The Curious Doctrine of Aerial Toll Houses

Over the past couple of years, the doctrine of aerial toll houses has come under critical blog scrutiny, prompted especially by the publication of Departure of the Soul According to the Teaching of the Orthodox Church. The doctrine enjoys a long, interesting, and problematic history in the Eastern Church. On occasion, some Orthodox have sought to elevate it to the level of dogma, despite the absence of ecumenical consent and explicit attestation in Scripture.

The toll house teaching functions similarly to the Latin doctrine of retributive hell-fire: to inspire terror and summon to repentance. Both doctrines inevitably raise questions about the divine love of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. These questions do not go away when toll house defenders explain that the teaching should be interpreted as an allegory of the particular judgment.

Here are links to four articles you may find helpful on this topic.

Nor Height Nor Depth: On the Toll Houses” by David Bentley Hart

Aerial Toll Houses, Provisional Judgment, and the Orthodox Faith” by Stephen J. Shoemaker

“Orthodox Theologies of the Afterlife” by Paul Ladouceur

Aerial Toll-Houses” by Ambrose Andreano

On the Toll Houses Again” by Eirini Afentoulidou

For a scholarly discussion of Byzantine understandings of the intermediate state of souls, see “‘To Sleep, Perchance to Dream’: The Middle State of Souls in Patristic and Byzantine Literature” by Nicholas Constas. Dr Ladouceur’s above blog article is based on his review essay published in the St Vladimir’s Journal.

I also bring to your attention to my own series on toll houses:

Life After Death and the Demonic Gauntlet

Aerial Toll Houses—Dogma or Pious Belief?

White Walkers, Toll-Houses, and the Hermeneutic of Pascha

Personally, I like my titles better than the titles of the other guys. 😎

If you’d like to read articles that present the arguments in favor of the toll house teaching … well, that’s what Google is for.

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18 Responses to The Curious Doctrine of Aerial Toll Houses

  1. John Stamps says:

    The entire tollhouse tradition has entirely forgotten what Jesus Christ accomplished in the cross and resurrection. It has elevated orthodox tradition and religion above Basic Christian Theology 101.

    Liked by 1 person

    • David Roxas says:

      Well I mean you can say that about the seventh ecumenical council too.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        I suppose someone could say that about the 7th Ecumenical Council, but few within Orthodoxy and Catholicism are likely to find it cogent. 🙂


        • Tanner says:

          Why exactly is that? All I know about that council is it pronounced iconoclasm as a heresy. What did it pronounce that could be perceived as having forgotten what the Lord accomplished on the cross?

          Liked by 2 people

      • Nicholas says:

        No! The seventh Ecumenical council reaffirms the doctrines expressed in all previous Ecumenical councils regarding the 2 natures in Christ. Icons are possible only because of this and what they inscribe are the human nature of the Logos. You have not read the history and the final definition of this council.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree about your titles! Thank you for taking time to come up with the the grabbing kind.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. This last paragraph so very neatly sums it all up:

    ” I do not like to throw the word “heresy” around myself, for any number of reasons. But one has to grant that, for those who are attentive to the contents of the gospel in its most original expression, most especially in the letters of Paul, the teaching of the toll houses might very well be regarded as the very epitome of heresy: the effective denial of Christ’s conquest, subjugation, and annulment of all the spiritual powers and principalities and agencies that have ever separated us from God. Admittedly, some genuinely holy and venerable teachers of the Orthodox past have promoted the myth. But that is of no consequence. As Paul also says, “even if an angel out of heaven should proclaim to you good tidings that differ from what you received, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8).”

    For some reason, mankind appears to have this built-in theological warp which insists upon turning the Good News of Christ’s death, burial, and glorious Resurrection into the not-so-good-news of having to further earn your salvation by any number of ascetical and/or spiritual exercises to be sure that God accepts you, some of those exercises being quite severe in their austerity.

