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The Aerial Toll-Houses – fact or fiction?

I am sure that, at some point, most of you have heard about the doctrine/theology of the “Aerial Toll-Houses”. In case you are not familiar, this is the notion that every soul, once it has departed this world, is conducted by angels through a gauntlet of twenty stations situated in the atmosphere above, in each of which it is arraigned by demonic prosecutors for sins committed in life, and from which it may proceed onward toward heaven only if it can produce a compensatory “toll” of evidence of good deeds (for want of which, it will be dragged down to hell). The topic isn’t completely unfamiliar to me, but I have never explored it. A few questions I hope to address are: Are these toll-houses literal? Is this only an allegory? Are followers of Christ experiencing these in this life (baptism is a ‘death to current life’ and a ‘rebirth into the Kingdom’)? And, I’m sure, many more.

The doctrine of the Aerial Toll-Houses is widely accepted by the Holy Orthodox Church, though it is still a topic of controversy. I’m not sure I’d stake my salvation of the whole thing, but I’m not opposed to studying it. And because spiritual warfare is such a big part of my life, the Toll Houses are intriguing. Finding authoritative sources is proving to be a task. To start out with, I will have to trust in the writings of the early Church fathers, elders, and priests (I do NOT want to be trapped by, or spread any heresies). Since many Internet article authors have PhDs in Know-It-All-ogy, I have had to cut down the list of sites to only those that could cite REAL sources. Even printed/published material is troublesome. But I’m not one to shy away from a challenge….so, here we go…

The 20 Toll-Gates

The most detailed version of the toll-houses occurs in a vision of Gregory of Thrace, apparently from the 10th century. The demons accuse the soul at each toll-house of sins. In some cases the demon might accuse the soul of sins that they tempted her with, but it didn’t comply with, or of sins that she repented for, and in that cases one of the angels, the one which was the persons guardian angel, speaks for the person, saying that those are lies, and that payment is not necessary, taking the soul to the next toll-house. If a person has unrepented sins, and does not have enough good deeds and prayers of the living to pay for them, the demons of the corresponding toll-house grab him, and take him to hades to await the final judgment. This vision recounts the toll-houses in the following order:

  • At the first aerial toll-house, the soul is questioned about sins of the tongue, such as empty words, dirty talk, insults, ridicule, singing worldly songs, too much or loud laughter, and similar sins.
  • The second is the toll-house of lies, which includes not only ordinary lies, but also the breaking of oaths, the violation of vows given to God, taking God’s name in vain, hiding sins during confession, and similar acts.
  • The third is the toll-house of slander. It includes judging, humiliating, embarrassing, mocking, and laughing at people, and similar transgressions.
  • The fourth is the toll-house of gluttony, which includes overeating, drunkenness, eating between meals, eating without prayer, not holding fasts, choosing tasty over plain food, eating when not hungry, and the like.
  • The fifth is the toll-house of laziness, where the soul is held accountable for every day and hour spent in laziness, for neglecting to serve God and pray, for missing Church services, and also for not earning money through hard, honest labor, for not working as much as you are paid, and all similar sins.
  • The sixth toll-house is the toll-house of theft, which includes stealing and robbery, whether small, big, light, violent, public, or hidden.
  • The seventh is the toll-house of covetousness, including love of riches and goods, failure to give to charity, and similar acts.
  • The eight is the toll-house of usury, loan-sharking, overpricing, and similar sins.
  • The ninth is the toll-house of injustice- being unjust, especially in judicial affairs, accepting or giving bribes, dishonest trading and business, using false measures, and similar sins.
  • The tenth is the toll-house of envy.
  • The eleventh is the toll-house of pride- vanity, self-will, boasting, not honoring parents and civil authorities, insubordination, disobedience, and similar sins.
  • The twelve is the toll-house of anger and rage.
  • The thirteenth is the toll-house of remembering evil- hatred, holding a grudge, and revenge.
  • The fourteenth is the toll-house of murder- not just plain murder, but also wounding, maiming, hitting, pushing, and generally injuring people.
  • The fifteenth is the toll-house of magic- divination, conjuring demons, making poison, all superstitions, and associated acts.
  • The sixteenth is the toll-house of lust- fornication, unclean thoughts, lustful looks, unchaste touches.
  • The seventeenth is the toll-house of adultery.
  • The eighteenth is the toll-house of sodomy: bestiality, homosexuality, incest, masturbation, and all other unnatural sins.
  • The nineteenth is the toll-house of heresy: rejecting any part of Orthodox faith, wrongly interpreting it, apostasy, blasphemy, and all similar sins.
  • The last, twentieth toll-house is the toll-house of unmercifulness: failing to show mercy and charity to people, and being cruel in any way.

