Toll Houses: Truth or Lie?

The Unnecessary Controversy:

I first learned about the toll houses from a friend who was quite concerned that I be exposed to the truth early in my journey into Orthodoxy.  He sent me a copy of Fr. Michael Azkoul’s booklet: The Toll-House Myth: The Neo-Gnosticism of Fr. Seraphim Rose.  I was not impressed with the book, but since I had no other knowledge of the subject, I agreed with my friend and the author that the toll house doctrine must be some kind of new heresy that has been emphasized in the past couple of centuries, especially in Russian Orthodoxy.

Several years later, my beliefs have completely changed.  No one argued me into changing sides.  Shortly after my conversion, when I saw that there were various controversies between modern Orthodox people, I decided to mostly stay away from books that were not written by people glorified as saints of the church.  That “limits” me to tens of thousands of texts written over the past 1,900+ years.

I have no shortage of reading material.

I quickly noticed something — from the writings of St. John Chrysostom to the Desert Fathers to the Philokalia to all of the 20th century saints of the Orthodox Church — they all taught about the toll houses.  I realized I must choose between putting my faith in a couple of questionable writings from the last few decades or in the entire Orthodox Church.  It was not a hard choice.

What Are the Toll Houses?

According to all of the fathers of the church who have written on this topic, at the death of the body, the soul departs from the body.  The soul is eternal and cannot die nor enter into a sleep-like state.  A multitude of saints address that topic and anyone who teaches annihilation or “soul sleep” is teaching a form of pagan philosophy.

So, all of the fathers of the church also agree that the soul is not only immortal, but that there is some kind of trial of the soul immediately after death, which is called the Particular Judgment (the P.J. is different from the Final Judgment that will happen at the Second Coming and the end of the world).  The specifics vary a bit in a few writings, but the vast majority teach something like the following:

When the soul departs from the body, two angels come to meet the soul, and a throng of demons come also.  The demons attempt to find something that belongs to them, something that is of their “essence” in the soul.  Should that sinful something be found, and there has been no repentance to “pay” for it, then the angels allow the soul to be dragged away by the demons to Hades.

Each of the demons who represent the various sins will “interrogate” or inspect the soul to see if there is something of itself within the person.  These moments of evaluation are called “toll houses.”

In ancient times, tax collectors would sit along the roads and extract from travelers the money they believed was due them.  They acted with such savage cruelty that the church fathers saw in this a metaphor of the demonic encounters the soul will have after death, which is why even St. John Chrysostom referred to these demons as “persecutors, publicans, and tax-collectors.”  Should the demons find unrepented and unconfessed sins in the soul, they are given the right to drag it to Hades.

If that sounds horrifying to you, then that is good.  You understand the warning that has been laid bare by well over 100 saints of the church since the time of Justin Martyr.

A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words

Probably one of the best tools for teaching a proper understanding of the toll houses is through the iconography of the church, both ancient and more modern.  Below are some examples of the Particular Judgment:

These three icons depict the Particular Judgment and they summarize in one image what happens in the toll houses.  In all three, we see a balance of scales being held by either the hand of God or an angel.  Scrolls representing good deeds on God’s right (our left) and the bad deeds and demons are on His left.  There are demons clinging to the scale in order to unfairly weigh it down in their favor.  For such impudence, nearly all icons show an angel stabbing the demons with a spear or trident.

Many lessons can be learned and falsifications overthrown by a simple study of these icons.

  1. The demons are not the judges.  God holds the scale, or an angel holds it on His behalf.  The demons are there to accuse and present records of our sins, but they can do no more than that.  Just as Heaven assigns us a guardian angel, so Hades assigns us a demon who follows us throughout our lives and keeps record of all of our sins.  These sins will then be presented at the time of our death if we have not confessed them.
  2. Salvation is accomplished through repentance and God’s mercy.  Many icons depict a few good deeds outweighing a multitude of sins.  That is only possible because of God’s mercy.  Good deeds and virtues are still crucial to show that we are genuine in our faith and repentance, but they alone cannot save us.
  3. The toll houses are not specifically depicted in the three icons above, but the idea is present that the demon of each kind of sin will put his records on the scale if we have committed that type of sin at some point in our lives and not genuinely turned away from it.  The teaching is not that we have to attain to absolute perfection in order to make it through, but that our tears of repentance and good deeds will show that, even though we were not perfect, we were actively trying to battle these sins in our lives.

Why a Controversy?

So if the Orthodox Church Fathers have unanimously supported this, and no saint has ever written against it, why is there even a controversy?  If the teaching has been both explicit and universal in the Orthodox Church for over 1,500 years, then why would anyone challenge it?

As Fr. Seraphim Rose once noted, Americans don’t like the idea of suffering or hardship.  A teaching that all of us will be held accountable for “every idle word” (Matt 12:36) and sin (cf. 1 Peter 4:5, Romans 14:12) is horrifying.  The reality that demons will come after our souls when we die, bringing up records of our sins, and attempting to drag our souls into Hades is intolerable for some people.

In America, we have been thoroughly indoctrinated with the idea of “Blessed Assurance,” that is, both Heaven and salvation are done and completed for us.  All we have to do is muddle through this life and wake up in glory because our salvation is assured, and no matter what we do with our lives, we gain access to heaven as long as we have repeated the “sinner’s prayer” and “invited Jesus into our hearts.”  Such delusion is deeply engrained in our culture.

This delusional culture produced two men: “Archbishop” Lazar Puhalo and Fr. Michael Azkoul.  In the late 1970’s, Puhalo released the first ever written attack against the toll houses in the history of the Church.  Because he lacked sufficient material to support his thesis, he had to alter icons and mistranslate ancient texts.  But here in the Land of Comfort and Protestantism, the ideas found an audience.  Until this year, few people realized the multitude of falsifications, misrepresentations, and lies present in Puhalo and Azkoul’s works.

Fortunately, due to a group of well-researched monks at St. Anthony’s Monastery, we now see the extent of the manipulation that was being passed as Orthodox theology.  In their book The Departure of the Soul, they dedicate over 150 pages to exposing the deceptions of Puhalo and Azkoul.

A List and Quotes from the Fathers

Because this blog is already so long, I will complete a second part that contains a list of the saints who wrote about the Particular Judgment and the Toll Houses as well as quotes from the fathers.

For further reading, I highly recommend The Departure of the Soul, which puts the last nail in the coffin of this unnecessary controversy.  Icons and quotes in this blog are from the above mentioned book.

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Growing up in non-denominational churches, I became weary of many practices in the church. I decided it was time to find a church that enabled me to grow in my faith and talents, but that was also theologically deep. I was drawn to the Eastern Orthodox Church for several reasons. Check out my blog which details my journey into this ancient faith.

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