State of the Soul After Death

By: Hieromonk DionysiosRead time: 15 mins9957 Hits

State of the Soul After Death According to the Teachings of Saint John Damascene

by Hieromonk Dionysios 

The Orthodox view of the state of the soul after death is presented in the teachings and writings of Saint John of Damascus. The Orthodox world has debated the state of the soul after death (active versus soul slumber) and the tollhouses (real or imaginary). It is thus my intent to draw mainly from the writings and hymnology of Saint John of Damascus to show what the Orthodox view actually holds and the reality of the toll houses. I will also discuss the resurrection of the dead, a resurrection of soul AND body when the resurrected enter the joy of their Lord or suffer eternal torment.

In the Octoechos attributed to Saint John of Damascus, we find a clear reference to the tollhouses. The eigth canticle from the canon at Matins reads, “O Virgin, in the hour of death rescue me from the hands of the demons, and the judgment, and the accusations, and the frightful testing, and the bitter tollhouses and the fierce prince, and the eternal condemnation, O Theotokos.” By this hymn, we see clearly Saint John of Damascus’ belief in a judgment at death. This judgment involves some type of meeting with demonic spirits (rescue from the hands of demons, the fierce prince) and the testing of souls. It is the testing of souls itself, which occurs at the various tollhouses. The tollhouses are the places of judgment of the soul after death. The questions then become: what judgments actually occur, who is the judge, and who does the accusing?


In another hymn attributed to Saint John of Damascus we read, ” When my soul shall be released from the bond with the flesh, intercede for me, O Sovereign Lady.. that I may pass unhindered through the princes of darkness in the air.” Last among these canticles of Damascene is “Grant me to pass through the noetic satraps and the tormenting aerial legions without sorrow at the time of my departure, that I may cry joyfully to Thee, O Theotokos, who heard the cry, ‘Hail’:Rejoice, O unshamed hope of all.”

Bishop Ignatios Brianchaninov states that the teaching of the tollhouses is an accepted teaching throughout the Divine Services of the Orthodox Church. It certainly is made clear in numerous hymns attributed to Damascus. Father Seraphim Rose states the teaching of the tollhouses is given to us that we might learn to struggle against the demons of the air in this life and in our meeting with them at death obtain victory. The Orthodox teaching taught and held by Saint John of Damascus according to Father Seraphim is that the tollhouses are indeed real, not imaginairy places. These tollhouses are a series of judgments and the angels are the judges. They also stand to defend the soul against the false accusations of the demonic spirits. In reality, however, it is the persons themselves who determine their own fate, for the soul will cling to that which fits it nature, be it the nature of the demons or the heavenly nature of the angels. The accusers are the demons who stop us at various tollhouses and continue to tempt us and show forth how by our actions we lived as one of them and not as a true servant of God. The first two days after death, the soul spends on earth, visiting places with which it was familiar. At the third day, it begins its ascent through these aerial tollhouses, being tested by the various legions of demonic spirits. This is what Saint John of Damascus refers to when he speaks of the ‘princes of the air’ and the ‘frightful testing’. Until the ninth day, the soul is given a glimpse of the beauty of Paradise prepared for those who loved and served the Lord. At the ninth day, the Orthodox Church holds a special commemoration for the soul, as it is from this time forth until the fortieth day that the soul sees the torments of Hell, this is the ‘eternal condemnation’ to which Saint John of Damascus refers. At the fortieth day, the judgment is complete, the soul has either a foretaste of Heaven (its fulfilment in the Second Coming of Christ) or a foretaste of Hell. Saint John goes further in his explanation of the mystery of death:

Truly most frightening is the mystery of death, how the soul is violently separated from the body, and by divine decree, the most natural bond of their cohesion is severed. Wherefore, we implore Thee, O Giver of Life who loves mankind, to grant rest to the soul to the newly departed one in the dwelling of the righteous.

Vespers of Friday of the Plagal Tone (Tone 1), not written by Saint John of Damascus but closely related to the theme of his hymnology, states, “O Christ, spare me, thy servant, when my soul is separated from the body at the command given by Thee, Who didst unite dust and spirit by divine beckoning, spare me from the assault and ill treatment of invisible enemies that lie in wait to wrench me away mercilesly.” From this, the time of our death rests in the will of God. At the separation of the soul from the body, we see the demonic spirits mentioned again, the invisible enemies who wait to take our souls to their abode.

