Answer to a Critic

Appendix III from The Soul After Death

by Father Seraphim Rose of Platina

As the present book was being printed in serial form in The Orthodox Word, the editor of another Orthodox periodical began publishing a long series of attacks on the teaching of life after death set forth here (The Tlingit Herald, published by the St. Nectarios American Orthodox Church, Seattle, Washington; vol. 5, no. 6 and following issues). These attacks were directed, not only against the teaching of the present book, but also against the teaching set forth in the publications of Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, New York (especially the issue of Orthodox Life of January-February, 1978, the booklet "Unbelievable for Many but Actually a True Occurrence," which appeared in Orthodox Life for July-August, 1976, and the anthology Eternal Mysteries Beyond the Grave); against the sermon of Archbishop John Maximovitch, "Life After Death", which appeared in The Orthodox Word, 1971, no. 4, and is reprinted above in Chapter Ten of this book; against the whole teaching of Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov which has inspired this book; and in general against the teaching which has been set forth in so many Orthodox sources in the past several centuries and expresses the living piety of the Orthodox faithful even today.

After reading these attacks I have not found it necessary to change anything I have written here; I have only added a few paragraphs here and there to make more clear the Orthodox teaching which, I believe, is most unfairly caricatured and misinterpreted in these attacks.

There would be no purpose in making a point-by-point reply to this critic. His Patristic citations hardly ever make the points he thinks they are making, and the only reply to them is to indicate that they have been misapplied. Thus, for example: all the quotes showing that man is composed of both soul and body (7:2, p. 26, etc.)—which no one denies—say nothing whatever against the independent activity of the soul after death, which has so much evidence in its favor as to seem quite beyond "refutation" if one trusts the Orthodox sources; the many places in Scripture and in Patristic texts where death is expressed metaphorically as a "sleep" say nothing whatever of the "literal truth" of this metaphor, which has been taught by only a very few Christian teachers over the centuries and certainly is in disagreement with the Church's accepted teaching; etc. A collection of "proof texts" makes sense only if it actually proves an issue in dispute, not if it talks about something a little different or does not speak clearly and explicitly to the issue.

While on the one hand the critic amasses long lists of often irrelevant quotations, his more usual polemical technique is to dismiss his opponents with a sweeping statement that either has no evidence behind it at all, or else obviously contradicts a good part of the evidence. Thus, if the critic wishes to dispute the possibility of communications from people who have come back to life from the dead, he categorically declares: "These things are simply not possible" (vol. 5, no. 6, p. 25)—despite the fact that Orthodox literature contains numerous such communications; if he wants to deny that demons are seen by men after death, he proclaims: "The fathers teach no such thing" (6:12, p. 24) —despite the numerous Patristic references, for example, to the "toll-houses" encountered after death. If the critic does acknowledge the existence of evidence which disputes his point, he dismisses it with a sweeping accusation: it is all "allegories" or "moral fables" (5:6, p. 26).

The critic is also much addicted to rather cruel ad hominem arguments which attempt to discredit anyone who disagrees with him: "It is interesting that some people, together with the Latins, seem to think that the Scripture need not necessarily be conformed with" (6:12, p. 30)—this is said in a context where he has just "swept away" the teaching of Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov, who, at least indirectly, is thus accused of disrespect for the Scriptures. The views of others who disagree with the critic are liable to be smeared with such unflattering epithets as "Origenistic" (6:12, p. 31) or "blasphemous" (5:6, P. 23), and the opponents themselves dismissed as having a "Platonic-Origenistic mind" or as being "under heavy Latin-Scholastic-Hellenistic influence, in a state of spiritual delusion ... or simply abysmally ignorant" (6:12, p. 39).

It may already be seen, perhaps, that the polemical level of the critic in his attacks against respected Orthodox theological authorities is not very high. But because this critic, in his own way, does seem to reflect the misconceptions of some Orthodox people who are not at home in the Orthodox literature which describes life after death, it may be useful to answer some of the objections he has to the traditional Orthodox teaching on life after death.

1. The "Contradictions" of Orthodox Literature on the Soul after Death

Despite the common opinion that the Orthodox literature on life after death is "naive" and "simple," if one looks at it carefully one discovers that it is actually quite subtle and even "sophisticated." Some of it, it is true, can be read by a child on his own level—as a fascinating "story" on the same level as other incidents in the Lives of Saints (which is where some of the Orthodox after-death literature is to be found). But this material has been handed down to us by the Church not because of its "story" qualities, but precisely because it is true; and indeed, a chief source of this material is the ascetic treatises of the Holy Fathers, where this teaching is presented in a very sober and straightforward manner, and not at all in "story" form. Therefore, a more "sophisticated" examination of this material can also bear fruit. We have tried to do something like this in Chapter Six above, in the section called "How to Understand the Toll-Houses," where, following the explanations of St. Gregory the Dialogist and other Orthodox authorities who have examined these questions, we distinguished between the spiritual reality which the soul encounters after death and the figurative or interpretative devices which are sometimes used to express this spiritual reality. The Orthodox person who is at home in this kind of literature (often through having heard it from childhood) automatically reads it on his own level and interprets its images in accordance with his own spiritual understanding. "Bags of gold," "pyres of wood," "dwellings of gold," and such things in the other world are not interpreted by adult readers in a literal sense, and the attempt of our critic to discredit such Orthodox sources because they contain such figurative images only reveals that he does not understand how to read these sources.

Thus, many of the supposed "contradictions" in Orthodox literature concerning the other world exist in the minds of those who try to read this literature in an overly literal manner—for adults who artificially try to understand it in a childish way.

Some other "contradictions," on the other hand, are not really contradictions at all. That some saints and others whose accounts are accepted in the Church speak of their "after-death" experience and others do not is no more a "contradiction" than the fact that some saints oppose having their relics moved, while others bless such a move: this is a matter of individual need and circumstances. The critic cites the example of St. Athanasius the Resurrected of the Kiev Caves, who would say nothing of what he experienced after death, and uses this to make the categorical assertion: "Nor have such people ever told us anything of what took place" (7: 1, p. 31; emphasis his). But the Soldier Taxiotes (Lives of Saints, March 28), St. Salvius of AN, and many others did speak of their experience, and it is surely a most unscholarly and "selective" use of sources to deny their testimony. Some, like St. Salvius, at first were very hesitant to speak of this experience, but nevertheless they did speak of it; and this fact, far from proving that there is no such thing as experiences after death, only indicate how rich this experience is and how difficult it is to communicate it to the living.

