Toll Houses: Truth or Lie?

The Unnecessary Controversy:

I first learned about the toll houses from a friend who desired to expose me 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 that the Toll House doctrine must be some kind of new heresy, emphasized in the past couple of centuries, especially in Russian Orthodoxy.

Several years later, my beliefs 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 at least mentioned 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 church fathers 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.

Not only is the soul immortal, but there is some kind of trial of the soul immediately after death, which is sometimes called the Particular Judgment (the Particular Judgment is different from the Final Judgment that will happen at the Second Coming and the end of the world).  The specifics vary in the writings of the fathers, but many teach something like the following:

When the soul departs from the body, angels and demons come to meet the soul.  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 God allows the soul to be dragged away by the demons to Hades.

In some versions of this metaphor, 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 frightful 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 to 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.”

Generally, the point of this allegorical teaching is to motivate people to repent – to see that we should never think we can get away with secret, hidden sins.  We are all tempted to justify our sins and to belittle their importance.  This toll house metaphor is meant to shake us from our complacency.  So, if toll houses sound horrifying to you, then you understand the warning that has been mentioned by numerous saints 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 each 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.

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, which means God is the judge.  The demons are there to accuse and present records of our sins, but they can do no more than that. In some icons, 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.  The metaphor teaches us that, while the devil is certainly unfair, God will oversee our judgment and ensure that everything goes as it should.
  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 don’t save us, but they are still important to display our sincerity.  Also, a virtuous life is part of the process of purification, illumination, and theosis.
  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.
  4. Some may accuse me of conflating the Toll Houses with the teaching on the Particular Judgment.  Such individuals seem to have missed the fact that the Toll House “doctrine” is an allegory for what happens at the Particular Judgment.  The icons above are depicting the exact same thing, just in a different manner.  When we come to realize that, we can see that the Toll House doctrine, though sometimes expressed in more vivid, explicit, and horrifying language, is nothing more than an expanded allegory attempting to stir the listener or reader to repentance by using human language to describe a spiritual reality that is presently unclear.

Why a Controversy?

So if the Orthodox Church Fathers have unanimously supported something similar to Toll Houses, and no saint has ever written against it, why is there even a controversy?  If the teaching has been 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.  Being reminded 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 idea that demons will come after our souls when we die, bringing up records of sins we would rather forget, is unbearable for most 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 error is deeply ingrained in our culture, and we tend to bring it with us into Orthodoxy.

In the late 1970s, a deacon named Lev Puhalo (*see note below) released what was likely the first-ever written attack against the toll houses in the history of the Church (he seemed to have confused the Latin teaching of Purgatory with the toll houses and was accusing Rose of teaching Latin doctrine).  According to some sources, Puhalo altered icons and mistranslated a few words in ancient texts to support his teaching.  Unfortunately, that caused a theological battle between him and the Platina Monastery.  After repeatedly lashing out at one another, a ROCOR synod of bishops released a statement in 1980 demanding they cease all discussion because it was causing division.

If you’re interested, a group of well-researched (albeit, also controversial) monks at St. Anthony’s Monastery address Puhalo’s and Azkoul’s errors in their polemical book The Departure of the Soul.

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.

For a deep study on this topic, I recommend The Departure of the Soul, which should put the last nail in the coffin of this unnecessary controversy.  I recommend this book mostly for the writings of the saints within it.  The commentary by the monks from St. Anthony’s interspersed throughout contains highly polemic and problematic ideas.  If you can sift through or ignore those things, the book acts as a great encyclopedia of nearly every patristic writing on the soul after death.  For those who want something a little lighter, I would recommend checking out my resource page.

Icons and quotes in this blog are from the above-mentioned book.

March 2023 Update

Now that I am a priest, I have heard people confess they are worried about the toll houses and if they will make it through them when they die. These worries stem from a lack of understanding the toll houses properly. When asked, I usually say something like this:

You won’t make it through the toll houses later – you’re struggling through them right now. Through the prayers of our holy fathers and a life of confession and repentance, we ascend through them right now. The elaborate toll house metaphor is almost like a replay of your life but with spiritual spectacles on. If you continuously struggle against sin and never hold on to any of it, then you’ll make it through. The demons of the toll houses will have nothing on you because the record has been cleansed by God’s mercy and your repentance. As seen in the vision about Theodora, the prayers of others can help spurn us toward repentance and even cover our sins. That’s one of the mysterious ways in which God’s mercy works. Our prayers for one another actually make a difference! These prayers are expressed in the metaphorical vision as “payments” to get us through.

So, rather than thinking about the toll houses as something that’s going to happen to us later, we should see that we’re already going through them now. Our ascent to heaven occurs in this life; our struggle through the toll houses is happening now. Either we fight our sin and repent – or we give in and find out later that the demons of the “toll houses” had us all along. May God bless our struggle.

