreadful" particularly because, according to Stanza 8 of the Burial of Laymen, the soul is taking "a path which (the soul) has never trod." To be sure, it is a "path" that takes the soul before Holiness never before experienced, "to the Judge Who respects no person; where the angelic hosts stand round about" (Tone 8).

There are some statements written by the fathers that lack clarity unless they are placed in a larger context. Fr. Mack enlists St. Hesychius the Presbyter of Jerusalem (d. 451) in support of the toll-house theory. "The hour of death will find us; it will come, and it will be impossible to escape it. Oh, if only the prince of the world and of the air who is then to meet us might find our iniquity as nothing and insignificant and might be able to accuse us justly" (p. 7).[13] This is typical of the quotes in this paper, and in other toll-house defenses. The saint refers to "the hour of death" as inescapable. Then the soul will confront "the prince of the world (age) and of the air." We are to infer that this encounter with the demons includes a horrifying journeyin time and space or eternity?to a committee of demonic judges. They, not God, will decide to release some souls and hurl others into hell.

We can join this paragraph to one written by St. Hesychius that demons have no such authority, certainly in the case of the righteous who are protected by the Savior. The soul is surrounded on every side by demons that the Lord drives away. "If the soul has Christ with it, it will not be disgraced by its enemies, even at death, when it rises to heaven's entrance. It will, then, as now, boldly confront them. But let us not tire in calling upon the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, day and night, until the time of departure from this mortal life. He will speedily avenge it in accordance with the promise which He Himself made when speaking of the unjust judge (cf. Luke 18:1-8). Indeed, He will avenge it both in the present life and at its departure from its body."[14]

Saint Hesychius comforts us with the knowledge that Christ will stand with His faithful servant. The demons have no power over the righteous in the physical or spirit-world. Holy martyrs, confessors, and teachers of the Faith are first in "a place of brightness, a place of verdure, a place of repose, where all sickness, sorrow and sighing have fled away."[15] The souls of all the saved are carried there by a "band of angels" to Abraham's bosom. There is no reason to believe that they are "required" to stop before demonic "toll-booths" prior to their dwelling in Paradise.

7. In the third century, St. Hippolytus of Rome (170-236) described in his Against Plato, On the Cause of the Universe, the traditional Christian thanatology. This treatise is of no assistance to the Toll-housers.[16] In fact it is a refutation of their system.

According to Hippolytus, all the departed, righteous and unrighteous, go immediately and directly to and are detained in Hades. There is light in one part of it, darkness in the other. "This locality was destined to be, as it were, a guard-house for souls, at which the angels are stationed as guards, each soul distributed according to his deeds…" "And to one side of this place, there is set aside a lake of unquenchable fire. We suppose that no one has ever been cast into it. It has been prepared against the day determined by God, in which He will utter one sentence of righteous judgment justly applied to all." To this place of endless punishment shall be sent the unrighteous, which are not only atheists but those who fashioned idols by attributing to men what really belonged to God.

To Hades all souls have come by "one descent" (mia kathodos). At its gate is stationed an archangel with his host. Led by the angels assigned to each group of souls, all enter the gate. The righteous go one way, the unrighteous another. The first are conducted to the right though a passage of light, "and being hymned by the angels stationed there, are brought to a locality full of light." There the righteous have dwelt from the beginning, ruled by no necessity, but always enjoying the vision of "the divine Good," ever taking ineffable pleasure in the new expectations, which they anticipate as more glorious than what they already have. This place demands no toil; nor do they endure "fierce heat, cold, or thorn." They look, always smiling, upon the face of their "righteous fathers." "This temporary place we call Abraham's Bosom," where the righteous await "the incorruptible and unfading kingdom," "the heavenly place where they will find eternal renewal."