Again, the fact that many Fathers (and the Church in general) warn against the acceptance of demonic visions (and sometimes, due to particular circumstances, they do this in very categorical terms) does not in the least "contradict" the fact that many true visions are accepted in the Church.

Often the critic in his attacks falsely applies a general Patristic statement, divorced from its context, to a particular situation which it does not fit. When St. John Chrysostom, for example, in Homily 28:3 on St. Matthew, states "nor is it possible for a soul, torn away from the body, to wander here any more," he is speaking specifically against the pagan idea that dead souls can become demons and remain indefinitely on earth; but this general truth in no way contradicts or even touches on the specific fact that, as numerous Orthodox testimonies show, many souls do indeed stay near earth for a few hours or days after death before departing to the truly "other" world. In this same passage St. Chrysostom adds that "after their departure hence our souls are led away into some place, having no more power of themselves to come back again"—and this likewise does not contradict the fact that, at God's command and for His purposes, some souls do indeed appear to the living (see the article of Photios Kontoglou above in Appendix II).

Again the fact that Christ cleared the air of the malignity of demons, as St. Athanasius the Great teaches, does not in any way deny the existence of the demonic toll-houses in the air, as the critic implies (6:8-9, p. 13); indeed, the critic himself in another place quotes the Orthodox teaching that the evil spirits Which are still in the air cause many temptations and fantasies (6:6-7, p. 33). The Church's teaching is that whereas before our redemption by Christ, no one could pass through the air to heaven, the path being closed by demons, and all men went down to hell, now it has become possible for men to pass through the demons of the air, and their power now is restricted to men whose own sins convict them. In the same way, we know that even though Christ "destroyed the power of hell" (Kontakion of Pascha), any one of us can still fall into hell by rejecting salvation in Christ.

Still again, the fact that our spiritual battle against "principalities and powers" takes place in this life by no means contradicts the fact that this battle occurs also as we leave this life. The section in Chapter Six above entitled "The Toll-Houses Experienced before Death" explains the connection between these two aspects of the Orthodox unseen warfare.

That the third, ninth, and fortieth-day memorials for the dead are sometimes explained by the symbolism of the Trinity, the nine ranks of angels, and the Ascension of Christ, in no way denies the fact that these days are somehow bound up also with what is happening to the soul on those days (according to the "model" described above in Chapter Ten). Neither explanation is a dogma, neither "contradicts" the other; there is no need for an Orthodox Christian to deny either of them.

The undeniable fact that our fate after death depends on what we do in this life is not at all contradicted by the equally undeniable fact that prayer for the dead can alleviate their lot and even change their state, in accordance with the Orthodox teaching set forth by St. Mark of Ephesus and by the Orthodox Church in general (see above, Chapter Ten and Appendix I). The critic is so intent on finding "contradictions" in this teaching that he finds them even in one and the same Orthodox teacher, stating that St. John of Kronstadt sometimes teaches the "Patristic understanding" and sometimes the "Scholastic concept" (7:3, p. 28). St. Mark of Ephesus is also guilty of the same "contradiction"; for, while making statements on prayer for the dead which the critic thinks are "Patristic," he also teaches clearly that "the souls of the departed are delivered by prayer from confinement in hell as if from a certain prison" (see above, p. 202), which the critic regards as a "Scholastic concept, since he regards it as impossible that prayers for the dead can change their condition or obtain repose for them (7:3, p. 23).

The answer to all these and many other supposed "contradictions" which the critic thinks he has found in the Orthodox teaching on life after death is to be found in a fairer and less simple-minded reading of the Orthodox texts themselves. The Patristic and hagiographical texts do not "contradict" themselves; if we will read the Orthodox literature on life after death more deeply and thoroughly, we will find that it is not the texts that are a problem, but our own imperfect understanding of them.

2. Is there such a thing as an "out-of-body" experience (whether before or after death), or an "Other world" which souls inhabit?

The critic's opinion about "out-of-body" experiences is categorical: "These things are simply not possible" (5:6, p. 25). He gives no evidence for this assertion, but only his own opinion that all the many Orthodox texts that discuss such things are "allegories" or "moral fables" (5:6, p. 26). Heaven, paradise, and hell are not "Places," according to him, but only "states" (6:2, p. 23); "the soul cannot function on its own, but only by means of the body" (6:8-9, p. 22), and therefore not only can be in no "place " after death, but cannot even function at all (6:8-9, p. 19); "to suppose that this complex realm is yonder beyond one's repose is sheer madness" (6:6-7, p. 34).

But is it really possible that the soul in itself is nothing but "inwardness" and "repose" and has no "outward" aspect whatever, no "place" where it functions? This is surely a radical teaching for Orthodox Christianity, and, if true, would certainly require (as the critic already suggests) a radical reinterpretation and indeed revision of the Patristic and hagiographical texts which describe the soul's activities in precisely the "outward" form—as knowing, seeing, communicating, etc.

Now, it is one thing to say (as the Orthodox authorities who have examined such questions invariably say) that one must be careful not to read the Orthodox texts on the other world and life after death in too literal or earthly a manner, since that reality is in many obvious ways very different from earthly reality; but it is quite something else to "sweep away" all these texts and deny that they refer to anything at all in an outward way, and are nothing but "allegories" and "fables." The Orthodox literature on this subject describes it rather matter-of-factly as it appears to the person undergoing such experiences, and the Orthodox Church and faithful have always accepted these descriptions as corresponding faithfully to reality, even while making allowances for the peculiar, other-worldly nature of this reality.

It is probably no exaggeration to say that no Orthodox writer has ever been so dogmatic in describing the nature of this other-worldly reality as the present critic is in denying it altogether. This is not a sphere for categorical assertions. St. Paul, in describing his own spiritual experiences in the most general terms, is careful to say "whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth" (II Cor. 12:2). St. John Chrysostom in his interpretation of this passage shows the same caution in saying: "Were only his mind and soul caught up, while the body remained dead? Or was the body also caught up? This cannot be said for certain. If the Apostle Paul himself, who was caught up and was vouchsafed so many and such unutterable revelations, did not know this, how much less do we know it.... And if anyone should say: How is it possible to be caught up out of the body? I will ask him: How is it possible to be caught up in the body? The latter is even more difficult than the former, if one is to examine it according to reason and not submit oneself to faith" (Homily 26:1 on II Corinthians, in Volume 10: 1 of his Works in Russian, Saint Petersburg, 1904, p. 690).

