Resources on the Toll Houses

Few Orthodox topics cause as much division as the toll houses.  Most division in life stems from ignorance – toll houses are no exception.  Many people who oppose or support toll houses create overly-literal and exaggerated concept of them.  So there is need for some additional clarity.

What Are the Toll Houses?

Passages that discuss the state of the soul after death are common in the Church Fathers.  In these ancient writings, there is often some kind of “testing” of the soul to see where it is truly inclined.  Over time, it seems that “toll houses” became the symbol or allegory for this moment of testing.

Sometimes the judgment immediately after death is called 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, where it will await the Last Judgment.  I believe it is what CS Lewis might have called “theology for grown ups,” in that it requires us to read it with discernment.  It is a metaphor for a complicated spiritual reality that cannot be adequately described with words.

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.  Why pray to or commemorate the saints if they are sleeping?



Toll Houses

  • An article that I wrote on the toll houses and the history of this modern controversy.  This may be a good starting place.
  • 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 highly recommended. The lecture occurred at St Paul’s Orthodox Church in Irvine, CA.  Fr. Thomas takes a very careful, well-researched, and balanced approach when addressing this topic.  It’s lengthy, but certainly worth a listen. Stream it below:
  • 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.
    • 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.  If you are already Orthodox and take the wisdom of the Church seriously, it is another good starting point.


  • Fr. Seraphim Rose’s The Soul after Death was the first book in English on the topic.  He was a strong advocate of toll-houses – for that reason he is either loved or hated by many people today.  In this work, he also makes several speculations on the state of the soul immediately after death, out of body experiences, UFO’s, and other phenomenon that people experience.
  • Life after Death – Metropolitan Heirotheos.  He addresses heaven, hell, toll houses, universal salvation, purgatory, and several other topics.  It’s one of the best books on this topic.
  • The Departure of The Soul – Published in 2017, it contains over 1,000 pages on toll houses.  It is most valuable for the 500+ pages of patristic citations chronologically arranged and over 200 color pages of icons.  The book has been endorsed by numerous bishops and academics of the church.  With all of that said, I have issues with the commentary by the monks throughout the book, but that’ll have to be saved for another time.


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.  The resources I had listed in this section neglected or distorted many teachings of the church.

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.

Heaven and Hell

Below are some references to the unique understanding of Heaven and Hell in Orthodox theology.

Tip: right click and hit “Save Link As…” to save several of the electronic resources above to your computer.  A special thanks to Fr. David Wooten for getting me updated files to the Fr. Tom Hopko lectures. 

19 thoughts on “Resources on the Toll Houses

  1. Hello everyone,
    After decades of debate over this subject of the toll-houses, St. Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery in Florence, Arizona, just published a meticulously researched 1,112 page book called The Departure of the Soul. It compiles over 600 pages of source material from over 1200 saints of the Orthodox Church, while a dedicated chapter shows that the leading opponent of the toll-house doctrine, Abp. Lazar Puhalo, falsified patristic texts, icons, and lives of the saints in order to seemingly support his false opinions. You can see sample pages and more here:

    1. I have other reading commitments at the moment, but I purchased the book and am eagerly awaiting my chance to begin reading it. I love what I have seen just from briefly flipping through it.

  2. It is my understanding that 20 tolI houses are inseparable part of true orthodox teaching from the times of Apostles. I highly recommend to read lives of St. Macarius the Great, St. Anthony the Great, Blessed Theodora of Carihard, St. Basil the New, and especially books about life after death from excellent bishop of 19st century Russia, St. Ignatios Brianchaninov, who all confirmed geniune orthodox teaching about 20 Toll houses after death of any Orthodox Christian. It has to be noted that Non-orthodox believers or atheists do not go through toll houses at all.

