Aerial Toll-Houses

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The teaching of Aerial Toll-Houses regards the soul's journey after its departure from the body.

Dn. Andrew Werbiansky summarizes the theory (described in Fr. Seraphim Rose's book The Soul After Death) as follows: "following a person's death the soul leaves the body and is escorted to God by angels. During this journey the soul passes through an aerial realm which is ruled by demons. The soul encounters these demons at various points referred to as "toll-houses" where the demons then attempt to accuse it of sin and, if possible, drag the soul into hell."[1]

The toll-house concept is often said to occur in the writings of the Church Fathers where it is not explicitly named. In its most general form, it refers to the idea that after death, the demons attempt to convict the soul of being unrepentant in sin and insincere in following God, while the angels and the prayers of the living help the soul to be in true repentance, according to Fr. Thomas Hopko.[2] These demons are called "tax-collectors" in some early writings.

Vision of Gregory

The most detailed version of the toll-houses occurs in a vision of Gregory of Thrace, apparently from the 10th century. In this vision, Gregory meets a recently departed Christian named Theodora, who tells him about her experiences after dying. According to her, every person has demons that attack him, and "shoot their arrows at them", as Church Fathers say, these "arrows" being thoughts that suggest committing sins. These demons write down every sin that they persuaded people to do, and even thoughts that people accepted and complied with, but did not, for what ever reason, actually actualize them. When a person repents for a sin, and confesses it in the Holy Mystery (/Sacrament) of Confession [3], it is by God's Grace and Power erased from the demon's papers.

When the soul dies, on the third day it is carried by angels towards Heaven. On that way, they must go past 20 aerial toll-houses, which are huge groups of demons arranged according to specific kinds of sins. When a soul accompanied by angels gets to a toll-house, demons that tempted that soul during her life approach and accuse it for sins. The sins that are written on papers of demons have to be "payed for" by persons good deeds in life, such as prayer, fasting, asceticism, doing works of mercy, etc. or with prayers that are said on the person's behalf. In the vision Theodora told Gregory that she received a bag of gold which was the prayers of her spiritual father on her behalf, and that without them she would not have made it through the toll-houses.

It should be noted at this point that the idea that one must "pay" the demons for unrepented sins does not show up in many of the other descriptions of the toll-houses or the toll-house concept. St. Anthony the Great, for example, saw a vision of souls rising towards heaven and some being stopped by a large demon and cast down, but no accounts of bargaining for sins with good deeds and the prayers of others. Likewise St. Bede recorded certain visions of a Celtic Saint who saw a soul arising and fighting off demons with the help of angels and his reposed wife's soul, but again without any such bargaining for sin. Such a notion is also conspicuously absent from the homiletics of the Church Fathers. It does appear in one pseudo-Makarian story attached to the Fifty Homilies of St. Macarius of Egypt, which mentions the demons and angels weighing the sins and good works in a balance (but makes no mention of the prayers of the living being usable as payment in lieu of good deeds), but other discussions of the struggle following death do not use the imagery of a business transaction.

The demons accuse the soul at each toll-house of sins. In some cases the demon might accuse the soul of sins that they tempted her with, but it didn't comply with, or of sins that she repented for, and in that cases one of the angels, the one which was the persons guardian angel, speaks for the person, saying that those are lies, and that payment is not necessary, taking the soul to the next toll-house. This aspect comes from other hagiographic sources about demonic accusations, rather than from the story of Gregory.