Similarly, St. Andrew the Fool for Christ, in describing his state during his own experience of heaven, says: "I saw myself as if without flesh, because I did not feel the flesh.... In appearance I was in the body, but I did not feel the weight of the body; I felt no natural needs for the course of the whole two weeks when I was caught up. This leads me to the thought that I was out of the body. I do not know how to say for sure; this is known to God, the Knower of hearts" (from his complete Life by Nicephorus, quoted in Bishop Ignatius, vol. III, p. 88).

Such Orthodox authorities, then—an Apostle, a great Father, a Saint of the most exalted life—all regard it as at least possible to speak of an experience of heaven as occurring "out of the body "; and it is certainly clear from their words that such experiences, whether they are "in" or "out" of the body, have something bodily and outward about them—otherwise there would be no need to speak of the "body" at all in connection with them. In this book we have tried to describe such experiences as simply as possible in the language of the Orthodox sources themselves, without attempting to give a precise definition of this state. Bishop Theophan the Recluse, in his commentary on St. Paul's statement in II Corinthians 12:2, says perhaps as much as need be said on this subject: "Within or in the depths of the world that is visible to us is hidden another world, just as real as this one—whether spiritual or finely material, God knows; what is certain is that in it the angels and saints dwell.... He (St. Paul) cannot say whether he was caught up in the body or out of the body; this, he says, God alone knows. Evidently, for us this knowledge is not necessary... A great precision in these details is not required, and it cannot be expected that anyone should say something absolutely certain when the Apostle Paul himself is silent" (Bishop Theophan, Commentary on the Second Epistle of the Holy Apostle Paul to the Corinthians, Moscow, 1894, pp. 401-403).

Probably every Orthodox reader of the "other-worldly" elements in the Lives of Saints is to some extent aware that the nature of this world and these experiences is not to be precisely defined; the way they are expressed in these sources is exactly the most appropriate and accurate way they can be expressed in the language of this world. The attempt to dismiss these experiences as "allegories" or "fables," and to define precisely the fact that they cannot occur as stated, has no justification in Orthodox teaching and tradition.

3. Does the soul "sleep" after death?

The critic is so opposed to the activities of the soul in the other world, especially after death, such as are described in numerous Lives of Saints, that he ends by teaching a whole doctrine of the soul's "repose" or "slumber" after death—a device which renders all these activities simply impossible! He states: "In the Orthodox understanding, at death, the soul is held to be assigned to a state of repose by an act of the Will of God, and enter into a condition of inactivity, a sort of sleep in which it does not function, hear or see" (6:3-9, p. 19); the soul in this state "can know nothing at all, nor remember anything at all" (6:2, p. 23).

Even among the heterodox, such a doctrine of "soul-slumber" is to be found in our times only in a few of the sects which are far from historical Christianity (Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists); how astonishing it is, therefore, to find it here proclaimed so categorically as Orthodox! If one or two early teachers in the Church (Aphraates of Syria, St. Anastasius of Sinai), as the critic claims, did perhaps teach such a doctrine in an unambiguous way, it is abundantly clear that the Orthodox Church herself never followed them, but in its Divine services, in the works of its great Fathers, in its ascetic treatises, and in its Lives of Saints has taught so clearly that the soul is active and "awake" after death that one is justly appalled at the radicalness of the critic's teaching.

The critic himself seems to waver in his idea of what the "sleep" of the soul means, sometimes defining it in terms of an exalted "hesychast" vocabulary that somewhat softens its radicalness; but at least he is consistent in saying that the supposed "sleep" of the soul after death makes absolutely impossible any "outward" experiences of the soul. And as long as he continues to speak of death as a state of "inactivity" in which the soul "can know nothing at all, nor remember anything at all," it is clear that for him the word "sleep" does have a meaning that is more than metaphorical.

There would be little point in searching in the Fathers for specific "refutations" of this doctrine, for it was seldom taken seriously enough in the Church to require a specific refutation. In Chapter Ten above we have cited the teaching of St. Ambrose that the soul is "more active" when freed from the body after death, St. Abba Dorotheus' statement that the soul "remembers everything at its exit from this body more clearly and distinctly once freed from the earthliness of the body," and St. John Cassian's teaching that the soul "becomes yet more alive" after death; and similar statements could be found in many Fathers. But such citations are only a small part of the Orthodox evidence that refutes the theory of "soul-slumber." The whole Orthodox piety and practice of prayer for the dead surely presupposes that souls are "awake" in the other world and that their lot can be alleviated; the Orthodox calling on the saints in prayer, and the saints' response to this prayer, is unthinkable without the conscious activity of the saints in heaven; the immense Orthodox literature on the manifestations of saints after death cannot simply all be cast away as "fables." If the critic is right, then the Church has certainly been "wrong" for quite a few centuries.

The critic has tried to take unfair advantage of the fact that the teaching of the Orthodox Church on life after death has many elements in it that are not "precisely defined"—not because the Church does not know what it thinks on this subject, but because the reality of the other world is (to state the obvious once again) quite different from this-worldly reality and does not easily lend itself to the "dogmatic" approach the critic has taken towards it. The living contact of the saints of heaven, and sometimes of other of the dead also, with the earthly Church is known in the piety and experience of Orthodox Christians and does not need to be precisely defined; but to make this want of a "precise definition" an excuse for teaching that the souls even of the saints are in a state of "repose" that prevents any "outward" contact with men on earth, surely oversteps the bounds permissible for Orthodox Christian belief.