    For Russian speaking people there is a example from Russia nowadays confirming this orthodox teaching as well: *****************************

    1. Hello “profik1977,” I apologize for my delay in responding to your comment. Seminary has been extremely busy for me and then, immediately after the school year, I was sent on an internship to Alaska. I have posted your comment, but have removed the hyperlinks since I don’t have time to research the resources you offered to support your opinion.

      I have read most of the books you recommended, and many more as well. The toll houses are undoubtedly part of the Orthodox Tradition, though I will grant that various interpretations of them are also part of the Tradition. While I certainly don’t relegate the doctrine to theologoumenon as some unlearned people do, I also recognize there is no one approach to the toll houses that is consistent throughout all centuries.

      For example, the vision of Theodora written by St. Basil the New’s disciple Gregory solidified the “twenty toll houses” idea, but the number varied before that writing. The conclusion must be that the number itself is not as significant as the sins that are represented there.

      Also, the idea that non-Orthodox and atheists do not go through the toll houses would have to be relegated to theologoumenon. I’m not aware of any such teaching being a consensus of the Fathers.

  3. A few things that the Toll house teaching from Theodora’s vision that seems to be against the nature of the Church: it condemns most of humanity, only a few are saved; “bags of gold” paid become spiritual indulgences (is Basil there for every Christian who departs from this life?); demons accuse while Jesus Christ is absent from the proceedings; everyone who passes away is immediately given a foretaste of where they will ultimately end up and is a given even before Jesus Christ comes in His glory as Judge since the soul is already judged; it assumes that earthly time continues for the soul after death.

    1. Dear Fr. Martin,

      Thank you for your comment and expressing your concerns. The vision of Theodora written by the disciple of St. Basil is, in my opinion, not an authoritative manual of what happens to the soul after death. It is (and this is entirely my private opinion) excellent Christian mythology. What I mean by that is that it teaches spiritual truth and about spiritual realities in a highly symbolic way. Because 21st century man is nearly incapable of truly grasping symbol and myth in our rationalistic and scientific approach to everything, this vision becomes a stumbling block for many.

      What are things that we know? That the Church has the final authority on doctrinal issues and that there have been few dogmatic proclamations regarding the state of the soul after death. We find consensus in the Fathers regarding the “reality” of toll houses, but how that reality is understood and interpreted varies quite a bit.

      Most people who are advocates of the teaching of the Church on toll houses would agree with you that we should not assume most of humanity is damned, that indulgences will save anyone, that Jesus is absent when a Christian dies, and that earthly time continues for the soul after death in the same manner as it was before death. All of those things are misunderstandings and straw man arguments for those who oppose the toll houses.

      However, the idea that those who pass away receive a foretaste of either heaven or hell before the Second Coming is supported by scripture and pretty much the entire history of Christianity up until a few fringe Protestant groups of the past couple hundred years. Unlike the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christians do not believe in soul sleep nor that a human ceases to exist until the Second Coming. The only options are the Orthodox teaching of a foretaste of heaven/hell, limbo and purgatory of Roman Catholicism, or soul death/sleep of the JW’s. I personally side with the Orthodox Church on this one.

      Forgive me if I misunderstood any of your points, and please pray for me, a sinner.