Returning to Theodora's tale to Gregory, if a person has unrepented sins, and does not have enough good deeds and prayers of the living to pay for them, the demons of the corresponding toll-house grab him, and take him to hell. The soul navigates the toll-houses in the following order:

  • At the first aerial toll-house, the soul is questioned about sins of the tongue, such as empty words, dirty talk, insults, ridicule, singing worldly songs, too much or loud laughter, and similar sins.
  • The second is the toll-house of lies, which includes not only ordinary lies, but also the breaking of oaths, the violation of vows given to God, taking God's name in vain, hiding sins during confession, and similar acts.
  • The third is the toll-house of slander. It includes judging, humiliating, embarrassing, mocking, and laughing at people, and similar transgressions.
  • The fourth is the toll-house of gluttony, which includes overeating, drunkenness, eating between meals, eating without prayer, not holding fasts, choosing tasty over plain food, eating when not hungry, and the like.
  • The fifth is the toll-house of laziness, where the soul is held accountable for every day and hour spent in laziness, for neglecting to serve God and pray, for missing Church services, and also for not earning money through hard, honest labor, for not working as much as you are paid, and all similar sins.
  • The sixth toll-house is the toll-house of theft, which includes stealing and robbery, whether small, big, light, violent, public, or hidden.
  • The seventh is the toll-house of covetousness, including love of riches and goods, failure to give to charity, and similar acts.
  • The eight is the toll-house of usury, loan-sharking, overpricing, and similar sins.
  • The ninth is the toll-house of injustice- being unjust, especially in judicial affairs, accepting or giving bribes, dishonest trading and business, using false measures, and similar sins.
  • The tenth is the toll-house of envy.
  • The eleventh is the toll-house of pride- vanity, self-will, boasting, not honoring parents and civil authorities, insubordination, disobedience, and similar sins.
  • The twelve is the toll-house of anger and rage.
  • The thirteenth is the toll-house of remembering evil- hatred, holding a grudge, and revenge.
  • The fourteenth is the toll-house of murder- not just plain murder, but also wounding, maiming, hitting, pushing, and generally injuring people.
  • The fifteenth is the toll-house of magic- divination, conjuring demons, making poison, all superstitions, and associated acts.
  • The sixteenth is the toll-house of lust- fornication, unclean thoughts, lustful looks, unchaste touches.
  • The seventeenth is the toll-house of adultery.
  • The eighteenth is the toll-house of sodomy: bestiality, homosexuality, incest, masturbation, and all other unnatural sins.
  • The nineteenth is the toll-house of heresy: rejecting any part of Orthodox faith, wrongly interpreting it, apostasy, blasphemy, and all similar sins.
  • The last, twentieth toll-house is the toll-house of unmercifulness: failing to show mercy and charity to people, and being cruel in any way.

Are They Literal?

Many of the Orthodox who accept the doctrine of the toll-houses do not take the form or all the teachings from the vision of Gregory literally. Thus for example Fr. Thomas Hopko maintains that one should not try to associate a particular time after death to the process, nor should one take the toll-houses as being literally "in the air," or necessarily twenty in number. Likewise, he makes no mention in his argument for them of the doctrine of bargaining for sins (which is similar in some ways to the Latin doctrine of merits). Instead, his description, drawing on St. John Chrysostom and the Fifty Homilies of St. Macarius of Egypt, among others, takes the toll-house encounters to describe the attempt of the demons to assault the soul with its own vulnerability to sin, or to entice it away from God, and describes passing through the toll-houses as the purification of the soul.[4]. St. Theophan the Recluse likewise said that what the demons are seeking is "passions," and suggested that, although the toll-houses are often depicted as frightening, the demons might equally well try to entice the soul by appealing to one of its weaknesses. Some others go so far as to say that the demons and angels are metaphors for the sins and virtues of the soul.[5]

It is particularly notable that even those who advocate for a more literal interpretation do not generally advocate for the doctrine of "bargaining over sins." Such a doctrine appears to have little to do with the idea of salvation of theosis, since it makes salvation a matter of having adequate payment, whether in the form of one's own deeds or of Such a doctrine may also conflict with the prayers in the Mystery of Confession, in which the priest prays for the forgiveness of all one's sins, including the unconfessed ones.