Are they Literal?

Many of the Orthodox who accept the doctrine of the toll-houses do not take the form or all the teachings from the vision of Gregory literally. Thus for example Fr. Thomas Hopko maintains that one should not try to associate a particular time after death to the process, nor should one take the toll-houses as being literally “in the air,” or necessarily twenty in number. Likewise, he makes no mention in his argument for them of the doctrine of bargaining for sins (which is similar in some ways to the Latin doctrine of merits). Instead, his description, drawing on St. John Chrysostom and the Fifty Homilies of St. Macarius of Egypt, among others, takes the toll-house encounters to describe the attempt of the demons to assault the soul with its own vulnerability to sin, or to entice it away from God, and describes passing through the toll-houses as the purification of the soul. St. Theophan the Recluse likewise said that what the demons are seeking is “passions,” and suggested that, although the toll-houses are often depicted as frightening, the demons might equally well try to entice the soul by appealing to one of its weaknesses. Some others go so far as to say that the demons and angels are metaphors for the sins and virtues of the soul.

Our venerable and God-bearing Father John Climacus (ca. 579 – 649), also known as John of the Ladder, John Scholasticus, and John Sinaites, was a seventh century monk at St. Catherine’s monastery at the base of Mount Sinai. In Greek, his epithet is Κλιμακος (Klimakos).

He came to the monastery and became a novice when he was about 16 years old, and when he died in 649 he was the monastery’s abbot. He wrote a number of instructive books, the most famous of which is The Ladder of Divine Ascent. (It is because of this book that John is known as “Climacus,” which means “of the ladder”.) It describes how to raise one’s soul to God, as if on a ladder. This book is one of the most widely read among Eastern Orthodox Christians, especially during the season of Great Lent which immediately precedes Pascha (Easter), and on the fourth Sunday of Great Lent he is especially commemorated.

The Controversy

There is disagreement in certain circles regarding the status of this teaching within the Orthodox Church. Some, including Archbishop Lazar (Puhalo) of Ottawa, consider this teaching controversial, even false (describing it as gnostic or of pagan origin). These accusations were later declared to be wrong by the Holy Synod of the Russian Church Abroad. The traditional proponents of the teaching argue that it appears in the hymnology of the Church, in stories of the lives of saints (for example, the Life of St. Anthony the Great, written by St. Athanasius the Great, the life of St. Basil the New, and St. Theodora), in the homilies of St. Cyril of Alexandria in the Discourses of Abba Isaiah, the Philokalia, the Ladder of Divine Ascent, and the Dogmatics of the Orthodox Church by Blessed Justin Popovich. Several contemporary Church figures speak about toll-houses. Secondly, not a single Church Father ever wrote even one sentence expressing doubt about this teaching (which is present in its most general form in the Church since at least fourth century), although their discussions of the topic are always about general struggles with “tax-collector” demons, lacking the details present in Gregory’s vision (apart from one pseudo-Makarian story which also mentions numerous toll-houses and a bargaining over sins at each one). Thirdly, some of the greatest modern authorities of the Orthodox Church, such as St. Ignatius Brianchaninov and St. Theophan the Recluse, insisted not only on the truthfulness, but on the necessity of this teaching in the spiritual life of a Christian.

Patristic Evidence

St. Mark of Ephesus:

“But if souls have departed this life in faith and love, while nevertheless carrying away with themselves certain faults, whether small ones over which they have not repented at all, or great ones for which – even thought they have repented over them – they did not undertake to show fruits of repentance: such souls, we believe, must be cleansed from this kind of sin, but not by means of some purgatorial fire or a definite punishment in some place (for this, as we have said, has not been handed down to us). But some must be cleansed in they very departure from the body, thanks only to fear, as St. Gregory the Dialogist literally shows; while others must be cleansed after the departure from the body, either while remaining in the same earthly place, before they come to worship God and are honored with the lot of the blessed, or – if their sins were more serious and bind them, for a longer duration – they are kept in hell [i.e., Hades], but not in order to remain forever in fire and torment, but as it were in prison and confinement under guard” (First Homily: Refutation of the Latin Chapters concerning Purgatorial Fire, by St. Mark of Ephesus. Qtd. In “The Soul After Death, p 208f).