Among the other "after-death" experiences which the theory of "soul-slumber" does away with is one universally believed in the Church from the very beginning: the descent of the dead Christ into hell. "In the grave bodily, in hell with the soul as God, in paradise with the thief, and on the Throne with the Father and the Spirit was Thou Who fillest all things, O Christ the Infinite" (Troparion of the Hours of Pascha, used as one of the secret prayers after the Cherubic Hymn at the Divine Liturgy). The earliest generation of Christians knew without a doubt that Christ, while he was "asleep" in the tomb (as stated in the Exapostilarion of Pascha, the Kontakion of Great Saturday, etc.), went and preached unto the spirits in prison (hell) (I Peter 3:19). Is this also an "allegory"? The Church's tradition is also very strong that, even before this, St. John the Baptist "went rejoicing to declare to those in hell the good tidings of God having appeared in the flesh," as the troparion for the feast of his Beheading states. And what was it that the three disciples saw on the Mount of Transfiguration when they beheld Moses, if it was not his soul, which appeared in quite an "outward" manner (Matt. 17:3)? This manifestation, indeed, as it were, confirms St. Paul's hesitancy in declaring whether his own vision of heaven was "in" or "out" of the body—for Elias dwells in heaven "in" the body, having never died, while Moses is there "out of the body," his body being in the grave; but both of them appeared at Christ's Transfiguration. We earth-dwellers cannot even define the difference between these two states, but there is no need to; the simple description of such manifestations, as well as of experiences of the "dead" in the other world, evidently give us our best understanding of these matters, and there is no need for us to try to understand them in any way but the simple way the Church presents them to us.

The critic, apparently, has fallen into the very accusation he has made against others: he has taken an image, that of the "sleep" of death, which is universally accepted in the Church as a metaphor, and interpreted it in some way as a "literal truth." He often does not even notice that the very sources he quotes to support his ideas are, on the contrary, the surest disproof of his theory. He quotes St. Mark of Ephesus (using our translation which first appeared in The Orthodox Word, no. 79, p. 90) that the righteous "are in heaven with the angels before God Himself, and already as if in the paradise from which Adam fell (into which the good thief entered before others) and often visit us in those temples where they are venerated, and hear those who call on them and pray for them to God...." (6:12, p. 18). If all this (which certainly involves "outward" activity) can be done by a soul that is actually "sleeping"—that is, in "a condition of inactivity in which it does not function, hear or see" (6:8-9, p. 19)—then the theory of "soul-slumber" has no real function because it explains nothing at all, and the critic only confuses the faithful by using it.

4. Are the toll-houses "imaginary"?

The critic's greatest wrath is directed against the Orthodox ascetic teaching on the demonic toll-houses encountered by the soul after death, and one suspects that it is his desire to destroy the very concept of them that has led him into such a self-contradictory theory as that of "soul-slumber." The language he uses to describe the toll-houses is quite categorical and rather immoderate. He speaks of the "imaginary after-death toll-houses" (6:8-9, p. 18) and calls the accounts of them in Orthodox literature "wild tales" (6:8-9, p. 24) and "tales of horror well calculated to cast the soul into despair and unbelief" (7: 1, p. 33); "the toll-house myth is ... utterly alien to God and His Holy Church" (7:1, p. 23). But when he tries to describe his own understanding of the toll-houses, the result is a caricature so preposterous that one cannot believe he has even read the texts in question. For him the accounts of the toll-houses would have us believe that satan owns 'the road to God's kingdom' and can collect a tariff of those who travel on it.... The demons grant an indulgence of passage in return for the excess merits of a saint" (6:2, p. 22). The toll-houses, he thinks, describe "a wandering soul needing to be prayed to rest (as the pagans believed)"; it is an "occult concept about the journey of the soul being paid for by prayers and alms" (6:2, p. 26). He looks for "foreign influences" to explain how such a concept ever got into the Orthodox Church, and concludes (without a shred of evidence, however, apart from the same kind of vague parallels that lead anthropologists to conclude that Christianity is just another pagan "resurrection cult") that "the toll-house myth is the direct product of the oriental astrology cults which hold that all creation is not in the care of a just and loving God" (7: 1, p. 23); "these toll-houses are merely an illogical mutation of these pagan myths" (6:8-9, p. 24). He finds the toll-houses to be virtually identical with the Latin doctrine of "purgatory," and states that "the difference between the purgatory myth and that of the aerial toll-houses is that the one gives God satisfaction by means of physical torment, while the other gives Him His needed satisfaction by means of mental torture" (6:12, p. 23).* The account of Theodora's passage through the tollhouses (Lives of Saints, March 26) the critic calls a "heresy-filled tale" (6:8-9, p. 24) based upon a "hallucination" (7:2, p. 14) of someone who, in Old Testament times, "would have justly been taken out and stoned" because he "was in a state of abject spiritual delusion" (6:6-7, p. 28). (Why the critic should be so angry against Theodora's account is not clear; it is only one of many similar accounts and teaches nothing different from them—so much so that I saw no need to quote it above in the chapter on the toll-houses.)

These extreme accusations are personal opinions of the critic which certainly have no evidence behind them. One wonders why he insists on making up his own interpretation of the toll-houses and refuses to understand them as the Church has always understood them; the caricature which he is railing against has never been taught in the Orthodox Church, and one is at a loss to know from what source he has taken his preposterous interpretations.

For some sixteen centuries the Fathers of the Church have spoken of the toll-houses as a part of the Orthodox ascetic teaching, the final and decisive stage of the "unseen warfare" which each Christian wages upon earth. For the same period of time numerous Lives of Saints and other Orthodox texts have described the actual experiences of Orthodox Christians, both Saints and sinners, who have encountered these toll-houses after death (and sometimes before). It is obvious to all but the youngest children that the name of "toll-house" is not to be taken literally; it is a metaphor which the Eastern Fathers have thought appropriate for describing the reality which the soul encounters after death. It is also obvious to all that some of the elements in the descriptions of these toll-houses are metaphorical or figurative. The accounts themselves, however, are neither "allegories" nor "fables," but straightforward accounts of personal experiences in the most adequate language at the disposal of the teller. If the descriptions of the toll-houses seem too "vivid" for some, it is probably because they have not been aware of the actual nature of the unseen warfare waged during this life. Now too we are constantly beset by demonic tempters and accusers, but our spiritual eyes are closed and we see only the results of their activities the sins into which we fall, the passions which develop in us. But after death, the eyes of the soul are open to spiritual reality and see (usually for the first time) the actual beings who have been attacking us during our lifetime.

