Aerial Toll-Houses

With the release of a new massive volume on the subject, Aerial Toll-Houses has once again become a hot topic. It is a peculiar teaching found in some of the church fathers that continue to perplex to this day. The Roman Catholics already have their interpretation of the fathers on the table: they call it “Purgatory.” However, Eastern Orthodoxy never truly wrestled with the issue, so it is still up for interpretation and debate. But what is this teaching, and which of the fathers spoke on it?

To briefly summarize the teaching, it is the idea that when we die, our souls embark on a mysterious ascent for an unknown amount of time (since it takes place after death in the spiritual realm, which is outside of time). In these moments, our souls must travel with our guardian angels through points of testing to see whether we are truly refined to perfection. There are different toll-houses/booths (the image has its origin with ancient tax collectors) which represent different temptations, and every person must pass through all of them in order to enter the kingdom of God. For example, on the ascent to heaven, we will encounter the demon of lust trying to accuse us of the sin. If the angel successfully advocates for us and our heart refuses the temptation, we travel onward. If we give in to the temptation, then we are swatted down from the sky and experience hell. This represents one toll booth out of many.

Patristic Evidence

As far as I can tell, the earliest detailed form of the concept originates with St Anthony of Egypt (c. 251-356). In the Life of St Anthony, St Athanasius (c. 296-373) records a time when Anthony had a vision of the soul’s reckoning (this happened in Anthony’s life after was sixty years old, but before he visits Alexandria). It was for Anthony, an out of body experience that happened randomly one day when he was about to eat, having risen to pray at the ninth hour. Anthony was literally out of his own body and saw himself, as if in a kind of astral form. His spirit was then taken up into the air by angels, but was stopped by demons. The demons wanted an account of Anthony’s sins since birth to see whether or not Anthony belonged with them. The angels then said that God wiped out Anthony’s sins from birth, but they could examine his conduct from the time he became a monk until now. When they could not bring any accusations against him, Anthony was free and unhindered from passing through. He wakes up from the vision, and contemplates what just happened, concluding that the devil has power to fight in the air and hinder the souls passage.[1] St Athanasius, a spiritual son to Anthony, uses this understanding to argue that this is why Christ had to be raised up into the air when crucified: so the atmosphere could be cleared away for souls to travel unhindered.[2] This vision became the very hermeneutic for how both Anthony and Athanasius interpreted St Paul’s words about there being a “prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2), because both men explicitly quote this passage. I cannot emphasize this enough: Ephesians 2:2 is absolutely the most important and foundational Bible passage when it comes to this cosmology, with potential allusions in Matthew 12:43, 45; Luke 10:18; Ephesians 6:11; 1 Peter 5:8; Hebrews 6:4-6, 10:26-31; Jude 22-23, and especially 1 Corinthians 6:9-10.

In addition to Sts Anthony and Athanasius, St Basil the Great (c. 330-379) says “A strict angel will come, he will forcibly lead out your soul, bound by sins. Occupy yourself therefore with reflection on the last day… Imagine to yourself the confusion, the shortness of breath, and the hour of death, the sentence of God drawing near, the angels hastening towards you, the dreadful confusion of the soul tormented by its conscience, with its pitiful gaze upon what is happening, and finally, the unavoidable translation into a distant place.[3] St John Chrysostom (c. 349-407) is even more detailed in his explanation when he says: “If, in setting out for any foreign country or city we are in need of guides, then how much shall we need helpers and guides in order to pass unhindered past the elders, the powers, the governors of the air, the persecutors, the chief collectors! For this reason, the soul, flying away from the body, often ascends and descends, fears and trembles. The awareness of sins always torments us, all the more at that hour when we shall have to be conducted to those trials and that frightful judgement place…The holy angels peacefully separated us from our bodies, and having good guides, we went without harm past the powers of the air. The evil spirits did not find in us what they were seeking; they did not notice what they wished to put to shame; seeing an immaculate soul, they were ashamed; seeing an undefiled tongue, they were silent. We passed by and put them to shame. The net was rent, and we were delivered. Blessed is God Who did not give us as a prey to them.”[4] All of this is not to be understood as demons literally taking us away and inflicting punishment upon us, but rather, as St Cyril of Alexandria says, “each person is bound by the cords of his own sins.”[5] We are the ones condemning ourselves, and it is our own sins that pull our faces away from the Son.

