Easily one of the most contentious issues among newcomers to the Orthodox faith, in particular on the internet, is the concept of “aerial tollhouses.” Though variously elaborated, the core idea is that when the human soul departs the body at death, as it journeys toward the intermediate state where it will await the resurrection, either Paradise or Hades, it passes through metaphorical ‘toll booths’ staffed by demonic spirits who in some way test the soul for various sins. Among devotees, matters of fine dispute such as the number of these tollhouses and the nature of each become subject to further discussion and debate. This sort of literalization of the metaphor would be an example of one extreme. The opposite extreme, then, would be those who not only reject the whole idea of “tollhouses” but go so far as to call the entire idea Gnosticism. They would hold that the entire conception is a foreign intrusion into the folk piety of certain Orthodox countries and through that folk religion into the Orthodox faith of certain people. Partisans of the first extreme identify their own elaboration of tollhouses as a significant part of Holy Tradition. To reject the concept, then, is to malform the tradition and thereby render one’s self not truly Orthodox. Partisans of the second extreme argue that these elaborations are foreign to Holy Tradition and that accepting them is, therefore, deviance from the Orthodox faith and potentially a demonic distraction.
Both of these sides present ancient evidence to support their respective cases. For their part, the proponents of various versions of tollhouse theory present a great volume of Biblical and patristic citations. These citations support that the soul experiences a journey, generally conceived of as a 40 day period in line with Biblical precedent, on its way to its intermediate destination. They support that during that journey, there is a threat of demonic attack. They support that the soul is aided in its journey by the prayers of the Church, both those sojourning on earth and in the kingdom of heaven. The problem with this evidence, copious though it is, is that while it outlines a conception in broad strokes that is compatible with the idea of the tollhouses, it does not actually argue for an elaborated system of tollhouses. Apologists for Roman Catholicism make similar arguments by bringing together every positive statement of the Scriptures and the fathers about St. Peter and his apostolic ministry and then arguing that these demonstrate their fully-elaborated doctrine of the papacy. Likewise, many Protestants collate positive quotations about the value and power of the Scriptures and argue that they demonstrate their own understanding of Sola Scriptura. The submitted evidence simply does not support the details of the conclusion. On the other hand, the broader tradition attested to by this evidence must be accounted for and the relevant themes are a part of Orthodox tradition.
On the other side, those who identify many of the elaborated systems of tollhouses as being Gnostic in nature or even origin have evidence to support their case. By a margin of centuries, the first place where any kind of elaborated tollhouse conception is to be found is in the Gospel of Mary, a Gnostic gospel. This text even uses the term ‘telones‘, or tax collector/tollhouse. The text is quite deliberately fusing together certain elements of traditional Christian language with Egyptian pagan traditions. It is certainly far too much to say that this constitutes evidence that more recent ‘tollhouse’ systems are derived from or dependent upon this or any other Gnostic text. Far more likely is that this kind of tradition moved through folk piety in a way similar to traditions surrounding the ‘evil eye’ as just one example. Opponents of tollhouse views can make a strong case that any of the various specific workings out of their function lack dogmatic force and are, at best, an over-literalization of a metaphor or analogy. What these opponents have consistently failed to do, however, is to do justice to the tradition evidenced by the proponents or even to the value of that metaphor or analogy.
In this discussion, because the entire focus is on proving or disproving a fully elaborated theory, the liturgical use of certain Biblical texts and the application of particular Biblical themes has been unfortunately neglected. These help illuminate the contours of the underlying tradition and understanding of the Church regarding the nature of the soul’s journey after death. One critical piece of Scriptural and liturgical evidence is the use of Psalm 91 (90 in the Greek numbering) as the opening of the funeral services of the Church. This has been a practice in monastic establishments for as long as we have record and was expanded to all funeral services for a millennium. In the era of the apostles, this Psalm had a very particular use. In the eleventh cave at Qumran, reflected in Dead Sea Scrolls labeled as 11Q, are a collection of Psalms. A document reflecting upon the writing activity of the prophet and king David describes him as having written hundreds upon hundreds of Psalms in his life for a variety of purposes. He is said to have written four of them for the purpose of exorcisms. This association of the Davidic king, and therefore the Messiah, with exorcism, is important to understanding the role which exorcism played in Christ’s ministry. A person possessed by an evil spirit was to have these Psalms sung over them in order to drive out the spirits. The second, third, and fourth Psalms are not found in any other known canonical Psalm collection. The first of the four exorcism Psalms, however, is our Psalm 91/90.