      1. I would also side with the Church if earthly time continued with the soul after death. But the life of the Church, especially in the Divine Liturgy and ability of the saints to hear our supplications and to pray for us, does away with chronological time and places us in God’s time (what we term as eternity but can never really express and understand it fully enough on earth) in which all that is is in His hands and is already fulfilled. In the Divine Liturgy, the separation between heaven and earth is no more, and places us, even while on earth into the redeemed time already fulfilled, where the Cross, the tomb, the Resurrection, the Ascension and the Second and glorious Coming have come to pass. In the participation of the Eucharist, Scripture is fulfilled in that God is all in all, and we worship the Undivided Trinity Who has saved us.
        If the saints are in earthly time, it would be impossible for them to hear all our prayers. We have to assert that earthly time and space ceases for those who have departed and have come into “God’s time.” Whether we are in church services, or in the privacy of our home, or out in the wilderness, or on the other side of the our planet or in the farthest reaches of distant galaxies, if we supplicate to the saints to pray for us, they will hear us. We believe that the saints hear us when we pray privately or corporately, and even when a thousand of us is saying, “Father Herman, pray for us,” we must believe that St. Herman is praying for us individually and as as a Church. Or even when a million of us, in different parts of the earth or somewhere in the universe, when we call upon St. Herman (or any saint or angel) in the exact earthly time, we know and are assured that they hear us individually and pray for us individually. God makes it possible in a way we can never understand fully.
        This is why a “foretaste” of either heaven or hell (particular judgment) seems so out of place in the life of the Church. A foretaste implies that created time, as we know it, continues for those after death. The life and experience of the Church says otherwise, but somehow, in a way that we don’t understand, they are a part also of our chronological time and space. God is outside time and space as we know it, but He is in every part of our entire life, for if He is not, even for a single moment, we should all disappear and be nonexistent.

        1. Fr. Martin, thank you for clarifying and defending your position.

          That explanation makes sense up to a certain point but it opens up other questions. Forgive me for throwing several of them out there but I’m curious how you resolve these things.

          What about those who die with no faith in God and perhaps are even opposed to God and Christianity? I’m trying to fit them into your argument here as well. I assume your argument would be they will experience the Second Coming at their death and then dwell in a hellish state for eternity?

          What do you then do with prayers for the departed? Do these services make a difference? What about the numerous stories from the saints that describe praying souls out of Hades?

          Lastly, would you say the entire Church is wrong when it comes to the doctrine of the toll houses since no saint has ever opposed it and over a hundred saints have at least hinted toward it? Isn’t it a bit arrogant to assume only people of the modern era have been intelligent enough to understand what really happens to the soul after death?

          Any patristic sources you have that back up this opinion of yours would be greatly appreciated. Thank you for the well-thought out discussion.

          [Edited on 7/23/2019 8:46 AM EDT – Reason: For clarity]

  4. Where is the scriptural reference?

    1. Hi Mike, or Jb, or whatever it is that you go by (no need to change your name with every comment on this site). Many of the resources that I referenced in this blog contain scriptural commentary. The purpose of this page is to point people to resources that are available if they want to learn more, and not to argue about whether or not toll houses appear in the Bible. There is obviously no passage of Scripture that states, “There are twenty toll houses with the following names…” Rather, there are little hints throughout the Bible. Again, I would point you to the resources that I’ve listed above since that is the purpose of this page.

  5. “What about those who die with no faith in God and perhaps are even opposed to God and Christianity? I’m trying to fit them into your argument here as well. I assume your argument would be they will experience the Second Coming at their death and then dwell in a hellish state for eternity?”

    Let’s leave it up to God to say who is saved, Orthodox or not. Our salvation is not guaranteed because we are Orthodox Christians. There are no physical fires of hell or Hades because if it was so, then it would mean that God created it. Whatever state we are in, in heaven or hell, we know God is present with us, for He fills all in all already and has from the beginning.

    “What do you then do with prayers for the departed? Do these services make a difference? What about the numerous stories from the saints that describe praying souls out of Hades?”

    It’s our tradition to pray for everyone, living or departed. Praying for one another is part of our Lord’s command to love. For the departed, it’s necessary for us to keep praying for them, for there is no man who lives and sins not, and those stories help us be diligent in praying for others. God will do as He pleases and out of Love.

    When we really get down to it, we don’t know what exactly happens after death. We only know and understand (as much as God allows this understanding to be) this earthly life and nothing of the afterlife (except what we experience our communion with the saints, and only partially). We proclaim that we look for the Resurrection and the life of the world to come, but only because we are living in this chronological time and have not experienced the unknown, or “God’s time” (except in the sacraments).

    “Lastly, would you say the entire Church is wrong when it comes to the doctrine of the toll houses since no saint has ever opposed it and over a hundred saints have at least hinted toward it? Isn’t it a bit arrogant to assume only people of the modern era have been intelligent enough to understand what really happens to the soul after death?”

