In this interview with Kevin Allen, now newly reposed, Fr. Thomas Hopko offers a balanced and insightful discussion of the doctrine of the aerial tollhouses that the Church has traditionally taught we will encounter after our death. The toll houses have been the theme of recent debates so often assuming extreme positions that some have become skeptical of the issue altogether, setting it aside as undecidable.
Yet as Hopko argues, no matter how literally or symbolically one may take the teaching itself, it is founded upon a solid foundation of Christian theology: Christ has truly freed us all from sin and death, and won our salvation, but each of us must actively accept that salvation. Do we really accept him, or is our true loyalty in fact with the forces of darkness? Our very nearness to Christ after death will judge us: will we let go of our passions and our demons and accept the love and redemption of our Savior? This question of “the last battle,” as Hopko puts it, is far too important to be set aside.
Audio and transcript courtesy of Ancient Faith Radio.
Kevin Allen: Today is “Ask Father Thomas Hopko Day,” our segment where we ask esteemed Dean Emeritus, lecturer, and writer, Father Thomas Hopko, your questions.
Fr. Tom, welcome back to the program.
Fr. Thomas Hopko: Thank you. Good to be with you again.
Kevin Allen: Let’s jump right in, as we normally do. There are actually a lot of good questions on this program, so I am very excited about that, and will enjoy talking about them. Father, the first one comes from Nick, a parishioner at Saints Peter and Paul Orthodox Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Nick writes:
Fr. Thomas, there has been a lot of debate in Orthodoxy on the teaching of the aerial tollhouses. It seems that most Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) websites, support this teaching. On the other hand, Bishop Lazar (Puhalo) of the Orthodox Church of America, among others, has condemned the teaching as a heresy.
Would you say, Fr. Tom, that this teaching is a heresy of the Orthodox faith? Father, before you answer that question straight away, maybe you could position it by explaining to our listeners, in case they don’t know, what the concept of the aerial tollhouses is.
Fr. Thomas Hopko: Sure. Maybe I could begin with a commercial. If the listeners are interested in what I think about this subject, having studied it and read the various authors on the subject, there are four hours, or more, on CD from St. Paul’s Greek Orthodox Church in Irvine, California, where I gave a retreat on this subject. These CDs are also available from Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Ellwood City, Pennsylvania, which also helped in the project, and sells these CDs in their bookstore. Basically, I spoke generally about the issue of the Lord Jesus Christ’s death and then what happened to death after he died, and then what happens, we believe, as much as we can say, when a person dies.
The controversy has to do with the process of dying, or some people call it after death, meaning after biological death. I have read Seraphim Rose, and I have read Bishop Lazar Puhalo. There are others: Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) wrote a book on this subject. Vasilios Bakogiannis, an archimandrite from Greece, also did. There is another one, Nikolaos Vassiliadis, a very good book on the subject.
Kevin Allen: The Mystery of Death.
Fr. Thomas:There are plenty in Jordanville, The Soul After Death. Fr. Michael Azkoul wrote a vitriolic condemnation of Seraphim Rose’s interpretation and called it a neo-gnostic heresy. And of course, the struggle between Bishop Lazar, who at the time was in the ROCOR, and Fr. Seraphim Rose, got so bad that they broke, and I think Bishop Lazar, who was not a bishop at that time, went into the Serbian Church. It is a terrible, terrible controversy. Terrible.
But quickly, I would just say that my opinion is that this teaching about tollbooths, and the aerial part of it is another story, but the teaching is that when a person dies they have to answer for their lives, and when they die all the demons in hell attack them to try to get them to hang onto their sins and their passions and their vices and their demons. In other words, the teaching is that the evil angels attack a person at the moment of death when a person is dying, and of course, according to Scripture, the good angels come also to be with the just.
My opinion is that the teaching is that when the person dies, a huge battle, the last battle, in a sense, is to see whether a person really does believe in God and accepts the grace of God and the forgiveness of God, or whether they cling to their demons, cling to their sins and passions. This is a kind of classical teaching in Christianity. C.S. Lewis speaks about it in his own way. The Roman Catholic Church developed it with some kind of purgatory teaching, which is not the same as the Orthodox one at all.
What is the Orthodox one? It is a very old teaching, and you will find the teaching about tollhouses in practically every Church Father. You find it in St. John Chrysostom. You find it in John of the Ladder. The first development of it was in St. Cyril of Alexandria. The teaching was, and is, as far as I understand it, that when you die, you have to let go of, and be delivered from, and purified from, whatever sins and demons are holding you.
St. Cyril of Alexandria began by speaking of the senses—the sins of your eyes, ears, nose, touch, and your mind—and what you hold on to, and you have to get through these things. It was not originally a punishment. The demons weren’t punishing you for the sins that you had committed. It was rather they were trying to get you to hang onto them, not to repent of them.
And then the teaching was that we who are alive pray for the people who are dying so that they would really be forgiven and accept the forgiveness of Christ, because when one dies, since Christ is risen and glorified, the person enters into the presence of Christ, and that constitutes a kind of a judgment. Is one with God or against God? Do they want to be in the Kingdom or do they want to go to hell? Do they love virtue, or do they love vice?