This Psalm’s use as an exorcism Psalm then guides interpretation. Its liturgical use indicates that in the apostolic era it was understood that the enemies here referred to from which angelic protection was promised are spiritual powers of darkness. This is implicit in the repeated identification of Yahweh as ‘the Most High’ and then made explicit in v. 5-6. These verses contain a litany of names and references to demonic powers worshipped as gods by the nations surrounding Israel. While often translated into English as ‘the terror of the night’, in its original this more likely represents a reference to the ‘terror of Lilitu’, a feminine unclean spirit that came by night. “The arrow that flies by day” is a reference to the arrows of Resheph, a plague god. Verse 6 describes, “Deber who walks in darkness and Qetev who lays waste at noon.” Deber and Qetev are two demons related to disease and plague associated with the entourage of Mot, the Canaanite god of death (cf. Hos 13:14). The Greek translation of this Psalm attempts to preserve this original meaning by replacing the names of Deber and Qetev not with translations of their names as is common in English translations of the Hebrew, but with ‘the evil thing’ and ‘the demon’.
With the understanding of this Psalm as an exorcism Psalm particularly aimed at seeking Yahweh’s protection from hostile powers of evil at large in the world, its selection for the funeral rite becomes crucial to the Church’s understanding of the journey of the soul after death. To modern people, it would appear that this prayer would now be unnecessary to the departed soul. Surely he or she is now beyond the reach of the material or spiritual troubles of this world, one way or the other. This Psalm’s use, however, reflects that the soul departed from the body is still in need of divine and angelic protection. Similarly, the concluding prayer of the Orthodox memorial prayers begins with the words, “O God of spirits and of all flesh…” To an ancient hearer, this would instantly recall the beginning of a prayer recorded in the book of Jubilees. After the flood, Noah prays that he and his descendants will be protected by Yahweh from the unclean spirits of the now-dead Nephilim that roam the earth (Jub 10:3). This prayer begins with the same phrase, “O God of spirits and of all flesh…” This sets the memorial prayer, which goes on to describe Christ’s defeat of Death and the Devil, within the context of protection from hostile spiritual powers. This is furthered by the request that the soul of the departed be brought safely to and sheltered in Paradise.
Interwoven liturgically in all of these services is the theme of the forgiveness of sins. Unrepented sin makes the human soul wounded and deformed by it vulnerable to hostile powers in particular ways according to the Scriptures. This claim by rebellious spiritual powers is a part of the result of the curse. The curse, beginning with Cain‘s bringing of sin into the world, alienates human persons from the rest of creation (Gen 4:11-12). This alienation, in turn, produces both spiritual and physical corruption within a person and in that person’s world. This corruption represents a certain claim that can be pressed by demonic powers. Though not referenced until near the end of the New Testament, this is why the devil contested with St. Michael over the body of Moses to seek to lay claim to it (Jude 9). St. Michael defended against these charges and claimed the body of Moses, assuming it into Paradise. This defense was in reference not to some absolute moral perfection of Moses, but to the repentance and purification that he underwent throughout his life. Similarly, the memory of the Church records the body of the Theotokos being taken to Paradise. Purification from the curse through repentance produces the incorrupt relics of saints.
Christ, being utterly without sin, likewise had no claim which could be laid against him. As he said before going to his life-giving passion, though the ruler of this world came for him, he found nothing in him (John 14:30). There was no valid claim to be pressed. For this reason, Christ could not be killed, but laid down his life and was able to take it up again (John 10:18). Once Christ had died, his human soul separated from his human body, he alone was free among the dead and therefore able to invade Hades and take it captive. Even during this physical death, however, his body did not see decay (Ps 16/15:10; cf. Acts 2:27).
The Church has always understood that when the human soul leaves the body that it travels toward its intermediate state, Paradise or Hades, where it will await the resurrection on the last day. This period, as all periods of preparation, purification, and restoration in the Scriptures is associated with 40 days. Just as in this world we are subject to the predation of hostile, fallen spiritual powers abetted by our own sin, so also souls of the departed may be assailed by demonic powers seeking to lay claim to them through sin’s corruption. For this reason, the Church intensifies her prayers for the departed. We pray for those who have fallen asleep in the Lord that they will receive angelic protection and be fully healed and purified of their sins. We pray that by this means they will be brought safely to Paradise We offer our prayers to God as instruments through which he may choose to accomplish this.
Various tollhouse schemes, then, represent an over-literalization of this element of Holy Tradition. While in simple folk forms they may be harmless, there is a certain danger to their contemporary form. They are able to become the focus of legalism and of distraction through endless debating of taxonomies and genealogies. As an intellectual focus, they can distract from the importance of our own repentance in this life as we prepare for its end, as well as from our focus on the offering of prayers for those who go before us to their rest. The Roman doctrine of purgatory represents a general deformation of this tradition. The correlate danger comes with the assumption of a rigorous antipathy toward the tollhouse idea. This dismissal most often results in the dismissal of the underlying tradition. Without consciousness of this tradition, prayers offered for the departed become perfunctory and lack seriousness. Some even have come to consider the funeral and memorial services of the Church and the listing of names of the departed as merely an emotional sop offered to the grieving; as being for the living and not actually for the departed. The prayers of the faithful and of the Church corporately are, rather, of the utmost importance. They are offered for the whole world, the living, and the departed. Through these prayers, the world is preserved as are those whom we love, both in this world and in that to come.