Death and the Toll House Contraversy
By Deacon Andrew Werbiansky
My first exposure to the so-called tollhouse theory was during the reading of a book entitled “The Soul after Death” by Fr. Seraphim Rose. The theory basically states 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 ruled by demons. 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. Fr Seraphim’s book attempts to prove that the toll-house phenomenon is actually an authentic teaching of the Orthodox Church supported by the Scriptures, the patristic teaching of the fathers of the Church and the Church’s liturgical tradition.
A controversy has arisen over the fact that many Orthodox Christians do not believe that the tollhouse theory is a valid teaching of the Church. These individuals hold that the tollhouse theory has no basis in Scripture, marginal and inconsistent evidence in patristic literature and is not found in the Church’s liturgical tradition. In fact, some of the most severe critics state their belief that the theory is nothing less than a reappearance of the old heresy of Gnosticism.
My purpose here will be to present, in a very simplified manner, both sides of the argument as presented in the affirmative by Fr. Seraphim Rose and the opposing viewpoints given by Rev. Dr. Michael Askoul and Fr. Paul O’Callaghan. All of the following information in support of the tollhouse theory is drawn from Fr. Seraphim’s book, “The Soul After Death”. Information for the opposing viewpoint is taken from the following: “The Toll-House Myth: The Neo-Gnosticism of Fr. Seraphim Rose” by Rev. Dr. Michael Askoul, “Gnosis: The Nature & History of Gnosticism” by Kurt Rudolph, and an article entitled “What Really Happens After You Die?” by Fr. Paul O’Callaghan.
The Argument for the Toll-House Theory
Fr. Seraphim relies heavily on the exegesis and writings of Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov for support of the tollhouse theory. The following quote from Bishop Ignatius is a good example:
“The space between heaven and earth, the whole azure expanse of the air which is visible to us under the heavens, serves as the dwelling for the fallen angels who have been cast down from heaven…. The holy Apostle Paul calls the fallen angels the spirits of wickedness under the heavens (Eph. 6:12), and their chief the prince of the powers of the air (Eph. 2:2). The fallen angels are dispersed in a multitude throughout the entire transparent immensity, which we see above us. They do not cease to disturb all human societies and every person separately; there is no evil deed, no crime, of which they might not be instigators and participants; they incline and instruct men towards sin by all possible means. Your adversary the devil, says the holy Apostle Peter, walketh about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour (I Peter 5:8), both during our earthly life and after the separation of the soul from the body. When the soul of a Christian, leaving its earthly dwelling, begins to strive through the aerial spaces towards the homeland on high, the demons stop it, strive to find in it a kinship with themselves, their sinfulness, their fall, and to drag it down to the hell prepared for the devil and his angels (Matt. 25:41). They act thus by the right which the have acquired.” (Brianchaninov, vol. III, pp. 132-133).
Bishop Ignatius goes on further to say “For the testing of souls as they pass through the spaces of the air there have been established by the dark powers separate judgment places and guards in a remarkable order. In the layers of the under-heaven, from earth to heaven itself, stand guarding legions of fallen spirits. Each division is in charge of a special form of sin and tests the soul in it when the soul reaches this division. The aerial demonic guards and judgment places are called in the patristic writing the toll-houses, and the spirits who serve in them are called tax-collectors.” (Brianchaninov, vol. III, p. 136).
The following are a sample of quotes from both patristic and liturgical sources, which are given as evidence that the tollhouse theory is the historical teaching of the Church:
1. “Then we will need many prayers, many helpers, many good deeds, and a great intercession from angels on the journeys through the spaces of the air. If when travelling in a foreign land or a strange city we are in need of a guide, how much more necessary for us are guides and helpers to guide us past the invisible dignities and powers and world-rulers of this air, who are called persecutors and publicans and tax-collectors.” (St. John Chrysostom-Homily on Patience and Gratitude)
2. “Daily have death before our eyes and take care how to accomplish the departure from the body and how to pass by the powers of darkness that are to meet us in the air. When the soul leaves the body, angels accompany it; the dark powers come out to meet it, desiring to detain it, and testing it to see if they might find something of their own in it. (St. Isaiah the Recluse-Homily 5 and 17)
3. “When the fearful hosts come, when the divine takers-away command the soul to be translated from the body, when they draw us away by force and lead us away to the unavoidable judgment place – then, seeing them, the poor man… comes all into a shaking as if from an earthquake, is all in trembling…. The divine takers-away, taking the soul, ascend in the air where stands the chiefs, the authorities and world-rulers of the opposing powers. These are our accusers, the fearful publicans, registrars, tax-collectors; they meet it on the way, register, examine, and count the sins and debts of this man – the sins of youth and old age, voluntary and involuntary, committed in deed, word, and thought. Great is the fear here, great the trembling of the poor soul, indescribable the want which it suffers then from the incalculable multitudes of its enemies surrounding it there in myriad’s, slandering it so as not to allow it to ascend to heaven, to dwell in the light of the living, to enter the land of life. But the holy angels, taking the soul, lead it away.”
(St. Ephriam the Syrian, Collected Works (in Russian), Moscow, 1882, vol. 3, pp. 282-385.)
4. “O Virgin, in the hour of my death rescue me from the hand of the demons, and the judgment, and the accusation, and the frightful testing, and the bitter toll-houses and the fierce prince, and the eternal condemnation, O Mother of God.” (Tone 4, Friday, 8th Canticle of the Canon at Matins.)