    While it is fairly easy to see how in Roman Catholicism this tendency led to the despair of Luther (who constantly wondered if he had done enough to make the grade with God), it is a little harder to understand (at least for me) how Orthodoxy tends to fall into this idiosyncratic behavior. One wonders where the “FREE” in salvation has really gone when confronted with the myriad of demanded behaviors which appear to be tied to nailing down our salvation so that we don’t “lose it” or wind up in eternal hell forever because we just were too lazy to do all we needed to do.

    What part of “free grace” do people not understand? If I have to do something to either get or keep my salvation, then it really ain’t free (at least, that is how I see it). I have suffered the effects of having an earthly father whom I could neither please nor get to respond to me in love, no matter what I tried to obtain his approval. I do not need a heavenly Father who is like him.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. From Paul Ladouceur’s paper:

    “The fundamental flaw in the ancillary authors’ writings is their exclusion of the primary body of evidence on the subject: the very record of the Orthodox saints’ personal knowledge in theoria (visions) of the trial of the soul at the hour of death. Since revelations given by God to his saints in theoria (visions) are sacred transmissions of spiritual knowledge impervious to infiltration by heretical concepts, they constitute an infallible witness to the Orthodox doctrine of the toll-houses ”

    This is problematic not only with Orthodox Fundamentalists, but with Traddie Roman Catholics as well. I constantly see reference to the most vile descriptions of God’s angry and vengeful judgment (such as the musings of St. Leonard of Port Maurice that just about everyone is going to get thrown into eternal fire) from the visions of their saints, mystics, and seers.

    I find it more than a bit odd that in their visions, the LOVE OF GOD is almost never mentioned, only the constant anger of God against sinners, with the promise of His divine retribution against us.

    I have come to a point in my life that when people mention visions of any sort, my brain just tunes out. It is as if they have either forgotten that the evil one can appear as an angel of light, or that they feel that their particular beloved mystic is beyond being deceived.

    One of the things that the wicked one does is to culminate God to the human race so that instead of loving Him, we find Him distasteful to imagine and fearful to love. I think the toll-houses are right up there with Dante’s Inferno in achieving that end.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Just for clarification for benefit of our readers: the quotation from Ladouceur is actually a quotation from the book he is reviewing, Departure of the Soul….


  5. James says:

    “The toll house teaching functions similarly to the Latin doctrine of retributive hell-fire…”

    As to the latter, it has explicit Dominical support. As to the objection that it contradicts God’s Love – which is the usual objection – I don’t see that at all. Especially if – and I believe this idea has respectable theological support – the fire of Hell is the same thing as the Love of God, but as experienced by those who have made themselves incapable of seeing it as anything but Judgement and Wrath and Fury. The Wrath of God is taught in both Testaments, and no picture of the New Testament God can be complete that ignores it.

    The damned are damned by their own fault. That they have preferred to be damned, is itself a sin, because their choice is rebellion and apostasy. They are eternally punished because their choice to be damned, and their impenitence, are eternal. What they are, is the result of their own perverse choice. That is all unspeakably horrible, but how is it unfair ? They are getting what they insisted on having – God cannot be blamed that eternal life without Him, is Hell. Since God is Infinite Love, and since all Good is in God alone, how could eternal life without God, and in hatred of Him, be anything but eternal damnation ?

    Back to the main programme.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Grant says:

      That would still be horrific, God keeps in existence those He knows are snd will suffer His love forever, a causes them to constainity and forever be tortured, keeping them in existence to continue to endure this torture and suffering, knowing no repentance will come. They are condemned to experience His radiance as torture, this not love, and is worse then any of our greatest horrors we have afflicted to each other, what the concentration camps to the picture you just painted above, where is the Good in that, what is there to love, just prudential and abject terror so we don’t if were very lucky to not experience His Presence as constant, torturous wrath?