But the unrighteous have been forcibly dragged as "prisoners" by "the angels of punishment" (hypo angelon kolaston) to the darkness of the left of Hades. Their angels "threaten them with the sight of things terrible, pushing them into the lower parts, and eventually to Gehenna." The hot smoke and fire horrify them. The unrighteous are also distraught by the blessed state of the saved that they see across "the deep and vast abyss that divides them." They cannot, however, pass from the left to the right side, nor may any of the sympathizing (sympathesanta) righteous pass to them. Like the saved, the unrighteous are detained in Hades "until the time which God has determined; and then He will accomplish a resurrection of all, not by transferring souls into other bodies, but by raising the souls with their own bodies." The Final Judgement will come, and God's plan be fulfilled (1-2, PG 10:796A-799A).

I would wager that St. Hippolytus provides us with a generally accepted view of the soul after death. His metaphors reveal the truth about Hades. Palpably, his thanatology shares nothing in common with the toll-house fable. We cannot even be certain that "the angels of punishment" and "guards of the left" are demons. He also firmly states that unrighteous souls are sent to "dark Hades" by their sins, not of any tribunal of demons sitting at toll-houses.

Hades-left is a "prison" and the damned are its "prisoners." Unlike the righteous whose existence adumbrates eternal joy and renewal, the unrighteous may expect the "lake of fire" that was placed next to their abode for them to see.

Final Observations

Do Toll-housers pray for souls in hell? Is that where they will remain henceforth? When does the body couple with it? At the Final Judgment? In other words, the soul is extracted from hell to rejoin it and, afterwards, the whole person returns to hell? Likewise, according to their theory, the souls of the righteous leave heaven to unite again with its body and, after the Judgment, the whole person goes to heaven? I suppose the righteous were not deified in heaven? Can anyone dwell in heaven that is not deified? Perhaps the toll-house judgment was not final? There is something wrong here.

Among other things, is it true that by His descent into hell (Gehenna, Tartarus), Christ destroyed it? Is that not what the Service for the Matins of Pascha affirms? If the Church celebrates "the death of death, and the destruction of hell," where do the toll-house demons throw the unworthy? Where are condemned souls consigned? Where will they dwell until and after the Final Judgment? Does God need to reconstruct hell?

There is a simple answer for all these questions. We begin by not thinking that "Hades" is a polite word for "hell." They are different realities: the first is a temporary condition, which will disappear in the age to come; the second is a state of everlasting separation from God and His kingdom. Hell was not abolished by the descent of Christ, as some think, but the power of Hades was abolished. With the exception of Christ and the Theotokos, no human occupies "the heaven of heavens." The divine economy has not yet been fully realized.

The Church teaches that before the coming of Christ, every soul separated from its body entered "Hades" (Sheol). David and the prophets were there, Plato and Aristotle were there, Buddha and Zoroaster were there. St. John the Baptist, "after suffering with joy in behalf of the truth, did proclaim even to those in Hades the God Who appeared in the flesh, Who takes away the sin of the world and grants us great mercy."[17]

After His Crucifixion, Christ descended into Hades to preach the Gospel. He made this odyssey that all that exists might know His promise, that all things might be filled with Him. Those who believed His message emerged with Him from "the nether regions."[18] "When those held captive in the bonds of Hades beheld Thy boundless compassion, O Christ, they hastened to the light with a joyful step, exalting the Pascha everlasting" (Paschal Matins, Ode 5, Troparion). Therefore, the Church "celebrates the death of death, the destruction of Hades, the beginning of everlasting life. And with leaps of joy we praise the Cause thereof, the only blest and most glorious God of our fathers" (Ode 7, Troparion).

In other words, the devil and his minions have no power to prevent departed souls passage to "heaven" or any other dimension of the spiritual world. God determines the extent to which demons may intermingle with humans. By permission, demons escort them to Hades and detain them in the dark places, but nothing more. Christ rose from the dead with all "the prisoners in darkness" who accepted His word. Because He knocked down "the brazen gates of Hades," death has lost its power. The unsaved remain in their "torment," the saved reside somewhere in the "heavens." There are many "heavens." St. Paul visited the "third heaven." Perhaps, he beheld Paradise or Abraham's Bosom where the saved go?[19]

We receive no such cheerful Christian vision from the Toll-housers. This is not the bright imagery they furnish. The Gnostic ideology and the tradition that gave it life have drugged them into melancholy. They do not see that if souls are already ensconced in "heaven" or "hell," the Final Judgment is useless. They do not understand that the soul and body are judged together, at the Final Judgment, by Christ, before they hear their sentence. If the demons determine the destiny of souls; if, on account of their decisions, souls already inhabit heaven or hell (without their bodies), prayers for them are not only futile but ludicrous. Those in heaven do not need our prayers, those in hell cannot be helped by them.

