Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries Orthodoxy - Salvation


Toll Houses: After Death Reality or Heresy?

Source: http://audio.ancientfaith.com/illuminedheart/hopko_tolls.mp3

Transcript production by: T.F.D.

Fr. Thomas Hopko, Dean Emeritus of St. Vlad's Orthodox Seminary addresses the controversial subject of "toll-houses" in this highly animated, one-half hour discussion with our co-hosts.


Kevin Allen: Welcome to this edition of "The Illumined Heart". I'm Kevin Allen.

Steve McMeans:
 I'm Steve McMeans.
Kevin: And today is ask Father Thomas Hopko day, our segment where we asked esteemed dean emeritus, lecturer and writer Father Thomas Hopko your questions. To send us a question to ask Father Thomas, please send them to illuminedheart@ancientfaithradio.com. And, Father Thomas, welcome back to the program.
Father Thomas Hopko: Thank you. Good to be with you again.
Kevin: Let's jump right in as we usually do. There are actually a lot of good questions on this program, so I'm very excited about that and will enjoy talking about them. Father, the first one comes from Nick Muzekari; he is a parishioner at St. Peter and Paul Orthodox Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Nick writes, "Father Thomas, there has been a lot of debate in orthodoxy about the teaching of the aerial toll houses. It seems that most Russian orthodox church outside Russia ROCOR websites support this teaching; on the other hand, Bishop Lazar Puhalo of the Orthodox Church of America, among others, has condemned the teaching as heresy. So, would you say, Father Thomas, this teaching is heresy of the orthodox faith?"
And, Father, before you answer that question straight away, maybe you could position it by explaining to our listeners, in case they don't know, what the concept of the aerial toll houses is.
Father Thomas: Sure. Maybe I could begin with a commercial. If the listeners are interested in what I think about this subject, having studied it and read the various authors on the subject, there is four hours or more on CD from St. Paul's Greek Orthodox Church in Irvine, California, where I gave a retreat on this subject; and these CDs are also available from Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Ellwood City, Pennsylvania, who also helped in the project, and sell these CDs in their bookstore. But, basically, I spoke generally about the issue of the Lord Jesus Christ's death, and then what happened to death after he died, and then what happens, we believe, as much as we could say, when a person dies.

Now, the controversy basically has to do with the process of dying, or, some people call it "after-death," meaning "after biological death," but that's something to be discussed. But, in any case, my understanding, I have read Seraphim Rose, I read Bishop Lazar Puhalo; there are others: Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos wrote a book on this subject;  Vasilios Bakogiannis, an archimandrite from Greece also did; there's another: one Nicholas Vasiliadis, a very good book on the subject...
Kevin: "The Mystery of Death."
Father Thomas: ... Jordan Bill, "The Soul After Death"; Father Michael Azkoul wrote a vitriolic condemnation of Seraphim Rose's interpretation, and called it "The Agnostic Heresy," and so on. And, of course, the struggle between Bishop Lazar, who, at the time, was in the ROCOR, and father Seraphim Rose got so bad that they broke and, I think Bishop Lazar was not a bishop at that time, he went into the Serbian church, or something... So, it's a terrible, terrible controversy; terrible. But, quickly, I would just say that my opinion is that the teaching about toll booths, about the aerial part of it, that's another story. But, the teaching that, when a person dies, they have to answer for their life, and, when they die, all the demons in hell attack them to try to get them to hang on to their sins, and their passions, and their vices, and their demons; in other words, the teaching is that the angels, somehow, the evil angels attack a person at the moment of death, when a person is dying, and then, of course, according to Scripture, the good angels come also to be with the just, and so on.

So, my opinion is that the teaching is that, when a person dies, a huge battle, it's the last battle, in a sense, to see whether that person really does believe in God, and accepts the grace of God and the forgiveness of God, or whether they cling to their demons, cling to their sins and passions; and this is the kind of classical teaching in Christianity: C. S. Lewis speaks about it in his own way; the Roman Catholic Church developed it with some kind of perfect glory teaching, which is not the same as the Orthodox one a all.

But what is the Orthodox one? Well, I could just quickly say several things: one is, it's a very old teaching; you find the teaching about toll houses is in practically every Church Father: you find it in Saint John Chrysostom, you find it in John of the Ladder; the first development of it was in Saint Cyril of Alexandria.