Despite the patristic evidence, the modern concept of Toll-Houses primarily comes from the much later vision of a nun named St Theodora of Constantinople. Fr. Thomas Hopko explains:

In the year 944 in Constantinople, there was a monk saint name Basil the New, and he had a disciple named Gregory, who had a woman disciple named Theodora—and Theodora had a vision. The vision was of the Aerial Phantoms…Now in that time there was a definite idea that these demons were spiritually flying through the air. In fact, Athanasius the Great and Gregory of Nyssa even says that’s why Christ has to die by crucifixion: because he has to be lifted up into the air, and He has to purify the atmosphere! And y’know, these Aerial Phantoms, these spirits (I like to joke and say now we got these computers and TV sets to bring them into our homes), but they’re flying around out there, y’know, that’s what their idea was. And when you die, and your breath leaves you, then they attack you…And so also you have this kind of geographical or spatial imagery that you’re leaving the earth. Then you have to pass through all these demons who are out to get you. That was the symbolic way that they would speak. So then this Theodora has this vision (and here I would just want to comment and say it’s a personal vision. We never build dogmas on personal visions. And Father Michael Pomazansky in his Orthodox Dogmatics from Jordanville, said you can’t build a dogma on some vision of some woman who is a disciple of some saint. You can’t do it. He said but you got to ask yourself the question ‘What is being told there? What is being witnessed to?’ Because it’s most likely something really good and true, y’know? So what he said, and others say, is that what it really is, is that in the process of dying, all these evil demons attack us and we’ve got to be victorious and purified both: purified of them if we’re holding on, and victorious over them if they’re attacking us. And the greatest big ferocious attack comes when you’re dying, because that really is the moment of truth. And here we would even say every single person’s life is proved on the day they die. Until then, we don’t know who we’re with…only when we die does it come out what is really the truth).[6]

We should know by now (after having read the Old Testament prophets, and the Book of Revelation) that visions are never to be interpreted literally. In his lecture, Fr. Thomas Hopko lists all twenty of the toll booths according to the testimony of St Theodora, which he describes as being twenty “demonic tests/temptations/trials that we have to be victorious over, and be purified from, in order to enter into the peace and joy of the kingdom of God with Christ and all the saints.”[7] They are the following:

  1. Idle talk: angry, foolish, foul and shameless words
  2. Lying
  3. Slander/Gossip
  4. Gluttony: addiction to food and drinks
  5. Sloth/Lethargy/Laziness
  6. Stealing
  7. Avarice/Greed/Covetousness
  8. Usury: lending money at interest
  9. Being unjust/unfair/supporting injustices
  10. Envy/Jealousy
  11. Pride/Arrogance/Vanity
  12. Anger
  13. Bearing grudges/Not forgiving
  14. Murder
  15. Magic/Sorcery/Incantations
  16. Pornia, Fornication/Unchastity of a sexual type
  17. Adultery
  18. Unnatural pornia: Sodomy/Bestiality
  19. Heresies/Distorting the Christian faith
  20. Cruelty of heart/Hard heartedness/lack of compassion for others.

Icon of the death of St Theodora

In recent past, there was a heated debate among the Orthodox over the theological opinions of those supporting a literal (or a nuanced and metaphorical) interpretation of the teaching, and who vehemently rejected the teaching altogether, believing it to be a result of neo-Gnostic/neo-Platonic influence. However, the vast majority of Orthodox Christians do not even know this teaching exists, so it is inconsequential for the average parishioner active in the life of the Church. Hardly something that could be considered dogma.

A tweet from Aristotle Papanikolaou of Fordham University

Archbishop Chrysostomos of Etna, in an introduction to Fr. Michael Pomazansky’s essay “Our War Is Not Against Flesh and Blood: On the Question of the ‘Toll-Houses,’” writes the following:

Admittedly, there are ecclesiastical writers who have too literally presented the complex teachings of the Orthodox Church on life after death and the “toll house” imagery. But they are guilty of poor expression, not heresy and neo-Gnosticism. Fundamentalism and literalism are a danger in any discussion of spiritual things that address another dimension of thought and experience. And we must be critical of any fall to such foibles. But we must never respond to such weaknesses with equally naïve fundamentalism under the guise of “scholarly” expertise which is nothing more than a superficial treatment of very intricate problems by individuals who approach theology, not with the desire to learn, but with definite axes to grind.[8]

