Life After Death and the Demonic Gauntlet

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.

(Go to “Dogma or Pious Belief”)

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18 Responses to Life After Death and the Demonic Gauntlet

  1. Basem says:

    I never heard about them but I am taken away! Thanks for sharing Father.

    I wonder if Abba Theophilus, and other Ancient Desert Fathers, were influenced by the ancient Egyptian religions where the soul journey in the after-life is elaborately described?

    How elegantly you describe though the likely repercussions of such debates on social media: “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”.

    I would rather go through the Aerial toll-houses than been sucked back into the dungeons of social media! Lord have mercy

    Liked by 3 people

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Basem, you may find this citation from Sergius Bulgakov of interest:

      There has developed in Christianity–in Orthodoxy especially–a special veneration for death, in some points quite near to the ideas of ancient Egypt (in general there exists a sort of “subterranean” connection between Egyptian piety in the pagan world and Orthodox among Christians). … The separation of soul and body is a sort of sacrament where at the same time the judgment of God is delivered upon the fallen Adam. The man finds himself torn by the unnatural disjunction of soul and body, but at the same time the soul is born anew, in the spiritual world. The soul separated from the body becomes conscious of its spirituality and finds itself in the world of incorporeal spirits–spirits both luminous and dark. In this new estate, the soul must find itself in relation to the new world. In other words, the state of the soul must be made manifest to the soul itself. The destinies of the soul are described by means of different images in ecclesiastical literature, but Orthodox doctrine speaks of them with a wise uncertainty, for it is a mystery not to be penetrated except in the living experience of the Church. (The Orthodox Church, pp. 181-182)

      Note how different this is from typical Catholic and Protestant presentations, in which the presence and activity of angelic beings (both good and evil) are virtually non-existent. This Orthodox testimony, I think, needs to be taken seriously.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Basem says:

        Thank you for sharing those enlightened words of Fr. Bulgakov Father! I came to a conclusion that uncertainty is a part of our faith that we grow to become comfortable with. It is upon those unrested waters that the Holy Spirit works in our souls! Hence, was the inspired ingenuity of Origen as the lead proponent of scriptural allegory! Origen was too much beyond what the Church could handle in his days; in my humble opinion. When we delegate that unconditional trust into the Crucified God to either intellect (Protestant approach for scriptural exegesis that naturally lends itself to literal legalism) or Magisterium infallibility (RC approach), we surrender the “freedom of the sons of God” to other authorities (including our own minds). Our Lord said plainly “follow me” without providing a lot of arguments (at least initially) and certainly He didn’t provide a watered down explanation for the divine grand plan! Hence, it seems like the elaborate soteriology of the Reformers is an artificial rigid structure that, ironically, isn’t much backed by scriptural support! St Paul said “For I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and Him crucified”. The theological truth in this single verse is plainly astounding! Here is all the theology that I need and that what made a thief a grand theologian! All the answers to those difficult questions that we all struggle with is in the Crucified God from suffering, to justice, to salvation, to even church schisms! A read something really profound that touched me deeply, as I was struggling with my own faith, on a blog (or social media I don’t recall) from a Protestant brother: He said that he went and bought the largest crucifix (and the most animated) that he could find and whenever he returns home from his daily struggle, he would gaze on the Crucified God and touch His wounds and that is all the theology that he needs to live by. He said that he didn’t care if anyone called him an idolator! We can rest in our uncertainty as we can be certain about one truth “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life”.


  2. Mark says:

    I enthusiastically embrace Fr. Kimel’s universalist eschatology. I’ve printed out 3/4ths of this entire blog, read many posts multiple times over, and am pretty much entirely on board.

    Yet, I can’t help but shake the feeling there’s something to Fr. Rose’s book and some sort of notion of the toll houses. It may need better explaining; perhaps it’s a private revelation and we can only speculate as to who and what it may or may not pertain to.

    Perhaps, like so much else in eschatology, if taken too literally you wind up going off the rails.

    Still, I’m no scoffer. It could be one more realm that will ultimately be recapitulated in the end.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Iain Lovejoy says:

    Jesus talked of the unforgiving debt who himself would be imprisoned until he had paid all his own debts. The idea of such tollhouses is only contrary to the hope of universal salvation if we assume we will be charged with more debts than we can, ultimately, pay. If we cannot pay our debts off with good deeds (and really, who can say that?) perhaps we can pay them off through forgiving our own debts to others (as Jesus says) and working them off through repentance.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Basem says:

      May be the Intercessory Prayers of the Saints and the faithful would be the reconciliation between debt payoff and universal salvation? Many of the Desert Fathers wrote about being “fearful not to pray” lest the judgement comes down harsh to the world (I am sorry I don’t have the exact quotation but something to that effect). Interceding for the whole world makes the faithful indeed partakers in the glory of the Crucified God who interceded for his torturers. He said “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it” (John 14:12-14). St Isaac the Syrian dared intercede for the devil in tears and prostrations! He dared to believe that our Lord is greater than what ever even dared imagined in our frail human minds!


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      What else can paying off our debts mean but liberation from the passions and attachments that presently govern our lives and prevent us from embracing the love and forgiveness of God fully and completely?