Can the soul after leaving earth and passing through the judgment experience any change in its state? Indeed, according to Saint John of Damscus, until the time of the Second Coming and the general judgment of Christ the state of the soul can be changed for the better. He states:

“Do not reject bringing oil for the sacred lamp at the tomb and lighting candles there when entreating Christ God, for these are acceptable to God and bring great return. For the oil and wax are sacrifices of a burnt offering, the bloodless sacrifice (Eucharist) is an expiation, and benevolence extended to the poor are an addition to every good return.”

2 Maccabees 12:44 attests to the offering of prayer for the sake of souls, for its benefit even after death. “For if he had hoped that they who were slain should have risen again, it had been superfluous and vain to pray for the dead” The Gospel of Matthew also attests to this: “Jesus answered and said unto them, Ye do err, not knowing the Scripture, nor the power of God…God is not the God of the dead, but the living.” The implication here is that the dead are truly alive. I will deal with this further in my discussion of ‘soul slumber.’

The soul thus can change its state as it awaits the General Judgment. At the General Judgment all things are final, all things are sealed, and the state of the soul at this time determines the state of the resurrected person for eternity. The resurrection, the uniting of the soul and body once again, occurs at the Second Coming of Christ and the General Judgment as Damascus states:

“We also believe in the resurrection of the dead. For in truth it will happen, there will be a resurrection of the dead. But when we say resurrection, we mean a resurrection of bodies. For resurrection is a second standing of that which has fallen. And souls are immortal, hence, how can they rise again? For if death is defined as a separation of soul from body, resurrection is surely the rejoining of soul and body and the second standing of the dissolved and fallen creature. It is, then, the very body that is corrupted and dissolved that will resurrect incorruptible. For He who formed it in the beginning from the dust of the earth is not incapable of raising it up again after it has again been dissolved and returned to the earth from which, by decision of the Creator it was taken. Therefore, there will be, indeed, there will be a resurrection. For God is just, and He is the rewarder of those who await Him patiently. Now, if the soul had engaged in the contests for virtue itself, then it would be crowned alone. And if it indulged in the pleasures, then it alone would be justly punished. But since the soul pursued neither vice nor virtue without the body, it will be just for them both together to receive that which is their due. Moreover, the divine Scriptures also witness that there will be a resurrection of bodies. Therefore we shall rise again, with our souls once more united to our bodies, which will have become incorrupt and put off corruption. And we shall stand before the fearful judgment seat of Christ.”

It is necessary now having examined what occurs to the soul to define the nature of the soul according to Saint John of Damascus. The soul is not contained; it is immaterial yet intimately connected to the body.

Every man is a combination of soul and body…The soul is a living substance, simple and without body, invisible to the bodily eyes by vir of its peculiar nature, immortal, rational, spiritual, without form, using the bodily organ, in which it occassions for growth, sensibility, and productiveness. The mind is not something apart from the soul, but its purest part, since what the eyes are to the body, such is the mind to the soul. The soul is independent, with a will and energy of its own, and changeable, capable of altering itself, since it is a created thing.

Thus, the soul is connected to the mind.

Within the body, and as Damascus states, the soul changes form, as a result of its being a created thing, and having free will. The soul is a reflection of the nature of God, and while immortal, is still a created thing, subject to change, and connected intimately with the body.

Bodily place is the limit of that which contains, by which that which is contained is contained: for example, the air contains but the body is contained. But it is not the whole of the containing air which is the place of the contained body, but the limit of the containing air, where it comes into contact with the contained body…But there is also mental place where mind is active, and mental and incorporeal nature exists; where mind dwells and energizes and is contained not in a bodily but in a mental fashion…But the (soul) is circumscribed alike in time and in place and in apprehension.