There is disagreement in certain circles regarding the status of this teaching within the Orthodox Church. Some, including Archbishop Lazar (Puhalo) of Ottawa, consider this teaching controversial, even false (describing it as gnostic or of pagan origin). The traditional proponents of the teaching argue that it appears in the hymnology of the Church,[6] [7] in stories of the lives of saints (for example, the Life of St. Anthony the Great, written by St. Athanasius the Great, the life of St. Basil the New, and St. Theodora), in the homilies of St. Cyril of Alexandria[8] in the Discourses of Abba Isaiah,[9] the Philokalia, the Ladder of Divine Ascent, and the Dogmatics of the Orthodox Church by Blessed Justin Popovich. Several contemporary Church figures speak about toll-houses.[10] [11] [12] [13] Secondly, not a single Church Father ever wrote even one sentence expressing doubt about this teaching (which is present in its most general form in the Church since at least fourth century), although their discussions of the topic are always about general struggles with "tax-collector" demons, lacking the details present in Gregory's vision (apart from one pseudo-Makarian story which also mentions numerous toll-houses and a bargaining over sins at each one). Thirdly, some of the greatest modern authorities of the Orthodox Church, such as St. Ignatius Brianchaninov[14] and St. Theophan the Recluse,[15] insisted not only on the truthfulness, but on the necessity of this teaching in the spiritual life of a Christian.

It should again be noted that many of these sources stress that the toll-houses should be understood figuratively, and that they do not in general defend the idea of "bargaining for sins" as found in the story of Gregory. The form that they take can also differ depending upon which source one considers; thus, St. Anthony saw only a single very large demon watching souls rising and trying to block them, rather than many demons arranged in some order, which is quite different than the vision of Gregory. Likewise the liturgical passages ask for deliverance from demonic forces at our deaths, but do not try to express exactly what form the struggle will take.

Those who oppose the doctrine maintain that the liturgical passages cited do not actually refer to the toll-houses.


  1. Death and the Toll House Contraversy by Deacon Andrew Werbiansky
  2. Fr. Thomas Hopko on the Toll-houses,
  3. if there is an opportunity for that, if not, confession without a priest is sufficient, as in the case of the Good Thief
  4. Fr. Thomas Hopko on the Toll-houses,
  5. Fr. Michael Pomozansky,
  6. January 27, The Recovery of the Holy Relics of our Father among the Saints John Chrysostom, Troparion 1, Ode 5 of Orthros: "Grant me to pass untroubled through the host of noetic satraps and the tyrannic battalion of the lower air in the hour of my departure..."
  7. Parakletike, Friday Vespers, Second Mode: "When my soul is about to be separated violently from the members of the body, then, O Bride of God, come to my aid; scatter the counsels of the fleshless enemies and shatter their millstones, by which they seek to devour me mercilessly; that, unhindered, I may pass through the rulers of darkness standing in the air."
  8. St. Cyril of Alexandria Ephesi praedicata depoito Nestorio, ACO.14(52.405D) as referenced by Lampe, G.W.H., A Patristic Greek Lexicon, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1961, p.1387
  9. The Twenty-nine Discourses of our Holy Father Isaiah, Volos, 1962, p. 37 (in Greek): "[Live] every day having death before your eyes, and concerning yourselves with how you will come out from the body, how you will pass by the powers of darkness what will meet you in the air, and how you will answer before God..."
  10. The Taxing of Souls by Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos)
  11. Answer to a Critic, Appendix III from The Soul After Death by Father Seraphim Rose of Platina
  12. Vid. Ephraim, Elder, Counsels from the Holy Mountain, St. Anthony's Greek Orthodox Monastery, Arizona, 1999, pp. 436, 447.
  13. Cavarnos, Constantine, The Future Life According to Orthodox Teaching, Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, Etna, California, 1985, pp. 24-26.
  14. A Word on Death, chapter "Aerial toll-houses"
  15. What is spiritual life, and how to obtain it, chapter "Perfect preparation for the Mystery of Repentance"

See also

External links