And, basically, what the teaching was, and is, as far as I understand it, is that, when you die, you have to let go of, and be delivered from, and purified from, whatever sins and demons are holding you. Saint Cyril of Alexandria began by speaking of the senses -- the sins of your eyes, and ears, and nose, and touch, and your mind, and what you hold on to; and you have to get through these things. It was not originally a punishment: the demons were not punishing you for the sins that you had committed; it was, rather, they were trying to get you to hang on to them, to not to repent of them.

And then the teaching was that we who are alive, we pray to the people who are dying, so that they would really be forgiven and accept the forgiveness of Christ; because, when you die, since Christ is risen and glorified, the person enters into the presence of Christ, and that constitutes a kind of a judgment -- are they with God or are they against God? Do they want to be in the Kingdom or do they want to go to Hell? Do they love virtue or do they love vice? And so on.

Well, what happens, to make a long, complicated story short, this got really developed through the centuries, and, I believe it was in the year 1000, in Constantinople, a woman named Theodora had a vision where she said that there were 20, I think, of these particular demons and tax collectors -- they were called tax collectors, by the way, because the tax collectors were considered very evil; John Chrysostom says that they were exacting things from people, and trying to keep them enslaved to them by holding them in their power, and so on; so it's rather rhetorically graphic.

But, in any case, what developed was the idea that there are 20, or 22 of these, I have that written down somewhere, and what they are is simply a list of all the sins and vices: gluttony, pornia, sloth, pride, vanity, sexual sins of several kinds are listed, things like sorcery, witchcraft -- every possible sin you can think of is there under a heading.
And then the idea is you've got to be delivered from these and go through them in order to enter the kingdom of God; and then the teaching is the holier you are before you die, like, the more you're delivered from these vices and demons before you die, the easier your death is. Although the demons still attack you, you've already somehow been victorious over them -- like it says in the book of Revelation, you've conquered, you're purified already.
So, the teaching is that really holy people, for example the Virgin Mary, Theotokos, that she just flies right through; they don't even touch her, they have nothing on her. In fact, one of the Greek writers, this Nikolaos Vasiliadis, he claimed that the Theotokos didn't even go through the toll booth. Well, I disagree with him on that, because everybody has got to face these vices; going through is just a rhetorical way of speaking. In other words, you've got to be free of these things, and nobody is exempt from them.

So, the freer you are and the more purified you are before you die, the more holy is your death. But then the teaching was that just about every human being is caught by something or the other; even some the greatest saints, they have been somehow needing still some purification, and catharsis, and deliverance, and forgiveness in order to enter God's kingdom.

However, the bad part of it in orthodoxy, in my opinion is that it was taken really literally. Like there are actual aerial spaces in the sky and that the distant carnate soul somehow travels through space to, [laughs] you know. In each of these spaces they are ruled by certain demons.

Now the term "aerial demons," that comes from the Bible. That's in the letter to the Ephesians, the aerial phantoms, the spirits of the air. It was a definite idea in the ancient world that the demons are somehow flying around through the air. I like to joke and say nowadays you can turn them in on computers and television sets.
In other words, the idea is that our world is filled with these demonic powers that attack us. Well this became very literalistically put. Then it got connected to time, like on the first day you're in this place, the second day you're in that aerial expansive, then you go through and all that. Then even the icon that showed up, the flaming fire of God coming forth from his throne. On some more modern Russian icons that was transformed into an image of the toll booth with all these demons.

Then the idea got to be that you weren't being prayed to get delivered from these demons and purified from the sins, the claim was that you were being punished. That's what happened in the Roman church. The idea was in each toll house you had to get punished for the sins you've committed under that particular category. Well, I don't think that is the orthodox teaching.

So my opinion, to sum it up, is that it is a very classical, traditional, orthodox, allegorical teaching that began to be too literalistically interpreted, and therefore got deviated in various ways. So that you get to the point where a guy like Archbishop Lazar Puhalo just about denies the doctrine totally and claims that praying for the dead is just an act of love, and whatever happens when you die, you die and that's it.

I honestly believe that is not the traditional teaching. The traditional teaching is you've got to enter into the presence of Christ and be purified and delivered and forgiven of whatever sins you're hanging onto. The allegory is that these are named and then of course, the point being that the more we are purified before we die, the better off we are. When a person does die, we who are still alive on earth still pray for them that they would be making it through, so to speak. That their death would be a purification from their sins. That they would accept the risen Christ. That they would accept his grace and his forgiveness, and that they would enter into paradise.