There is no paganism, no occultism, no "oriental astrology," no "purgatory" whatever to be found in the Orthodox accounts of the toll-houses. These toll-houses teach us, rather, of the accountability of each man for his own sins, of the fact that at death there is a summing up of his success or failure in battling against sin (the Particular Judgment), and that the demons who have tempted him throughout life make their final assault upon him at the end of his life, but have power only over those who have not sufficiently fought the unseen warfare in this lifetime.

As for the literary forms in which they are expressed, the toll-houses appear alike in the Divine services of the Church (the Church's poetry), in the ascetic writings of the Fathers, and in the Lives of Saints. No Orthodox person reads any of these texts in the crudely literal way the critic has read them, but approaches them with respect and the fear of God, looking for spiritual benefit. Any spiritual father who has tried to educate his spiritual children in the age-old tradition of Orthodox piety can testify to the beneficial effect of the Orthodox sources which mention the toll-houses; indeed, the late Archbishop Andrew of Novo-Diveyevo, a widely loved and respected spiritual father, used precisely the twenty toll-houses through which Theodora is described as passing as the foundation for a very effective preparation for the sacrament of confession by his spiritual children. If there is any "disharmony" of these texts with 20th-century man, the fault lies in our pampered, permissive times, which encourage disbelief in and a lax attitude towards the truly awesome realities of the other world, and especially those of hell and judgment.

The teaching of the toll-houses in Orthodox sources has never been defined as a "dogma," belonging rather to the tradition of Orthodox piety; but this does not mean that it is something "unimportant" or something that is a matter of "personal opinion." It has been taught everywhere and at all times in the Church wherever the Orthodox ascetic tradition has been handed down. If it is a subject that has been rather outside the area of concern of many recent Orthodox theologians, this is precisely because these theologians belong first of all to the academic world and not to the ascetic tradition. Theologians of a more traditional bent, however, as well as those for whom the Orthodox ascetic tradition is a living thing, have given this subject much attention. Outside of the Russian Church, where the teaching of the toll-houses has been much discussed and defended by Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov, Bishop Theophan the Recluse, Metropolitan Macarius of Moscow, St. John of Kronstadt, Archbishop John Maximovitch, Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky, and numerous other teachers and theologians, it has been most emphasized in the Serbian Church, where it occupies an honored place in the Dogmatic Theology of the late Archimandrite Justin Popovich (vol. III). However, it has become more noticed in recent years as translations especially of Orthodox ascetical literature and the Divine services have become more available in Western languages. We will note here a few passages on the toll-houses that have appeared in English editions in the past few years and have not yet been quoted in the course of this book:

From the Fifty Spiritual Homilies of St. Macarius the Great, one of the basic works of Orthodox ascetic literature (A. J. Mason translation, Eastern Orthodox Books, Willits, California, 1974):

When the soul of a man departs out of the body, a great mystery is there accomplished. If it is under the guilt of sins there come bands of devils, and angels of the left hand, and powers of darkness take over that soul, and hold it fast on their side. No one ought to be surprised at this. If, while alive and in this world, the man was subject and compliant to them, and made himself their bondman, how much more, when he departs out of this world, is he kept down and held fast by them (Homily 22, p. 171).

Like tax-collectors sitting in the narrow ways, and laying hold upon the passers-by, and extorting from them, so do the devils spy upon souls, and lay hold of them; and when they pass out of the body, if they are not perfectly cleansed, they do not suffer them to mount up to the mansions of heaven and to meet their Lord, and they are driven down by the devils of the air. But if whilst they are yet in the flesh, they shall with much labor and effort obtain from the Lord the grace from on high, assuredly these, together with those who through virtuous living are at rest, shall go to the Lord, as He promised.... (Homily 43, p. 274).

From the Ladder of Divine Ascent, another standard Orthodox ascetic text (Archimandrite Lazarus Moore translation, revised by Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston, 1978):

Others (of the dying) said dolefully: "Will our soul pass through the irresistible water of the spirits of the air?"—not having complete confidence, but looking to see what would happen in that rendering of accounts (Step 5, p. 60).

Indeed, the "Letter of Abba John of Raithu" that introduces the Ladder indicates the very purpose why such books are written:

As a ladder set up, (this book) will lead aspirants to the gates of Heaven pure and blameless, so that they may pass unhindered the spirits of wickedness, and the world-rulers of darkness, and the princes of the air (Ibid., p. xlii).

From "On Watchfulness and Holiness" by St. Hesychios the Priest, in Volume I of the complete Greek Philokalia (Palmer-Sherrard-Ware translation, Faber and Faber, London, 1979):

If the soul has Christ with it, it will not be disgraced by its enemies even at death, when it rises to heaven's entrance; but then, as now, it will boldly confront them. But let it not tire in calling upon the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, day and night until the time of its departure from this mortal life, and He will speedily avenge it.... Indeed, He will avenge it both in this present life and after its departure from its body (#149, p. 188).

The hour of death will come upon us, it will come and we shall not escape it. May the prince of this world and of the air find our misdeeds few and petty when he comes, so that he will not have good grounds for convicting us. Otherwise we shall weep in vain (#161, p. 190).

[An unwatchful man] cannot free himself from evil thoughts, words and actions, and because of these thoughts and actions he will not be able freely to pass the lords of hell when he dies (#4, P. 163).

From "On Spiritual Knowledge" by St. Diadochos of Photike:

If we do not confess our involuntary sins as we should, we shall discover an ill-defined fear in ourselves at the hour of our death. We who love the Lord should pray that we may be without fear at that time; for if we are afraid then, we will not be able freely to pass by the rulers of the nether world. They will have as their advocate to plead against us the fear which our soul experiences because of its own wickedness. But the soul which rejoices in the love of God, at the hour of its departure, is lifted with the angels of peace above all the hosts of darkness (#100, p. 295).

From "Texts for the Monks in India" by St. John of Karpathos, from the same Volume I of the new translation of the Philokalia:

When the soul leaves the body, the enemy advances to attack it, fiercely reviling it and accusing it of its sins in a harsh and terrifying manner. But if a soul enjoys the love of God and has faith in Him, even though in the past it has often been wounded by sin, it is not frightened by the enemy's attacks and threats. Strengthened by the Lord, winged by joy, filled with courage by the holy angels that guide it, encircled and protected by the light of faith, it answers the malicious devil with great boldness.... When the soul says all this fearlessly, the devil turns his back, howling aloud and unable to withstand the name of Christ (pp. 303-304).

