By John Sanidopoulos
In modern times a teaching has arisen and become popular among Orthodox Christians regarding what is known as the Aerial or Celestial Toll Houses. It is based on numerous references to ecclesiastical fathers and writers from the early days of the Church to the present. It was especially developed after the tenth century in Slavic circles, while hardly ever mentioned in any detail by Greek writers. Taken literally, it refers to the idea that upon death the soul of an individual is escorted by angels through the celestial atmosphere, and it goes through a number of tolls or customs where demons accuse the soul of particular sins they committed in life. The escorting angel tries to defend the soul as much as possible, but if a soul is found to be guilty of a particular sin, then with the evidence mounted against the soul the demon takes it and drags it to Hades. This is a foretaste of the Final Judgment, when these condemned souls will be united with their bodies in the general resurrection and cast into the eternal lake of fire with Satan and his demons.
Anyone familiar with the basics of Orthodox theology understands that such a teaching should not be taken literally, but rather symbolically or figuratively. This is especially based on the patristic principle summarized by St. John of Damascus: "After death there is no repentance." Another principle states that "every soul will be judged based on the state it is in at the moment of death." And finally, nowhere in the Christian tradition does it say that demons will judge souls after death, nor angels, but it is God who is "the judge of all the earth." Toll house literalists usually believe these doctrines, but the more detailed toll house visions contradict these teachings if taken literally. Demons do not only accuse in these visions, as many assert, but they pronounce the judgment as well. And sometimes the defending angel will try to convince the demon that the soul has repented. But if the soul had repented, it would not have been accused, therefore it is teaching that either the soul can repent after death, or the angel and demon are play-acting. Clearly such visions, if true, have another meaning besides a literal meaning.
When reading all the ecclesiastical references to the aerial toll houses, there are three possible ways we can understand them based on the context in which they are referenced. These I will represent through the teachings on this subject based on three holy and revered personalities of the Orthodox Church - St. Niketas Stethatos, Elder Sophrony of Essex and St. Paisios the Athonite.
1. St. Niketas Stethatos
There are three stages on the spiritual path: the purgative, the illuminitive and finally the secret, through which we are perfected. The first pertains to beginners, the second to those in the intermediate stage, and the third to the perfect. It is through these three consecutive stages that we ascend, growing in stature according to Christ and attaining "mature manhood, the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" (Eph. 4:13).
The purgative stage pertains to those newly engaged in spiritual warfare. It is characterized by the rejection of the material self, liberation from material evil, and investiture with the regenerate self, renewed by the Holy Spirit (cf. Col. 3:10)... Its final goal is that we should be forged in the fire of ascetic struggle, scouring off the rust of sin, and steeled and tempered in the water of compunction, so that sword-like we may effectively cut off the passions and the demons.
The illuminative stage pertains to those who as a result of their struggles have attained the first level of dispassion. It is characterized by the spiritual knowledge of created beings, the contemplation of their inner essences and communion in the Holy Spirit.
The secret and perfective stage pertains to those who have already passed through all things and have come to "the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" (Eph. 4:13). It is characterized by the transcending of the sphere of demonic powers and of all sublunar things, by our attaining to the higher celestial ranks, approaching the primordial light and plumbing the depths of God through the Spirit. ("On Spiritual Knowledge", The Philokalia, vol. 4.)
2. Elder Sophrony of Essex
The toll houses about which the Fathers write are symbols of a reality. The Fathers understand them as follows: after the fall of man, the soul is nourished by the body, in other words, it finds refreshment in material pleasures. After death, however, these bodily passions that used to divert the soul no longer exist, because the soul has left the body, and they choke and stifle the soul. These are the toll houses and hell. Abba Dorotheos says that hell is for someone to be shut up for three days in a room without food, sleep or prayer. Then he can understand what hell is. (I Know a Man in Christ: Elder Sophrony the Hesychast and Theologian, by Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos, p. 380.)
3. St. Paisios the Athonite
When a soul is well prepared and ascending to Heaven, the demons can't assault it. If it isn't prepared, it is tormented by the demons. Sometimes, God may allow a soul with unpaid debts at the time of their death to see the toll houses, so that we, who will continue to live, struggle to repay our debts here. Do you remember reading about the event with Theodora? In other words, God provided that some people see certain things to help others repent. In the life of Saint Euphrosynos, for example, we read that after the vision he experienced, the Abbot found himself with the apples in his hand for the others to see and be helped in their spiritual life.
Sometimes God will provide for a soul to have dialogue at the time of death, so that the person themselves might repent even at the last minute, or for the benefit of those who are listening. You see, God has many ways to save people. Sometimes He helps with Angels, other times with trials and tribulations, and still at other times through various signs.
I once met a woman who treated her husband and mother-in-law horribly, beating them both. She wandered around the neighborhood to chat, while sending her elder mother-in-law to work in the field some two hours walk from there. Every single day, her mother-in-law dragged herself to the field and worked hard from morning to night without complaining. One day, upon returning home completely exhausted, she fell to the ground and kept telling her daughter-in-law: "Archangel Michael is taking my soul! Clean up the blood, my child, clean up the blood!" "What blood? What blood?" the daughter-in-law asked her anxiously because she could not see any blood on her. "Here, my child, the blood that is flowing here. Clean it up!" As the daughter-in-law turned to look again, the mother-in-law expired. After this incident, the daughter-in-law came to her senses and made a dramatic change in her life; the wild beast became a lamb. It was a providential act of God to have seen her mother-in-law dying with those words and to believe that the Archangel Michael takes souls supposedly with his sword, thus causing her to fear God and to repent. That is to say, God spoke to her in a language she could understand in order to bring her to her senses since, apparently, she had a good disposition. (Elder Paisios of Mount Athos: Spiritual Counsels. Family Life., vol. 4)
Based on these three understandings, we understand that the visions of aerial toll houses are not a literal reality of something that happens to the soul after death and is experienced by all, not even by unrepentant sinners. St. Niketas teaches us that it is figurative of the ascent of the soul to perfection in this life, after undergoing various demonic trials through the stages of the purification of our passions and the illumination of our soul. Following the train of thought of St. Niketas, Elder Sophrony sees the toll houses as a symbolic reality of the soul that has not been purified of its passions in this life, and is now choked and stifled in the next life by the passions and attachments to this world which it cannot satisfy without a body. Lastly, St. Paisios views these visions as not a literal reality of every soul, but as visions in order to benefit others and teach them to repent, even if they repent at the last minute and escape what Elder Sophrony describes as the choking and stifling of the soul after death. All three of these interpretations compliment one another and form a complete and proper understanding of what the visions and references to the aerial toll houses signify in our Orthodox tradition. Those who have expanded this teaching to make it a literal reality do so not on the basis of Orthodox theology, but based on outside influences or a simplistic understanding of the matter.