*Deacon Lev (Lazar) Puhalo left ROCOR around 1980, transferred to the “Free Serbian Church,” and was consequently defrocked by ROCOR. Over the years, Mr. Puhalo moved around in different non-canonical Orthodox groups (including the so-called Genuine Orthodox Church). Eventually he was made an archbishop in one of them. In 2002, he wrote a letter of repentance for being involved with non-canonical jurisdictions and requested to be received by the Orthodox Church in America (OCA). In 2003, the OCA agreed to receive Puhalo – but only by “oikonomia” as a retired bishop. The monasteries and parishes affiliated with “the former archbishop of Ottawa” were also accepted by the OCA.

39 thoughts on “Toll Houses: Truth or Lie?

  1. Can you give specific details from scripture to defend this view? I am an orthodox Christian as well and am aware that orthodoxy and scripture go hand and hand and that they MUST be in perfect harmony.

    1. The Bible was written, preserved, and has been interpreted by the Orthodox Church. So, yes, the Church and Bible are in harmony. But that does not mean that the entire Christian tradition is contained within the Scriptures. I would invite you to check out my resource page so that you can see how various Orthodox Fathers and writers interpret various passages as possibly referring to the toll houses. You can read more here:

  2. St. Paul tells us to be away from the body is to be at home with the Lord. No tollhouses…it is instantaneous. NOWHERE does Scripture even hint at being judged by demons…that’s Gnostic silliness.

    1. Hi David, forgive me for being blunt, but you obviously didn’t read the article you just commented on. Might I suggest you do that before commenting in the future? With your comments you are fighting a shadow that doesn’t exist.

    2. In ancient Pagan religious ethos, Devotees of Apollo, Zeus, etc, after death had to be able to ascend to the moon, which was considered a heavenly planet. From there the soul if worthy, was allowed to freely travel throughout the Heavens-cosmos…only catch was the space between Earth and the heavenly moon planet were the Demigod judges…”Damons”, very beautiful, intelligent, but envious of human beings. If a human didn’t possess the opulence of goodness, they were sent back to earth to reincarnate in another form, animal, human, etc.. to start over the lessons of life..This Philosophy was the main belief in ancient Greek and Roman culture, and culture in which everybody believed in something supernatural… Is it any wonder that the gentile converts to Jewish Christianity carried this over into the ethos of belief? The Hebrews would not even speculate about after death…Sheol, hades, nothingness, etc were the humble apophotic- non knowing of the subject…Greek pride always tries to know the unknowable! Somethings have little to do with resting in Christ, spending your days running around in neurotic fear of tormenting demons is not the peace of Christ! The Holy Spirit tells you always what is wholesome or unwholesome in life and what is to be done or not to be done… the peaceful way!

      1. George, I think the Hebrews speculated about the future and the afterlife more than you’re allowing. There’s plenty of apocalyptic literature written during Second Temple Judaism that most people don’t read because it’s “weird” compared to much of the Old Testament. The Revelation of St. John, for example, wasn’t written in a literary vacuum.

        A plausible case could be made that the Greek philosophical backdrop colored the way metaphors were developed in ancient Christianity. But to assume the toll houses (that is, the idea that God will judge the soul after the body dies) is not something borrowed from paganism. It’s the natural result of the Christian belief in Pascha – the resurrection of Christ; the emptying of Hades. His resurrection changes everything. We can’t go back to a pre-Christ theology and remove the parts of the teachings of our Lord and the Apostles that don’t work with primitive, First Temple Judaism. That really just doesn’t make any sense for Christians to do.

  3. Well said. I am also a covert to Orthodoxy (20 years now, Glory to God), and I agree completely with your faith and reason on the toll house doctrine.

  4. Sounds like papist purgatory, Into the trash it goes.

    1. Hi Federic, I apologize for the delay in response. I’ve been traveling.

      I don’t normally post comments that are merely dismissive and lack any sort of depth or insight since I don’t like feeding trolls. However, there are some people who are legitimately concerned that the toll houses are an Orthodox version of the Roman Catholic Church’s purgatory. So, let’s look at that for a moment.

      The RCC belief about purgatory is the following: Every sin brings about guilt and a necessity to be punished. Christ died to save us from the guilt of our sin (which would result in an eternity in hell). But His death and resurrection do not save us from the punishment that still needs to be addressed for our sins. Purgatory is the place souls go so that they can endure temporary punishment for their sins. Once the punishment is fulfilled in purgatory, the souls go to heaven.

      To be clear, we Orthodox reject the above concept of purgatory.

      If you read the above article that you commented on, you’ll find that Orthodox toll houses have nothing to do with the RCC’s purgatory. In the toll houses, a soul is examined to see if it has repented of its sins during its earthly life. The toll houses are the particular judgment. That has absolutely nothing to do with enduring temporary punishments for sins.

      1. I’m unclear as to what you’re communicating. I did read the article and want to understand. Are you saying if a soul is examined and found NOT to have repented of a particular sin during its earthly life, that soul is damned? And if so, then what does this mean about the shed blood of Jesus as the perfect Lamb who covers our sin? Surely in our sinfulness, we will be imperfect even in our repentance. How then would anyone be saved?