I think it is very wrong, personally, to put some kind of time frame on this, or to think about it in terms of "earth time," or to think about it in terms of "earth space." I don't think it has anything at all to do with time or space. It's simply a spiritual, poetical, allegorical way of speaking about the last temptations that strike a person when they're passing through the process of dying. That's how I understand it.
Kevin: Are we not though, Father, begging this question, it's on my mind and I'm sure it's on others' as well. Let me pose it this way. Christ died to save us from our sins. Do we accept that as an act that has efficacy upon our ultimate destiny, or not?
Father Thomas: Yeah, of course we do. That's the gospel, that's the Christian faith.
Kevin: Well then what's all this...
Father Thomas: That Christ has forgiven us. That Christ has purified us. That Christ has been victorious over the demons. The question, however, remains forever, do we accept it? Do we want it? When we're alive on earth we pray to God every day, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass." "Deliver us from the evil one." We say that in the Lord's prayer several times a day because we want to accept the salvation of God. Death is this final moment of truth, whether or not we really do that or not. So we're praying, and we also don't only pray that for our self, we pray for each other. For me you could say, "Lord Jesus, please help Father Cobb to accept your forgiveness, to accept salvation, to enter into paradise. Don't let him surrender to the devil. Don't let him be enslaved by Satan. Give him your strength to conquer." What we believe is that as long as we're still alive on earth we can still pray. As long as the final judgment has not yet taken place and the end of the world has not taken place, we can continue to pray for everyone. We should remember, by the way, that God is not up there sitting around wondering to see if we are going to pray or not. God knows whether we've prayed, and our prayers are taken into the divine activity from before the foundation of the world. God heard our prayers before we said them.
Kevin: Right.
Father Thomas: The whole providence of God is connected with our prayer for each other. It's a clear scriptural teaching that the prayer of a righteous man has great effect and power with the Lord and that we can pray for each other. We can ask for God's grace for each other, and that's what we do, especially at the moment of death. We do it when a person is dying, and then when they actually die, when they're dead, when their soul and their body are separated and their life is taken by God and their body turns into a stinky corpse, we can continue to pray. We never stop praying. We never stop hoping.
Kevin: Father, let me ask you this. Let's say I have a friend who is in a hospital dying, he's never been baptized and he wants to be baptized, and I don't have time to go get a priest. What do I do?
Father Thomas: You baptize him.
Kevin: I'm a layman.
Father Thomas: You don't need a priest to baptize him.
Kevin: How do I do that?
Father Thomas: Get some water.
Kevin: [laughs]
Father Thomas: Say, "The servants of God," and say his or her name, "is baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen."
Kevin: Wow.
Father Thomas: Let's make another scenario. Suppose you have a friend who's never been baptized and he says, "Please, baptize me," and you say, "OK, I'm going to run and get some water." While you're gone the guy dies.
Kevin: Mm-hm.
Father Thomas: Is it too late? Does he go to hell? Some people would say, "Yeah. God arranged for him never to get baptized so he could send him to hell, because he's among the damned." That would not be an orthodox teaching. Gregory the theologian said a long time ago that desire would count before God as a baptism itself. He spoke about the baptism of desire, the baptism of fire. In other words, God is not an ogre. He's not a machine pagan-type god, "Baptized, go to hell, not baptized [sarcastically] ..." You could be baptized and chrismated and served with divine liturgy and go to hell.
John Christensen said hell will probably be filled with guys wearing omophoria (you know, stoles). Pastors. So let's be more serious about our God, but let's be more serious also about the reality of our struggles, and of our salvation. You just can't say, "I believe in Jesus, I go to heaven." That's just plain stupid. Devils believe. You have to believe. You have to prove it. You have to be delivered from the evil one. You have to accept forgiveness. You have to fall and get back up again, and then you have to make it through death. The death has to be a [inaudible 17:35]. It has to be a witness to the victory of Christ. In the process of dying, it's no picnic. Every demon in hell is out to get your soul. That's what's behind the allegory of the toll booth.
Kevin: Again, I'm still struggling with one thing you just said about the baptism of desire. Aren't we getting them a little too close for comfort with those who want to reduce everything to faith alone, faith alone, faith alone, faith alone. That is, if you don't...
Father Thomas: I would say [laughs] , forgive me for saying this, but faith is great, except it isn't alone.
Kevin: Right.
Father Thomas: [laughs] I mean, how can a person say, "I have faith in God but I'm going to stick with my demon of slothery," or, "I'm going to stick with my demon of greed, but I believe in Jesus, oh yeah. He saved me. He died on the cross for me." That's just blaspheme.
Kevin: You...
Father Thomas: Faith is not alone. If a person wanted to speak that way, I would say, "OK, say faith alone, as long as you admit that real faith is proven by what a person does, as long as you agree that the scriptures, the Psalms, the Proverbs, the prophets, the New Testament writings, the Apocalypse, all say that we're going to answer on the day of judgement "cata ta erga," according to our works. Not according to what we claimed. Even our works won't save us if they're not done for the love of God and the love of a neighbor. Jesus said that in the Sermon on the Mount. He said, "On the day of judgement many will come to me and say, 'We cast out demons in your name. We prophesied in your name. We did miracle in your name. We talked on the radio in your name.'" and he'll say, "I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers."
