Inquiring minds want to know. Is the ancient teaching of the aerial toll-houses a dogma within the Orthodox Church? Is it a doctrine that must be taught by bishops and priests? Is it a doctrine that must be believed and confessed by the faithful? The answer is no. By any reasonable dogmatic standard, the teaching lacks those features that would establish it as an essential belief found in “the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). Aerial toll-houses are not unambiguously taught in Holy Scripture, have never been the subject of dogmatic definition, and do not qualify as catholic doctrine according to the doctrinal rule of St Vincent of Lérins: “In the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all” (Commontorium 2.5). Despite the multiple, and impressive, testimonies of the Eastern ascetical elders to the conviction that at the moment of death the soul achieves post-mortem clarity regarding its spiritual condition in her confrontation with angels and demons, this conviction does not satisfy the Vincentian criteria for de fide truth. For me personally, the absence of biblical attestation is alone decisive, but when this absence is coupled with the relative absence of the toll-house structure in the Latin Fathers, the verdict becomes certain. We most certainly do find—most famously in the writings and homilies of St Gregory the Great—the belief that the believer’s spiritual struggle with Satan comes to a head in the moment of death (see Alfred Rush, “An Echo of Christian Antiquity“); but this popular view is not identical to the Eastern view on aerial toll-houses. The former is the presupposition of the latter. Hence I must disagree with St Macarius of Moscow when he asserts that the doctrine of aerial toll-booths is assuredly “founded on apostolic tradition.” The evidence does not support this claim.
If not dogma, then what? In his important essay “Dogma and Dogmatic Theology,” Sergius Bulgakov distinguishes between dogma and theologoumena, between doctrines that enjoy the authority of divine revelation and theological opinions that have not yet achieved irreformable status and perhaps never will. We must avoid conflating the two. It’s easy to mistake “theological opinions expressed in dogmatic language” for “finalized dogmas of the Church” (Tradition Alive, p. 75). Only genuine dogmas may legitimately impose themselves upon the consciousness of the Church and the conscience of individual believers. Non-defined doctrine, on the other hand, may be subjected to critical analysis and assessment: “it cannot pretend to infallibility, precision, or universally binding authority, and in any case allows for different theological opinions” (p. 68). No doubt further distinctions should be made within the category of theologoumena, acknowledging degrees of doctrinal authority. In any case, the teaching of aerial toll-houses should be properly classified as a theological opinion, not mandatory belief. This is the considered judgment of the traditional theologian Jean-Claude Larchet, who otherwise affirms the toll-house teaching:
This teaching is not an article of faith, having been the object on the Church’s part of no dogmatic definition. It is rather a theologoumenon, a personal belief. On this point the faithful might very well adopt a certain hesitancy, seeing that life beyond the grave remains a mystery here-below. They can also adhere to an ‘abridged’ conception that renounces seeing intermediate stages between the moment of death, when the soul is separated from the body, and the latter’s appearing before Christ at the Last Judgment. There is in the Church, concerning the soul’s destiny after death, not one Tradition, but traditions which, although diverse, are not necessarily irreconcilable and can be equally admissible from the moment that they are not in contradiction with points upon which the Church has given a dogmatic definition (which is the case … for certain later stages of post-mortem destiny). (Life After Death According to the Orthodox Tradition, pp. 116-117)
Zealous supporters of the toll-house doctrine will no doubt dissent from Larchet’s conclusion, but it accurately expresses the reticence of the Orthodox Church to dogmatize the details of the intermediate state. While the stories of the toll-houses, notes Fr Andrew Louth, “is often taken fairly literally by Orthodox believers, and not only at a popular level, it has never been formally defined and rests for its authority less on the fathers of the Church than on popular belief, supported by liturgical practice” (Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology, p. 151). Referring to the forty day memorial services offered by the Church on behalf of the departed, he continues:
The essence of what is entailed by the services for the departed can, however, make good claim to formal Orthodox belief: that the departed are supported by the prayers of Christians, that the communion of living and departed has not been severed by death, that there is hope of ‘a place of light, a place of refreshment, a place of repose, whence pain, sorrow and sighing have fled away’ for the departed. The narrative details of the passage of the soul, for instance the toll-houses, are not, however, mentioned in these services, though the idea that death involves judgment and the inescapable realization of what we have made of our lives is.
The sequence of services—from the services for the dying Christian, to the commemoration on the fortieth day, and indeed annually—also serves a pastoral purpose, in assisting the bereaved to cope with their sense of loss and their sense of helplessness. The temporal dimension of the services may have more to do with the temporal process of bereaving and remembrance than with tracking the departed soul’s progress in a state after death about which little has been revealed to us save God’s sure love and Christ’s triumph over death in his resurrection. (pp. 151-152; my emphasis)
There is a difference between dogma and pious belief, and this difference must be respected.