170. What does the Orthodox Church teach about the Afterlife? Part Three

Finally we come to the end of this series. I’ve found so much to talk and think about that I began to wonder, at my age, whether I’d live long enough to finish it – and then find out for myself if I had known what I was talking about! But I’m still here. So, we continue.

Yesterday I realized that I’ve ignored the most obvious thing we believe about death: In almost all of our prayers, we pray not for the dead but for the “departed”. They’re off on a journey!

But what exactly is their pathway?

Toll Houses?

Let’s take the controversial one first – a rare matter on which Orthodox definitely do not agree, so let’s dig into it.

This, if I understand correctly, is the belief that after death a person’s soul goes through a series of terrifying “Aerial Toll Houses”, each regarding a particular sin. There we are attacked by demons, and if we don’t admit the sin and repent, the demons are allowed to take us. This is somewhat like Saint John’s “Ladder of Divine Ascent “, but John states it positively: as we grow in virtues we progressively ascend into Heaven. The Toll House theory expresses it negatively, to put it mildly: ‘fess up or the devil is going to get you.

What’s the source of this belief? Toll Houses, or something sort of like them, are mentioned by a few ancient writers. In the Tenth Century, one Gregory of Thrace had a dream (vision? nightmare?) about them, and described them in great detail. I read that they are also mentioned in a very few of our multitude of canons and hymns – though in our annual round of weekend and weekday services at Saint Nicholas, I’ve never come across one. (The closest I’ve found is in a prayer from Compline which asks God to “drive away dark visions of evil demons”, which I think is a different thing.) * Some modern Orthodox writers insist the Toll House theory is required Orthodox doctrine. Some equally vehemently say it absolutely is not.

P.S. October 30, 2020. In my morning prayers, I just found one pretty clear reference. It’s from a hymn from the Canon to the Theotokos, Tone 3, Ode 6, for Friday.: “O Lady, Mother of the Redeemer, stand before me at the hour of my departure, when I am tested by the spirits of the air concerning those things I have committed with an irrational mind.”  This does not make it a major theme of Orthodox devotion and theology.

So here is my personal “take” on it, I who know nothing. I think the Toll House imagery is dreadful – as bad in its own way as the images of Purgatory. At ancient toll houses (like booths on the Illinois Tollway today) money was collected for passage along a road. This leaves the impression that we can somehow pay our way into Heaven. Here’s my other objection: I knew a good and very faithful Orthodox woman who read about the Toll Houses and became greatly distressed as her death approached for fear the demons would get her. Where is our loving God in this? Unless I misunderstand the Toll House theory, there is only fear and terror here.

However I think the Toll House theory, deep down in its misleading way, affirms the truth that on the other side we will need to continue the process of abandoning our sins, leaving them behind, if we are to grow in goodness and holiness. And it likely will be a difficult process, for I suspect we all will be distressed by the secret sins, hidden perhaps even from ourselves, that we will need to face up to and deal with. But, for Heaven sake (literally), we are saved not by paying off the demons, but by the free-flowing grace of God.

Isn’t it better to just stick to Scriptural imagery? that if we finally arrive at the God’s Great Wedding Banquet “not wearing a wedding garment”, not cleansed of our sins, we will get thrown “out into the darkness”. Matthew 22:1-14  For “nothing impure will ever enter” there. Revelation 21:27 Surely that should be scary enough for us! I think that’s what the Toll House theory is trying to say in its misbegotten, mechanical, graceless, loveless way.

The Tollhouse theory is permissible opinion but no more than that. I think it is one of the “traditions of men” which Christ accused the Pharisees of putting before the commandments of God Mark 7:8. In this case, I think some are putting the Toll House theory before the promises of Christ. I would never ever teach or preach the Toll Houses. That’s only my opinion. If you disagree, comment below.

Authentic Orthodox Teaching about the Afterlife

Where can we find this? In the obvious places. Look at our universally accepted Orthodox prayers and hymns for the departed – for “what we pray is what we believe”. They speak of the grim reality of death, certainly, but then always they emphasize the love of God and our hope in His mercy. I’m going to include much here, just to make the point.

The next time you attend a Trisagion for the Departed, listen closely:

Later in that service this prayer is said “O God of spirits and of all flesh, who hast trampled down death, and made powerless the devil, and given life to thy world: Do thou, the same Lord, give rest to the soul of thy departed servant [N.], in a place of brightness, a place of verdure, a place of repose, whence all sickness, sorrow and sighing have fled away. Pardon every sin which [he/she] has committed, whether by word or deed or thought; for thou art good and lovest mankind:” from the Liturgikon of the Antiochian Archdiocese

Here is one of the central hymns (in Byzantine chant) from the Orthodox Funeral Service.

