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?
- 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.
BOOKS IN PRINT
- 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.
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. 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.
- 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. A special thanks to Fr. David Wooten for getting me updated files to the Fr. Tom Hopko lectures.