Let me conclude with these slightly edited words from Fr. Seraphim's reproach of the Critic: "But what is truly tragic is that [Toll-housers], by whatever means, are trying to deprive Orthodox Christians of the very thing which, even without them, is already disappearing so fast in our midst:…the traditional Orthodox piety towards the other world, revealed not only in the kind of literature we read (which [the Toll-housers] are striving to discredit), but even more in our attitude towards the dead and what we do for them."[20]

Fr. Michael Azkoul
The Feast of St. Gregory the Theologian


1. See W. Forester, Gnosis: A Selection of Gnostic Texts (vol. 2). Trans. By R. McL Wilson, Oxford, 1974, p. 133. Among the Gnostics, prayers for the dead were commonly made on the first, third, seventh, and forty-fifth day after the burial, as The Book of the Souls of the Mandaens shows. The Jews also had a similar rite.

2. There is nothing of toll-houses in the Latin fathers, even in their exegesis of Lazarus and the rich man. Why the difference between East and West? All fathers constitute a single fellowship of believers, guardians of "the Faith once delivered to the saints." I suspect, then, that the Latin fathers looked at reality from a historical, humanistic, and legal point of view (from man to God); and the Greek or Eastern fathers from a cosmological perspective (from God to man). In the same way that the latter muse how it is that God was a man, the latter pondered how it is that a man was God. The toll-houses fit better in the outlook of the "mystical East."

3. "Our War is not Against Flesh and Blood," 2.

4. The Soul After Death was preceded by a version of the book serialized in his journal, The Orthodox Word, from 1977-1980 (vols. 77-90). One is no better than the other, save that his articles initially were not as categorical in their pronouncements about the toll-houses. In both endeavors, he accepts help from any source, including the occult and clinical reports about "out of body experiences." In both places, he fails to connect the dramatic experience of saints with the spiritual realm and toll-houses. He deliberately confuses dreams with reality, metaphors and facts. And, thanks to Bishop Ignaty, he cannot distinguish between Hades and hell, heaven(s) and Abraham's bosom.

5. For a complete discussion of this Bogomil tale see The Tale of Elder Basil "The New" and the Theodora Myth (Synaxis Press, 1999).

6. "Our War is not Against Flesh and Blood: On the Question of the 'Toll-Houses,'" in Selected Essays, Jordanville (NY), 1996, p. 241.

7. The ancient Gnostics state that the soul is able to ascend to the Kingdom of Light because Christ has already paved the way. If the soul succeeds in passing through "the demonic spheres," as the Ophite Gnostics called them, it is because the Lord has prepared them for the celestial trek with a secret gnosis. Also, the earthly Gnostic communities assist the soul with prayers and rites. This experience of the soul in its ascent to God is, according to Hans Jonas, "the most constant and common feature in otherwise divergent (Gnostic) systems" (The Gnostic Religion: the Message of the Alien God and the Beginning of Christianity, Boston, 1958, p. 165). Gnostics speak of 20 "watch-house keepers" or "toll-keepers" standing at "places of attention" with the attendant "archons" or "kosmokrators" (J. Danielou, The Theology of Jewish Christianity [vol. 1]. Trans. by J. A. Baker. London, 1964, p. 192), which is the exact number that Toll-housers tell us the soul must pass before reaching heaven.

8. In his Commentary on the Gospel of St. Luke, St. Cyril of Alexandria treats the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man as an exhortation to mercy and hospitality. There is no insinuation of the toll-houses. The pseudo-Cyril's "Homily on the Departure of the Soul" describes them in uncomfortable detail.