        1. Hello Linda, we certainly are imperfect in our repentance. There is grace as long as we agree to struggle everyday to draw closer to Christ. However, “the shed blood of Jesus as the perfect Lamb who covers our sin” does not remove our free will. If we have chosen not to repent of something, if we’d rather cling to sin than to God, then that won’t end well for us. That’s the point here. Jesus Christ is perfect, and His redemption is perfect as well. But we still have to be willing to repent.

  5. The thing about toll houses and the particular judgment is that they assume that earthly time continues still continues for the departed and have to wait somewhere for the final judgment. Either they are placed in the foretaste of heaven or hell, somewhere in between, not exactly in heaven or hell, but they are enjoying their “wait” in a heaven-like state or are suffering already in a hell-like state. And all this is experienced by the soul minus the body.
    The communion of the saints says otherwise. When we pray our akathists, invoke the names of the saints, we believe that they are already in the kingdom of heaven interceding for us before God and we don’t believe that they are NOT in heaven at the moment. When one departs from this earth, it’s final, meaning that the physical properties of time and space are no longer held by the soul but has entered into eternity. The soul is freed from the bondage of the flesh and physical creation and is outside of this time and space, so saying that earthly time continuing for the departed soul is just silly.
    When we ask prayers from the saints, we don’t say, “Holy Apostle Paul, this is Martin, please pray for me.” They know who we are already through the work and grace of God. They’ll know us individually too even if a million of us in different parts the world say simultaneously, “Holy Apostle Paul, pray for me,” This ability is given to them because they are outside of our time and space already but can interact with us through God Who is everywhere present and fills all things on earth, in heaven and in “hell.”
    Recently I read that someone had a dream and said he was shown what hell was like and that in hell God is not present. This is a contradiction of our affirmation that God is in all. The conditions of heaven and hell, which by the way are not physical but spiritual, are felt by each and everyone of us, whether it be peace or misery, all in the presence of God.
    What the Fathers have wrote about, they wrote according to the prevalent thoughts of the day, and the Orthodox Church has always been progressive, adjusting Herself in each and every generation from the Apostles. This is not to say that we disregard the Fathers over this, but to take their teaching to strive to live according to what God wills, and not according to what we want.
    The toll house theory, in the end, is not the true Orthodox doctrine, even if some of the Fathers have taught it and however much they spoke of it is a very small part of their writings and was not a main topic or teaching of theirs, and not all the Fathers have even written about it. There are many more important things within the Church to focus our attention to, and not force our brothers and sisters to live in fear of our impending departure from this world.

    1. Hello Fr. Martin, I agree with some of your sentiments at the end, that not all of the Church Fathers wrote about the toll houses, and those who did, wrote little about it compared to their other writings. It is something that is not defined with absolute certainty in the Orthodox tradition. And, it’s certainly very far from being among the most important topics. I recently taught a catechism class on death, judgment, and the end times. I spent only a couple of minutes discussing the toll houses during a two hour class.

      This is a teaching that does not need to be emphasized nor do priests need to teach it from the amvon. But for those who are interested in learning more, there needs to be some level-headed teaching out there that does not fall into the extremes of either denying the toll houses or interpretating the visions too literally. For that reason, I have this article on my website.

      You mentioned, “What the Fathers have wrote about, they wrote according to the prevalent thoughts of the day.” I agree with that when it comes to science and medicine. Spiritual truths do not change though. Additionally, there is no further revelation from modern saints on this topic, only confirmation of the toll houses (St. Paisios of Mt. Athos is one who confirmed them). Not a single Church Father denies or refutes the teaching. Many Orthodox today dismiss the idea because it makes them uncomfortable, but discomfort does not determine truth.

      Regarding time in the afterlife, little has been said among the Fathers – no more than what has been said about toll houses. For that reason, we must be careful what we teach about time and not make assumptions.

      You mentioned, “When one departs from this earth, it’s final, meaning that the physical properties of time and space are no longer held by the soul but has entered into eternity.” I find myself wanting to agree with you but also wanting to be careful. I agree that the soul probably does not experience time like we do. But what does that mean, exactly? I don’t claim to know. I don’t think we can know right now.

      If the souls of the saints have already entered eternity and heaven, wouldn’t we already be there with them (assuming we make it)? Are they praying for us though we are already with them if they have already entered into eternity and the eschaton? Could we, following that logic, pray to our eternal selves?

      As you can see, things get weird when we try to speculate about stuff we can’t rationalize. If someone refuses the teachings of the Fathers on toll houses, they can at least ask themselves, “What was the purpose of these teachings?” It was, of course, to shake us from complacency and move us toward repentance. I think we can all agree that is a good thing.

      Anyway, I hope you are doing well. I met you in Kwethluk last June when visiting from St. Tikhon’s Seminary.