Here is another of our most-used prayers for the departed: “Remember, O Lord, our fathers and brethren who have fallen asleep in hope of the resurrection unto everlasting life, and all who have died in piety and faith, and forgive them every sin which they have committed willingly or unwillingly, in word or deed or thought. Settle them in a place of light, a place of refreshment, a place of repose, whence pain, grief and sighing have fled away, and where the light of your countenance gives gladness to all Your saints throughout the ages. Grant them and us Your Kingdom, participation in Your ineffable blessings, and the enjoyment of Your endless and blessed life. For You are the life, the resurrection and the repose of Your sleeping servants, O Christ our God, and to You we give Glory, together with Your Eternal Father, and Your All-holy Good and Life-Giving Spirit, now and forever and unto ages of ages. Amen.”  Ancient Faith Prayer Book

Here is the Kontakion of the Dead from the Orthodox funeral service.

Give rest, O Christ,
to thy servant with thy saints,
where sorrow and pain are no more;
neither sighing, but life everlasting.

Thou only art immortal,
the Creator and Maker of man;
and we are mortal, formed of the earth,
and unto earth shall we return;
for so thou didst ordain
when thou didst create me, saying:
‘Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.’
All we go down to the dust,
and, weeping o’er the grave we make our song:
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

Keep listening past the tolling bells. The Kontakion itself begins at about 3:25. This music from the Russian tradition wonderfully conveys the sadness of death and yet the hope of eternal Life: Alleluia!

The song below concludes our Orthodox services for the departed: Memory eternal…. may his/her memory be eternal. Remembered eternally by God, and remembered forever by all who preserve our gift of Everlasting Life from this world into Eternity.

Finally and by far most important, here is our Orthodox Paschal Hymn, which we sing again and again during the Great Forty Days. If we are blessed to die during Pascha, this is sung at our funeral.

All the above is the authentic, genuine Orthodox Tradition regarding death.

Except at Pascha, Orthodox hymns and prayers for the departed are not bright and cheery, as often in Western Christianity these days. This is because death is not a bright, cheery, happy thing, and we don’t try to paper that over. God did not create us to die. Death is the enemy. “Death is the last enemy to be defeated.” 1 Corinthians 15:26  But listen closely: Our hymns and prayers are filled not with fear but with faith and hope in God and His forgiveness.

If you have not abandoned God, then do not fear death. Christ has gone into death before us and has already rescued us from the darkness.  Do not be afraid to die, for Christ is risen!.

A few wandering final personal thoughts

I keep thinking of more and more things to say, some of them theological, some rather peculiar like this first one:

Something that I have found strangely comforting is in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, when the children arrive on “the other side” not quite knowing it yet, and see their friend Caspian who they knew had been killed, now looking hale and hearty. They say to him “But, but… didn’t you die?” Caspian replies “Yes. Almost everybody has, you know.” Yes. Everybody does it! Every person in human history has died. All we’re doing is joining them. It’s like when my father died, the first time I had faced death head-on. I felt I just couldn’t handle it – till my mother said to me, “It’s alright. We’ll all be dead someday.” And I felt so much better!

I’ve heard it said that time won’t exist on the other side. But I think Christ’s term “Everlasting Life” surely suggests that time will continue. “Eternal” means timeless. “Everlasting” means continuing. * Over there God will give us all the time we need to complete what we have begun here. And, there as here, the pain of overcoming our sins will be more than swallowed up in joy as we grow in love and come closer to God and each other.

  • But it can’t be our sort of time, which is measured by the earth’s rotation and its revolution around the sun. So what is it?

At my age I’m sure that when I die I’ll be far from ready to enter the full Glory of the Heavenly City. I hope that, by the mercy of God, I can be admitted to the suburbs of the Place. But like the Apostles at the Transfiguration, I know I won’t be able to cope with Him in His Glory face to face. Not yet. Maybe “when I’ve been there 10,000 years…”

Or maybe not entirely even then? For our God is infinite, and His Glory has no end. It would seem our life in Him must consist of forever being “transformed from Glory to Glory … never arriving at any limit of perfection. For that perfection consists in our never stopping in our growth”. * And so it will be “further up and further in” ** unto ages of ages. Amen.

  • from Saint Gregory of Nyssa On Perfection, **  from C.S. Lewis’ (him again!) Chronicles of Narnia

Or maybe we should ignore most of the above and just trust in Jesus’ promise: “For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.” Luke 11:10

There’s the story about the old Scotsman who on his deathbed asked his pastor, “What will it be like over there?” The pastor hesitated, then heard the man’s pet dog whining and pawing at the door to the bedroom. And he said, “Your dog doesn’t know exactly what he’ll find in here, does he? All he knows is that his master is here, and he wants to be with you.”

What you and I know for sure about “the other side of the Door” is that our Master is there. Perhaps that’s enough to know.

