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The Debate Over Aerial Toll-Houses

Extract from the Minutes of the Session of the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside or Russia

On 19 November/2 December, 1980, the Synod of the Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia heard: the extensive correspondence connected with the controversy raised by Deacon Lev. Puhalo [(Ed. now Archbishop Lazarus of New Ostrog Monastery (Synaxis Press)] with regard to a book by Hieromonk Seraphim Rose on life after death. In the book in question a great many false teachings concerning the soul outside the body are investigated, with however, the purpose of contrasting an Orthodox explanation with them. However, entering a domain which has not been fully revealed to us, and furthermore, unwillingly employing non-Orthodox materials. Hieromonk Seraphim, despite various reservations, initiated a controversy, in which his opponent, Deacon Lev Puhalo, paying no heed to the disclaimers, with yet greater persistence, and with a spirit of condemnation, wrongly accuses him of heresy. This controversy can cause great harm to the souls of the faithful.

They directed: Theologically evaluating the book of Deacon Lev Puhalo, Bishop Gregory, in the review he made for the Synod of Bishops, reports the following:

Fearing, as is natural for an Orthodox person, the possibility of an Western or other non-Orthodox influence, Deacon Lev Puhalo has gone to the opposite extreme and contradicts a number of teachings which have long been accepted in Orthodox Dogmatic Theology. Thus for example, fearing lest the teaching concerning the "Toll-Stations" be likened to the Latin Doctrine of Purgatory, he leaves almost no place for what in Orthodox dogmatic theology is referred to as the "particular judgment", after which the soul experiences a foretaste of the blessedness or the eternal torment which awaits it after the resurrection.

The state of the soul after death Deacon Lev Puhalo represents as its utter inability to function in any way whatsoever other than with the assistance of the body (p.7). As he understands the matter, after its departure from the body, the soul finds itself in a state of mute and blind repose. "An active, intellectual life or functioning of the soul alone could never be conceived in either Old or New Testament thought. For the soul to function, its restoration with the body as the 'whole person' would be absolutely necessary" (p.9). "…Without the body, the soul… is not even a person, but only something 'of ' a person… the soul without the body cannot speak, nor remember, nor discern, nor think, nor be roused, nor see… " (p.23)

Such a concept of the soul separated from the body does not correspond in the least to the Orthodox concept. To begin with, it is at variance with the teaching concerning the preaching of the Forerunner in Hades prior to the arrival of the Saviour there, as well as the possibility of the souls of the Old Testament personages of heeding the preaching of the Saviour in Hades or their going with Him in paradise. Likewise, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus contradicts Fr. Lev's teaching. The synaxarion for Meatfare Sunday says: "Be it known that there all shall know one another—them that they know, and them that they have never seen, as saith Chrysostom… " The same synaxarion teaches concerning St. Basil the Great that he "saith in his discourse on the departed that before the general resurrection it hath been given to the saints to know one another and to rejoice together." The very appearance of Moses on Mt. Tabor reveals his soul as active and capable of taking part in conversation with the Saviour concerning His redemption of the Human Race. The state and life of people beyond the grave are not all the same, but depend upon the degree of sanctity or sinfulness of their life on earth. After death, some souls can in no wise manifest themselves on earth, but the saints receive such boldness that they can do good unto us in answer to our prayer.