      In Christ,

      1. Jeremiah, you said it rightly. We don’t claim to know and we don’t know and understand exactly and immediately what happens after death, other than what some of the Fathers have said (wouldn’t they be in the same boat as us now in saying we don’t know?). But it’s clear they say what they say under the assumption that earthly time still continues for them and have to wait somewhere for the day when Jesus Christ returns in His glory.
        Of course we are not in heaven or in eternity now, not for us who are on earth, but the prayers to the saints affirm that they are in God’s heavenly Kingdom already and are able to be before God and intercede for us. When one is martyred, like St. Herman did when he heard that the Aleut Peter was killed for his faith, we can immediately pray to that person to pray for us, because we know that they are in the Kingdom of Heaven already even before the Judgment. All of our hymns in honor of the saints without a doubt imply that they are in heaven and not somewhere in a waiting state (that assumption again of being in earthly time). What we experience in these in the life of the Church, like our interaction with the saints, is already apart from this regular time and space of creation. Even in the Divine Liturgy, we kind of enter into eternity and where there is no longer any distinction between earth and heaven for all is fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
        When I first heard about what the toll house teaching was, and the number of toll houses ruled by the demons we must go through after death, and even if a soul has one sin that he has not repented of, and how they immediately be sent down to hell because of that one sin, I couldn’t see how our Church would have this teaching that is not so unlike the Roman Catholic’s teaching of Purgatory (again, that assumption of continued earthly time). Further, I was scandalized when I read the unedited version of Theodora’s Vision of toll houses when it affirmed that only Orthodox Christians would be allowed in heaven and all the other host of people who are not part of the Church would be condemned, even their children, and that many of us would be condemned if we had only one sin, no matter what it was (in other words, you have to be perfect and without sin to enter into heaven). The Vision is now edited, the “bad” parts taken out in our English versions. But I think they still keep the part where Theodora is saved a couple of times by Basil’s bags of gold to pay for the sins she hasn’t repented of, very much like indulgences). And yet, the proponents of the toll house teaching strengthen their stance based on this vision and say that everyone, regardless of who they are, will go through the toll houses after death and the whole process takes 40 days (again the time assumption).
        We don’t need toll houses to remind us of repentance. We don’t need the fear of death (and death is to be feared! and it’s the evil day! according to toll houses teachers) to lead us to the love of God. We suffer and are tempted in this life on earth, but to say that we go through more suffering and temptation and consternation of an impending doom after death doesn’t make any sense. If I believed that, I do not wish to die, I do not any of my family to die, I do not want any of my loved ones to die, because most of us will likely be unsuccessful in passing the toll houses and will end up in hell, and already judged to be in everlasting torment even before the Judgment. It’s a waste of humanity and God created them knowing that they are going to be in eternal misery and suffering. This is not Orthodox. It is not the True Faith where the fear of death is the driving force for one’s repentance.
        Yes, we are tempted in the flesh and we are tempted at the moment of death when our soul is still part of the body, but the devil can no longer tempt us after the departure from this world. Ever since I was a little chiild, I’ve heard that one works for his/her salvation while in the body, but can no longer do so after death. And this is Orthodox, this is true. We believe Christ will come in His glory to judge the living and the dead. To say that we have been partially judged already even before the Judgment is to take away a chunk out of Christ’s Judgment Seat and authority. Christ will sit on the Judgment Seat and put on the stamp of approval of what the angels and demons had judged already. No and no.

        1. Fr. Martin,

          The state of the soul after death and our state after the Second Coming are difficult to understand because they are modes of existence outside of our current realm of experience. I think some of the Church Fathers lived such spiritual lives that they had an instinctive understanding of these things, so some of them could write more authoritatively on this matter. But since I’m not dwelling in such a place, I have to rely on their writings.

          For now, it will be helpful to set aside the toll houses to discuss what happens to our soul after death and after the Final Judgment at the End of all time.

          After death, there will ultimately be two states that we live in: the soul by itself and then the soul reunited to the body at the Second Coming and Final Judgment. In that sense, there will be a passage of time, but not earthly time like we experience it here. For a time, the soul will dwell without the body awaiting the resurrection. At the resurrection of all, it will be reunited with the body to live for eternity in one of the states we call heaven or hell.

          The latter part I think we both agree upon and there is little debate about it – that at the Second Coming, all people will be resurrected, uniting soul and body once again for all eternity. Such resurrected people will live forever in heaven or hell – depending on the outcome of the Final Judgment before Christ.

          It is the present in-between state where we find disagreement. The soul still exists even though the body has died. If the person was righteous, then surely the soul goes to be with God. I think we both agree on that. Based on what I’ve read in various Fathers, I refer to the state of the soul without a body as being in “paradise” rather than “heaven.” Not because it isn’t heavenly, not because God isn’t there, but because I’m using “heaven” as the technical term for the final state we arrive in with our resurrected bodies after the Final Judgment for all eternity.

          Before the resurrection of all, our souls go to be with God. However, the delights that we find with God are only a foretaste of what is to come. It will be even greater when we experience union with God with both our soul and body since we humans were made to experience life and reality with both soul and body. The soul separated from the body is unnatural.

