quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est
–St. Vincent of Lérins (d. 445)
The monks of St. Anthony’s Monastery have recently published a beautiful and intriguing, if also deeply problematic, volume on the fate of the soul after death. Weighing in (literally) at more than 1,000 pages, the book compiles opinions from a number of Orthodox writers regarding the soul’s experience after its departure from the body, along with lavish reproductions of icons and other objects in over 200 color plates. Unfortunately, however, this compendium is a fundamentalist effort designed to mislead readers concerning the teaching of the Orthodox Church. The book’s primary agenda is to advance the notion of aerial toll houses, through which the soul must pass after death, as an essential component of the Orthodox Faith. Yet this claim is an error, despite the alleged mass of evidence that the monks have assembled and the copious academic and ecclesiastical endorsements (many of which, I understand, were obtained without full disclosure of exactly what was being endorsed).
The debate over toll houses has been a lively topic in modern Orthodoxy, owing especially to the propagation of this idea in during the later twentieth century by Seraphim Rose and others in his circle. Simply put, this book seeks to demonstrate that the Orthodox Church has uncompromisingly professed a doctrine that the individual soul, following its departure from the body, must pass through some twenty or so toll houses staffed by demons. These demons will charge each soul with certain sins, and if the soul is found guilty of such unconfessed sins, the demons will not allow passage but will instead drag it away into hell. It is true that certain authorities of the Orthodox tradition have advocated such a view, but one must note that these are overwhelming from the second millennium. Such a doctrine was almost unknown during the first millennium, and even during the second, it remains but one vision of the fate of the soul among other alternatives. Accordingly, I propose, we should look to the Vincentian Canon cited above in order to evaluate the monks’ contention.
“Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est: what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.” At the beginning of the fifth century, St Vincent of Lérins laid down this maxim as a standard that could reliably distinguish truth from falsehood in the Tradition of the catholic faith. Although St. Vincent’s principle for determining the orthodox faith has been especially revered among Christians in the West, it its logic is certainly no less applicable for eastern Christians (who, after all, commemorate St Vincent on 24 May). Belief in aerial toll houses, quite frankly, fails spectacularly to pass this test. It is almost completely unknown during the first Christian millennium, at least among the orthodox writers of the undivided Church. The idea of aerial toll houses was quite popular, however, as others have noted, among “gnostic” Christians during the second and third centuries, when belief in such toll houses seems to have been one of the main principles that dividing these gnostics from orthodox Christians. Otherwise, there is only a single reference to the toll houses in St Athansius’ Life of Anthony, where Anthony is said to advance this position, and there is a homily on the departure of the soul attributed to Cyril of Alexandria that describes the toll houses, but the homily’s attribution is widely regarded as spurious. A couple of pious tales attributed to a certain Macarius and Anastasius of Sinai mention them as well.
I think it is hard to dispute that a single mention in the Life of Anthony, similar references in two pious tales from Egypt, and a more extended discussion of the toll houses in a later homily falsely ascribed to Cyril of Alexandria fails dramatically to meet Vincent’s criteria for orthodoxy. In the first millennium, as far as we can tell, belief in the aerial toll houses was limited to a few individuals, in Egypt, in only a handful of instances. Accordingly, this belief must be regarded as an opinion, even if a sometimes popular one in particular times and places, rather than a fundamental element of the Orthodox Christian faith.
In addition to the toll houses, a second major theme of this new volume is the tradition that at death the individual soul is quickly met by angels and demons, who vie with one other for the soul, with the victors leading it to their respective domain. The sins of the recently deceased are crucial to the outcome as these powers battle, and ultimately, they will determine its final destination. With this tradition, the monks of St. Anthony’s are admittedly on more solid ground. This is a position expressed by a number of orthodox writers across the ages. Nevertheless, it must be clear that this belief stands as but one among many other orthodox opinions about what happens to the soul after it leaves the body.
In this regard, we are fortunate to have several excellent studies of traditions about the fate of the individual after death, in both the early Christian and Byzantine periods, including those by Fr. Brian Daley (The Hope of the Early Church (Cambridge, 1991)), Fr. Maximos (Nicholas Constas; “To Sleep, Perchance to Dream,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 55 (2001): 91-124), and, most recently, a fine study by Vasileios Marinis (Death and the Afterlife in Byzantium (Cambridge, 2016)). Any one of these three works provides a much more accurate and authoritative view of Orthodox teachings on the fate of the soul during the first 1500 years, and interested readers would do well to turn to them rather than monks’ slanted compendium.
The truth of the matter is that the state of the dead was never precisely defined in the Orthodox tradition, and just as in other matters related to the afterlife, “the Byzantines had no ‘system’ around the last things. Eschatology remained for them an open horizon within theology” (Constas 124). And with respect to the judgment of souls at the moment of their departure, “even the most cursory overview of Late Antique sources testifies to the coexistence of various ideas about the provisional judgment” (Marinis 15). The teaching of the Orthodox Church on these subjects is far more diverse than the monks would have us believe.
In the contest of angels and demons over the newly departed soul, then, the monks have admittedly identified a vibrant tradition that reaches back into the ancient church and has been witnessed by many authorities – in contrast with the aerial toll houses. The problem, however, is that this is not the only such tradition about the fate of the soul, and herein lies the fundamentalism that steers this volume and generates its misrepresentation of the Orthodox faith. It is a fundamentalism that insists on reading a part of the tradition, isolated from the complexity of the whole, in the most literal fashion, when perhaps more nuanced, figurative interpretations are warranted instead. For instance, how should one understand such a tradition, when read literally, in light of the well-established practice of prayer for the dead that does not mention the toll houses? The Orthodox tradition is much broader and diverse than its presention in this book. In seizing on a single strand of this tradition and investing it with absolute authority at the expense of legitimate, alternative perspectives, the book is fundamentally grounded in error, obscuring and distorting, rather than clarifying and disclosing, the full teaching of the Orthodox Church.
Stephen J. Shoemaker is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Oregon.
*Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.