Interpreting the Vision

When it comes to how we ought to approach the subject of Toll-Houses, Hopko, Pomazansky, and Chrysostomos urge the Orthodox faithful to simply eat the meat and spit out the bones, so to speak. They would argue that the Orthodox should not accept the teaching in a literal sense, because it would simply become an Orthodox version of purgatory. Not only that, but there is a lack of liturgical evidence to support a literal interpretation, let alone consider it a dogma. One could simply ask the question: “If such a teaching is considered an Orthodox dogma, then why is the funeral service so silent with regards to this teaching?” Fr. Pomazansky explicitly stated this teaching is not a dogma when he wrote: “The subject of the toll-houses is not specifically a topic of Orthodox Christian theology: it is not a dogma of the Church in the precise sense, but comprises material of a moral and edifying character, one might say pedagogical.”[9] However, they would also say that to go to the other extreme is also a mistake, because there is a way to affirm the good of this doctrine without also becoming a neo-Gnostic. Also, to reject it entirely would leave a wide variety of patristic agreement either wilfully ignored or willfully uninterpreted. The heart of the Orthodox must always be to affirm what is good and the true, as Fr. Hopko reminds us, even if there are difficulties. If we take this approach, how ought we interpret these things? I will offer my own personal theory (I take a middle ground and side largely with Pomazansky and Hopko):

I believe the teaching of the Aerial Toll Houses is primarily a metaphor of the Christian life. What is interesting is that Fr. Hopko does not merely say the booths are there to accuse our past life, but adds that it is also to test our present state of being. This is interesting because Theodora’s vision (as well as Anthony’s) only shows the demons accusing the past. This additional layer of being tempted to each sin right then and there leads me to make the following conclusion:

The teaching (which was primarily emphasized in a monastic context) must have eventually—and perhaps unknowingly—transfigured itself by the 7th century to become The Ladder of Divine Ascent. The notion of Toll-booths may have been reshaped by St John Climacus (c. 579-649) to be a more helpful metaphorical interpretation for monastic communities, so they instead became rungs on a ladder. The idea that the soul begins this process in the next life was better understood to be that the process begins in this life. The two concepts are different analogies to essentially say the same thing: we have temptations, and we must overcome all of them in order to become perfect and enter the kingdom of God. This is what matters the most, and this is where our eyes should be focused, though also not denying that Christ is our advocate against the accusations of the devil (1 John 2:1).

All of us have been trying to ascend through these temptations (or “booths”) from the moment we were born. All of our lives, demons have both successfully and unsuccessfully tempted us to certain sins, and all our lives we have been re-seeking passage once we get back up from the ground (in repentance). By God’s grace, our spiritual lives improve, so we are, in a sense, “passing through more and more booths.” Which is no different than saying “climbing up more and more rungs.” Therefore, it is not quite proper to think such a process begins only once we die, because are we really going to assume that demons wait patiently until we die before accusing us? I cannot imagine any Christian believing such a thing.

However, instead of the one tradition properly supplanting the other, and because I do not believe the two analogical perspectives represent any real or relevant difference, it is possible that the former tradition continued as a lesser known and lesser developed parallel tradition. However, I believe it is wise to interpret Aerial Toll-Houses in light of The Ladder of Divine Ascent. We do not need icons of Toll-Houses when we have the much more helpful icon of the Ladder to guide the mind where it must be found. When we ascend the ladder, who is at the top? Demons, waiting for us to get just a little bit closer? No, the top of the ladder is Christ and His glory, which means physical death could be at any point on the ladder (though we continue to our trajectory even after death, receiving prayers from those Christians yet remaining on earth).

The entire purpose of the teaching is not to give us anxiety-provoking spoilers (as if it is all about merely leaking knowledge with regards to what happens to us when we die), but to motivate us to refocus our spiritual lives here and now in order to climb with greater endurance. Perhaps the main problem with an emphasis on Toll-Houses (interpreted with and inflexible literalism) is not just the departing from an apophatic understanding with regards to the nature of a timeless existence (and its relationship to an existence within time),[10] but also simply the temptation to believe we have not already begun climbing the rungs. Despite such a temptation, I suspect St John Climacus already helped us pass through that booth.

Icon of the Ladder of Divine Ascent


[1] Athanasius. On the Life of St. Anthony.

[2] Athanasius. On the Incarnation, 25.

[3] Basil of Caesarea, as quoted in “Essay in an Historical Exposition of Orthodox Theology,” by Bishop Sylvester, Vol. 5, p.89

[4] John Chrysostom. On Remembering the Dead, Homily 2.

[5] Cyril of Alexandria. On the Departure of the Soul, Homily 13.

[6] Thomas Hopko, in the lecture titled, “Dying with Jesus: Reflections on the Toll Houses.”

[7] Ibid.

[8] Chrysostomos. http://orthodoxinfo.com/death/tollhouse_pomaz.aspx

[9] Michael Pomazansky. “Our War is not Against Flesh and Blood.”

[10] Though, in keeping with a consistent apophaticism, one must also grant the possibility that Aerial Toll-Houses could also be, in some sense, literal. It is simply a mystery, so we cannot be too dogmatic about the details either way.

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