          Right now, our saints dwell with God – but as a soul without a body. Only the Theotokos has been said to be resurrected and with Christ in both soul and body. The other saints await the general resurrection along with us. In this heavenly (but not yet fully-heaven) state, they hear our prayers and intercede for us. They are in a “waiting state” but it is not a bad thing. It is just not the fullness of bliss that they will experience when Christ becomes “all in all” at the End.

          It would be good for us to find agreement here before we move the conversation along any further. We must first lay the foundation of what the Bible and Church Fathers have taught us about the state of the soul after death. That foundation is the following:

          We humans are comprised of soul and body; when our body dies, our soul exists for a time without a body; this unnatural bodiless soul either goes to be with God in a heavenly state (paradise) or enters into a dark “Hades;” there is some kind of lapse of time but exactly how the bodiless soul experiences the time between death and the Final Judgment is not known; at the End, at the Final Judgment, the soul will be reunited to a resurrected body for all eternity in a state of “heaven” or “hell.”

          1. Jeremiah,
            On your last paragraph, you said some things that are true: “We humans are comprised of soul and body, when our body dies,… the End, at the Final Judgment, the soul will be reunited to a resurrected body for all eternity in a state of ; ‘heaven’ or ‘hell.'”
            The thing about time is that it is created and we are stuck in it as being part of creation, and therefore, we can only understand and talk about only what we have experienced concerning time, and we cannot fully comprehend a time without our time and experiences with it. We get hints though of eternity, or rather, a life in God apart from this created time. During the Nativity services we affirm that the Timeless One has entered time, the One Who has no beginning now begins to be. God, the creator of time, has begin to be part of His creation and is no longer apart from it. He has made “heaven” or His life an inexplicable part of earth and humanity, and we say He is everywhere present and fills all thing and holds all to existence by His will and presence. God’s eternity has in some way been united with created time through His love for us, and has changed it. This is especially true when we experience the kairos, a complete elimination of known time, during the Divine Liturgy when Jesus Christ gives us His eternal life in the form of bread and wine.
            To say that “our soul exists for a time without a body;,” and, “there is some kind of lapse of time…” is to limit eternity within our known understanding of time. And because of this, there is a need for us to say that they have to :”wait” somewhere, when it is most likely completely different. My grandfather who was a reader in our church used to say concerning persons who have departed, that they are as if they have arrived at the Judgment already. For us, no, but for them, yes? Is this why the saints and angels are able to pray for us fully and without hindrances while rejoicing in the Kingdom of Heaven? Perhaps there is no waiting place in eternity. Perhaps already for the departed that God has fulfilled all things, including the Judgment (and with their bodies already). Our earthly minds say otherwise because we cannot think beyond this time other than what we have experienced and see faintly in the Divine Liturgy and the communion of the saints.

            Concerning heaven and hell, they are names of spiritual states and not actually physical. If we envision heaven to be where angels praise God with harps and has golden streets, we have been misled. If we envision hell to be a place where there is fire and brimstone, demons inflicting all sorts of pain and misery to us, we have been misled. I’ll stop for now.

            God bless, Jeremiah.

          2. Fr. Martin,
            I apologize for the delay. The website didn’t notify me of your response.

            I have heard this teaching before from others who have commented on my blog. If I may try to sum it up, it is the idea that when we die, we immediately enter into the Last Judgment and timeless eternity. There is no in between state; there is no waiting.

            It’s an appealing idea that I would happily believe but I am unable to find it anywhere in the Scriptures nor the Church Fathers. As far as I can tell, it is something new that developed sometime in the last several decades. Our Lord Jesus implies the opposite in several Gospel passages and the Scriptures directly contradict the idea in at least one place. The Apostle John writes,

            When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held. And they cried with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Then a white robe was given to each of them; and it was said to them that they should rest a little while longer, until both the number of their fellow servants and their brethren, who would be killed as they were, was completed (Rev. 6:9-11).

            If you know of any passages from the Scriptures and Church Fathers that state otherwise, I will happily look at them. As an Orthodox Christian, I must learn what the Church teaches and pass those things along.

  6. Jeremiah,
    Our Scriptures can only relate to us in ways that we can understand, otherwise what use would they be? It’s as if we are being fed with milk presently and not with solid foods. As the Apostle Paul says, we’ll see with clarity after this life passes. Revelations uses a lot of images, physical images, for our understanding but so far as we know, they are allegorical pictures of the time to come, the time that is already here, and the time that has passed already. Because of its fantastic imagery, the Church wisely has not allowed them to be read during our services in order not to lead us to heretical thinking, and we know there’s a host of other faiths who take Revelations literally and teach heresy. But we apply the eternal truths in Revelations in our spiritual life in terms of the constant battles of good and evil is us.

    Our Lord gives us a the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, and it’s very powerful. It shows the Rich Man and Lazarus immediately in their perspective and given places, and yet know that life still continues on earth, much like our earthly experiences of prayers to the saints while they are in the eternal Heavenly Kingdom. Yes, our Lord does say in other passages of hell, suffering and the eternal consequences of not following God’s word, and they are all not the same descriptions and even at one passage, He speaks of the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels. If it’s any type of fire, it has to be spiritual fire, for no physical fire will ever do any harm for the devil and his angels. Jesus Christ gives us images that we can relate to, and in the end, we either rise to life or rise to condemnation. It’s our choice. How our lives will be in heaven or in a state of hell is entirely not known and impossible to know, but we are told that in heaven, it will be peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, and in hell, it will be suffering (spiritually and not physically).