      And while after a perspective you could still console yourself that they damn themselves, but only works if we where not created ex nihilo, but we are. We, and everything is created by God, all moments, beings, everything. And all things, all beings, actions and decisions are secondary causes, which however much freedom we grant them are all reducible down and enfolded within their Primary Cause, which is God’s eternal creative Act. If actions of ruination as to stand forever that becomes both a risk God willing takes with creation, and more so, one He intends. God is not a being among other beings, He creates freely with no constraints on His creative purposes, no not ever our free action which by definition arises, is enfolded in and completely accounted for as part of His creative act. Eschatology determines protology and vs versa. If your picture is true as you have painted it one thing is wrong, God cannot be called the Good as such, nor Love as such, as it does show God’s full responsibility and intention. If some are lost forever then that was an intended outcome for creation, and for those people personally. They were created to be damned forever, to be ruined people forever and know suffering forever, it doesn’t matter that at the secondary causation place you affirm free determination to whatever decree (remembering how we do exist as atomized individuals but are embedded within a immense matrix of others now, before, after and creation determining so much about ourselves together with complex effects of death’s warping from so many factors, restricting and condtioning our thoughts and perceptions, limited this free determination massively) all is allowed only by the prior Primary ceative Act of God, which allows, enfolds and determines those acts and causes and their end results, all of it is reducible down to God’s creative Act and is contained within His will and intention. And so to affirm this is to affirm the same thing hard-line Calvinists do it seems to me, that God created and intended them as vessels of wrath, and does not love them, and therefore what is being called God is not the Good at all, and cannot be what the ‘saved’ are experiencing (can any who end in such a situation and are content be called saved, since it involves abandoning the very love, mercy, forgiveness and compassion Jesus reveals, demonstrates and instructs us to follow in).

      Further it means very clearly sin, evil and death and it’s dominion rule and are victorious forever. St Paul, the ending of the Apocalypse, that all will freely confess Jesus is Lord, and much else are deceptions. Death will not be destroyed, that last enemy will defy God forever, keeping people captive in it’s ruined enslavement, will always be tears, sorrow and morning, the sea (that is chaos) remains forever, and as St Paul tells us in Romans it is by the Spirit to salvation that we of our heart affirm and cry that Jesus is Lord, a free and freeing and saving action. It cannot be one forced unwillingly or to ruination, so this not true either. If evil persists God is not all in all, nor are all things reconciled to Him, that is also a lie. And as this would be intended, what does this do to the Cross, tge damned forever suffering being deemed necessary they become the one(s) on whom the completion and redemption of creation and any who are saved depend, to which the Cross is in the light of which as DB Hart says ‘becomes a bad weekend’ in comparison. They are thr ones whose ‘perpetual holocaust’ the saved depend. What then is the mystery of the Cross compared to this greater mystery if the hapless fool and puppet suffering endless runation and suffering for all creation and the saved but their Christ and their saviour.

      You are of course just giving a presentation of the current mainstream exposition on eternal torment within the Christian tradition (whether inside Catholicism or without) but to me once thought through to be to deny God is the Good and Love as such, and essentially to end up denying basic truths of the Gospel and so I can never affirm it in clear conscious and devotion to Lord Jesus.

      Also I would say if you read articles here dealing with hell, or George MacDonald’s sermons, or Fathers like St Gregory of Nyssa or St Issac of Nineveh, you’ll find no advocate of universalism here denies judgement or judgement passages, though we interpret them in light of Christ and of Pascha, and so the promise to save all creation as the key to interpretation rather then making the texts of judgement the key to interpretation and interpret the promises of universal salvation in their light and limited those texts. We both do it, and then see if those other texts fit reasonably or not, but that is another discussion whose ground has been covered here. But in anycase, no universalist here denies the judgment texts, just the eternal torment and conditional immortality positions interpretations of them.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      James, a pickayune point: please note the precise wording I used: “the Latin doctrine of retributive hell-fire.” In the classic medieval fomulation of eternal damnation, the emphasis is on God’s just punishment of grave sins. Justice is understood as essentially retributive, i.e., the infliction of deserved suffering. The image here is God as Judge who weighs the gravity of one’s sins and pronounces verdict and sentence. This raises several questions:

      (1) Is the God and Father of Jesus Christ best understood as a dispenser of retributive justice? Is this what divine justice is really about? What does retributive punishment really accomplish in the eschatological scale of things?

