On Tollhouses

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.

28 comments:

  1. Wow, thank you dear father. I have been considering that proponents of toll houses are an extreme but I also didn’t have the light you have lit for me.

  2. The Tollhouses. I have not even thought of them for decades. I have come to the conclusion that both “sides” if there really is such a thing are lost in a disincarnate fantasy of impossible speculation. Does it really matter?

    I ask because of what happened to me in Lent-Pascha 2004. My wife of 24 years reposed and passed into eternal life. Half of my soul was ripped out. My son and I plus our priest and several fellow parishoners attended her death with anointing and the singing of prayers. As my wife took her final earthly breath my son and I saw an angel standing at her head. Waiting. Then he was gone as was the soul of my dear wife.
    That was close to the beginning of Lent. Quite a Lent that one. Filled with existential needs, more grief.

    Then came Pascha, about 40 days later. Just as we all started shouting Christ is Risen! I “saw” felt and experienced the Resurrection of our Lord in an inimated and unmistakable manner. My wife was with Him. He was trampling down her death with His own and raising her with Him.

    I left that service with a smile of joy as my own soul was also lifted up — still in grief. In fact, the grief is still with me in some ways, but if I allow myself to enter into the remembrance of that night 16 years ago, the joy overcomes.

    Clearly something happens when we die; clearly the 40 days is significant but must we make bloodless every reality of life by codifying it?
    Our practice is fundamental simple: worship sacramentally, pray, fast and give alms with a merciful heart so that we might know our Lord and Savior. In all things the key is also simple: “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at Hand!” That is the race I have yet to complete. Nevertheless, I am confident (I do not just believe), that by His Grace and Mercy I will complete that race and that my death will be subsumed into His and I too will be raised in a manner similar to my departed wife.

    God is good! He is God and all things work to His glory even as our sacramental worship is threatened by the fear of a virus. We are not worthy of His goodness but He gives it anyway.

    1. Thank you, Michael. I always appreciate your contributions on the various blogs we both frequent, but this one moved me greatly.

    2. Thank you Michael for a story so rich in simplicity of faith and experience. Truly, may your wife’s memory be eternal.

    3. Wonderful remembrance. While I do see most apparently the dangers of the legalism alluded to above by Fr. Stephen, you are right of course. Our faith is in Christ—with Christ, whom shall we fear?

  3. Thank you Fr. Stephen! I began looking seriously into the Orthodox teaching about death and the afterlife soon after my father died a little less than four years ago. In my journey of exploration, I came across the toll house theory for the first time, and I couldn’t believe it was Orthodox. It sounded more like the Egyptian Book of the Dead than anything from Orthodox tradition. Your presentation here is the most balanced and nuanced treatment of the subject I’ve seen to date. I will be sharing this with friends and family alike. Thanks again.

  4. Dear father

    Thank you for a very enlightening article about this subject! Being one for whom the Tollhouse teaching seems pretty logical it is fascinating to learn more about its background.

    You mention psalm 90 and how it refers to demonic deities in v. 5-6; could you be more specific about this connection? It’s quite obvious that the (Greek) text refers to something literal, that the reader of yesteryear probably would understand, but why this blurring of the antecedent; why not just state it plainly? I know you didn’t write the psalm, but you probably have an educated guess 😉

    Thank you.

    1. Well, it was clear in the original Hebrew to the original hearers who was being spoken about. And the Greek translators attempted to preserve this as I gave example, by using terms like ‘demon’ in this context. If they had just translated these names into the Greek word, it might have rendered that unclear. In terms of English translations, those were made in modern times by modern people. So when they come to a description of Mot, they just translate his name as ‘death’ and then say that the text is poetically personifying death. The exact opposite is true. They are talking about the defeat by Yahweh of the pagan god of death as a way of describing our deliverance from the grave. The meaning is plain in the original until modern people come along and de-mythologize it in their translations.

      1. Fr. Stephen,

        Is this verse In Job at all connected with trial of death?

        “A rope is hidden for him in the ground, a trap for him in the path. Terrors frighten him on every side, and chase him at his heels. His strength is famished, and calamity is ready for his stumbling. It consumes the parts of his skin; the firstborn of death consumes his limbs. He is torn from the tent in which he trusted and is brought to the king of terrors.”
        ‭‭Job‬ ‭18:10-14‬ ‭ESV‬‬

  5. I had just sent my priest and some others a few weeks ago the connection between toll houses and Psalm 91 after reading Craig Evans. After reading his paper I opened up the service books to the funeral liturgy. Then I started looking up Catholic funeral rites and couldn’t find Psalm 91 anywhere. My assumption is, toll houses, to some degree shows our belief in free will whereas purgatory based in merit, shows a contradiction when in some ways it is based on free will, but negated by sovereign election at the same time – though I would need to research this further.

