Aerial toll house

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Death of Theodora and visions of spiritual trials

Historically, in the Eastern Orthodox Church, aerial toll houses are held by some to be traversed by the soul after death. This teaching says that "following a person's death the soul leaves the body, and is escorted to God by angels. During this journey the soul passes through an aerial realm, which is inhabited by wicked spirits (Ephesians 6:12). The soul encounters these demons at various points referred to as toll-houses where the demons then attempt to accuse it of sin and, if possible, drag the soul into hell."[1]

In some forms, the teaching is taught in hagiographical and other spiritual texts from quite early in the history of the church, but it has never been formally promulgated by any ecumenical council.[1] A number of the Orthodox saints, modern elders and theologians have openly endorsed it, but some theologians and bishops, starting from the last century, have condemned it as heretical and gnostic in origin.[2] The content is somewhat similar to that propounded by John Climacus in The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Some say that given the amount of fear that comes along with the teaching, the love of Christ becomes misunderstood and is forgotten, but others suggest that fear is perfectly natural and salvific for Orthodox Christians.


Some authors of the Philokalia, an authoritative anthology[3][verification needed] of writings of saints and ascetics of the first millennium, taught about the toll houses. For example, St Theodoros the Great Ascetic instructs to "reflect on the dreadful reckoning that is to come, how the harsh keepers of the toll homes will bring before as one by one the actions, words and thoughts which they suggested but which we accepted and made our own".[4][verification needed] Abba Isaiah of Scetis wrote, "... you will leave this body, pass the powers of darkness that will meet you in the air".[5][verification needed]

Prayers mentioning the aerial accusers can be found in Liturgical texts and official Orthodox books like The Great Book of Needs: "do thou banish from me the commander of the bitter toll-gatherers and ruler of the earth.... O holy Theotokos" (Ode 8, Troparion 3).[6]

Mentions of toll houses[7][8] can be found in the hymnology of the church, and in stories of the lives of some saints (for example, the Life of Saint Anthony the Great, written by Athanasius of Alexandria[citation needed][9], the life of Basil the New, and Theodora,[citation needed][10] in the homilies of Cyril of Alexandria,[11][verification needed] in the Discourses of Abba Isaiah,[12][verification needed] the Philokalia, The Ladder of Divine Ascent[citation needed], and the Dogmatics of the Orthodox Church by Justin Popović[citation needed]). Other church hymns say that the souls have to "pass through the rulers of darkness standing in the air"[13][14]

A number of contemporary church figures support the teaching on toll-houses.[15][16][17][18] Recent saints, including Ignatius Brianchaninov[19] and Theophan the Recluse,[20] insisted not only on the truthfulness of but also on the necessity of this teaching in the spiritual life of a Christian.

The most detailed account of the aerial toll-houses is found in the hagiography of Basil the New, found in the Lives of Saints for 26 March (according to some Orthodox calendars, but not all), though some believe this Basil to be mistakenly attributed for this date, and believe the account to be heretical and spurious. In this rendering, Theodora, spiritual student of Basil, appeared to another student, the pious and holy layman Gregory. According to the story, Gregory had prayed to God and asked him to inform them of what happened to Theodora after her death. God answered his prayers (according to this account) by sending Theodora herself to Gregory; and told him, in great detail, about her journey through the toll-houses.[21]

According to Theodora's teaching, every Christian has a demon who tempts him or her. These demons keep a record of every sin of thought or action they succeed in tempting a person to commit, though repented sins are erased from the demonic records. On the third day after the soul separates from the body, according to this account, it is carried by angels towards Heaven. On the way, souls must go past twenty aerial toll-houses. Each toll house is populated by demons devoted to particular sins. At each toll-house, demons demand that souls "pay" for their sins by giving an account of compensatory good deeds. If the soul is unable to compensate for a sin, the demons take it to hell.[21]

The Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad[22] had a session on "a controversy raised by Deacon Lev. Puhalo", the main opponent of the toll-house teaching. The resolution says the Holy Synod "demands the cessation in our magazines of controversy", "this controversy must be ended on both sides" and that "Deacon Lev Puhalo is forbidden to lecture in the parishes".[22]

Toll houses[edit]

There are twenty toll-houses, though the number is not dogmatic, and different sources list varying numbers. On the first aerial toll-house, the soul is questioned about the sins of the tongue. The remaining are, in order, the toll-houses of:

  • Lies
  • Slander
  • Gluttony
  • Laziness
  • Theft
  • Covetousness
  • Usury
  • Injustice
  • Envy
  • Pride
  • Anger
  • Remembering evil
  • Murder
  • Magic
  • Lust
  • Adultery
  • Sodomy
  • Heresy
  • Unmercifulness[21]


The opponents of toll houses argue that it is a form of gnosticism, or neo-gnosticism, and claim that the teaching is opposed to the church's catechism and other Orthodox teachings.[2] Michael Azkoul argues that Seraphim Rose is its only contemporary theological proponent. Rose, an American Orthodox hieromonk and theologian, wrote a book on the subject, The Soul After Death. While Ignatius Brianchaninov, John Maximovich, Rose and Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos endeavored to demonstrate that this teaching is derived from patristic and other church sources, his opponents, among them Azkoul and Archbishop Lazar Puhalo (a retired hierarch in the Orthodox Church of America, who had previously been defrocked from Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia), found his conclusions questionable.[23] Moreover, opponents of the teaching argue that it emphasizes fear and guilt as a way of keeping believers "in line", while ignoring the forgiveness of Jesus Christ, who, according to Orthodox Christian teaching, came to earth to save the world and humanity when they least deserved it. On that account, the emphasis of the spiritual life thus changes from communion with a God of love, to fear of demons.

Opponents of the teaching also consider it similar to the intermediary state taught by the Catholic Church in its doctrine of purgatory. While some say that the toll houses are only metaphorical, others believe in a real but not physical representation of "stations of taxation", where demons have the right to ask their victims to account for their wrongdoings, and actually let the victim go if a good enough payment (of victim's good deeds) is offered. For example, in the hagiography of Basil the New, the angels accompanying Theodora through the toll houses repeatedly exchange gold coins–representing the prayers of Basil–to the demons, in order that Theodora might be allowed to pass through. The idea of payment of good deeds being offered to the demons shares some aspects with the Roman Catholic teaching on merits, but in the case of the Catholic Church, the merits in question are not primarily individual but those of Christ and the saints administered by the church. Indeed, Gennadios Scholarios, Patriarch of Constantinople from 1454 to 1464, called the toll houses "the Byzantine equivalent of purgatory, minus the fireworks".[10]

However, two dedicated chapters in the book The Departure of the Soul According to the Teaching of the Orthodox Church allegedly reveal for the first time over 100 falsifications, misrepresentations, and errors in Puhalo's and Azkoul's writings. Puhalo reportedly falsified reproduction of several ancient icons and falsified translations of the writings and lives of several saints, while Azkoul is said to have falsified several patristic texts. Both writers' works are asserted to contain an inordinate number of gross misrepresentations and errors, all attempting to support their allegedly incorrect opinions about the Orthodox teaching on the toll-houses.

Most Orthodox Christians are not aware of the teaching, which has become "popularized" only since the publication of the book by Seraphim Rose. Opponents of the doctrine point to its lack of systematic theological expression among any father of the church, the uncritical acceptance of some patristic and hagiography sources, and the absence of precise theological definition as deficiencies in its proclamation.