      (2) How can the imposition of everlasting pain be considered just for crimes that were finite in their scope?

      (3) How does Christ’s atoning work function in this framework?

      Liked by 4 people

      • JamieM says:

        Justice is not “essentially” retributive – – whether it is retributive, depends on whether what it acts upon calls for retribution. The mediaevals saw God’s Justice at work in the justification of sinners, as St Paul shows it doing in Romans. So they did not see God’s Justice as “essentially retributive”. Retribution is one of its functions, and only one.

        To define justice as though it were concerned only with retribution, is far too narrow an understanding of justice: it ignores almost all of God’s activity, except that one facet. God is just in *all* His ways – and therefore, He is Just in punishing our sins. The equity of God is absent neither from His gracious forgiveness of sinners, nor from His punishment of their unrepentant sinfulness.

        Talk of God’s Justice becomes much clearer, if we think rather of His Righteousness – the word “justice” does not adequately convey either the OT or the NT words. Righteousness is at the heart of God’s Character: to narrow it down to how He acts in retribution, is woefully inadequate. This can be seen when we bear in mind that the justification of men by the grace of Christ, is the conferring upon them of God’s Righteousness, by God’s favour toward them in and through and for Christ. The same Righteousness that is life to them, is death to those who are not in Christ: because those “outside” Christ have no protection from the Wrath of God.

        That is what salvation is salvation *from*: from God’s Righteous retribution, which is eschatological retributiom upon all that resists His Kingship and Reign in His world. The Gospel preached by and personified by Jesus, is “the Good News of the Kingdom/Reign/Rule of God”. And this Kingdom is characterised by “justice and peace” – as shown in Psalm 72, the “Messianic” Psalm that describes the universal dominion and everlasting reign of the king descended from David. There is reason to think that both St Matthew & St Luke drew upon it for their presentations of Christ. Be that as it may, that Psalm is realised in Christ the Messianic King descended from David, to a degree in which it could not be realised in any merely human king.

        I notice that your comment says nothing about the Dominical references to “retributive Hell-fire”. If Christ saw no contradiction between God’s Love and Hell-fire, why should any Christian see one ? Having difficulties in accepting that the Righteous Love of God is not incompatible with the eternal damnation of the finally impenitent is challenging, but it is not a reason to reject either part of that so-called contradiction. If people are Christians, they should have Christ’s Mind, not their own: so if He did not reject the doctrine of eternal damnation, why should they ? God is Love; there is a Hell.

        As to your (1): the Book of Revelation shows God and Christ judging. The leading idea is the Kingship of God, and in the book this Kingship is exhibited by judgement.

        What does retributive judgement accomplish ? It shows that God is utterly Righteous, even against those, whether men or demons, who oppose His Kingdom. If any creatures oppose God, that is their fault, and their sin.

        The Crucifixion & Death of Christ are God’s Judgement on sin, death and the devil; they exhibit God’s Righteous Wrath against those evils. Christ on the Cross is not merely a suffering Victim; He is, like David, King and Priest as well. So His Priestly action on the Cross as Priest and Sacrifice, can also be seen as an aspect of His Kingly office.

        The Atonement, then, is connected to the “mystery”, the open secret, “of the Kingdom”. It can’t be separated from His Kingship, His Priestly Office and Work, His Unique Mediatorial function, His action as Judge, His Identity as Kinsman-Redeemer of those among whom He is “God with us”. It is impossible to consider anything of Who and What Christ is, without also considering the rest of Who and What He is. Everything is related to, and illuminated by, everything else.