This got really developed through the centuries, and in the year 1000, I believe, in Constantinople, a woman named Theodora had a vision in which she said there were, I think, 20 of these particular demons. They were called tax collectors, by the way, because tax collectors were considered very evil, as John Chrysostom said. They were exacting things from people and trying to keep them enslaved to them by holding them in their power.
In any case, what developed was the idea that there are 20 or 22 of these, I have them written down somewhere, and what they are is simply a list of all the sins and vices: Gluttony, pornea, sloth, pride, vanity, sexual sins of several kinds are listed, things like sorcery, witchcraft. Every possible sin you can think of is there, under a heading.
The idea is you have to be delivered from these and go through them in order to enter the Kingdom of God. The teaching is that the holier you are before you die, the more you are delivered from these vices and demons before you die, the easier your death is. Although the demons still attack you, you have already somehow been victorious over them. As it says in the Book of Revelation, you have conquered, you are purified, already.
The teaching is that really holy people, for example the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos, she just slid right through, they didn’t even touch her, they had nothing on her. In fact, one of the Greek writers, Nikolaos Vassiliadis, claimed that the Theotokos didn’t even go through the tollbooths. I disagree with him on that, because everybody has to face these vices. Going through is just a rhetorical way of speaking.
In other words, you have to be free of these things, and nobody is exempt from it. The freer you are, and the more purified you are before you die, the more holy is your death. But the teaching was that just about every human being is caught by something or other. Even some of the greatest saints may have been somehow needing, still, some purification, catharsis, deliverance and forgiveness in order to enter God’s Kingdom.
However, the bad part of it in Orthodoxy, in my opinion, is that it was taken literally, like there are actual aerial spaces in the sky, and that the disincarnate soul somehow travels through space, and each of these spaces are ruled by certain demons. The term “aerial demons” comes from the Bible, it is in the letter to the Ephesians, the aerial phantoms, the spirits of the air, and it was a definite idea in the ancient world that the demons are somehow flying around through the air. I like to joke and say nowadays you can tune them in on computers and television sets.
But the idea is that our world is filled with these demonic powers that attack us. This became very literally taken. Then it got connected to time, for instance, that on the first day you are in this place, the second day you are in that aerial phantom, and then you go through that. And there is even the icon that showed the flaming fire of God coming forth from his throne. On some modern Russian icons that was even transformed into a kind of image of the tollbooths, with all these demons.
Then the idea got to be that you weren’t being prayed for to get delivered from these demons and purified from these sins, but the claim became that you are being punished. That is what happened in the Roman Church. The idea was that in each tollhouse you have to get punished for the sins that you have committed under that particular category. Well, I don’t think that is the Orthodox teaching.
My opinion, to sum it up, is that it is a very classical traditional Orthodox allegorical teaching that began to be too literally interpreted, and therefore got deviated in various ways, so that you get to the point where a guy like Archbishop Lazar (Puhalo) just about denies the doctrine totally and claims that praying for the dead is just an act of love and whatever happens when you die, you die and that’s it.
I honestly believe that is not the traditional teaching. The traditional teaching is that you have to enter into the presence of Christ and be purified and delivered and forgiven whatever sins you are hanging on to. The allegory is that these are named, the point being that the more we are purified before we die, the better off we are. When a person does die, we who are still alive on earth pray for them that they would be making it through, so to speak, that their death would be a purification from their sin, that they would accept the risen Christ and they would accept his grace and his forgiveness, and that they would enter into Paradise.
I think it is very wrong, personally, to put some kind of time frame on this, or to think about it in terms of earth time, or to think about it in terms of earth/space. I don’t think it has anything at all to do with time or space. It is simply a spiritual, poetical, allegorical way of speaking about the last temptations that strike a person when they are passing through the process of dying. That is how I understand it.
Kevin Allen: Are we not, though, Father, begging this question, and it is on my mind, and I am sure it is on others, as well, and let me pose it this way: Christ died to save us from our sins. Do we accept that as an act which has efficacy upon our ultimate destiny, or not?
Fr. Thomas: Yes, of course we do. That’s the Gospel. That’s the Christian faith, that Christ has forgiven us, that Christ has purified us, that Christ has been victorious over the demons. The question, however, remains forever, do we accept it? Do we want it? And so, when we are alive on earth we pray to God every day, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass. Deliver us from the evil one.” We say that in the Lord’s Prayer several times a day, because we want to accept the salvation of God.
Death is the final moment of truth, whether we really do that or not. So we are praying, and we also don’t only pray that for ourselves, we pray that for each other. You could pray for me, you could say, “Lord Jesus, please help Fr. Tom to accept your forgiveness, to accept salvation, to enter into Paradise. Don’t let him surrender to the devil. Don’t let him be enslaved by Satan. Give him your strength to conquer.”