    Our Church progresses throughout time and we truly believe that She is the Anchor of Faith, for all peoples, at all places and at all times. To say that our Church is unchanged for the past two thousand years is not entirely true.
    What is eternally true and what we always believe along with the Disciples is that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. And everything else after that is like a description, duties and responsibilities of life in the Church. If we are to somehow get one of the Apostles to this time, they’d be overwhelmed of the change and traditions established since their time, and we’d have a lot of explaining to do. I would personally want very much to ask them if there were toll houses, but as far as I know, none of them ever taught toll houses and the partial judgment where you have to wait for the Second Coming.

    The Church Fathers are another thing, honorable and forever praying for us in the Heavenly Kingdom, and some of what they wrote are not all accepted teachings of the Catholic Church.

    God bless, Jeremiah.

    1. Fr. Martin,

      Since the discussion of heaven and hell is a bit off topic here, I will let that one go, only saying that I mostly agree with you and I’ve written on it here for anyone who is interested.

      We must be careful about saying our Church “progresses throughout time.” She certainly passes through time with us, remaining an “Anchor of Faith” as you said. But the purpose of an anchor is not progress – it is to keep us steady against the ever changing winds of doctrine from the world and heretics.

      One such heretical doctrine is the myth of progress, which does not fit into Christianity. There is no theological progress, but that does not include the following:

      -Evolution of liturgical practices and rubrics
      -New songs and melodies in our worship
      -New ways to explain or express the same unchanging truth of our faith
      -New languages in our worship and for our writings
      -New local customs
      -New technology (such as electric lights, printing presses, and computers)
      -New clothing and vestments
      -New archetecture & iconographic styles that maintain the spirit of the original

      All of the above are simply a part of ordinary life in a growing body. They’re not theological progress but ordinary growth. We see changes implemented by the Apostles themselves in the Acts of the Apostles. The creation of the office of deacon was one such change that was made to accommodate for growing pains in the Body of Christ.

      If you feel that the Scriptures are milk and not solid food, I would encourage you to study the writings of St. Maximus the Confessor in the 2nd volume of the Philokalia. Many patristic commentaries on the Scriptures will blow just about any Christian’s mind. The Church Fathers were quite brilliant, and I’m tempted to think that those who feel the need for progress have simply never studied the Church Fathers in much depth. We’re splashing in the puddles right now. There’s an ocean of wisdom to glean from the Church Fathers.

  7. Jeremiah,
    I truly believe that our Church is the only true way that expresses and lives in the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ. Even if I wanted to, I would have nowhere else to go because all the other myriads of christian beliefs will never measure up to the life and sanctity of the Orthodox Church.
    Yes, I agree with you of how the Church grew (I used the word “progress” for it) from the time of the Apostles to what She is now, and She’ll continue to grow ever more as time goes by, and I didn’t mean to sound as if Scriptures is less that it is. What I meant about Scriptures and especially from the New Testament is that there is some parts in it that leaves room for a lot of speculation which only our Church can “rightly divide” the word of God’s Truth, and the Church Fathers are a wonderful source. I am always amazed, especially with St. John Chrysostom and his brilliant mind.
    I have to stop for now. I’ll write more later.
    God bless, Jeremiah.

  8. God is unchanging. His Truth is unchanging. We also must allow for possibilities and mysteries. Only He knows all.

  9. Thank you for your explanation, I’m growing doubtful of Catholicism and trying to convert to Orthodoxy. I have a question though, don’t some people believe in literal tollhouses? I’ve heard that’s what Seraphim Rose believed. Thank you

    1. Hi Hannah, yes, some people believe in literal toll houses just like some people approach everything in the Bible literally. Neither one is good. Fr. Seraphim Rose’s approach was perhaps not as generously allegorical as mine but it was not literal either. In trying to convey how we should understand this spiritual reality, Fr. Seraphim in his The Soul after Death quotes other Orthodox sources saying,

      ‘Accept earthly things here as the weakest kind of depiction of heavenly things.’ One must picture the toll houses not in a sense that is crude and sensuous, but – as far as possible for us – in a spiritual sense, and not be tied down to the details which, in the various writers and various accounts of the Church herself, are presented in various ways even though the basic idea of the toll houses is one and the same.

