Among a great many Orthodox scholars in the academic world (especially when they gather together in hushed colloquy among the shadows and feel at liberty to speak strictly entre eux) it is often taken as depressing evidence of how radically the public intellectual culture of Orthodoxy in America has degenerated in recent years—how, that is, it has declined from the urbane, scholarly, perhaps slightly Mandarin sophistication of the generation of Alexander Schmemann and John Meyendorff to the fundamentalist, doctrinaire, and yet deeply uneducated primitivism promoted principally by former Evangelicals in the John Whiteford mold—than the increasing respectability of the myth of the aerial toll houses. At one time, the notion that every soul, once it has departed this world, is conducted by angels through a gauntlet of twenty stations situated in the atmosphere above, in each of which it is arraigned by demonic prosecutors for sins committed in life, and from which it may proceed onward toward heaven only if it can produce a compensatory “toll” of evidence of good deeds (for want of which, it will be dragged down to hell), was at most a fragment of quaint folklore, found in this country only among marginal eccentrics, like Seraphim Rose. After all, it seems like such an embarrassingly puerile picture of things; if nothing else, it obviously hearkens back to ages in which the physical universe and the spiritual order of reality were more or less indistinguishable from one another, when it still seemed natural to think of God’s heaven as being literally situated beyond the sphere of the fixed stars, far above the planetary heavens and the sublunary aerial region of mutability, and to imagine the departed soul’s passage from this life into God’s eternity as in some sense involving the traversal of a real spatial interval between the earth and the empyrean.
One can be distracted by the cosmological imagery, however. It may well be patently absurd to confuse the soul’s journey to God with an actual cosmic itinerary—and that through a Ptolemaic universe—but no doubt all of that could, in a pinch, be allegorized away without any real impairment to the essential spiritual narrative. Certainly we do not reject the spiritual teachings of ancient and mediaeval Christians simply because their imaginations were confined to a cosmos in which an absolute qualitative division between physical and spiritual reality did not yet exist. The authors of the New Testament inhabited a reality in which a clear separation between the cosmological and the metaphysical, much less between the natural and the supernatural, had not as yet taken shape in anyone’s mind. For them, Christ’s descent into this world was at once a movement from transcendence into immanence, but also a movement through space from the unchanging divine aeon or realm above the heavens, down through the concentric spheres of the planetary and lunar heavens, into the realm of generation, alteration, and decay. Conversely, our ascent to God in and through Christ was understood as at once a sacramental, mystical, and gracious passage from death to new life, but also an ascent in and with Christ through the encircling heavens into God’s eternity above. Both Christ and those saved by him, in this vision of things, traverse the spiritual and moral chasm of estrangement between God’s empyrean and this cosmos, but also (in some sense) the actual physical interval between them. Or, at any rate, so it was believed.
Nevertheless—and this is crucial—Christians also believed that those intervening heavens, in the wake of Christ’s conquest of the hostile powers reigning over them and governing the world below, will no longer be barriers between God’s heaven and the world of the Age to come. And herein lies the great problem. The true scandal of the toll houses teaching is not the antique cosmology it shares with, say, the Apostle Paul. It is, rather, that the very notion of such barriers to the soul’s ascent constitutes nothing less than a contradiction of the entire narrative of salvation that Paul actually proclaimed. It is, in fact, a reversion to a religious terror utterly pervasive of pre-Christian late antiquity—the very one, in fact, that Paul saw as having been at last dispelled by Christ. For him, it is no exaggeration to say, it was the total absence of anything resembling these postmortem toll houses that constituted the very heart of the good news of what had occurred in Christ. It is hard for us, admittedly, to imagine in any but metaphorical colorations the great spiritual anxiety of late antiquity: that we are imprisoned in the “here below,” in the realm of transience, of birth and death, below the sphere of the moon in the region of “air” with all its fleeting volatility, under the impenetrable, turning, and sentineled spheres of the heavens above. Some of us, of course, may be aware that, in the early centuries of the church, there were mystery religions or “gnostic” sects or Orphic cults or Hermetic wisdoms (and so on) that promised salvation precisely in the form of escape from—and through the midst of—the hostile celestial agencies that imprison us. Still, we find it almost impossible imaginatively to enter into a world in which such beliefs occupied the very center of religious concern.