        This is where, rather belatedly, one has to remind oneself that “we see in part, and we know in part”. Christian theology is nothing, if it is a mere piling-up of words. It is not possible to understand damnation, or God, or God’s Love & Righteousness: they are not completely unintelligible, but we are neither sinless, nor Infinitely Good, nor all-wise; nor do we see all things in the Light of God, as the Blessed in Heaven do; so it is impossible for us, in our limited, darkened, damaged, sin-affected condition, to see and to know the things of God as they are truly are. And the Blessed have no need of theology, the study of God; for they are satisfied with God Himself, not with ideas about God. They are perfected in Love – we are not. And even their knowledge of God is nothing, compared to the Son’s knowledge of the Father. If we are not Christ, it is useless to suggest that we can see, know and love the Father with the adequacy of insight that Christ has.

        Bearing that in mind, ISTM that the solution to your (2) may be, that the sins of the damned last as long as their impenitence. It is a sin to die impenitent, because God has set before His People life and death, and has commanded them to choose life. God is unjust – He is biased in their favour, just as He has a bias to the poor. God is not impartial, at all: instead of being detached, uncommitted, and soberly judicial, He is their Kinsman-Redeemer, Who is “of one substance with” them, as well as with God.

        God is passionately committed, “is a Jealous God”, to His People. The Crucifixion reconciles God’s passionate covenantal commitment to His People, with His equally passionate commitment to His Righteousness. Before the Fall of Jerusalem to Nebuchadnezzar, God was “torn” by these two commitments: He hated the sins of Judah, which were worse than the sins of the nations round about, and of Israel; but they, not He, were false to His Covenant with them. On the Cross, the Covenant-Faithfulness of God for His People is perfectly united with God’s Righteous Wrath against all sin, in Christ Crucified, “who has abolished death”.

        But what if some are not “in Christ” ? They remain in their sins; and are capable of dying in their sins.

        This is far too long. Sorry.


        • Grant says:

          Did Christ accept or teach eternal torment, do the Gospels and the New Testament and the Tradition teach this James? What you present above is one tradition and interpretation that has been held, and represents a particularly hermetic and interpretive lens which a number of Christians have understood, interpreted and read the New Testament texts, one which also because of that commitment privileges both certain judgement texts that seem to suggest some might be lost over others that equally one a similar ‘plain’ reading promise all things shall be saved (and also reads they judgement as eternal torment, which is also far from clear outside such a tradition). Yet this doctrine has never been the only one held, both conditional immorality and universal reconciliation have also been an hermetic and interpretative position from the beginning. The text does not interpret itself, the tradition we both inherent and choose to approach the text provides that understanding for us, and is that by which we then choose to privilege one set of texts and interpretive key by which to understand and interpret other texts (either you take the judgement texts and the particularly traditions’ reading of those as eternal torment as the key, and so condition texts seeming to promise universal salvation, or you take texts seeming to promise universal salvation and understand and interpret the judgement texts in their light).

          Ultimately that can lead to an impasse, we can and do go further, but first it is import to recognize your tradition or mine is not the same as Christ’s mind of necessarily the Truth itself, and presenting your hermetical tradition as what the Gospel says, rather than that tradition’s interpretation not only forestalls all communication, but is to load the dice and decide the conclusion before any discussion is had, and end up in circular reasoning. It can make discussion fruitless, we all do it of course, I’m equally convinced of the tradition and understanding I follow to be more true (otherwise, why would either of us follow that understanding), but we need to recognize and distinguish our understanding and interpretive matrix and hermetical approach from what the Christ Himself know and believes, and what the Gospel and the Church itself declares. Or to put it another way, there is a difference between Dogma and our doctrinal positions, theology and understandings of that Dogma (they can and do disagree while both falling within the apostolic, Catholic and Orthodox faith).

          The Nicene Creed gives the Dogma of the Last Things ‘And He will come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, and of His Kingdom there will be no end.’ That is Dogma, all else is doctrine and theology and interpretation of that Dogma, and neither eternal torment, conditional immortality nor universal reconciliation is The Theology or doctrine of that Dogma.