      1. Just as it is shown here, within Orthodoxy, there are some who believe in literal toll houses and some who do not. Although many saints have spoken of their existence, none of them are in agreement of exactly what happens after death. But the gist of the toll house teaching is that angels, both good and bad, come for the soul to lead it either to hell or to heaven, but it’s not the judgment yet. They go to a waiting place that is a preview of hell if they are found sinful or even with one unforgivened sin, or they go to a heaven-like state that is sure to land them in the real heaven when Jesus Christ comes as the Judge of all.
        There are Orthodox Christians who do not accept this teaching. They see it as speculation of things beyond our comprehension or revelation. They say God is left out during this toll house journey and lets the angels fight it out among themselves to claim the soul.
        But minus the toll house teaching, both groups will agree that in the end, Christ will come in His glory and give the rightful judgment to all. This toll house teaching will be addressed in the future because it has become a thorn in the side of the Church from those not in agreement with it, and whether we’ll see it soon or a long time from now, it’s hard to say.
        Orthodoxy is not about toll houses, and never was. Orthodoxy says the Church is the Church of the Resurrection and Life, because God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.
        It’s your choice to pursue your life in Orthodoxy and if you do, may it bring you blessings from above and Living Water so that you may never thirst again.

      2. Thank you! This is very helpful

    2. If we go to hell for even one unforgiven sin – we neglected to repent of one thing – then it seems hopeless. Not good news at all! And if the non-Orthodox are condemned as well. . . . no hope!

      1. Lori, it is not about God or the demons saying, “Ha! You overlooked this sin and now you’re going to hell!” The point of repentance is to completely surrender our lives to God. If there is some part of us that we refuse to surrender, if we would rather hold on to one sin (be it pride, a lack of forgiveness, whatever) instead of giving it all to God, then yes, we risk damnation. That is the purpose of the toll house teaching, if it is rightly understood. God wants to save EVERYBODY, no exceptions. He will do everything He can to save us, but we must work in cooperation with Him through repentance, whether we are Orthodox or not.

        1. That is much more understandable and hopeful. Thank you. I am not a theologian and my faith is simple. The world is a dark place and the gospel is my only hope. Best for me not to delve into this toll house teaching any further, I think. Thank you again.

          1. You’ll be good without toll houses in your life.

  10. The tradition of the toll houses, so it seems to me, cannot be separated from the broader Orthodox understanding of the person, the process of theosis, and certain eschatological considerations. When sin entered the world, the human soul became disordered and the nous darkened. This had ontological implications insofar as the ability to commune with God directly was affected. I liken it to a wireless internet connection being fried in a computer, making the ability to connect to the net “glitchy” or not not possible at all. Christ “repaired the possibility for connection,” but whether or not one “connects” and stays connected depends on the person. When choices are made they affect the substance of the person, not just the “who” but the “what”: a predilection for gambling can result in one “becoming” a “gambler”: this is another way of saying that the desires, ends, and actions that are part of gambling become internalized into the will’s structure to such an extent that the will of the gambler is functionally structured in such a way that most (or all) of its ends and inclinations serve the ultimate end of gambling.

    When we sin, we existentially affect the substance of not only our will but our person in the same way that a desire to gamble shades into a habit of gambling which, if unchecked, shades into an addiction to gambling and one becoming “a gambler.” If this addiction isn’t repaired, the structure of the soul isn’t repaired. This means the person, the “hypostasis” of the gambler hasn’t been cultivated and conformed to the ends of theosis. When they die, the substance of not only who they are but “what” they are prevents them from being in the direct presence of the uncreated Energies of God. There are places in the Bible, both Old and New Testaments where being in the presence of God has some sort of physical / spiritual effect on people. If one isn’t in a certain state, it can destroy one — being in the presence of the Ark, for instance.

    In an important sense, so it seems to me, it is wrong to suggest the toll houses should be rejected because “the demons are judging souls where only God can.” No, the soul, the person, very much judges himself because through his choices he has made himself both “who” he is and “what” he is. Each of his choices is like a sculptor chipping away marble to pull a figure out of uncrafted stone: at the end of one’s life, one’s choices pull a figure out of the uncrafted stone that was their time alive (think Wilde’s “Picture of Dorian Grey” if you like). In this way, the demons “have things” on those who have passed away because they can see certain sins that have shaped the soul through its choices. God does not passively let this happen. The soul has, by its choices and actions, indicated where it wants to go, whether consciously or unconsciously. In other words, when our gambler dies, his actions indicate what he really loves: gambling. Of course, he may know that gambling is a vice and prefer life outside of a casino. However, he still returns to the casino, addicted as he is to his sin. So, the demons (on this imperfect analogy) will remind him of his actions, his sins, and try to hurry his journey into the bowels of a casino because his life’s choices and actions indicate THAT IS WHERE HIS LOVE IS, THAT IS WHERE HE WANTS TO BE. Why, then, would God, a respecter of persons and freewill, contravene that placement? Where he will be after the Final Judgement is a different matter; but, for the time being, he has indicated where his heart rests.

    The toll houses may have antecedents in ancient Egyptian writings and in certain schools of Gnosticism or, for that matter, in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Perhaps what this indicates is that they are “real” in some sense, and that other cultures without the True revelation of Christ and the Church simply do not fully understand them, though they have experiences of them.