And yet very nearly the oldest stratum of Christian apologetics gives us abundant evidence of how very pervasive the idea was, and how utterly constitutive of both the spiritual fears and the spiritual hopes of the age. Irenaeus’s Adversus Haereses, for example, abounds in curious descriptions of “gnostic” variants of the tale. Especially bizarre to us now, perhaps, are its reports of sects that thought it necessary for the elect to memorize certain secret words or phrases that would win them passage through the spheres of the archons, or for the faithful to impart such words to the spirits of the dead as they began their ascent (see, for instance, AH 121.5). But, bizarre or not, the reports are accurate. We find them confirmed in a great number of “gnostic” literary remains, such as the Second Book of Jeu (52) in the Berlin Codex, or The Apocryphon of James in the Nag Hammadi Corpus (NHC V.3.32.29-35.25). We know from Origen also that a number of sects (the Ophites, for example) believed that quasi-magical formulae of this sort permitted the enlightened pnevmatikos to slip past the “gate-keepers” of the planetary realms and the “everlastingly chained gates of the archons” (Contra Celsum VI. 30ff; VII.40). But, setting aside the perhaps vaguely comic notion of liberated spirits traversing the heavens like Prohibition-era tipplers whispering passwords through a series of speakeasy doors, the essential picture—this world as a prison and of salvation as escape through its encircling walls—was very nearly universal. “Orphic” mysteries had long taught that the Dionsyian “daemon” within each initiate must ascend back through the celestial spheres through which it had originally fallen into this world, successively shedding each of the encumbering “Titanic” layers it had acquired along the course of that immemorial descent. And this same notion of successive psychic decortications was something of a common mystical conceit. Plotinus, for instance, in offering his interpretation of the ancient mystery religions, treated the disrobing of initiates as symbolic of the removal of those ἱμάτια (garments) that come to envelop the νοῦς when it descends through the heavens and enters this world (Enneads 1.6.7). Proclus, in both his Commentary on the Alcibiades and his On the Subsistence of Evils (at least, in a fragment of the original Greek text quoted by Michael Psellus), also speaks of the enveloping χιτῶνες (tunics) that we acquire in coming hither and that we must shed again in going hence. For late Platonism in general, the rational spirit or intellect within us is wrapped in the seven “tunics” it successively donned as it passed through the seven planetary spheres, as well perhaps as additional layers gathered from the elements of the sublunary world. Each of these “souls” constitutes a kind of vehicle or support, an ὄχημα, which allows the spiritual principle at each stage of its descent to enter into the next lower sphere, until finally it is able to enter into the prison of the mortal material body. With each garment assumed, the oblivion of the spirit’s true home and nature deepens. We find much the same picture of the soul’s celestial ascent in the Corpus Hermeticum (I.23-26). Mithraism too promised that the saved would rise through the seven planetary heavens and past the hostile powers guarding them. And the Sethian treatise Zostrianos—especially interesting here—depicts these seven spheres as “places of penitential suffering” (NHC VIII.1), as do the Mandaean Diwan Abithur and Left Ginza. For this last tradition, salvation lies in the divine regions of light above the seven “martatâs” confining us to this world; but for us to attain to that realm we must pass through a succession of “station houses” to be interrogated and tried. (And, frankly, it seems reasonable to assume it is from such sources as these that the myth of the toll houses migrated to the fringes of Eastern Christian monastic culture.)
