Toll Houses and the Fathers of the Church

In my last blog, I focused less on quotes from the fathers and more on the controversy itself surrounding the toll houses.  Here, I want to present writings from the saints of the Orthodox Church that discuss the departure of the soul.  If one includes commentary from scripture, patristic writings, and divine services, there are hundreds of these texts.  For the sake of brevity (and because this is a blog and not a scholarly work), many quotes are partial.  More details can be found in the book from which most of these quotes come: The Departure of the Soul.

St. Justin Martyr, †166

Deliver my soul from the sword, and my only-begotten from the hand of the dog; save me from the lion’s mouth (Psalm 21:20-21)…[This was written] so that, when we arrive at the end of life, we may ask the same petition from God, who is able to turn away every shameless evil angel from taking our souls.
[Dialogue with Trypho]

St. Gregory the Theologian, †389

Divine fear has overcome me,
a mass of horrors:
dismal Tartarus, scorching flames, whips,
demons, the tax collectors of our souls.
All a myth to the wicked.
[Ethical Poems, in Greek]

St. John Chrysostom, †407

…AND then the thief enters and denounces and rends the soul from the body.

Then we will require many prayers, many helpers, many good deeds, and a great protection from the angels on the journey through the spaces of the air.  If when traveling in a foreign land or a strange city we are in need of a guide, how much more necessary for us are guides and helpers to guide us past the invisible dignities and powers and world rulers of this air who are called persecutors, publicans, and tax-collectors by Holy Scripture.
[On Patience and Gratitude, in Greek]

KNOW ye not in the day of death how sins make the soul shrink? how they stir up the heart from beneath? At that time therefore, when such things are happening, the remembrance of good works stands by us, like a calm in a storm, and comforts the perturbed soul…

Because the prisoner too is then most grieved, when they are leading him out to the court; then most trembles, when he is near the judgment-seat, when he must give his account. For the same kind of reason most persons may be then heard relating horrors, and fearful visions, the sight whereof they that are departing may not endure, but often shake their very bed with much vehemence, and gaze fearfully on the bystanders, the soul urging itself inwards, unwilling to be torn away from the body, and not enduring the sight of the coming angels. Since if human beings that are awful strike terror into us beholding them; when we see angels threatening, and stern powers, among our visitors; what shall we not suffer, the soul being forced from the body, and dragged away, and bewailing much, all in vain?
[English Source – Homily LIII on Matthew]

St. Cyril of Alexandria, †444

[His entire homily on the Departure of the Soul is brilliant, but too long to quote in its fullness here.  Instead, I’ll provide a few excerpts to show that this highly esteemed saint and hierarch taught about the toll houses in the 400’s]

[He discusses the departed soul being surrounded by demons and seeking refuge in the angels…] The soul is embraced by the holy angels.  As it passes through the air and is lifted up, it encounters the toll-houses guarding the ascent and holding it back, preventing the ascending souls.

Each toll-house presents its own sins: the one for slander examines all things done by the mouth and tongue…But the holy angels guide the soul, and they also present everything good we have said with the mouth and tongue…

The second toll-house is for what the eyes have seen from all improper sights and curious and unbridled gazing, and cunning winks…

[St. Cyril then lists several other toll-houses before stating…]  In short, in such manner each passion of the soul and every sin has its own toll-house and tax-collectors…

The divine powers stand by, as well as the faces of the unclean spirits.  The former present the soul’s good actions through words, deeds, thoughts, and ponderings.  The soul beholds this while it stands in the midst with fear and trembling, until by its actions, deeds, and words the soul being criticized is either bound or justified and freed — each person is bound by the cords of his own sins.
[Homily on the Departure of the Soul, Homily 13, in Greek]

St. Hesychios the Priest, † 5th century

Just as a man blind from birth does not see the sun’s light, so one who fails to pursue watchfulness does not see the rich radiance of divine grace.  He cannot free himself from evil thoughts, words, and actions, and because of these thoughts and actions he will not be able freely to pass the lords of hell when he dies.
[On Watchfulness and Holiness, Philokalia Vol. 1]