9. Here is Fr. Seraphim's citation of this passage: "Like the tax-collectors sitting in the narrow ways and laying hold upon passers-by, and extorting from them, so the devils spy upon souls and lay hold of them; and when they pass out of the body, if they are not perfectly cleansed, they do not suffer them to mount up to the mansions of heaven, and to meet their Lord, and they are driven down by the devils of the air. But if whilst in the flesh…" (The Soul After Death, p. 257; "Answer to a Critic," 9). St. Macarius speaks of human thoughts. Fr. Rose refers his words to the human soul.

10. Hapgood translation (1975 edition). Fr. Seraphim Rose must have used another translation (one of Brianchaninov's "references"?): "As I depart from earth, vouchsafe to pass unhindered by the prince of the air, the persecutor the tormenter, he who stands on the frightful paths and is an unjust interrogator" (The Soul After Death, Platina, 1980, p. 194).

11. Fr. Rose has a way of thinking which allows him to find toll-houses wherever he looks on the patristic landscape: "Again, the fact that Christ cleared the air of the malignity of demons," as St. Athanasius the Great teaches, "does not in any way deny the existence of the demonic toll-houses in the air, as the Critic implies…. The Church's teaching is that whereas before our redemption by Christ no one could pass through the air to heaven, the path being closed by demons, and all men went down to hell; now it has become possible for men to pass through the demons of the air, and their power is restricted to men whose own sins convict them. In the same way, we know that even though Christ 'destroyed the power of hell' (Kontakion of Pascha), anyone of us can still be cast into hell by rejecting the salvation of Christ" (The Soul After Death, p. 244; "The Soul After Death," in The Orthodox Word LXXXIII, 6 [1978], 246).

There is a remarkable ignorance here concerning the redemption. Christ on the Cross does not relate the cleansing of the skies by the Crucifixion to toll-houses, but the conquest of Satan. Souls could not enter into the presence of the Lord before "the Cross, the grave, the Resurrection, and the Ascension" because death and sin had not been overcome, because the mortal and the sinner cannot abide with the immortal and all-holy Godnot because the devil stood in the way! Before the incarnation, men had not the Holy Spirit to prepare them for eternal life, nor the grace to transform them, and not because "toll-collectors" would not permit them advance! No one has ever been cast into hell by the demons or given access to heaven. Souls went to Hades, the abode of the righteous and unrighteous dead. Christ crushed the gates of Hades, not hell, by His descent there. Even now, no one enters hell. All souls inhabit temporarily the Particular Judgment, in joy or regret, until the time of the Final Judgment.

12. The Guardian would seem to be Christ, since it is He Who conquered the devil.

13. Fr. Mack does not identify the place where he found this quote. We are given no context. We can have no certainty about the accuracy of the translation from the Greek, if that is his source.

14. "On Watchfulness and Holiness," 148-149 (The Philokalia [vol. 1]. Trans. By G.E.H. Palmer, etc. London, 1986, p. 188).

15. "Order for the Burial of the Dead (Layman)," Secret prayer of the priest during the deacon's litany.

16. In The Soul After Death, Fr. Seraphim makes no reference to this treatise by St. Hippolytus; neither do any of his American admirers. N. P. Vassilidis, in his The Mystery of Death (trans. from the Greek by P. A. Chamberas. Athens, 1933), mentions this work of Hippolytus twice (pp. 400, 405), but only in connection with Hades.

17. Recited before the icon of the Forerunner during the Kairon (clergy preparation for the Liturgy).

18. It would seem logical to hold that this grace was offered to all that lived and died before the Savior's redemption. We do not know if God, in His mercy, may offer souls presently in Hades this same grace. There are no indications that He will.

19. It is unclear where Abraham's Bosom is located. St. Hippolytus suggests that it is the right side of Hades, a condition of light and happiness. There are seven heavens beneath "the heaven of heavens." Are we allowed to think Abraham's Bosom (= Paradise) is situated among them? Jesus said to the thief on the Cross, "Today thou shalt be with Me in Paradise." He did not say, "Today you shall be with Me in heaven." Christ "descended" into Hades. He placed the thief in the condition of the saved, that is, a type (typos) of the kingdom of God.

20. Original found in "Answer to the Critic," 14.

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