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Janice Dietrich says:

    If paying off the demons is “theologically crude and MISLEADING at the very least”, what would such an idea be at the very most ?


    • Basem says:

      Probably a “heresy” at least from a Calvinist “total depravity” point of view

      Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      If interpreted quite literally (does anyone do so? I don’t know), then it would seem to amount to heresy. The demons have no power or authority over those who live in Christ. On this point even a conservative theologian like Met Hierotheos agrees.

      Liked by 1 person

      • DennisB says:

        Hi Fr Kimel,
        I’m not Orthodox but eclectic semi-Catholic 😉
        Just read a book by Coptic Orthodox person John Habib, called “Orthodox Afterlife”. It seems the Coptic Church doesn’t “dig” universalism very much. Anyway, it describes quite a few incidents of a journey after death prior to being “quarantined” before the last judgement.

        The comments above don’t make much sense to me. Do they suggest there is a “2nd chance” after death or that Christians can lose their status & be damned ? I hold to the idea of “prima scriptura” & as such cannot see where these type of visions would “fit”. The only thing I could think of is the passage in 1 Corinthians where it states that a person may be saved “as through fire” if they have junk still in their lives. From this angle I could see that demons would be providing the “fiery experience” and the person in question may be calling on God for forgiveness & transformation on the way. Completing what was already started in the person on earth.

        I don’t see that the demons could rob someone of their salvation in Christ, for who is sanctified or pure enough to see God ? There would only be a small minority that would be transformed enough to be steadfast in their journey. Even the most holy would still need something of Christ applied to make them “clean” enough to be in God’s eternal presence. Most of the “disembodied” in these events seem to feel extremely weak & vulnerable because they are without their familiar surroundings. Would God allow the demons to “pick us off” in such a state ?



        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Dennis, I think some of your questions will get addressed in my next post. A quick answer to your question “Is a “Do they suggest that Christians can lose their status & be damned ?” NO!


  5. Oddly enough, I have just finished reading a chapter in Peter Levenda’s (I don’t think Tom DeLonge contributed much) first volume of Sekret Machines: Gods, Man & War, which describes with both words and images the mystical story of Jacob’s ladder; could this tale be partly responsible for the development of the “aerial toll booths”? I had never heard of this doctrine, but it somehow brings to mind Dore’s illustrations for Dante’s Inferno. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I am reminded of Cardinal Newman’s “The Dream of Gerontius” which can be enjoyed as a poem and as a musical piece. If memory serves Newman’s poem is commonly understood as interpreting “particular judgment.” It seems to have found favour in some circles and – for me – it was an interesting discovery to make having been a participant (years ago) in the tollhouses discussion at Seminary.

    Gregory +


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thank you, Fr Gregory, for reminding me of Newman’s “Dream of Gerontius.” I just glanced at it again. I couldn’t remember if the demons are mentioned, and they are; but though they howl and complain, they are impotent:

      How impotent they are! and yet on earth
      They have repute for wondrous power and skill;
      And books describe, how that the very face
      Of the Evil One, if seen, would have a force
      Even to freeze the blood, and choke the life
      Of him who saw it.

      In thy trial-state
      Thou hadst a traitor nestling close at home,
      Connatural, who with the powers of hell
      Was leagued, and of thy senses kept the keys,
      And to that deadliest foe unlock’d thy heart.
      And therefore is it, in respect of man,
      Those fallen ones show so majestical.
      But, when some child of grace, Angel or Saint,
      Pure and upright in his integrity
      Of nature, meets the demons on their raid,
      They scud away as cowards from the fight.
      Nay, oft hath holy hermit in his cell,
      Not yet disburden’d of mortality,
      Mock’d at their threats and warlike overtures;
      Or, dying, when they swarm’d, like flies, around,
      Defied them, and departed to his Judge.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Maximus says:

        Fr. Kimel,

        The demons are indeed impotent, even according most ardent tollhouser. Choice and sinning empowers (pays, feeds) them. St. John of Karpathos in Vol. 1 of the Philokalia sums this up:

        When the soul leaves the body, the enemy advances to attack it fiercely reviling it and accusing it of its sins in a harsh and terrifying manner. 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. Strenghtened 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, fugitive from heaven, wicked slave, what have I to do with you? You have NO AUTHORITY over me; Christ the Son of God has authority over me and all things. 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. Flee far from me destroyer! You have nothing to do with the servants of Christ.’ When the soul says all this fearlessly, the devil turns his back, howling aloud and unable to withstand the name of Christ. Then the soul swoops down on the devil from above, attacking him like a hawk attacking a crow. After this it is brought rejoicing by the holy angels to the place appointed for it in accordance with its inward state. (Philokalia Vol I, pg. 304: Texts for the Monks of India 25)

        Hence, a person in this state actually attacks the demons!!

        Liked by 1 person

  7. DennisB says:

    Hi Fr Kimel
    I made a comment last night regarding this topic but it never appeared. Did I in some way breach your comments policy ?


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Sorry about that, Dennis. I found it in the spam queue. It rarely happens that genuine comments are recognized by WordPress as spam, but once in a blue moon it does happen. I have yet to figure out why. Thanks for bringing the missing comment to my attention.


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