St. John of Karpathos, † 7th century

When the soul leaves the body, the enemy advances to attck it, fiercely reviling it and accusing it of its sins in a harsh and terrifying manner.  But if a soul enjoys the love of God and has faith in Him, even though in the past it has often been wounded by sin, it is not frightened by the enemy’s attacks and threats…
[Texts for the Monks of India, Philokalia Vol. 1]

A Few Thoughts

The quotes I inserted above are not even the tip of the iceberg.  They are all from renowned saints within the Orthodox Tradition.  All of them also precede St. Basil the New, who was unfairly targeted and unjustly criticized by Puhalo and Azkoul.  By selecting quotes that precede him by several centuries, I am affirming that St. Basil’s disciple (Gregory) was teaching nothing new in his Life of St. Basil, when utilizing the toll-house metaphor to explain that a soul must undergo judgment after death.  And no, this should not be read in a literal manner.

Some have asked, “If this is such an important doctrine of the Orthodox Church, then why didn’t one of the Ecumenical Councils address it?”  But that is like asking, “If icons are so important to the Orthodox, why did they wait until the year 787 to defend them with a council?”  The answer is obvious: Ecumenical Councils address controversies of their era, not of the future.

Up until recent times, nobody questioned the tradition of the church regarding the departure of the soul.  And to be fair, part of the misunderstanding may have come from the fact that some of the best texts on the subject were not in English until recently.  As far as I know, the controversy primarily exists in the English speaking Orthodox world.

A List of Fathers Supporting the Church’s Tradition

The Orthodox saints who have taught on this subject include the following list from the book The Departure of the Soul (page numbers are references to passages within the book):


2 thoughts on “Toll Houses and the Fathers of the Church

  1. I don’t believe in the Toll Houses theory because this teaching doesn’t have three very significant things that differs Christianity from all other religions. This teaching doesn’t have Christ, Cross, and Grace. You can fit this teaching in any other religion, then what is the difference of being a Christian or a Muslim, or a Zoroastrian?
    Does a soul of a Muslim go through the Toll Houses? What about a soul of a Buddhist?
    Then what is the difference between a soul of a Christian and a soul of a pagan? Toll House theory doesn’t make any difference between Christians and pagans. Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos admitted that Toll House theory is a pagan myth adopted by the Church.

    1. Hi Alex, I don’t know what your assumptions are about the toll houses so I can’t really explain how you misunderstand them. So far, 100% of people that I’ve conversed with who disregard them do so because they misunderstand them. Even many people who believe in them don’t properly understand them.

      Since you mentioned Met. Hiertheos, he wrote a wonderful book called Life after Death. I highly recommend reading it. In it, he never calls the toll houses pagan myths. What he says about them is more complex and nuanced and I can see where somebody who is uneducated could twist his words. Try to read the following carefully since it can be difficult for someone not well-versed in patristics and platonic ideas in the Church Fathers:

      On pages 77-78 of Life after Death Met. Hiertheos discusses ways in which our Church Fathers borrowed words and concepts from the pagan culture around them to describe not only what happens to the soul after death, but the Incarnation, the Trinity, and pretty much every important dogma of the Christian faith. It is not that the Orthodox Church was validating paganism, but it was taking words and concepts and “baptizing” them into the Church in order to describe the Truth. These words and concepts were the philosophical norm for explaining complex ideas, so the Church Fathers used them. It doesn’t mean that Christianity is Neo-Platonic or pagan though. He admits that because of what the Church Fathers did, some people today reject the toll houses as “coming into Christianity from Gnostic theories and pagan myths which prevailed during that period” (pg. 77).

      He also writes the following:

      “The things that we have said so far show just what those customs (toll) houses are that are spoken of in the patristic texts. On the one hand, they are the passions of the soul which, because of the non-existence of the body, cannot be satisfied, and therefore stifle the soul. On the other hand, they are the evil demons which have gained mastery over passionate people, and it is natural that after the soul’s departure they have greater mastery over them.”
      -Met. Hierotheos Vlachos of Nafpaktos
      Life after Death, page 77.

      There are significant differences between the Christian faith and Islam, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and other faiths. I don’t speculate about what will happen to people who are not Christians. The Church Fathers also didn’t speculate about such matters. God is loving and merciful; I would recommend we leave them in His hands.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close