by David Bentley Hart
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. Continue reading