  6. I forgot to add, my whole intention was to show that prayer for the dead actually means something versus only memorializing the person.

  7. Thank you Father Stephen, there does seem to be a nebulous feel about the whole concept though your overview is well resourced and objective like all your writings. I’m Orthodox, but your comments regarding Rome’s “deformation” of the concept at least in my mind allows a little graceful light to shine on their thinking. I had always assumed they just grabbed a couple of scriptures and got very creative with them. I guess it’s safe to assume that it is not in our way of doing things, that we will ever get universally definitive about it.
    Thanks as always for your time and energy in creating these presentations.

  8. Thank you for writing this clarification of how contemporary views of the idea of Tollhouses in Orthodox Christianity may be addressed. I usually will not read anything with the word “Tollhouses” attached; however, this has been enlightening.

  9. One of the most powerful experiences I have ever had was attending the annual Liturgy at Fort Ross and accompanying our Archbishop Benjamin to the cemetery to sing a Panakida over the graves of the departed early settlers to California. If there is no other reason to be Orthodox, that alone would win me over. I still get chills think about it. It was an incredibly moving experience. There is no doubt in my mind and heart that the prayers of the Church are of the utmost significance for our eternal life. May God grant us all a place of rest and repose in His blessed Kingdom!

  10. Father Stephen,
    You make a note that through Cain, the curse of sin enters the world. Can you describe that in light of Romans 5:12?

  11. Thank you Father for this well articulated take on the subject. I’ve always known somehow that the soul does undertake a journey, so it was impossible for me to take seriously the anti-Toll house camp. On the other hand, my Priest did encourage me to recognize the imagery used in communicating the idea, and not press it too much.

  12. Thank you Fr. Stephan. Your article is of great benefit to many, I’m sure. I followed several rabbit trails you presented, and found the exegesis of Ps. 91 helpful in many, many ways. What a wonderfully simple and clear explanation of the journey of the soul. Thank you again.

  13. Fascinating, I did not know there was an orthidox version of catholicism’s purgatory. I’ve listened to a podcast on the Qumran psalms that were packaged with Psalm 91 as exorcism and found it likewise fascinating. There is so much we don’t know and never will know, but it is enjoyable to allow our finite minds to wander into the abstract for a period of time. I really appreciated though how you clarified that going into the abstract should never distract us from the reality of the life we now live, and regardless of what journey our soul takes after physical death, it would be wisdom to apply the concept to life today and focus on repentance in the here and now. Repentance is a gift and should be desired.

    One question I have on this topic (which is admittedly new to me outside of a very general understanding of purgatory) is how it would be reconciled with the words of Jesus on the cross to the thief when He declared “surely today you will be with me in paradise”?

    1. The case of the thief on the cross (traditionally St. Dismas) is an interesting one. The first thing we have to say is that it’s exceptional, so it’s important not to treat it as if its the norm. That happens sometimes on other topics, as in baptism debates and the like. One hymn from morning prayers before the Sunday Liturgy is often worded in English, “the penitent thief gained Paradise by stealth.” I’ve always liked that phrasing. Both in how it alludes to the fact that he’s an exceptional case and the way it re-purposes the idea of him having been a thief. Since Christ is God, I would say that he is certainly able to bring his soul directly to Paradise at the moment of his death. In that respect, while his case is exceptional, there are Biblical cases even more exceptional, like Enoch and Elijah. That’s how I would understand it at least.

  14. Definitely no laughing matter. I will call on the name of the Lord, His love lasts forever. And confess pray and pray for by beloved family members always..

  15. Once someone has reached either Paradise or Hades and before the Resurrection can these people fall from Paradise or be saved from Hades? I think you have said those in Hades can be, by the mercy of God and our prayers, be saved from Hades but can those in Paradise be lost to Hades or has their reaching Paradise mean the demon’s hold on them has been broken due to their 40 days of cleansing?

  16. Thank you, Father, for providing a better understand the important reality of what has been called the “tollhouses” and of the soul’s journey after the death of the body. Above all, you remind us of the huge importance of the Church’s prayers, and of our own prayers, for the departed. I have been Orthodox for some 20 years and have been confused (and to some extent distressed) as to what Orthodoxy believes about the tollhouses. Your posting has helped me tremendously!

  17. Thank you Fr. Stephen for this very clear article. I believe the issues regarding toll houses are more of an American / modern problem because of our tendency to over rationalize. This is true of both “camps” when discussing the issue. It is hard to put reason in its right place and see reality as it is with its contradictions and mystery. May God have mercy on us!

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