Q: I recently received a link from someone about the controversy in the USA within the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese (now close to bankruptcy), relating to the 21 monasteries close to Elder Ephraim. A discussion about the toll-houses then ensued. Personally I don’t have any clear idea about what the correct teaching is on toll-houses. To me the idea often presented sounds a bit legalistic and more like a Roman Catholic or Calvinist approach to salvation. I mean, if almost everyone goes to hell then what’s the point of even trying? Could you please comment on the whole toll-house “issue”?
A: The Church teaching on the twenty Aerial Toll-Houses concerns life after death, what happens to the soul after it leaves the body. After death the demons attempt to take the soul towards hell, while the angels attempt to take it towards heaven. After an examination of the soul, lasting the equivalent of forty earthly days, comes the Particular Judgement, when the soul is appointed a place of rest. This place of rest can ‘improve’, ‘floating’ upwards, depending on the prayers of the living for the soul, i. e. depending on how much that soul is loved on earth. In this place of rest it awaits the Last Judgement.
This teaching is found in virtually every Church Father and dates back as such to the fourth century, though there are references to it in the Apostle Paul (Ephesians 6, 1-13). The most detailed account of the twenty toll-houses occurs in the Life of St Gregory of Thrace, dating from the 10th century, which describes how at each toll-house the soul is tested for each type of sin. This is the teaching and that is that. It is all so simple really. However, in our sad human reality, this teaching has been distorted, pulled in different directions by impure souls. The first problems arose in the USA among converts to ROCOR 1970s. Today, they have come back, for exactly the same reasons, again in the USA, but now in the highly Americanized Greek Orthodox Archdiocese.
I think you put your finger on the problem with your words: ‘To me the idea often presented sounds a bit legalistic and more like a Roman Catholic or Calvinist approach to salvation’. And that is exactly it: converts from strict Catholicism (Augustinianism) and strict Protestantism (Calvinism) do present the teaching as legalistic, frighteningly so. There is no surprise at all that the same problem has come up twice within forty years, each time in the USA. The USA was founded on intolerant, witch-hunting Calvinists who refused to live in Protestant England because it was not strict enough for them! Ever since the USA has been the land of extreme and aggressive intolerance, of Creationism, fundamentalism, phariseeism and racism and also of virulent liberalism and intolerant atheism (political correctness), where you can be sacked for saying that you believe that the practice of homosexuality is a sin.
Of course, the teaching on the toll-houses can be presented by the contemporary scribes and pharisees (literalists and ritualists in modern English – and woe unto them) as a cause for despair. Why bother when we are all doomed anyway? (As the Calvinists say). This is because they see everything literally, without God’s Mercy. Such fundamentalists, always aggressive, create depression and despair because they have no love.
On the other hand, there are also today’s liberals and ecumenists, the modern saducees (like the very Protestant and very aggressive anti-monastic lay activists in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in the USA), who will tell you that this teaching does not exist! These are the sort of people who have painted a fresco (as there exists in one Greek ‘Orthodox’ monastery in England), where they show the Last Judgement without showing hell, only heaven. When I asked one of the monks why this was, I was told that it was because we shall probably all be saved! Here again, why bother? Origen triumphs in the Paris School.
The teaching on the toll-houses is clear and balanced. After death our souls will be tested and we shall find out whether we are closer to angels or closer to demons. But even this is not our last chance. If people on earth loved us and so still remember us and pray for us, we can been drawn far away from hell and brought to the gates of heaven by their prayers.