Kevin: Ouch. [laughs]
Father Thomas: Yeah, sure because we're doing it out of vanity. We're doing it out of pride. We're doing it out of judging people, whether they're baptized or not baptized. We're getting involved in all kinds of stuff that's not our business. And we're not loving God with all our mind, soul, heart and strength and loving our neighbor including our worst enemy as our self and being ready to die for them any moment and to pray for them until our last breath. Well if that kind of love is not in us, we're not going to be safe. Period. That's the teaching of scripture.
Kevin: Yeah, but that's a scary thing that you just said.
Father Thomas: Well, the scripture is terrifying.
Kevin: [laughs] Nobody wants to read it anymore, huh?
Father Thomas: Well you can say that again. You give a sermon just plain on the New Testament and people say "Man, you're tough father." I say I'm not tough, I'm just reading the New Testament. I'm just reading what's said there. And on this issue two things are clearly said. You can't have faith and love without showing it in actual deeds. But it's also said that deeds may be done even in the name of Jesus without real love for God. And so both of those will not save you. You gotta have both together. In other words, Jesus said "I was hungry, you gave me food. I was thirsty, you gave me drink." You actually have to do those acts. In one John the apostle says "Let us not love in word intention." I can't remember the exact wording.
Kevin: "Word indeed only" or something like that.
Father Thomas: "But let it be in deed and in truth" Now let me see, I remember those two words there. It has to be done in truth, in reality, and in actual act. In work, "erga" means work, or act, or deed. So on the one hand a person can't say "I love God I believe in God" but they never help the poor, they never do anything for anybody. On the other hand a person can't say "I gave my body to be burned and I work miracle in Christ's name." But the Lord may also say "Yeah, you did it, but you didn't really love. It was done out of vanity and pride." I mean what would make more sense than to say to a person?
You can't just say you love someone, you got to show them what you to. And then in the next sentence to say to the person "However what you do better really really be from love and not from vanity or pride or judging or.... yeah." That's so simple, that's not even paradoxical, it's just two truths that are both true. There's nothing really super-duper, how could you say, you know, mystifying about that.
Kevin: Well what does this all say, Father, about the sacrament. Because you mentioned what got us off on the tangent- which is a good tangent by the way- the baptism in the hospital room and you go to get the water, your friend dies, you say "He was baptized by intention."
Father Thomas: I didn't say that.  St. Gregory the Theologian said that, "God may honor that intention."
Kevin: OK, may honor that intention.
Father Thomas: Yes, I didn't say it. But I wouldn't even say it about it if he did get baptized if that was saved. Because I could say that baptism was done not really- it was only done as a last ditch or hope for magic. A person really thought that if you sprinkled water you get to heaven, and that would be blasphemous. So it is certainly a teaching of our church that you could be baptized and go to Hell and not be a member of our church and be saved. That's clear teaching of the bible. So again, it may sound paradoxical but it's not at all. I think it's only paradoxical for people who's God is not the real God but it's a God that they're making up according to their fallen human minds.
Kevin: So Father there are evangelicals who are listening out there and are saying "You know what, these orthodox- they have no idea whether they're saved or not. Even if they lived this righteous life and they spend all their time on their face prostrating and tears and everything else. What you're saying is basically 'You know what? You never know.'"
Father Thomas: I would say that that's absolutely true and that the Evangelical is completely and totally wrong. But I would say that the evangelical is totally right in the answer to the question "Are you saved?" They say "Yes, absolutely- as far as God and the blood of Christ." But that I can be saved simply by saying "I accept Jesus Christ as my savior" is blasphemous.
Kevin: OK, so you're making a distinction between. The efficacy of the atonement from God's perspective vs. the appropriation of that from our perspective.
Father Thomas: Yeah and I wouldn't even call it a perspective. I would simply say the reality of it is that the whole world including Mao Zedong, Bin Laden, and everybody else is saved as far as Jesus Christ is concerned 'cause he died for absolutely everybody on the cross. But I would also say that the only way that salvation becomes ours is when we accept it and believe it, and give ourselves over to the grace of God. So no one can save themselves by their own works. I mean if you take the text of Ephesians that everyone loves to quote. Happily I'm sitting here at my desk so I'll just find it and read it. "By grace you have been saved through faith.
This is not your own doing, it is the gift of God. Not because of your work or works, let any man should boast." But then it continues "For we are God's workmanship  created, made in Christ, Jesus, for good works. Which God prepared before hand, in that we should walk in them." So it's not by our works that we're saved, but once God saves us, he saves us for good works.