    We cannot say that the toll house theory is a doctrine. It’s more of a pious teaching, of a “mythological” nature, as you implied, that is primarily an admonition towards committing any sin before God. Because the saints taught it or mentioned it briefly does not mean that it is automatically a doctrine of the Church, because some of them also believed in and wrote of other things that we don’t hold true anymore. The Church has always been progressive in Her life and practice. I always have to smile when I see, “Orthodoxy, two thousand years of unchanged Christianity!,” because we know from Her history, many changes and additions have been added to Her life. Orthodoxy can only get better, not worse. All through Her history, the Church has gotten better at defining what is the truth and what is not.

    The saints are saints forever because the Church (and the Spirit) says so. They were human like us and they would not dare say that they were saints and that they were sinless, but we know they are with God. To interact with them is one of the greatest blessings that God gave to us and they will be praying for us forever.

  6. Jeremiah,

    I would urge you to take down your lead articles about toll houses. This is at best a theologumena of some in the history of the church. To read the Fathers of the Church with a wooden literalism is no better than the Protestants who insist that Genesis is a literal reading of history and therefore trumps science.

    The only true thing about toll houses is that anyone who is interested in Orthodoxy’s beautiful view of the love of God is instantly squashed by this highly suspect opinion. Even Seraphim Rose who ramped up this whole controversy, correctly read, stated that at best this is a metaphor.

    If God leaves the judging of ANY soul to the demons, He indeed permits demons to usurp the authority only given to Christ to “judge” and they become co-conspirators in His job. God forbid! And Christ did not come into the world to condemn but to save.

    The spurious opinion of the toll housers mitigates against the spirit of the great saints of the Church like St. Isaac of Syria, St. Gregory of Nyssa, Elder Sophrony, Saint Porphyrios and countless others.

    Clearly the Latin influence of legalism, literalism and the harshness of God have taken over the spirit of the monks of St. Anthony.

    No one trying to find solace for their sinful soul (and there is not a person alive who does not sin according to scripture) could possibly find any peace or strength to even fight against their passions if they are to believe that demons await them to snag them with their sins.

    This belief is an affront to the work of Christ on the cross and His kindness and mercy towards all.

    The saints also teach that any thought that brings consternation and discord to the soul and not peace and joy in the Holy Spirit is to be rejected. This is certainly one that brings no peace to any sane soul that gives it any thought at all. I highly wonder what in the world the monks at St. Anthony think they are doing in a positive way to bring people to the love and mercy of God by espousing a highly controversial and speculative opinion and presenting it as Church dogma in a thousand page tome. What we can expect from this teaching is more atheist and/or fundamentalist Orthodox — none of which the world needs more.

    I will spare you a detailed critique of the work that can be found many places on-line and elsewhere.

    I stand with St. Porphyrios that the love of Christ is what draws people to Him and not fear. Fear is the only consequence of this opinion … or perhaps self righteousness.

    I have spoken to many knowledgeable and deeply spiritual priests and deeply spiritual scholars who reject heartily this belief in the toll houses and rightly agree that the scripture never even hints at such a believe not to mention that it is no where in the funeral prayers of the church… where you would most expect it.

    You have many excellent posts on your site, but the toll house posts pretty much negate anything good that you say. Most Orthodox I know (lifelong Orthodox) have never even heard of the toll houses so to promulgate it as almost a central “doctrine” when it is nowhere in the creeds or official dogma of the Church is a very poor choice.

    I will gladly give a list of sites that dismantle this belief and show it to be the spiritually harmful opinion that it is.