From the Sunday Octoechos, translated by Mother Mary of Bussy-en-Othe, in a troparion addressed to the Mother of God:

... In the dread hour of death pluck me out from the midst of the accusing demons and from every punishment (Sunday Midnight Office, Tone 1, Canticle 7).

Some of these references, it will be noted are partial and do not give the whole Orthodox teaching on this subject. This is obviously because they are references to a teaching with which the ascetical and hymnological writers themselves and their readers are already familiar and which they accept, and there is no need to "define" it or justify this teaching whenever it is mentioned. The attempt of the critic, who has noted the existence of some of these references, to distinguish between such experiences which occur "before" and those which occur "after" death, and to deny the very possibility of those that occur "after" (6:12, p. 24), is quite artificial, being only a "logical deduction" from his own false teaching on the "steep" of the soul, and has no support in the ascetic and Divine service texts themselves. The reality of demonic "testing" is one and the same, and the toll-houses are only the final phase of it, sometimes beginning at the end of this life, and sometimes only after death.

Innumerable other references to the toll-houses occur throughout Orthodox ascetic literature, Lives of Saints, and Divine services; most of these have not yet appeared in English. The critic, when he does take notice of such references, is forced to interpret them, not in accordance with the context in which they occur, but rather in accordance with his own "logical deductions" about life after death.

For example, in quoting the Prayer of St. Eustratius (Saturday Midnight Office), "May my soul not see the dark gaze of the evil demons, but may it be received by Thy bright and most radiant angels" (6:12, p. 23), the critic regards this as a proof that the soul does not (and cannot) see demons after death (this being a necessity for his theory that the soul is "sleeping" then). But it is surely clear to any unprejudiced reader that it means just the opposite: that the Saint prays not to see demons precisely because that is the normal lot of the soul after death! This is even clearer from the whole context of the Prayer of St. Eustratius, where the words which immediately precede this sentence are: "My soul is troubled and pained at its departure from my wretched and vile body. May the evil design of the adversary not overtake it and cause it to stumble in the darkness for the unknown and known sins which I have performed during this life." It is clear that the teaching of the testing by demons after death (whether or not it is given the name of "toll-houses") was familiar to St. Eustratius and forms the background and context of his prayer; and this is why Bishop Ignatius uses this prayer as an indication that this teaching was well known to the Church even at this early day (the beginning of the 4th century) (Bishop Ignatius, vol. III, pp. 140-141).

Again, the critic quotes the reply of St. Barsanuphius of Gaza to a monk who had asked him to escort him "through the air and along that way which I do not know" as though this reply is a refutation of the idea of the toll-houses. But once more, it is clear that the context both of the question and the answer is one wherein the aerial toll-houses encountered after death are accepted as a matter of course, and St. Barsanuphius, in wishing that Christ "make the ascent of your soul unhindered and vouchsafe you to worship the Holy Trinity with boldness, that is, as one delivered"—is only expressing part of the standard teaching on the toll-houses, which was present in the ascetic tradition of Gaza as much as in the rest of the East. (St. Barsanuphius and John, Questions and Answers, no. 145). This incident is also used by Bishop Ignatius as another of his numerous citations from Holy Fathers in defense of the teaching of the toll-houses (p. 145).

Other citations by Bishop Ignatius of ascetic Fathers who clearly teach of the toll-houses include:

St. Abba Dorotheus of Gaza: "When the soul is insensitive it is profitable to read frequently the Divine Scripture and the sermons of the God-bearing Fathers that inspire contrition, and to remember the fearful judgment of God, the departure of the soul from the body, and the fearful powers that are to meet it, with whose participation it performed evil in this short and miserable life" (p. 146).

St. Theognostes, another Father of the Philokalia: "Unutterable and unspeakable is the sweetness of the soul that departs from the body and is informed of its salvation.... Accompanied by the angel (sent for it), it goes without hindrance through the aerial spaces, not in the least disturbed by the evil spirits; joyfully and boldly it ascends to exclamations of thanksgiving to God, and comes finally to worship its Creator" (p. 147).

Evagrius of Scetis: "Come to your senses and think how you will bear your sudden departure from the body, when the threatening angels will come for you and seize you in an hour when you are not expecting it and at a time you know not! What deeds will you send before you into the air, when your enemies who are in the air begin to test you?" (pp. 148-149; Prologue, Oct. 27).

St. John the Almsgiver: "When the soul departs the body and begins to ascend to heaven, it is met by ranks of demons, and they subject it to many hindrances and tests. They test it in lying, slander" (etc.—a long list of sins similar to the twenty given in the life of St. Basil the New). "During the journey of the soul from earth to heaven, the holy angels themselves cannot help it; it is helped only by its own repentance, its good deeds, and most of all by almsgiving. If we do not repent of every sin here due to forgetfulness, then by almsgiving we can be delivered from the violence of the demonic toll-houses" (P. 143; Prologue, Dec. 19).

Another Father of the Philokalia, St. Peter Damascene, speaks of "the time of death, when the demons will surround my poor soul, holding the records of all the evil I have committed" (in his Works, Kiev Caves Lavra, 1905, p. 68).

In the Divine services, as has already been noted, there are many prayers, especially addressed to the Mother of God, which imply or directly state the ascetic teaching regarding the tollhouses. A number of these have been quoted in the course of this book. Bishop Ignatius, in quoting many more of them (from the Octoechos, the Euchologion, from prayers on the departure of the soul, from Akathists and canons to the Mother of God and various saints), concludes that "the teaching of the toll-houses is encountered as a generally known and accepted teaching throughout the Divine services of the Orthodox Church. The Church declares and reminds its children of it in order to sow in their hearts a soul-saving fear and to prepare them for a safe transition from temporal life to eternal" (vol. III, p. 149).

Typical of the references to the toll-houses in the Orthodox Menaia (the twelve volumes of daily services to the saints) is this troparion from the service to St. John Chrysostom (Jan. 27); it occurs in the Canon to the Most Holy Theotokos (Canticle 5), written by "John" (evidently St. John Damascene):

Grant me to pass through the noetic satraps and the tormenting aerial legions without sorrow at the time of my departure, that I may cry joyfully to Thee, O Theotokos, Who heard the cry "Hail": Rejoice, O unashamed hope of all.