He saves us to actually do good things. And we can't say that we believe in him and not do good things. And if we can't do good things and don't do good things at least we should repent over it and not say that we don't need to. We should repent over it. Say "God merciful to me, a sinner."

And that's a clear teaching of our saint. On their deathbeds, they all said "Pray for me that I would really accept the salvation of my Christ." Not "Yeah I'm going to heaven and you will too if you accept Jesus Christ as your savior." That is so awful, it is so horrid you don't even want to say such a thing.
Kevin: You'd sure put a lot of preachers out of business.
Father Thomas: Good. [all laughing] If they're preaching that, they're in the business of Sadists.
Kevin: Ouch, OK.
Father Thomas: They're not in the business of God if they're preaching that.
Kevin: We're gonna get emails on this one, Father.
Father Thomas: I mean Jesus Christ said himself in St. John's gospel "The one who believes in me-" And that's a singular participle "will do the works I do. And greater works than these will he do because I go through the Father." So the causality of Jesus being glorified and going to God, the Father, and sending the holy spirit means that there will actually be human beings who have faith and grace in Jesus have actually performed more works themselves than Jesus did when he was on the Earth. That's in the Bible. Read the Bible. I would make two suggestions to the whole world if I could, and if I could command it, I would command it. I would say to people "Throw away all of your theological presuppositions as much as you can and sit down and pray to God to illuminate your mind and heart and then read through the entire New Testament slowly three times before you have another theological discussion in your life." Read through it carefully, slowly, with prayer, and then see what you come up with.
Kevin: Well, Father, It looks like we're gonna need to close this one down. We got a very interesting dialogue going on on the Toll Houses and on the thanatology- the soul after death. I want to close and make sure when I quote this, Father, that you're in agreement. Because for Nick Muzekari who is been very interested in getting your response on this. I'm gonna end on a quote from St. Macarious of Egypt on this whole issue of Toll Houses which we've been speaking, and he's one of them that's written on it, he writes "When the soul abandons the body a certain great mystery is enacted.
If the deceased as departed unrepentant a host of demons and redactive angels and dark powers receive that should and keep it with them. The completely opposite happens with those who have repented. For near the holy servants of God there are now angels and good spirits standing by surrounding and protecting them. And when they depart from the body the choir of angels receives their souls to themselves to the pure eon.
Father Thomas: That's fine, but I would say "Let's be careful." We have four different gospels and we have hundreds of different saints. So I could imagine some coming to Macarious and saying "Macarious, what about a person who really a part of him wants to love Christ and wants to be with him but still is caught by these demons. What about that?" And he would say "Death would be a terrible thing for them. Let's pray for them so that they make it through, so that they ultimately would be purified." I think that's what he would answer.
Kevin: Well fair enough. Well Father Thomas Hopko we're gonna need to end on that. We sure appreciate your coming on and talking with us today. Listeners, if you'd like information on speakers to come to your church or event, please check out www.orthodoxspeakers.com. The engineer for today's program is Steve McMeans. Thanks for listening.


Article published in English on: 9-1-2012.

Last update: 9-1-2012.