It is, I suppose, a sign of how strange and ubiquitous the internet is that I often receive questions from new inquirers into Orthodoxy about toll-houses. Note: not the divinity of Jesus, or the Eucharist, or baptism, or the love and grace of God, or the nature of the Church. Not even about Mary’s role as the Mother of God. Nope: toll-houses. It always struck me as majoring in minors, as if when I told someone I was taking them with me on a trip to the Holy Land to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the grotto of the Nativity, and the place where Jesus was baptized the first thing they wanted to know was whether or not there would be a Starbucks at the airport. It is very odd.
Not that it is unnatural to want to know what happens to us after we die. But we are told so much that is wonderful about what happens to us after we die. Scripture makes plain that for those who love Jesus, after we die we will be with Him, that we shall see Him as He is, that we will stand before Him on the Last Day to give an account of our lives and be rewarded, that we will judge angels, that we will inherit a weight of glory beyond all comparison. Besides all these things, fixating on toll-houses does sound a bit like obsessing on the coffee available at the airport at the place of departure.
But it is the task of clergy and teachers in the Church to answer pretty much all the questions asked of them, so I will attempt an answer. Other material can also be accessed here.
I suspect that most of the current excitement about the possibility of toll-houses comes from reading the works of the late Fr. Seraphim Rose, and his book The Soul after Death, which provoked a heated and contrary response from then Father Lev Puhalo in his rival book The Soul, The Body, and Death. It began with a kind of polemical arm-wrestling match between the two, which Rose won hands down (or shall we say, “arms down”). That is, the bishops of their jurisdiction of the time, ROCOR, decided in favour of Rose, and also demanded that the controversy end and that Puhalo stand down.
It should not be forgotten, however, that Fr. Rose only wrote his book The Soul after Death with its chapter on “aerial toll-houses” to supply a means for differentiating true after-death experiences (then very popular in the media) from false ones. Many people then were reporting such experiences, and Rose wanted to provide some criteria for discerning the true from the false. Toll-houses formed one element in his larger criteria. It was never meant to be a topic in itself.
One thing that must be remembered in all this is that we are told what we need to know, not what we would like to know. We must be content with a certain level of agnosticism about this topic. Some things have been revealed to us in Scripture, other things may be believed because they have found a secure place in our Tradition, and other things are guesses and homiletical exhortations. Putting them all in a blender and ascribing the same amount of certainty to everything shows a deficit of theological sophistication. So: given that, what can we reasonably believe about what happens to us after we die?
Firstly, the spiritual world in which we live is a contaminated one. St. Paul taught that demons inhabited the air, filling it like a kind of spiritual air pollution. He wrote that the forces of darkness were in the heavenlies and that Satan was the prince of the power of the air (Ephesians 6:12, 2:2). That was why St. Athanasius suggested that Christ died lifted up in the air on the cross to purify the air of such contamination for Christians (On the Incarnation, chapter 25). It seems that as we are dying, this formerly invisible world of angels and demons becomes visible to us, and we can then see the angels guarding us and the demons raging against us after we die as they raged against us while we were alive.
Secondly, it seems that angels attend the Christian soul upon death to bring it to the presence of God and to its rest. It is possible that our Lord’s words in the parable of the dying rich man refer to the arrival of such spirits. In that parable God says to the rich man, “This night they are demanding your soul from you” (Luke 12:20). This is often translated too loosely as, “This night your soul is demanded of you”. It is possible that the “they” in this verse are the angels who arrive when a soul dies to take it to its post-mortem destination. We see this also in Christ’s words about Lazarus and the rich man: it is the angels who escort Lazarus from this world (Luke 16:22).
Certainly angels escort Christians into the Kingdom of God on the Last Day, since Christ said that then He will “send forth His angels and they will gather together His chosen from the four winds” (Matthew 24:31). If angels will gather and escort Christians on that day, it is reasonable to assume their assistance on the day of one’s death also. Chrysostom certainly thought so. The great Bible teacher said, “At its departure [from the body] the soul, invisible to the eyes of the flesh, is gathered up by the angels” (from his Homilies on the Consolation of Death). The notion that the soul instantly wakes up and finds itself in heaven immediately after the death of the body may not be correct. To get home we may need a guide and an escort.