But there is no point in simply multiplying citations in Orthodox literature which show how clearly this teaching has been set forth in the Church over the centuries; Bishop Ignatius gives twenty pages of such citations, and many more could be found. But for those who do not like this teaching, it will always be possible somehow to "reinterpret" it or subject it to caricature. Still, even our critic is forced to admit the existence of at least a few of the Orthodox texts that indicate the demonic testing at death, and he defends his position that the toll-houses are "imaginary" by saying that "such visions are avoidable if we struggle in this life and repent of our sins and acquire virtues" (6:12, p. 24). But this is the very meaning of the teaching of the toll-houses which he has caricatured and denied! The teaching of the toll-houses is given to us precisely so that we might labor now, might struggle against the demons of the air in this life—and then our meeting with them after death will be a victory and not a defeat for us! How many ascetic strugglers has it inspired to do precisely this! But who among us can say that he has won this battle already and need not fear the demonic testing after death?

The present writer remembers well the solemn services for the repose of Archbishop John Maximovitch in 1966, culminating in the day of his funeral. All present felt they were witnessing the burial of a saint; the sadness at parting from him was swallowed up by the joy of acquiring a new heavenly intercessor. And yet several of the hierarchs present, and especially Bishop Savva of Edmonton, inspired the more fervent prayer of the people by citing the "fearful toll-houses" through which even this holy man, this miracle of God's grace in our times, had to pass. No one present thought that our prayers alone would save him from the "tests" of the demons, and no one pictured in his mind an exchange of "tolls" at some "houses" in the sky; but these appeals helped to inspire the fervent piety of the faithful, and doubtless this helped him to get through these toll-houses. The holy man's own life of good deeds and almsgiving, the intercession of the saints whom he glorified on earth, the prayer of the faithful which was actually another product of his love for them—doubtless all this, in a way known to God, and which we need not search out, helped him to repel the assaults of the dark spirits of the air. And when Bishop Savva made a special trip to San Francisco to be present at the services for the fortieth day after Archbishop John's repose, and told the faithful: "I have come to pray together with you for the repose of his soul on this significant and decisive fortieth day, the day when the place is determined where his soul will dwell until the general and terrible Judgment of God" (Blessed John, The Chronicle of the Veneration of Archbishop John Maximovitch, St. Herman Brotherhood, 1979, p. 20)—he was again inspiring the prayer of the faithful by citing another belief of the Orthodox teaching on life after death. Such things are seldom heard by Orthodox Christians nowadays, and therefore we should all the more treasure the contact we still have with such representatives of the Orthodox ascetic tradition.

Among Russian Orthodox Church writers, opposition to the teaching of the toll-houses has long been recognized as one of the signs of ecclesiastical "modernism." Thus, Bishop Ignatius devoted a large part of his volume on life after death to the defense of this teaching, which was already under attack in mid-19th century Russia; and incidentally, contrary to the unfounded opinion of the critic that the toll-houses themselves are accepted only by those under "Western influence," the Roman Catholic and Protestant West has no notion whatever of the toll-houses, which exist only in the Orthodox ascetic teaching, and the attack against them in the Church today is precisely from those (as in the modernist Orthodox seminaries) who are strongly "Western" in mentality and have little respect for traditional Orthodox piety.

Quite recently Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky, perhaps the greatest living theologian of the Orthodox Church, has written an article in defense of the toll-houses, written in part as an answer to the present critic (Orthodox Russia, 1979, no. 7; English translation in Nikodemos, Summer, 1979). In this article he warns that in our contemporary non-Orthodox society there are often "questions of our Faith (which are) raised and treated from an un-Orthodox point of view by persons of other confessions, and sometimes by Orthodox Christians who no longer have a firm Orthodox foundation under their feet.... In recent years a critical approach to a whole series of out Church views has become more noticeable; these views are accused of being 'primitive,' the result of a 'naive' world view or piety, and they are characterized by such words as 'myths, 'magic,' and the like. It is our duty to respond to such views."

And Bishop Theophan the Recluse gives perhaps the soberest and most down-to-earth answer to those who are unwilling to accept the Orthodox ascetic teaching: "No matter how absurd the idea of the toll-houses may seem to our 'wise men,' they will not escape passing through them" (see above, p. 86).

The toll-houses are not a "moral fable" made up for "simple people," as the critic believes (5:6, p. 26), they are not a "myth" or "imaginary" or a "wild tale," as he says—but a true account, handed down in the Orthodox ascetic tradition from the earliest centuries, of what awaits each of us at death.


The preservation of the age-old tradition of Orthodox piety in the contemporary world has become a battle against overwhelming odds. The Orthodox flocks for the most part have become so worldly that an Orthodox priest who wishes to hand down and teach this tradition is tempted to despair over the very possibility of such a task. Most priests and bishops end by following their flocks and "adapting" the tradition to the worldliness of the flocks; and thus the tradition fades and dies....

The sermons, lectures, and books of the clergy of most Orthodox jurisdictions today on the subject of life after death show that very little has been preserved of the traditional Orthodox teaching and piety. When the other world is mentioned at all, save in the most general and abstract terms, it is usually as a subject for jokes about "St. Peter" and "pearly gates" such as are often used by worldly Roman Catholic and Protestant clergy. Among many Orthodox Christians the other world has become something far away and very hazy, with which one has no living contact and about which one can say nothing very definite at all.

The suffering Church of Russia—probably due to its sufferings as much as to its innate conservatism—has preserved the traditional Orthodox attitude towards the other world much better than other Orthodox Churches today. In the free world, it is the Russian Church Outside of Russia almost alone that continues to publish the traditional Orthodox literature on this subject, continuing the tradition of the Prologue and other pious anthologies of old Russia, and fortunate are those Orthodox Christians who have access to this literature and can accept it in simplicity and piety, avoiding the spirit of "criticism" which leads so many, especially among converts, away from the true tradition and feeling of Orthodoxy.

It need hardly be said how "old-fashioned" the world—even the Orthodox world—regards those who publish and read such literature. It has been the chief purpose of this book to make this "old-fashioned" literature understandable and accessible to today's Orthodox Christians, who can only benefit from reading what has brought such spiritual profit to Orthodox Christian readers for many centuries.