While expressing certain healthy and good thoughts concerning life after death, Deacon Lev Puhalo has allowed himself to become too keen on battling that which appears to him to be scholastic, and from which he strives to free Orthodox theology. However, even such ascetics as St. Dimitry of Rostov, or Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow, Bishop Sylvester and other prominent Russian theologians as times managed to express genuinely Orthodox truth employing the outwardly scholastic expression of the theological science of their times, inasmuch as they drew such truth forth from the rich well of the Tradition of the Church. Among such ancient traditions is the tradition of the so-called toll-stations, which Deacon Lev Puhalo so determinedly dismisses, stating this doctrine, however, in an exaggerated manner. Actually, no one can dogmatically establish the existence of the toll-houses precisely in accordance with the form described in the dream (of Gregory recounted in the life) of Basil the New, insofar as no direct indication thereto is to be found in the Scriptures. However, this tradition has been preserved, with varying details, from profound antiquity and contains nothing that is contrary to piety. It is cited in all texts of dogmatic theology. The unorthodox explanation of Deacon Lev Puhalo, that the soul, separated from the body can neither see nor hear, that it cannot be subjected to the "particular judgment" of God without the body, and his very understanding of the toll-stations as mere bargaining between the angels and the demons indicates the hastiness of his judgments. Archimandrite Justin (Popovich), the most recent author in the field of dogmatic theology, writes of the toll-stations in the same spirit as they are described in the dream (of Gregory recounted in the life) of Basil the New. Archpriest Malinovsky, the author of a dogmatic theology text valued highly by Metropolitan Anthony, writes on the question: "How is the particular judgment conducted? What are the forms and manners of its implementation? The Scriptures do not speak of this. A trial has two aspects: the investigation of the innocence or guilt of the one being tried and the pronouncement of the sentence over him. But when the trial is conducted by the by the Omniscient God, for Whom the mortal state and worthiness of a man are ever apparent, the first aspect of the trial must be understood exclusively in the bringing of the soul to an awareness of its mortal state. For man's individual awareness is revealed by means of his conscience, that incorruptible judge established by God Himself within the soul. It is exactly in this way that one cannot accept the pronouncement of the sentence by the Almighty Being only in the sense of the announcing of the Judge's decision to the soul; the word of God is also the activity of His will, and for this reason the decision of the Almighty Judge is also the blessing of a soul or the refusal to permit its entry into the Kingdom of eternal life. Doubtless, the justice of God's judgment which determines its fate will be clearly acknowledged by the soul itself which is judged by its own conscience" (Archpriest N. Malinovsky, Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, Sergiev Posad, 1909, Vol. IV, pp. 448-450). Malinovsky mentions that even the ancient teachers, citing the account of the toll-stations, saw it only a "weak depiction of the heavenly things" (ibid., pp. 453-454). However, in the prayer of the Church there is considerable mention of the toll-stations themselves as attempts of the powers of darkness to affect the souls of the departed after their departure after their departure of the body. Thus, in the canon chanted at the parting of the soul from the body, we read: "The prince of the air, the oppressor, the tyrant who standeth on the dread paths, the relentless accountant thereof, do thou vouchsafe me who am departing from the earth to pass [O Theotokos]" (Ode IV, troparia 4; also Ode VIII, troparion 2). Mention of them is also made in the Octoechos of St. John Damascene.

In this encounter with the powers of darkness, that have caused a man to stumble in the course of life and strive also to suggest to his soul that by its constitution it belongs to them and not to the Kingdom of Heaven, is the particular judgment accomplished. On the other hand, in accordance with the Savior's words, the righteous can pass through these toll-stations unhindered" "Verily, verily I say unto you, He that heareth My word, and believeth on Him that sent Me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation, but is passed from death unto life" (Jn 5:24). The soul of one who on earth has completed the course of the faith, thereby frees itself from evil. The demons have nothing in common with it and cannot touch it. Between these two aspects of souls—of the sinful and the holy—there still stand various degrees of sanctity or sinfulness, and in various degrees, the demons may harry them. These actions, which must in no way be accepted as the participation of the demons in the preliminary judgment, are what are referred to as the toll-stations. Rejection of possibility of their existence contradicts the consciousness of the ancient Church, as this is apparent from the Canon of Departure of the Soul.

Minimizing the significance of the fear in the face of the consequences of a sinful life and after the departure of the soul from the body, teaching of Fr. Lev. can weaken in the souls of his readers one of the stimuli to do battle with sin.

To maintain that the soul, having been separated from the body, finds itself in some state of sleep, since without the body it cannot experience either blessedness or suffering, or hear, or speak, and that the demons also cannot even see it, is contrary to our Faith. The Church has never taught this. In certain cases the citations made by Fr. Lev have in mind the insensibility not of the soul, but of the dead body.