    That the monastery of St. Anthony decided to waste years of time and money to put out this book shows me a great deal about what they are about: fear. Instead, spend ten minutes reading “Wounded by Love” by Saint Porphyrios and your soul will be warmed by the love of God. (Don’t look for it on at the St. Anthony’s Bookstore website. They are too buy selling speculative books on the Antichrist and the book of Revelation) Why does the church continue to promote fear in a world that desperately needs to hear about the love of God. I’m glad Christ didn’t turn to the thief on the Cross and tell him how to avoid the toll houses since he was full of passions and merely said “remember me”. He never even really repented by definition. If Jesus believed the in the toll houses, he would have simply answered, “sure, but good luck getting through!”

    1. Hi Stephen, I agree that our Orthodox faith is beautiful and that a fixation upon the toll houses is not good but can distract us from the work God has for us.

      That every man will be judged by God is not a theologumena but the truth. What that judgment will look like hardly anyone alive knows, only those who have gone through it. The saints have given us some interesting metaphorical ways of understanding it for those who care to learn.

      Most of your comment is attacking strawman arguments that do not address what I’ve written here, so I won’t bother responding any further except to say that I’ve heard good things about those who have visited St. Anthony’s. I agree that their book has problematic commentary in it. I’ve already written that in this blog. Rather than judging the monks, I would recommend setting up a time to visit them. The laity of our church are sadly detached from the traditional Orthodox monastic life.

    2. I am a 70-yr. old woman who came to faith in our Lord Jesus Christ 33 years ago through the prayers of my newly-married husband and his Baptist church brothers & sisters. We were Sovereign Grace Reformed Baptists. Our spiritual odyssey brought us 14 years ago into the Holy, Catholic & Apostolic Faith, and our local Orthodox parish is of the Russian tradition. I love the Lord & His Holy Church and have found peace & rest for my soul. Imagine my surprise when I first heard of “tollhouses.” I will be forthcoming and confess this “teaching” terrified me. In all these years of Bible reading, I have never encountered any Scripture that specifically addressed this teaching. My husband, an ardent reader of Orthodox Bible commentaries, was perplexed too, but not too soon afterward he had the following experience. He took a trip with our priest and several men of our parish to Dallas’ St. Seraphim’s Cathedral to see Archbishop Dmitri of blessed memory. The group including Vladyka went to lunch and at some point the tollhouse controversy reared its head. Opinions for and against were cast about. Vladyka Dmitri remained silent through the discussion until a lull came in the debate. “But what about the Good Thief on the cross,” he asked. All voices fell silent. My husband’s eyes filled with tears remembering our Lord’s reply to this suffering soul who would die moments later after his legs were broken, “This day you shall be with Me in Paradise.”

      1. I have great respect for Abp. Dimitri. However, the thief on the cross doesn’t really disprove the toll houses – just bad interpretations of them. They portray the particular judgment in a vivid and graphic allegory. You can read more on my thoughts about that here if you want: Toll Houses: Truth or Lie?

  7. Hello, Jeremiah. It seems that the link to part two of Fr. Thomas Hopko’s talk only goes about 14 minutes in. Is that an error? Can you try to re-upload the whole second part?

    1. Well, that’s a big bummer. It looks like my file only goes to 14 minutes when I tried downloading it as well. I don’t know if it became corrupt or if that’s just all there was to the second file (perhaps it was recorded on tape and they ran out?). I tried searching my archives and backup drives to no avail.

      I’m thinking it probably didn’t go beyond that point. If the file was corrupted it probably wouldn’t play, and the file size wouldn’t have gotten truncated (it’s only 13 mb). I’ll let you know if I find an archive of the file on a disc somewhere. I can no longer find this series anywhere else on the internet so I’m glad I’ve archived it here.

      1. A bummer, indeed. I’ve used these files for a few years now, and I don’t ever recall that being the case. I use these in my catechism classes, and no one said anything the last two or three years. I went back this past week for a refresher (instead of just going over the Fr. Tom AFR summary like I had been) and noticed it, and one of my inquirers did, too. I do hope you find an uncorrupted version of the file. Might you perhaps know what church this was recorded at? Might they have the talk recorded?

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