I know of only a few other topics in Orthodoxy that can cause as much division as toll houses. With that in mind, I have put together this page in order to assist people who want to know more information. Most people I’ve spoken to and resources I’ve encountered that oppose the toll house theology end up creating an overly-literal and exaggerated concept of the toll-houses. So there is need for some additional clarity.
What Are the Toll Houses?
Anyone who has spent a decent amount of time reading the Fathers will find a multitude of passages that deal, usually quite briefly, with the state of the soul after death. In these ancient writings, there is usually some kind of “testing” of the soul to see where it is truly inclined. Over time, it seems that “toll house” became the standard term for this moment of testing through which every soul must pass.
Some call it the “particular judgment,” which is different from the Last Judgement. A soul that passes through the “toll houses” is one that is received into Paradise, the foretaste of heavenly things to come. The soul that does not make it through finds itself in the darkness and misery of Hades.
Therefore, my understanding of the toll houses is that it is a metaphor to help us understand – in symbolic language – what a soul experiences when it leaves the body. I believe it is what CS Lewis might have called “theology for grown ups,” in that it requires us to read it with discernment.
The antithesis of this doctrine is the theory of “soul sleep,” in which the soul ceases to exist or it enters into an unconscious or semi-conscious state after separating from the body. Such a belief is taught by the Jehovah’s Witnesses and other fringe groups. Historically, there have been few Christians who held it. I do not believe “soul sleep” can be held by an Orthodox Christian because it contradicts the entire theology regarding the intercession of the saints. One of our greatest feast days is the Dormition of the Theotokos. It is a sober celebration because she is now our heavenly intercessor. If she is unconscious, then why do we ask for her intercessions at every Orthodox service?
The resources I have to offer are:
1) Free electronic resources and
2) Printed books that are usually a bit more in-depth.
- The series on the soul after death by Fr. Thomas Hopko, in which he teaches about the toll houses in addition to heaven and hell, is a highly recommended audio source. The files are from St Paul’s Orthodox Church in Irvine, CA. You can downloaded it in four parts here: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4. Fr. Thomas takes a very careful, well-researched, and balanced approach when addressing this topic. It’s lengthy, but certainly worth a listen.
- You can download a short summary of the above lecture which was recorded on Ancient Faith Radio here.
- Also, some articles regarding the toll-houses:
- The Taxing of Souls – Met. Hierotheos. An excellent and well-researched article by a highly esteemed author. It comes from the book referenced below, Life After Death.
- The Debate Over Ariel Toll-Houses – ROCOR Synod of Bishops, 1980. An evaluation of the controversy between Fr. Seraphim Rose and Lazar Puhalo. Mr. Puhalo has been raising controversy for decades now, causing quite a few problems with his opinions that he promotes as church doctrine. His ideas sometimes reflect whatever will make people feel good about themselves. He is not a trustworthy source.
- On The Question of Toll-Houses – Fr. Michael Pomazansky. Another article on the toll houses by a well respected theologian.
- Here is a document filled with patristic quotes on the state of the soul after death. It was compiled by Rhonda Dodson and is shared on the Traditional Orthodoxy (TradOx) Facebook site. If you are already Orthodox and take the wisdom of the Church seriously, it is a good starting point. After reading through this document and a multitude of other saints, I came to a few conclusions:
- The list is partial. I have come across numerous references or hints toward the tolls houses in the works of the fathers, both ancient and more modern.
- There was quite obviously a common consensus among the fathers that we don’t immediately find ourselves in heaven or hell after death. However, this is explained in various ways and not always as a “toll house.”
- There is some type of testing that happens to the soul after death that determines whether it will enjoy a foretaste of heaven or suffer a foretaste of hell before the Final Judgement. The Toll House doctrine must be understood as a metaphor to explain this period of testing.
- We must try to be balanced. When we lose the metaphorical understanding and try to stretch it too far, we can sometimes create a grotesque doctrine in which demons rule the after life. They don’t. And most of the time these ideas are straw man arguments created to knock down this doctrine. However, if we do not take it seriously enough, then we lose an important part of church doctrine that all of the great saints and teachers of the church have upheld. Though not all taught it, there is not a single saint in the history of the church who opposed this doctrine.
BOOKS IN PRINT
The first book in English (and therefore the one most commonly loved or criticized) on the topic of toll houses is Fr. Seraphim Rose’s The Soul after Death. Fr. Seraphim was a strong advocate of toll-houses and presents the material from a patristic point of view, while also making several speculations of his own on the state of the soul immediately after death, out of body experiences, UFO’s, and other phenomenon that people experience. Whether one likes it or not, it certainly gives some food for thought.
Other books that have been written on the topic include:
- Life after Death – Metropolitan Heirotheos. He addresses heaven, hell, toll houses, universal salvation, purgatory, and several other topics. A most excellent read.
- The Departure of The Soul – There is a new book that came out in April 2017 that contains over 1,000 pages on toll houses. It includes 1,300+ footnotes and cross references, 500+ pages of patristic citations chronologically arranged, over 200 color pages of icons, and over 100 pages refuting outright lies and distortions of contemporary opponents of church doctrine. The book has been endorsed by numerous bishops and academics of the church. This book is perhaps the magnum opus on the topic.
LESS REPUTABLE RESOURCES
I have removed the two resources by Fr. Michael Azkoul and Lazar Puhalo from my page. Originally, my intent was to provide the varying points of view on this topic. However, my desire has always been to be on the path of truth, even if I don’t like the truth I have discovered, even if it makes me uncomfortable. The resources I had listed in this section neglected, distorted, and even lied about many of the teachings of the church in order to make people feel more comfortable.
The last resource I cited above, The Departure of the Soul, has around 100 pages making the case that Mr. Puhalo altered icons, purposely mistranslated ancient texts, and pulled passages out of context in order to “prove” the fathers of the church did not support toll houses. Mr. Puhalo is not a trustworthy source and his messages he posts online remind me of how cult leaders seek to manipulate and control people. My advice is to stay far away from him and read the saints of the church.
Heaven and Hell
I moved this section to the bottom of this page and decided to narrow the focus of this page to Toll Houses. Below are some references to the unique understanding of Heaven and Hell in Orthodox theology.
- Alexander Kalomiros wrote a short book called The River of Fire, which is about all of us going to meet God in the end. A very thought provoking read. A hard copy can be purchased for $4.00 here.
- Here is a fairly short article by Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos on St. Gregory of Nyssa’s view on heaven and hell. It can help deconstruct ideas that we have learned in Western Christianity.
- Writings by saints on death and the future life, as compiled by the editor of the Orthodox Christian Information Center. The articles featured address several topics, all of which were written by saints of the Church.
- A brief article that I wrote regarding heaven and hell.
Tip: right click and hit “Save Link As…” to save several of the electronic resources above to your computer. If the listing of any material here is seen as a copyright infringement, please contact me immediately. Thank you.