    1. Thank you for a thorough and well thought out comment.

      I would like to address this from a more pastoral perspective. You give the example of the gambler: his love for gambling drives his behavior and shapes his soul. It’s a good example. Yet it in some ways has the weakness of the Screwtape Letters that CS Lewis readily admitted. That is, the work of grace and the whispering of God in our hearts are so ineffable that Lewis did not even want to address them in his book.

      Sinful habits become passions that, once established, hardly ever permanently go away. Sometimes people are miraculously delivered but that is rare. Yet all that time, grace is working quietly in the background.

      When someone has sin that is habitual and compulsive, sometimes that person feels out of control. They sin, they weep and repent, and then they sin again – almost against their will. Many monastic fathers have spoken about the benefit that comes from this seemingly-perpetual struggle against a passion. It keeps us continually coming to God in repentance and it preserves us from the greatest sin: pride.

      I write all of this, not because I think it opposes your thoughtful comment, but in case a reader comes along, sees the comment, and thinks, “Well, that does it. My soul has been so chiseled by sin that there’s no hope for me.” As the thief on the cross next to our Lord shows us, sometimes Paradise can be grasped in a single moment of true, deep repentance. God’s grace works in ineffable ways.

  11. Excellent points — the toll houses have too often led some to think there is very little they can hope for or do, especially if they have an addiction they are struggling with. You are right to point this out and the shortcomings of the analogy. Addictions can, according to the Wisdom of the all Good God, keep us on our knees. As I understand the saints, there is perhaps nothing the infernal powers hate more than the sinner who falls and gets back up to repent, sing the praises of God, and continue the fight forward again.

  12. Very good review of topic of Toll Houses, thank you.

  13. I am probably going to get in trouble for posting this, but I think it needs to be clearly said. I think the toll house doctrine should only be taught by a priest or other spiritual father who is familiar with the needs of the hearer. That is one of Orthodoxy’s strong points. There are people (like myself) with complex PTSD from traumatic situations and/or deep depression, and this teaching and others like it could reduce their faith in Jesus’s mercy and literally push them into panic, a nervous breakdown, or even sui**de. I think “normal” people have a built-in safety mechanism in the brain so that they don’t REALLY believe they could be sent to Hell. They, for want of a better term, think that life is and will be basically “safe” and Jesus will be merciful. People with PTSD or other similar issues don’t always have these protective beliefs. They KNOW horrific things can happen, and that does real damage to the brain that takes a long time to heal. (Again, one of Orthodoxy’s strong points.) I recently was listening to a man discuss his own nervous breakdown and he said what I’ve often thought: he REALLY believed he was going to be tortured (in Hell), there was no way to know exactly what to do to NOT be tortured, and he was paralyzed by fear. REALLY let that truth sink in. This man could find no peace, and the ambiguity and constant fear drove him to a nervous breakdown and he had to be institutionalized. Again, there are some teachings that may be beneficial for some hearers, but deadly for others.

    1. I don’t know who you would get in trouble with for posting your comment, but I won’t be reporting you to anyone 🙂

      I strongly sympathize with those who struggle with legitimate PTSD, OCD and other mental health problems. I would discourage such people from researching Orthodoxy (or much of anything spiritual) on the internet. They should speak with their priest and read books he recommends.

      You make valid points about those who struggle with PTSD. However, Orthodoxy offers no theology of “blessed assurance.” We generally cannot know with absolute certainty that we will be saved, so we must struggle against our sin and continually repent. But this is a call to a “joyful sorrow,” one in which we draw closer to Christ.

      For those struggling with PTSD, OCD, or something similar, I usually ask them to focus their mental efforts on God’s love and mercy. Other people who are more inclined toward pride and elated feelings need to focus on repentance and perhaps even ponder the toll houses from time to time. There are different remedies depending on the spiritual condition.

  14. Christo Dimitriadis February 17, 2023 — 4:33 pm

    Dear Father, I have been reading your article above on Toll Houses. I have an issue and am confused. Father, you state:
    “should that sinful something be found and there is no repentance to pay for it, then God allows the soul to be dragged away by the demons to Hades.”

    You then state in your narrative by the 3 icons depicting Toll Houses the following:
    “God holds the scale or an angel which means that God is the judge. The demons are there to accuse but they can do no more than that.”

    There appears at least to my mind a contradiction here: which is it, one or the other Father? I thank you. Christo Dimitriadis

    1. Hello Christo, I’ve already answered your questions via email, but I thought I’d post your comment anyway and provide the answer here in case someone else has the same questions:

      You quoted two places in my article. First, that if someone hasn’t repented, God allows demons to take the soul to hades. Second, that God is the judge. I see no contradiction here. If court police officers take someone to jail after a judge makes his verdict, the judge doesn’t cease being the judge. If God judges a soul and then allows the demons to take that soul to hades, then God is still the judge. The demons are merely fulfilling God’s request at that point.

  15. Why do some Orthodox priests deny the tollhouses even when all the saints in the Bible acknowledged them??

    1. I think there’s a lack of good education on the topic. Those who hold a more moderate view are sometimes too afraid to speak up because they don’t want to stir up controversy.

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