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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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, Puhalo released the first-ever written attack against the toll houses in the history of the Church. 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 Fr. Seraphim Rose’s 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.