5. “When my soul shall be about to be released from the bond with the flesh, intercede for me, O Sovereign Lady … that I may pass unhindered through the princes of darkness standing in the air.” (Tone 2, Saturday, Canticle 9)
I would conclude the support of the tollhouse theory with a quote by Metropolitan Macarius of Moscow: “Such an uninterrupted, constant, and universal usage in the Church of the teaching of the toll-houses, especially among the teachers of the 4th century, indisputably testifies that it was handed down to them from the teachers of the preceding centuries and is founded on apostolic tradition.” (Metropolitan Macarius of Moscow, Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, vol. 2, p. 535.)
The Argument Against the Toll-House Theory
One of the most powerful Scriptural arguments against the toll-house theory is the fact that there is simply no direct nor indirect mention of them in all of Scripture. As Fr. Paul O’Callaghan states: “No indication of the existence of the toll-houses can be found in the Scriptures. In fact, it would not be enough to simply say that such teaching is omitted. Rather, the theory of the toll-houses militates against the very nature of Christian hope for the afterlife. One cannot maintain the apostolic attitude of joyous anticipation of being ‘with the Lord’ in the prospect of standing trial before the ‘rulers of wickedness in high places.’ Christians are concerned with standing before the judgement seat of Christ… But by no means does the Bible suggest that we will be tried by fallen angels.”
Rev. Azkoul takes Fr. Seraphim to task for what he believes is a loose handling of Scriptural and patristic texts. He takes exception both with Fr. Seraphim’s translations and lack of context. Take for example, the following paragraph from Fr. Seraphim’s “The Soul After Death”: “Your adversary the devil, says the holy Apostle Peter, walketh about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour (I Peter 5:8), both during our earthly life and after the separation of the soul from the body. Rev. Azkoul responds with the following: “Fr. Seraphim is playing games with the obvious meaning of the Holy Scriptures. Let us put 1 Peter 5:8 in context: Be sober, be vigilant: because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion walks about, seeking whom he may devour: whom you must steadfastly resist in the faith, knowing that the same afflictions are accomplished in your brethren that are in the world. But the God of all grace, who has called us unto His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, make you perfect, establish, strengthen and settle you (vv. 8-10).
There is no justification for adding the words ‘both during our earthly life and after the separation of the soul from the body.’ Fr. Seraphim cannot just throw in a sentence to suit himself – ‘They act thus (i.e. judge souls) by the right they acquired.’ Who gave the evil spirits this right? God? We must be shown. Where in the Scriptures or the fathers is it written that God permitted the demons to erect tollhouses to judge the souls of the righteous in their ascent to heaven?
Fr. Seraphim only compounds the error by linking 1 Peter 5:8 to the words of the Lord in Matthew 25:41, which, as the Gospel shows, refer to the state of the fallen angels and the unrighteous after the Last Judgment. Again, nothing in the text permits Fr. Seraphim to picture the fallen angels ‘dragging’ anyone into hell. They have no such authority now, nor in the Day of Judgment. Only God has the ‘right’ and ‘power’ to glorify or condemn (Rev. 20:14). The fathers say nothing differently, nothing that could be construed as supporting Fr. Seraphim Rose’s novel interpretation.”
As a patristic example contradicting the possibility of the toll-house theory, Rev Azkoul provides the following: “Thus, the holy fathers teach that God controls the destiny of the soul, where it shall dwell, what powers it retains, after its separation from the flesh. The devil has no authority over the soul, asserts St. John Chrysostom, ‘having not the power to bring violence upon the soul, whether in the body or after its departure from it, but, according to the words of the Lord, the beggar died and was carried away by the angels. Not only the souls of the righteous, but also the wicked are carried away.’ (On Lazarus and the Rich Man, Homily 2 PG 48 p.984)”
Finally, something to be addressed is the possibility of whether or not the toll-house theory is something that finds its origins in the influence of various heretical Gnostic systems, which existed, in the second and third centuries. Gnostic literature is replete with examples of tollhouse like imagery. For example, in the Gnostic text the first “Apocalypse of James” the risen Jesus imparts the following knowledge (gnosis) to James the Just: “Behold I shall reveal to you your redemption. When you are seized and you undergo these death pangs, a multitude of Archons will turn against you, that they may seize you. And in particular three of them will seize you, namely, those who sit there as supernatural toll collectors, not only demanding toll, but also taking away souls by force.” (Kurt Rudolph – Gnosis: The Nature & History of Gnosticism pp.174-175.)
So what are we to think?
Does the Orthodox Church affirm the existence of tollhouses or not? Simply stated, I don’t know. I haven’t studied the issue enough to feel comfortable taking a firm stand one way or the other. I would like to close this article with a quotation from Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan’s “The Spirit of Eastern Christendom”. In this quotation Dr. Pelikan is referring to the Eastern Church’s understanding of Purgatory and the state of the soul after death. “… The failure of the union of Florence meant that the East returned to its view that the state of the soul after death was not clearly defined in Scripture or tradition and that therefore there was not an official Orthodox doctrine on the question, but only various private theologoumena, which could not be proved from the norms of the church’s teaching. In addition, the East maintained that whatever the ‘immediate’ state’ might or might not be, the church on earth did not have the right to claim jurisdiction over it.”
Taking this quotation into consideration, it seems that my personally ambiguous stance on the issue does not appear to be in great variance with the current understanding of the Church.