  1. ^ a b Andrew Werbiansky, Death and the Toll House Controversy
  2. ^ a b "Against the Gnostic Story of Judging Demons."
  3. ^ Christian Spirituality: The Classics. Edited by Arthur Holder. London and. New York: Routledge, 2010. ISBN 0415776023
  4. ^ St Theodoros the Great Ascetic. A Century of Spiritual Texts / Philokalia. Vol. 2.
  5. ^ Abba Isaiah of Scetis - Ascetic Discourses. 2002. Cistercian Studies (Book 150)
  6. ^ The Great Book of Needs, St Tikhon's Monastery Press
  7. ^ However, it is first with the Greek and Slavonic Euchologion, in the canon for the departure of the soul by St. Andrew, that the words used in Ode 7 are found' "All holy angels of the Almighty God, have mercy upon me and save me from all the evil toll-houses".
  8. ^ In the Canon of Supplication at the Parting of the Soul in The Great Book of Needs are found the following references to the struggle of a soul passing through the toll houses: "Count me worthy to pass, unhindered, by the persecutor, the prince of the air, the tyrant, him that stands guard in the dread pathways, and the false accusation of these, as I depart from earth" (Ode 4, p. 77). "Do thou count me worthy to escape the hordes of bodiless barbarians, and rise through the aerial depths and enter into Heaven…" (Ode 8, p. 81). "[W]hen I come to die, do thou banish far from me the commander of the bitter toll-gatherers and ruler of the earth…" (Ode 8, p. 81).
  9. ^ Athanasius of Alexandria (1980). Athanasius: The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus. Translated by Gregg, Robert C. Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press. p. 80. ISBN 0-8091-2295-2.
  10. ^ a b Constas, Nicholas (2001). ""To Sleep, Perchance to Dream": The Middle State of Souls in Patristic and Byzantine Literature". Dumbarton Oaks Papers. 55: 91–124. doi:10.2307/1291814. JSTOR 1291814.
  11. ^ Cyril of Alexandria Ephesi praedicata depoito Nestorio, ACO.14(52.405D) as referenced by Lampe, G. W. H., A Patristic Greek Lexicon, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1961, p.1387
  12. ^ The Twenty-nine Discourses of our Holy Father Isaiah, Volos, 1962, p. 37 (in Greek): "[Live] every day having death before your eyes, and concerning yourselves with how you will come out from the body, how you will pass by the powers of darkness that will meet you in the air, and how you will answer before God..."
  13. ^ January 27, The Recovery of the Holy Relics of our Father among the Saints John Chrysostom, Troparion 1, Ode 5 of Orthros: "Grant me to pass untroubled through the host of noetic satraps and the tyrannic battalion of the lower air in the hour of my departure..."
  14. ^ Parakletike, Friday Vespers, Second Mode: "When my soul is about to be separated violently from the members of the body, then, O Bride of God, come to my aid; scatter the counsels of the fleshless enemies and shatter their millstones, by which they seek to devour me mercilessly; that, unhindered, I may pass through the rulers of darkness standing in the air."
  15. ^ The Taxing of Souls by Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos)
  16. ^ Answer to a Critic, Appendix III from The Soul After Death by Seraphim Rose of Platina
  17. ^ Vid. Ephraim, Elder, Counsels from the Holy Mountain, St. Anthony's Greek Orthodox Monastery, Arizona, 1999, pp. 436, 447.
  18. ^ Cavarnos, Constantine, The Future Life According to Orthodox Teaching, Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, Etna, California, 1985, pp. 24-26.
  19. ^ A Word on Death, chapter "Aerial toll-houses"
  20. ^ What is spiritual life, and how to obtain it, chapter "Perfect preparation for the Mystery of Repentance"
  21. ^ a b c St. Theodora's Journey Through the Aerial Toll-Houses Lives of Saints, March 26th
  22. ^ Azkoul, Rge Michael. The Toll-House Myth: The Neo-Gnosticism of Fr. Seraphim Rose. Introduction.

Further reading[edit]

• Protopresbyter Theodore Stylianopoulos, Archbishop IakovosProfessor Emeritus Of Orthodox Theology, Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School Of Theology, from his endorsement of The Departure Of The Soul p. 1102. See also

The Departure Of The Soul (Florence, 2017) pp. 14–22. See also and

•Ibid. pp. 1099–1111. See also

•Metropolitan Jonah, former Primate Of The Orthodox Church In America, ibid, p. 21. See also