If Protestants love to debate the relationship between justification and sanctification and Catholics the extent and limits of papal infallibility, the Orthodox love to debate … aerial toll-booths! “Aerial toll-houses? Never heard of them.” I know. Few outside of Orthodoxy are acquainted with this teaching, and those who are so acquainted consider it as no more than a piece of oriental esoterica. Yet it in fact enjoys surprising support among the Eastern Fathers and Elders, and because of this support disagreement exists within contemporary Orthodoxy on both the interpretation of the teaching and its dogmatic status. Back in the 1970s the debate within the Russian Church Outside of Russia became so disputatious the Synod of Bishops was compelled to intervene. And now the controversy has reignited. St Anthony’s Monastery in Arizona recently published a massive book on the topic, Departure of the Soul According to the Teaching of the Orthodox Church. It enjoys the endorsement of eight hierarchs of the Church. The Orthodox social media pundits are thrilled—finally a real war to fight. The dogmatic trenches have been dug, the patristic artillery positioned, the daily bombardment of proof-texts and anathemas is deafening. Brave indeed is the soul who dares to enter the lists.
The ancient teaching of aerial toll-booths may be simply stated: at the moment of death the soul begins a process of testing and spiritual struggle. This process is dramatically rendered as passing through a gauntlet of angels and demons. The demons seek to claim the soul for their own, typically invoking their sins and offences in good prosecutorial style, while the angels defend the soul by appeal to her virtue and good deeds. Thus Abba Theophilus, one of the desert fathers:
What fear, what trembling, what uneasiness will there be for us when our soul is separated from the body. Then indeed the force and strength of the adverse powers come against us, the rulers of darkness, those who command the world of evil, the principalities, the powers, the spirits of evil. They accuse our souls as in a lawsuit, bringing before it all the sins it has committed, whether deliberately or through ignorance, from its youth until the time when it has been taken away. So they stand accusing it of all it has done. Furthermore, what anxiety do you suppose the soul will have at that hour, until sentence is pronounced and it gains its liberty. That is its hour of affliction, until it sees what will happen to it. On the other hand, the divine powers stand on the opposite side, and they present the good deeds of the soul. Consider the fear and trembling of the soul standing between them until in judgement it receives the sentence of the righteous judge. If it is judged worthy, the demons will receive their punishment, and it will be carried away by the angels. Then thereafter you will be without disquiet, or rather you will live according to that which is written: “Even as the habitation of those who rejoice is in you” (Ps. 87.7). Then will the Scripture be fulfilled: “Sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Isaiah 35.10).
By this trial the spiritual condition of the departed soul is revealed, manifested, and made ready for the particular judgment. The stages of revelation eventually came to be imaginatively elaborated as an ascent through the aerial toll-houses, perhaps most famously in the vision granted to Gregory, a disciple of St Basil the New, of St Theodora’s journey through the stations. Jean-Claude Larchet summarizes the teaching:
One Orthodox tradition going back at least to the fourth century and maintained down to our own day, speaks of the ‘telonies’, that is to say the ‘heavenly custom-houses’ or ‘aerial toll-booths’, and refers to the stages that the soul successively passes through in its ascent. This path of the soul is situated by certain texts between the third and ninth days following death. Each duty station corresponds to a particular passion, a type of misdeed or a kind of sin of which a certain type of demon is the inspirer and which it represents. This conception is connected with an identification, very marked in the work of Evagrios of Pontus and subsequently reiterated by the whole ascetic tradition of the Orthodox Church, between hierarchically arranged passions and the corresponding demons. As for the ‘custom-offices’ or ‘tollbooths’, they are sometimes represented in iconography under the form of a ladder with its rungs crossed successively by individuals surrounded by angels and demons, the former drawing them above, the latter drawing them below.
The demons appointed to the different ‘custom stations’ stop the soul and examine it (certain texts call them ‘judges’ or ‘inquisitors’ because of this), going through in some manner its spiritual baggage, demanding that it account for what they find of the misdeeds or passions corresponding to them. Like some corrupt tax-collectors who, in antiquity, dishonestly fleeced the taxpayer by demanding they pay more than they owed, the demons sometimes demand a reckoning from the soul for misdeeds it did not commit. The nature of payment is open to several explanations. According to certain authors, the soul should in some manner pay with itself; in other words, the demons/aerial tax-collectors demand that it give them that portion of itself by which it is comparable to them. Thus we have seen St. Maximus the Confessor assert that the soul is “all dissociated and cut to pieces in proportion to its disastrous familiarity with them through the play of the passions”, and that certain Fathers show us the evil soul ultimately carried off by the demons. According to other texts (the majority), the soul must pay the toll-collectors with the good deeds accomplished and the virtues acquired during its life on earth, the former only allowing it to pass when it has presented them with a quantity of good actions superior to the bad deeds of which it stands accused, or a degree of virtue greater than the degree of passion they have found within it. The soul is then assisted and defended by the angels that accompany it; also by the prayers made for it by the living, hence the role of liturgical commemorations for the sake [of the] deceased during this period of its voyage in the afterlife. (Life After Death According to the Orthodox Tradition, pp. 86-87; also see Met Hierotheos Vlachos, “The Taxing of Souls,” in Life After Death)
It’s all quite sobering, as well as it should be; but the notion of paying-off demons with good deeds must be described, at the very least, as theologically crude and misleading. The homiletical and pastoral intent of the teaching is clear, though—to awaken the sinner to his peril and to summon him to repentance and ascetical struggle with his passions. Death is a serious matter; divine judgment is a serious, indeed ultimate, matter. Nothing less than our eternal destiny is at stake.