The aim of our critic is exactly the opposite: thoroughly to discredit this literature, to dismiss it as "moral fables" or "wild tales," and to submit the Divine services and Lives of Saints to a thorough "criticism" that will expunge all such elements in them. (See, for example, his elaborate attempt to discredit the Life of St. Basil the New because it contains descriptions of the toll-houses: Tlingit Herald, 7:2, p. 14).

Let us give this undertaking the name it deserves: it is the work of the same Western rationalism which has attacked the Orthodox Church so many times in the past and has led so many to lose the true understanding and feeling of Orthodox Christianity. In the Roman Catholic and Protestant West, this attack has been thoroughly successful, and whatever Lives of Saints are left there have indeed been expunged of supernatural elements and are often considered "moral fables." While accusing all who oppose his teaching of "scholasticism," the critic proves himself to be perhaps the most "scholastic" of all: his teaching is founded not on the clear and simple texts handed down in the Church from the earliest centuries to our own, but on a series of his own "logical deductions" which require a radical reinterpretation and revision of the evident meaning of the basic Orthodox texts.

It is bad enough that the critic's tone and language are so crude, that he makes such an evil caricature of the Orthodox teaching he is attacking, and that he is so disrespectful of many venerable Orthodox teachers—the very best of those few teachers who have kept alive the Orthodox tradition of piety to our own days. Here is what he says, for example, about the sermon "Life after Death" by Archbishop John Maximovitch (see above, page 176), a holy man and great theologian of our own days: It is "a wild tale about the soul departing and being pursued and tormented by demons.... In this tale, the faithful were told that when someone reposed, they must quickly begin to have services said for the repose of the departed soul, since the soul was in such desperate need of our prayers, and death was a matter of great terror (evidently, God was unable to move Himself to mercy or to help the pitiful soul without being prodded or awakened by the shouts and cries of mortals). This tale also included a patently blasphemous description of the repose of the Most Holy Theotokos" (6:2, p. 22). Archbishop John's name is not mentioned here, although from the description it is precisely clear what sermon the critic is referring to; but such language shows an intolerable disrespect no matter which Orthodox authority he might be attacking!

But what is truly tragic is that the critic, by whatever means, is trying to deprive Orthodox Christians of that very thing which, even without him, is already disappearing so fast in our midst: the traditional Orthodox piety towards the other world, revealed not only in the kind of literature we read (which the critic is striving to discredit), but even more in our attitude towards the dead and what we do for them. It is obvious from the above quote that the critic, unlike Archbishop John, regards it as unimportant to pray for the reposed immediately after death, and indeed thinks that the soul does not need and cannot be benefited by our "shouts and cries"! Indeed, the critic specifically states that "the things we ask on behalf of the reposed are only proclamations of what they are going to receive anyway " (7:3, p. 27) and have no effect on their eternal lot, not seeing that by this teaching he is not only contradicting the Holy Fathers but is also removing the chief motive which impels people to pray for the dead at all.

How heartless to the dead! How cruel to the living! How un-Orthodox a teaching! Surely those who pray for the dead do not in the least understand their prayers as "magical incantations" (7:3, p. 23) or as "bribes or magical means of forcing God to be merciful" (Ibid., p. 26), as the critic so cruelly states, but pray with good faith (just as in prayers for anything else) that God will indeed in His mercy grant what is asked. The "synergy" of God's will and our prayers cannot be understood by the narrow, truly worse than "scholastic" logic which the critic employs.

Those who still live by the traditional Orthodox sources are a dwindling minority today. What is needed are more helps to the understanding of this traditional piety, not an undermining and caricaturing of it and disrespect for those who teach it.

The anti-Orthodox teaching on life after death of this critic is all the more dangerous in that it appeals to a very subtle passion of contemporary mankind. The Orthodox teaching on life after death is rather severe and demands a very sober response on our part, full of the fear of God. But mankind today is very pampered and self-centered and would rather not hear of such stem realities as judgment and accountability for sins. One can be much more "comfortable" with an exalted teaching of "hesychasm" that tells us that God is not "really" as stern as the Orthodox ascetic tradition has described Him, that we "really" need have no fear of death and the judgment it brings, that if only we occupy ourselves with exalted spiritual ideas like those in the Philokalia (dismissing as "allegories" all the passages on the toll-houses) we will be "safe" under a "loving God" who will not demand an accounting of all our sins, even those forgotten or unrecognized.... The end of these exalted reflections is a state not far different from that of those "charismatics" and others who feel themselves already assured of salvation, or of those who follow the occult teaching that states there is nothing to fear in death.

The true Orthodox teaching on life after death, on the other hand, fills one precisely with the fear of God and the inspiration to struggle for the Kingdom of Heaven against all the unseen enemies who oppose our path. All Orthodox Christians are called to this struggle, and it is a cruel injustice to them to dilute the Orthodox teaching to make them more "comfortable." Let each one read the Orthodox texts most suited to the spiritual level at which he presently finds himself—, but let no one tell him that he can dismiss as "fables" the texts he may find "uncomfortable." Fashions and opinions among men may change, but the Orthodox tradition remains ever the same, no matter how few may follow it. May we ever be its faithful children!

* The comparison of the toll-houses with "purgatory" is surely far-fetched. The toll-houses are part of the Orthodox ascetic teaching and have to do solely with the "testing" of a man for the sins committed by him: they give no "satisfaction" to God and their purpose is certainly not "torture." "Purgatory," on the other hand, is a legalistic Latin misinterpretation of an entirely different aspect of Orthodox eschatology—the state of the souls in hell (after the testing of the toll-houses) which may yet be bettered by the prayers of the Church. The Latin sources themselves give no indication that demons have any part at all in the pains of those in "purgatory.

Webmaster Note. It may interest the reader to know that the very same critics of the tradition of aerial toll-houses—Archbishop Lazar and Father Michael Azkoul, to name two—are also among those responsible for the wholly un-Orthodox denigration of the Blessed Augustine of Hippo. The astute reader will perceive that there is a spiritual problem underlying all of these "witch hunts." The mentality and methodology is the same in both cases. This is unfortunate, because both of these clergymen have produced some excellent works in the past. Caveat emptor!