How exactly disembodied souls can speak and be saved has not been revealed to us. The Church teaches only that without the body the soul does not experience either the fullness of blessedness or the fullness of torment. However, a pious soul already experiences repose because it has departed from earthly pangs and testings and may be more closely united with the Lord than it did on earth. Nevertheless, this blessedness is still only preliminary to the complete blessedness, which we await after the reuniting of soul and body at the general resurrection. In reply to question 61 in the Confession of the Eastern Patriarchs, we find: "Inasmuch as an accounting will not be required of each one separately on the day of the Last Judgment, since all is known to God; and inasmuch as at death each one knows his own deeds, after death each one also learns of the recompense for his deeds. For if each one knows his deeds, the sentence of God upon him is also known, as Gregory the Theologian says in his discourse on Caesarius, his brother Thus, one must think of the souls of sinners only from reversed perspective; i.e. that they know and foresee the torments which await them. Neither the righteous, nor the sinful receive the full reward for their deeds before the Last Judgment. Moreover, not all souls are found in the same state, nor are they sent to one and the same place." In connection with this there is the reservation that "when we say that God does not ask of us an accounting for our life, this must be understood in the sense that we shall be given an accounting not in the manner of human accountings" (Ibid.). To put it otherwise, life after death is not portrayable with sufficient fullness in earthly understandings and expressions.

Bishop Theophan the Recluse writes well of this. Referring to various visions similar to that (recounted in the life) of Basil the New and others, he poses the questions: "Can one definitely suppose that everything presented in them is reality of the matter, is exactly as is depicted therein? Are they not comparative images for a more vital and full representation of a reality not contained in such images, which is being introduced here?… All of these impressionably express the reality, but, I maintain, one may not think that the reality itself is exactly such, despite the fact that it is always expressed in no other way than by means of these images… " Calling to mind that the spiritual world is for us something mysterious, Bishop Theophan maintains that "these images represent the reality, but are not the reality itself. It is spiritual, noetic, devoid of anything fleshly. The Apostle Paul was caught up into Heaven,—and what did he say of his experience? That what is there, he says, "it is not lawful for a man to utter" (II Cor. 12:4). We have no words to express this. Our words are crude, bound to our senses, figurative.

Thus, addressing ourselves to contemporary conjectures on the life of the soul after death, I propose that we ought to follow the advice of Bishop Theophan," to terminate our speculation as regards the accounts of what takes place in the spiritual world. Read, delve deeply, be edified, but do not rush to draw any such conclusions therefrom. For that which is there, "eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man" (I Cor. 2:9) (The Soul and Angels Are Not Body, But Spirit, Moscow: 1891, pp. 90-92).

Taking all of the forgoing into consideration, the Synod of Bishops resolve: In the deliberations on life after death one must in general keep in mind that it is not pleased the Lord to reveal to us very much aside from the fact that the degree of a soul's blessedness depends on how much a man's life on the earth has been truly Christian, and the degree of a man's posthumous suffering depends upon the degree of sinfulness. To add conjectures to the little that the Lord has been pleased to reveal to us is not beneficial to our salvation, and all disputes in this domain are now especially detrimental, the more so when they become the object of the discussion of people who have not been fully established in the Faith. Acrid polemic apart from the spirit of mutual love turns such an exchange of opinions from a deliberation into an argument about words. The positive preaching of truths of the Church may be profitable, but not disputes in an area which is not subject to our investigation, but which evokes in the unprepared reader false notions on questions of importance to our salvation.

In view of this, at the present time of the Synod of Bishop's demands the cessation in our magazines of controversy on dogmatic questions and, in particular, on questions concerning life after death. This controversy must be ended on both sides, and Deacon Lev Puhalo is forbidden to lecture in the parishes until he signs a pledge satisfactory to the Synod to terminate his public statements on questions of internal disputes between Orthodox on subjects which may provoke confusion among the faithful.

(Resolved also:) To announce this resolution to Deacon Lev Puhalo and to editors of religious magazines.

Certified as an accurate translation of the original.

+Bishop Gregory
Secretary of the Synod of Bishops

From Orthodox Life, Vol. 31, No. 1 (Jan-Feb, 1981), pp. 23-37.