Next Week we resume The Divine Liturgy with The Anaphora of Saint Basil the Great

10 thoughts on “170. What does the Orthodox Church teach about the Afterlife? Part Three

  1. Today is the 15th anniversary of my late wife’s passing into eternal life and the 12th anniversary of the passing into eternal life of my living wife’s late husband. I have no question as to their final place of repose–where all sickness, sorrow and sighing have fled away. Both of our late spouses had a great deal of sickness, sorrow and sighing in their lives here. but were ushered into the life to come with love and prayer calling on the name and mercy of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

    I do think that something quite like the Toll Houses does occur but more like the final judgment of Narnia. I know that we are not alone when we make the first stages of that journey. I read of the Toll Houses before I was received into the Church and know a number of people for whom they became quite important. It led some into a more serious life of contrition. For me, they have neither frightened me nor encouraged me especially once I experienced the Orthodox Funeral Service for the first time.

    I know of one priest when asked about the Toll Houses asks if that is where he can get good cookies. While that is a little too flip even for me, I agree with you Father, it is a permissible opinion but in no way expresses the mind of the Church in fullness. Nevertheless, it is not wholly outside it either as we pray for “a good defense before the dread judgement seat of Christ” every time we celebrate the Divine Liturgy hoping for a death that is painless and blameless as well. If quite like what Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet:

    If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it is not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all.

    The Orthodox Funeral Service is a masterpiece of spiritual imagery, revelation and comfort. For me, it was deeply cathartic so that while my memory of my late wife will always be with me, I am content and at peace with the fact that she is on a journey I cannot join. It gave me space and encouraged me to weep and to wail for all that was lost without shame or fear or embarrassment while at the same time offering a blessing of peace, fullness and finality. What it is like to die without Christ, I have no clue. Now that is a scary thought.

      1. Indeed and therein lies the great weakness of the Toll Houses. I honor Fr. Seraphim Rose and he was significant in my journey to the Church but I truly hope this part of his legacy is forgotten. As it is now, those in opposition seem to be keeping it alive. The last published work of his, a transcription of a lecture: God’s Revelation to the Human Heart, is wonderful.

        I also cherish his first work Nihilism: The Root of the Revolution of the Modern Age.

        The one’s in between…….?

        His life, struggling with the modern mind in our time is more significant.
        Discernment always.

  2. Dear Father
    Thank you for this series. When my mom died (who was a devout Christian and suffered greatly with cancer) I was given a book by an Orthodox priest (sadly) called “the soul after death.” At that time I was young and impressionable and after reading it I literally suffered with fear for many years, went to counseling and almost left the Orthodox Church because of this one book. Which talked about the toll houses amongst other things. I felt I would never make it into heaven no matter what good I did, and that even God himself would find me unworthy. I didn’t feel love at all but only constant fear. I’m older now (went through a struggle of cancer myself ) and after much prayer and my disease I found that God does love me and not to fear. Though I have some relapses time to time I pull myself together and remember God’s love. We are human, and far from perfect. But if we keep trying and trusting Im confident that Jesus has us covered.



    1. He will cover you with his feathers,
      and under his wings you will find refuge;
      his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.
      Psalm 91:4

      1. Lovely, Father Bill, Thank you. The seeking of God’s grace is key. The imagery of what is coming, especially for those of us in the northern hemisphere at this time of encroaching Easter, can be beheld as we anticipate the return of the neotropical migrant birds. Their breeding plumage and song seasonally appear in moments of visible glory and aural vigor. Although not an ornithologist by trade, I found your comment with Psalm 91:4 a comfort and joy to this wonderful three part message on Orthodox Church teaching of death. Our loving Guardian is nearer when we release ourselves of our own quirks. The deer longs for the stream (Psalm 42) and the loyal Scotch dog persists. Those are fine images for my own journey & my continuing prayers for the many, both quick and departed, of my times.

  3. I was reading the Life of St Antony of Egypt. His comments on demons who appear dressed as holy men were interesting. I can only suppose that St Gregory of Thrace was not familiar with the Life. The Tollhouses dream was only meant to terrify St Gregory personally, perhaps. Whether it came from the demons or the higher realms is not apparent without reading about the context of his life. It terrifies me is all I can say!

    1. Thank you. You present something I had not thought of: That the “dark visions of evil demons” (which I quoted from the service of Compline) are no more than that – false visions so that we will be terrified by their darkness instead of depending on the grace and love of God. I need to think about this some more.

    1. Yes. In Genesis 3, the result of man’s disobedience is: “dust you are and to dust you will return.” and “he must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” Saint Athanasios the Great wrote that Christ voluntarily subjected Himself to death because, since He was sinless, otherwise He would not have died. Death is the result of sin (that is, of doing that which keeps us away from full unity with God) because God is Life. If we were fully united with God we could not die. What would the world be like without death? “Crowded” is the first thing that comes to mind! But an Edenic world would be unimaginably different than ours.

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