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Question 21

Are the demonic toll gates which a soul must pass an actual teaching of the Orthodox Church?   


Answer to Question 21


Perhaps no aspect of Orthodox teaching has been so misunderstood as this phenomenon of the aerial tollhouses. Many graduates of today’s modernist Orthodox seminaries are inclined to dismiss the whole phenomenon as some kind of “later addition” to Orthodox teaching, or as some kind of “imaginary” realm without foundation in Scriptural or Patristic texts or in spiritual reality. No one aware of Orthodox teaching would say that the tollhouses are not “real,” or are not actually experienced by the soul after death. But we must keep in mind that these experiences occur not in our crudely material world; that both time and space, while obviously present, are quite different from our earthly concepts of time and space; and that accounts of these experiences in earthly language invariably fall short of the reality. We should be aware that the language we use to describe spiritual realities is symbolic or imaginative language. Thus, of course, there are no visible “houses” or “booths” in the air where “taxes” are collected, and where in the writings of the fathers there is mention of “scrolls” or writing implements whereby sins are recorded, or “scales” by which virtues are weighed, or “gold” by which “debts” are paid — in all such cases we may properly understand these images to be figurative or interpretive devices used to express the spiritual reality which the soul faces at that time.


What is certain is that there is a testing by demons, who appear in a frightful, but human form, and accuse the newly-departed of sins and literally try to seize the soul, which is grasped firmly by angels; and all this occurs in the air above us and can be seen by those whose eyes are open to spiritual reality.


The teaching of the tollhouses is the teaching of the Church. There is no doubt whatever that the holy Apostle Paul is speaking of them when he declares that Christians must do battle with the spirits of wickedness under the heavens. (Eph. 6:12) We find this teaching in the most ancient Church tradition and in Church prayers. There are so many references to this teaching that we simple wouldn’t have the time to quote them. There is the well known account written by St. Athanasius the Great, in his famous Life of St. Anthony the Great, which describes how once St. Anthony, “at the approach of the ninth hour, after beginning to pray before eating food, was suddenly seized by the Spirit and raised up by angels into the heights. The aerial demons opposed his progress: the angels, disputing with them, demanded that the reasons of their opposition be set forth, because Anthony had no sins at all. The demons strove to set forth the sins committed by him from his very birth; but the angels closed the mouths of the slanderers, telling them that they should not count the sins from his birth which had already been blotted out by the grace of Christ; but let them present, if they have any, the sins he committed after he entered into monasticism and dedicated himself to God.


In their accusation the demons uttered many brazen lies; but since their slanders were wanting in proof, a free path was opened for Anthony. Immediately he came to himself and saw that he was standing in the same place where he had stood up for prayer. Forgetting about food, he spent the whole night in tears and groanings, reflecting on the multitude of man’s enemies, on the battle against such an army, on the difficulty of the path to heaven through the air, and on the words of the Apostle, who said: Our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities and powers of this air. (Eph. 6:12; Eph. 2:2)


The apostle, knowing that the aerial powers are seeking only one thing, to deprive us of a free passage to heaven, says: "Take up the whole ‘armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, (Eph. 6:13) that the adversary may be put to shame, having no evil thing to say of us". (Titus 2:8)


Some saints, such as Macarius the Great, whose passage through the toll-houses was seen by several of his disciples, ascended through the demonic “tax-collectors” without opposition, because they have already fought them and won the battle in this life. Here is the incident from his Life: When the time came for the death of St. Macarius, the Cherubim who was his guardian angel, accompanied by a multitude of the heavenly host, came for his soul. With the ranks of angels there also descended choirs of apostles, prophets, martyrs, hierarchs, monks and righteous ones. The demons disposed themselves in ranks and crowds in their tollhouses in order to behold the passage of the God-bearing soul. It began to ascend. Standing far from it, the dark spirits shouted from their tollhouses: ‘O Macarius, what glory you have been vouchsafed!’ The humble man answered them: ‘No! I still fear, because I do not know whether I have done anything good.’ Meanwhile he swiftly ascended to heaven. From other higher tollhouses the aerial powers again cried out: ‘Just so! You have escaped us, Macarius.’ ‘No,’ he replied, ‘I still need to flee.’ When he already had come to the gates of heaven, lamenting out of malice and envy, they cried out: ‘Just so! You did escape us, Macarius!’ He replied: ‘Guarded by the power of my Christ, I have escaped your nets!’


The great saints of God pass through the aerial guards of the dark powers with such great freedom because during earthly life they enter into uncompromising battle with them and, gaining the victory over them, acquire in the depths of their heart complete freedom from sin and become the temple and sanctuary of the Holy Spirit, making their rational dwelling- place inaccessible for the fallen angels.