Thirdly, it seems that as souls are gathered from their bodies by angels immediately after death, a struggle for them ensues with the demons. The demons accuse the soul of its many sins, trying to lay claim to it and seize it, while the angels defend and guard the soul, fighting to claim it for God. This is the consistent tradition of the Church as taught by many Fathers. Given the hatred the demons had for the soul during its life, it makes sense that they would seek to seize it after death.
Thus, for example, Origen (who died 254 A.D.) wrote: “When we depart from the world, some beings will be seated at the boundary of this world, as if they were exercising the office of tax collectors, very carefully searching to find something in us that is theirs [i.e. sins]” Homilies on Luke). The accusations of the demons will reveal to us just what sort of people we were when it is our time to depart from this world. Through their accusations they will seek to grab the soul for themselves.
The western missionary St. Boniface also, in the eighth century, related that he spoke to a monk who had died and then returned to life a few hours later in the monastery of Wenlock. Boniface related that the monk said that angels bore him up as he came forth from his body and carried him up. A crowd of evil spirits was also there and the demons and the angels violently argued, the demons bringing accusations and the angels defending him. The monk heard all his own sins he had committed throughout his life shouted at him by the demons. The angels, on the other hand, spoke vigorously in his defense. The angels were like bodyguards and advocates, pulling the Christian soul through the gauntlet of demonic accusers.
It is these demonic hosts accusing the soul of its sins that are compared to the collectors of toll sitting at their toll-houses. The image of toll-houses was a poignant one for the ancients, for every traveller experienced the tax and custom officials who waited by the roadside to collect their due. One dreaded these encounters with the toll-house officials. They had a reputation for rudeness, corruption, and extortion, which made them an obvious choice for homilists when they talked about the demons which barred the way of would-be travellers on the road to heaven. As these customs officials grilled the travellers about what they were carrying, so the demons will grill and accuse us of our sins when we begin our road to paradise.
We find these images in the liturgical tradition of the Orthodox Church. For example, in the Canon to the Guardian Angels we find this prayer: “At the dread hour of my death, forsake me not, O my good guardian, but drive away the dark demons who will seek to terrify my trembling soul; defend me from their pursuit when I must pass through the aerial toll-houses, that preserved unharmed by you, I may attain to the paradise I desire.”
Finally, what then is our hope that the angels will pull us through this terrifying gauntlet of demonic accession? A life of penitence and faithful service to Christ.
St. John of Karpathos expressed it well: “When the soul leaves the body, the enemy advances to attack it, fiercely reviling it and accusing it of its sins…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. Strengthened by the Lord, winged by joy, filled with courage by the holy angels that guide it, encircled and protected by the light of faith, it answers the malicious devil with great boldness: ‘Enemy of God, what have I to do with you? You have no authority over me; Christ the Son of God has authority over me. Against Him have I sinned, before Him shall I stand on trial, having His precious Cross as a sure pledge of His saving love towards me.’ When the soul says all this fearlessly, the devil turns his back, howling aloud and unable to withstand the Name of Christ. After this it is brought rejoicing by the holy angels to the place appointed for it in accordance with its inward state” (from his Encouragement of the Monks in India).
In other words, as was said in the Life of St. Basil the Younger, “Those who believe in the Holy Trinity and take as frequently as possible the Holy Communion of Christ the Saviour’s Body and Blood—such people can rise to heaven directly, with no hindrance, and the holy angels defend them and the holy saints of God pray for their salvation, since they have lived righteously.” The devout have nothing to fear. But if we lapse from our devotion to Christ and embrace a life of sin, it will be revealed that we belong with the demons, and the angels will not be able to claim us and bring us through.
The demonic gauntlet in the air through which the angels will lead us are well imaged by toll-houses. Yet the existence of such toll-houses is not a dogma of the Church, but a theologoumenon, a theological opinion. That said, it is theological opinion shared by many Fathers, both eastern and western, an opinion widely-enough held to find a secure place in the Church’s liturgical tradition. But belief in toll-houses should not effect how we live. Whether or not there are aerial toll-houses awaiting us, we know that we should live a life of repentance and should strive to please the Lord as those who will one day stand before Him to be judged. What matters is God’s grace and the life we live now.