There are some Orthodox who have argued that the soul does not pass through the tollhouses, but rather is in a state of slumber. This term ‘slumber’ means that the soul is inactive, and as Father Michael Azkoul, one of the proponents of the soul slumber theory states, “(the soul) is in a condition of inactivity, a sort of inactivity in which it does not function, hear, or see.” Father Seraphim argues against this notion, comparing it to the common misconceptions of the Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses. He states rather that the souk is quite alive and aware. To give evidence to this argument he qoutes from Saint Dorotheos, “(the soul) remembers everything at its exit from this body and more clearly and distinctly once freed from the earthliness of the body.” He cites Saint John Cassian, ” (the soul) becomes yet more alive (after death).” We must ask if the idea of soul slumber is true, then what is the purpose of prayer for the dead if they are in a state in which their souls are inactive and cannot change state. The reasoning of Father Michael Azkoul and those ahderents to his position has no solid patristic basis nor is it sensible in light of the Church’s prayer for the dead. Also we must realize that even Christ Himself descended to Hades, and that his soul was certainly not inactive after his death that was life-restoring. In the Divine Liturgy, the priest prays, ” In the tomb with the body, in Hades with the soul, on the throne with the Father and the Spirit, was thou, O Christ infinitely filling everything.” This prayer in itself disproves any notion of soul slumber. Lastly as recorded in Saint Archbishop John Maximovitch’s writing on the Life After Death, he argues as well that the soul does remain conscious. He also quotes from Saint John Cassian who sets forth clearly the active state of the soul: ” Souls after the separation from this body are not idle, do not remain without consciousness; this is proved by the Gospel of the rich man and Lazarus…The souls of the dead not only do not lose their consciousness, they do not even lose their dispositions.”

A final argument among the Orthodox is whether or not the tollhouses are real or imaginary Father Azkoul rejected the notion of the reality of the toll houses, stating not only that they are not present in the Church;s tradition (this has been addressed in the above arguments) but stating as wel that such an idea must be rejected because it makes the demons as the determiners of one’s salvation, and through ‘excess merits’ of saints, the ‘toll’ is paid. He thus rejects the tollhouses believing it to parallel the Latin idea of Purgatory.

Father Seraphim Rose refuted this idea of comparing the tollhouse to purgatory as farfetched in that the toll houses are part of the Orthodox ascetic teaching and have to do solely with the testing of man for his sins committed by him. There is no idea whatsoever he states of there being a satisifaction to God, ‘excess merits’, and the purpose is certainly not ‘torture’ as Father Michael Azkoul suggested. Within the Church’s tradition in regards to the reality of the toll houses exist not only the previous mentioned hymnology and quotations from the Fathers, but also detailed descriptions of the dying experiences and the passages through the tollhouses by such holy ones as Saint Theodora. Saint Theodora gives a detailed account of the reality of the toll houses and her passage through them before her soul returned to her body. Saint Makarios of Egypt gives a clear expression of the reality of these tollhouses:

“When the soul of a man departs out of the body, a great mystery is there accomplished. If it is under the guilt of sins there come bands of devils, and angels of the left hand, and powers of darkness that overtake the soul, and hold it fast on their side. No one ought to be surprised at this. If, while alive in this world, the man was subject and compliant to them, and made himself their bondsman, how much more, when he departs out of this world, is he kept down and held fast by them.”

He continues in Homily 43: “Like tax collectors sitting in the narrow ways, and laying hold upon the paserby, and extorting from them, so do 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.”   We can find numerous references to the reality of the tollhouses within the writings of the Philokalia. One example is from Saint Hesychios in which he states:

“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; but then, as now, it will boldly confront them…the hour of death will come, and we will not escape it. May the prince of the world and of the air find our misdeeds few and petty when he comes, so he will not have good grounds for convicting us.”

This quotation from the Philokalia this shows what occurs at death, and that there is indeed a confrontation (the toll houses) with demonic spirits. Saint John of Karpathos states:

“When the soul leaves the body, the enemy advances to attack it, fiercely reviling it and accusing it of its sins in a harsh and terrifying manner. But if a soul enjoys the love of God and has faith in Him, evne though in the past it has often been wounded by sin, it is not frightened by the enemy’s attacks and threats. Strengthened by the Lord, winged by joy, filled with courage by holy angels that guide it, encircled and protected by the light of faith, it answers the malicious devil with great boldness. When the soul says all this fearlessly, the devil turns his back…”

The tollhouses and the judgment of the soul is and was nothing imaginary to the Fathers such as Saint Hesychios and John of Karpathos who described these things, but rather as a true spiritual reality.

In conclusion, the toll houses are indeed real and a part of the entire teaching of the Orthodox Church in regards to the state of the soul after death. Saint John of Damascus as well as other Church Fathers and the hymnology of the Church all attest to the judgment after death, the frightful testing, and our warring with the spirits in the air. The toll houses are not imaginary, and the soul is not in a state of slumber but active, hence the reason for the Church’s prayers for the dead, as the state of the soul can continually be effected upon until the final judgment.



-This article is reprinted from the University of Scranton’s DIAKONIA journal for Eastern Christian Studies