St. Boniface (8th Century Anglo-Saxon) records the following account of a monk who died and came back to tell of his experiences:

“Angels of such pure splendor bore him up as he came forth from the body that he could not bear to gaze upon them… “They carried me up,” he said, “high into the air…” He reported further that in the space of time while he was out of the body, a greater multitude of souls left their bodies and gathered to the place where he was than he thought to form the whole race of mankind on earth. He said also that there was a crowd of evil spirits and a glorious choir of higher angels. And he said that the wretched spirits and the holy angels had a violent dispute concerning the souls that had come forth from their bodies, the demons bringing charges against them and aggravating the burden of their sins, the angels lightening the burden and making excuses for them. He heard all his own sins, which he had committed from his youth on and had failed to confess or had forgotten or had not recognized as sins, crying out against him, each in its own voice, and accusing his grievously… Everything he had done in all the days of his life and had neglected to confess and many which he had not known to be sinful, all these were now shouted at him in terrifying words. In the same way the evil spirits, chiming in with the vices, accusing and bearing witness, naming the very times and places, brought proofs of his evil deeds… and so, with his sins all piled up and reckoned out, those ancient enemies declared him guilty and unquestionably subject to their jurisdiction. “On the other hand,” he said, “the poor little virtues which I had displayed unworthily and imperfectly spoke out in my defense… And those angelic spirits in their boundless love defended and supported me, while the virtues, greatly magnified as they were, seemed to me far greater and more excellent than could have ever been practiced in my own strength.”” (The Letters of Saint Boniface, tr. Ephraim Emerton, Octagon Books (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux) New York, 1973, pp 25-27. Qtd in The Soul After Death, by Fr. Seraphim (Rose).

St. Athanasius the Great, in the Life of St. Anthony the Great:

“For once, when about to eat, having risen up to pray about the ninth hour, he perceived that he was caught up in the spirit, and, wonderful to tell, he stood and saw himself, as it were, from outside himself, and that he was led in the air by certain ones. Next certain bitter and terrible beings stood in the air and wished to hinder him from passing through. But when his conductors opposed them, they demanded whether he was not accountable to them. And when they wished to sum up the account from his birth, Antony’s conductors stopped them, saying, ‘The Lord hath wiped out the sins from his birth, but from the time he became a monk, and devoted himself to God, it is permitted you to make a reckoning.’ Then when they accused him and could not convict him, his way was free and unhindered. And immediately he saw himself, as it were, coming and standing by himself, and again he was Antony as before. Then forgetful of eating, he remained the rest of the day and through the whole of the night groaning and praying. For he was astonished when he saw against what mighty opponents our wrestling is, and by what labours we have to pass through the air. And he remembered that this is what the Apostle said, ‘according to the prince of the power of the air [10].’ For in it the enemy hath power to fight and to attempt to hinder those who pass through. Wherefore most earnestly he exhorted, ‘Take up the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day [11],’ that the enemy, ‘having no evil thing to say against us, may be ashamed [12].’ And we who have learned this, let us be mindful of the Apostle when he says, ‘whether in the body I know not, or whether out of the body I know not; God knoweth [13].’ But Paul was caught up unto the third heaven, and having heard things unspeakable he came down; while Antony saw that he had come to the air, and contended until he was free. . And he had also this favour granted him. For as he was sitting alone on the mountain, if ever he was in perplexity in his meditations, this was revealed to him by Providence in prayer. And the happy man, as it is written, was taught of God [14]. After this, when he once had a discussion with certain men who had come to him concerning the state of the soul and of what nature its place will be after this life, the following night one from above called him, saying, ‘Antony, rise, go out and look.’ Having gone out therefore (for he knew whom he ought to obey) looking up, he beheld one standing and reaching to the clouds, tall, hideous, and fearful, and others ascending as though they were winged. And the figure stretched forth his hands, and some of those who were ascending were stayed by him, while others flew above, and having escaped heavenward, were borne aloft free from care. At such, therefore, the giant gnashed his teeth, but rejoiced over those who fell back. And forthwith a voice came to Antony, ‘Understandest thou what thou seest?’ And his understanding was opened, and he understood that it was the passing of souls, and that the tall being who stood was the enemy who envies the faithful. And those whom he caught and stopped from passing through are accountable to him, while those whom he was unable to hold as they passed upwards had not been subservient to him. So having seen this, and as it were being reminded, he struggled the more daily to advance towards those things which were before. And these visions he was unwilling to tell, but as he spent much time in prayer, and was amazed, when those who were with him pressed him with questions and forced him, he was compelled to speak, as a father who cannot withhold ought from his children. And he thought that as his conscience was clear, the account would be beneficial for them, that they might learn that discipline bore good fruit, and that visions were oftentimes the solace of their labours” (Chapters 65-66).

http://orthodoxinfo.com/death/vita-antony.htm

St Adamnan (Eunan) who recorded the life of St. Columba:

“At another time while the holy man was tarrying in the Iouan island (Hy, now Iona), one of his monks called Brito, a person given to all good works, being seized with bodily illness, was reduced to the last extremity. When the venerable man went to visit him at the hour of his departure, he stood for a few moments at his bedside, and after giving him his blessing, retired quickly from the house, not wishing to see him die, and the very moment after the holy man left the house the monk closed this present life. Then the eminent man walking in the little court of his monastery, with his eyes upraised to heaven, was for a long time lost in wonder and admiration. But a certain brother named Aidan, the son of Libir, a truly virtuous and religious man, who was the only one of the brethren present at the time, fell upon his knees and asked the saint to tell him the reason of so great astonishment. The saint said to him in reply: “I have this moment seen the holy angels contending in the air against the hostile powers; and I return thanks to Christ, the Judge, because the victorious angels have carried off to the joys of our heavenly country the soul of this stranger, who is the first person that hath died among us in this island. But I beseech thee not to reveal this secret to any one during my life.”

http://www.usu.edu/history/norm/bk3ch7.html

St. Diadochos of Photiki (ca 400 – 486 a.d.) from the Philokalia:

“If we do not confess our involuntary sins as we should, we shall discover and ill-defined fear in ourselves at the hour of our death. We who love the Lord should pray that we may be without fear at that time; for if we are afraid then, we will not be able freely to pass by the rulers of the nether world. They will have as their advocate to plead against us the fear which our soul experiences because of its own wickedness. But the soul which rejoices in the love of God, at the hour of its departure, is lifted with the angels of peace above all the hosts of darkness. For it is given wings by spiritual love, since it ceaselessly carries within itself the love which ‘is the fulfilling of the law’ (Rom. 13:10)” (Philokalia, Volume I, p. 295).

Theophilus of Alexandria (reposed 412 a.d.) recorded in the Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers:

“The same Abba Theophilus said, “What fear, what trembling, what uneasiness will there be for us when our soul is separated from the body. Then indeed the force and strength of the adverse powers come against us, the rulers of darkness, those who command the world of evil, the principalities, the powers, the spirits of evil. They accuse our souls as in a lawsuit, bringing before it all the sins it has committed, whether deliberately or through ignorance, from its youth until the time when it has been taken away. So they stand accusing it of all it has done. Furthermore, what anxiety do you suppose the soul will have at that hour, until sentence is pronounced and it gains its liberty. That is its hour of affliction, until it sees what will happen to it. On the other hand, the divine powers stand on the opposite side, and they present the good deeds of the soul. Consider the fear and trembling of the soul standing between them until in judgment it receives the sentence of the righteous judge. If it is judged worthy, the demons will receive their punishment, and it will be carried away by the angels. Then thereafter you will be without disquiet, or rather you will live according to that which is written: “Even as the habitation of those who rejoice is in you.” (Ps. 87.7) Then will the Scripture be fulfilled: “Sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” (Isaiah 35.10).

“Then your liberated soul will go on to that joy and ineffable glory in which it will be established. But if it is found to have lived carelessly, it will hear that terrible voice: “Take away the ungodly, that he may not see the glory of the Lord.” (cf. Isaiah 26.10) Then the day of anger, the day of affliction, the day of darkness and shadow seizes upon it. Abandoned to outer darkness and condemned to everlasting fire it will be punished through the ages without end. Where then is the vanity of the world? Where is the vain-glory? Where is carnal life? Where is enjoyment? Where is imagination? Where is ease? Where is boasting? Riches? Nobility? Father, mother, brother? Who could take the soul out of its pains when it is burning in the fire, and remove it from bitter torments? (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, translated by Benedicta Ward, p. 81-82).

St. John Climacus:

In Step 7, section 50 of the Ladder of Divine Ascent, St. John gives the account of a monastic who was dying, and who had begun to pass from this life to the next, and to experience the accusations of the demons. The account ends with statement: “And while, thus being called to account he was parted from his body, leaving us in uncertainty as to his judgment, or end, or sentence, or how the trial ended.”

Blessed Theophylact:

Luke 12:20 is translated in the King James Version as:

“But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?”

However, the KJV margin note reads: “Gr[eek], do they require thy soul.”

In the commentary of Blessed Theophylact, he makes a point about the verb translated by the KJV in the passive voice as “shall be required”, but he points out that that it is is in the active voice, third person, plural — and so should be “they shall require”.

The Young’s Literal Translation has it as:

“And God said to him, Unthinking one! this night thy soul they shall require from thee, and what things thou didst prepare — to whom shall they be?”

Blessed Theophylact, commenting on this, says “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. Fr. Christopher Stade, Trans. (House Springs, MO: Chrysostom Press, 1997), p. 148).

This is probably enough for now. There will be more to come on this topic. Also, I would like to hear from some of you – what are your thoughts?

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