We ought not deceive ourselves, however, that it was only the marginal, eccentric, and “heterodox” sects of the early centuries that thought in such terms. Most Jews, well before and well after the time of Christ, as well as most Christians of those early centuries, thought of the cosmos and of salvation in ways that—morphologically, at least—were essentially the same. Hence the New Testament tells of a cosmic dispensation under the reign of the god of this aeon (2 Corinthians 4:4) or the Archon of this cosmos (John 14:30; Ephesians 2:2), and of spiritual beings hopelessly immured within heavenly spheres thronged by hostile archons and powers and principalities and daemons (Romans 8:3, 39; 1 Corinthians 10:20-21; 15:24; Ephesians 1:21; etc.), bound under and cursed by a law that was in fact ordained by lesser, merely angelic powers (Galatians 3:10-11, 19-20). Into this prison, this darkness that knows nothing of the true light (John 1:5), a divine savior descends from the divine realm above (John 3:31; 8:23; etc.), bringing with him a secret truth that has been hidden from before the ages (Romans 16:25-26; Galatians 1:12; Ephesians 3:3-9; Colossians 1:26), a wisdom unknown even to “the archons of this cosmos” (1 Corinthians 2:7-8), which has the power to liberate fallen spirits (John 8:31-32, etc.). The letter to the Ephesians is practically a primer in this sort of cosmic soteriology: Christ has been seated at God’s right hand in the heavenly places, “far above every Rule and Authority and Power and Lordship” with “all things ordered under his feet” (1:20-22), having taken the hostile Powers captive as he ascended through the heavens (4:8-10); he has, moreover, emancipated us from the “Archon of the Power of the air” (2:2), and set us alongside himself in the heavenly places (2:6); and even now he is revealing God’s plan to these celestial Archons and Powers through his church (3:10); and, until the consummation of all things, Christians must continue in this life to contend “not against blood and flesh, but against the Archons, against the Powers, against the Cosmic Rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the celestial places” (6:12). The language is perfectly clear.
Nor should we doubt for a moment how very literally these images were meant to be taken. All of this might seem to some of us today, of course, to reduce much of the soteriology of the New Testament to little more than naïve mythology or bad science; but that would be a thoroughly parochial judgment. Persons of every age are constrained to think and speak within the image of reality they know; but that does not mean that the truths they attempt to enunciate are exhausted by those conceptual forms. Whatever the case, though, the fact remains that, for Paul (as for all the Christians of his time), Christ’s triumph over and subjugation of the cosmic Principalities and Authorities and Powers (1 Corinthians 15:24-28) has literally opened a path through the planetary spheres, the encompassing heavens, the armies of the air and the potentates on high, all the way to God. This is a claim at once both physical and spiritual. And, even if now most of us can make sense of only the latter, we should nevertheless—just for understanding’s sake—understand that this was not so for the earliest Christians. We should at the very least let ourselves recognize the integral unity of the natural and the supernatural, the cosmic and the divine, in Paul’s joyous proclamation that “neither death nor life nor angels nor Archons nor things present nor things imminent nor Powers nor height nor depth nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God” (Romans 8:38-39). (Needless to say, we could easily add “aerial toll houses” or “demons of the air” to that inventory.)
All this being so, it is probably not enough to regard the toll houses teaching as merely a quaint bit of folk piety that has become inextricably entangled in some of the ruder, more rustic threads of the spiritual tradition. Nor, really, is it enough to regard it merely as an aberrant expression of faith, without dogmatic warrant or logical coherence (though, of course, it is certainly that). If one really wants to be punctilious about the matter, and call the teaching by its proper designation, one really does have to say that, technically speaking, it is a remarkably subversive bit of syncretic late antique paganism or gnosticism. I do not like to throw the word “heresy” around myself, for any number of reasons. But one has to grant that, for those who are attentive to the contents of the gospel in its most original expression, most especially in the letters of Paul, the teaching of the toll houses might very well be regarded as the very epitome of heresy: the effective denial of Christ’s conquest, subjugation, and annulment of all the spiritual powers and principalities and agencies that have ever separated us from God. Admittedly, some genuinely holy and venerable teachers of the Orthodox past have promoted the myth. But that is of no consequence. As Paul also says, “even if an angel out of heaven should proclaim to you good tidings that differ from what you received, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8).
David Bentley Hart is an Orthodox theologian, cultural commentator, and author of a dozen books. His translation of the New Testament was published by Yale University Press in 2017.
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 necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.