          You can read here an article from Thomas Talbott outlining these differences in hermetical approaches to the New Testament itself, and how universalists approach the same texts as yourself, and why we disagree respectively with you on what the Gospel says and what Christ’s mind on this is. It will provide you with a better understanding to engage and discuss and argue in the future, even as you may well continue to believe we have it quite wrong here 🙂 .


        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Jamie, I take your point that in the medieval understanding(s) the divine justice is not exhausted by retribution; but when talking about eternal damnation, retribution is the decisive dimension. Restoration, reparation, and the making things right no longer obtain. There is only punishment.

          Traditional Latin models are simply upfront about this: mortal sins need to be punished. Eastern models (such as we find in St John of Damascus) seek to minimize this dimension by speaking of God’s just abandonment of the impenitent, but the result is the same: God eternally punishes the wicked because they deserve to suffer for their wickedness.

          Even if one identifies the fire of hell with the love of God, as you propose in your first comment, we end up with the very same problem—namely, the infliction of everlasting suffering by God himself. How can this be just and right?

          All models of damnation stipulate that the damned deserve their suffering … and so we are right back to retribution.


        • JamieM – in order to not have an over-extended thread, I took up a response to this comment below.


  6. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I have just added a just-published article on toll houses by Eirini Afentoulidou.


  7. James,

    You cover a lot of ground in your comment, and I doubt that I will be able to offer a point-counterpoint to everything you assert. But, what strikes me in your comment is the truncated manner in which you are reading the function of divine justice/righteousness as it pertains to your reading of Scripture in general. I’ll make a few key observations to illustrate my contentions here:

    1) Your reading of Scripture as you have presented it here runs a serious risk of reducing God to little more than an Ancient Near Eastern despot whose purposes in judgement are solely to put down all rebellion and eliminate all rival powers. Now, this kind of language is present in the OT, where God is doing just this, however it would be woefully reductive to limit his justice and righteousness to this, or to diminish his other activities in creating, sustaining, and bringing about salvation not only for his people but to the ends of the earth.

    2) You are seriously ignoring the universal language applied to Christ’s saving mission that is depicted, say in the Gospel of John, and how it is argued in the Pauline corpus where Christ’s work is not saving us from a righteous and just God, but from sin and death – and this is how the righteousness of God is revealed not in punishing sin, but in saving sinners (having shut up all in disobedience in order that he might show mercy on all).

    3) Your understanding of Revelation runs the risk of taking a true element (kingship) and overcooking the egg. The culminating effect of the rule of God is demonstrated in the power of the one slain before the foundation of the world to bring about by his own mysterious power a new heaven and new earth where evil is vanquished and the gates of the new Jerusalem are never shut.

    4) The notion you are positing with respect to retributive justice ignores the fundamental biblical notion of proportionality in all jurisprudence. Inasmuch as God’s justice is retributive, and to an extent it is, it is proportionate to the offense. The talionic principle in the OT does not allow one to exact a judgement that is in excess of the crime. It must also be noted that Jesus upends the talionic principle by calling his followers to abandon it through love, self-sacrifice, and the willingness to be wronged. If loving the enemy, and not seeking to repay crimes according to their just deserts is within the character of Christ, it would surely be difficult to argue that this isn’t bound up in the character and nature of God.

    There is much else I would say in argument against your assertion on biblical-theological grounds. But, what seems rather clear is that you are relying on a post-Reformation hermenutic that demands a kind of justice from God that it does not appear he has interest in exercizing in the New Testament. Surely crimes will be punished, but proportional to the crime – nowhere is the Anselmian notion of an infinite offense against God depicted in the whole of Scripture – and the wages of sin are death (not everlasting torment). When it comes to the eschatological judgement, nobody here wishes to diminish the fact that this is coming and indeed there will be a reckoning; it is, however, doubtful that anywhere in Scripture demands that this reckoning be read as everlasting. Even in the harder passages such as Revelation 20, and Matthew 25 we have to understand the parabolic and prophetic/apocalyptic rhetoric being employed and not over-interpret these texts, especially not in isolation of the vastly more instances where God’s love and saving work are depicted as universal.

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