What we believe is that as long as we are still alive on earth we can still pray, and as long as the final judgment has not yet taken place and the end of the world has not taken place, we can continue to pray for everyone. And we should remember, by the way, that God is not up there sitting around wondering if we are going to pray or not. God knows whether we have prayed, and our prayers are taken into the divine activity from before the foundation of the world. God heard our prayers before we said them.
The whole providence of God is connected with our prayer for each other and it is a clear scriptural teaching that the prayer of the righteous man has great effect and power with the Lord, and that we can pray for each other, and we can ask God’s grace for each other. So that is what we do, and we do it especially at the moment of death. We do it when a person is dying, and then when they actually die, when they are dead, when their soul and their body are separated, and their life is taken by God and their body turns into a stinking corpse, we can continue to pray. We never stop praying. We never stop hoping.
Kevin Allen: Father, let me ask you this. Let’s say I have a friend who is in a hospital dying, and he has never been baptized, and he wants to be baptized, and I don’t have time to go get a priest, what do I do? I’m a layman.
Fr. Thomas: You don’t need a priest to baptize.
Kevin Allen: How do I do that?
Fr. Thomas: Get some water, and say, “The servant of God,” and say his or her name, “is baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.”
But let’s make another scenario. Suppose you have a friend who has never been baptized, and he says, “Please baptize me.” And you say, “Okay, I’m going to run and get some water.” While you are gone the guy dies. Is it too late? Does he go to hell? Some people would say, “Yes, God arranged for him never to get baptized so he could send him to hell because he is among the damned.” That would not be the Orthodox teaching.
St. Gregory the Theologian said a long time ago that desire would count before God as the baptism, itself. He spoke about the baptism of desire, the baptism of fire. In other words, God is not an ogre, and He is not a machine, pagan-type God, saying, “Not baptized; go to hell.” You could be baptized, chrismated, and serve the Divine Liturgy and go to hell. John Chrysostom said hell would probably be filled with guys wearing porphyria [purple], the stole—pastors.
So let’s be more serious about our God, but let’s be more serious, also, about the reality of our struggle, and our salvation. You just can’t say, “I believe in Jesus; I’ll go to heaven.” That’s just plain stupid. Devils believe. You have to believe, you have to prove it, you have to be delivered from the evil one, you have to accept forgiveness. You have to fall and get up again. And then you have to make it through death. And the death has to be a martyria. It has to be a witness to the victory of Christ. And in the process of dying, it is no picnic. Every demon in hell is out to get your soul, and that is what is behind the allegory of the tollbooth.
Kevin Allen: Again, I am still struggling with one thing you just said about the baptism of desire. Are we getting then, a little too close for comfort with those who want to reduce everything to faith alone, faith alone, faith alone, faith alone?
Fr. Thomas: I would say, and forgive me for saying this, but, faith is great, except it isn’t alone. How can a person say, “I have faith in God, but I’m going to stick with my demon of sodomy” or “I’m going to stick with my demon of greed, but I believe in Jesus. Oh yeah, he saved me, he died on the cross for me”? That’s just blasphemy.
So faith is not alone. But I would say, if a person wanted to speak that way, I would say, okay, say faith alone, as long as you admit that real faith is proven by what a person does, and as long as you agree that, according to Scripture, the Psalms, the Proverbs, the Prophets, the New Testament writings, the Apocalypse, all say that we are going to answer on the day of judgment, kata ta erga, according to our works. Not according to what we claimed.
And even our works won’t save us, if they are not done for the love of God and the love of the neighbor. Jesus said that in the Sermon on the Mount. He said that on the Day of Judgment, many will come to him and say, “We cast out demons in your name, we prophesied in your name, we did miracles in your name (we talked on the radio in your name),” and he will say, “I never knew you, depart from me, you evil-doer.”
Kevin Allen: Ouch.
Fr. Thomas: Yeah, sure, because why? Because we are doing it out of vanity, we are doing it out of pride, we are doing it out of judging people whether they are baptized or not baptized. We are getting involved in all kinds of stuff that is not our business, and we are not loving God with all our mind, soul, heart and strength, and loving our neighbor, including our worst enemy, as ourselves, and being ready to die for them any moment, and to pray for them until our last breath. If that kind of love is not in us, we are not going to be saved. Period. That is the teaching of Scripture.
Kevin Allen: But that’s a scary thing.
Fr. Thomas: Well, Scripture is terrifying. I mean, Scripture is terrifying.
Kevin Allen: (laughter) Nobody wants to read it anymore, huh?
Fr. Thomas: Well, you can say that again. I can give a plain sermon on the New Testament and people will say, “Man, you’re tough, Father.” I say to them, “I’m not tough, I’m just reading the New Testament. I’m just reading what is said there.”
And on this issue, two things are clearly said. You cannot have faith and love without showing it in actual deeds. But it is also said that deeds may be done, even in the name of Jesus, without real love for God. So either one of those will not save you. You have to have both, together. In other words, Jesus said, “I was hungry, you gave me food, I was thirsty, you gave me drink.” You actually have to do those acts.
In the first letter of John, the apostle says, “Let us not love in word only, but let it be in deed and in truth, erga and aletheia. It has to be done in truth, in reality, and in actual act. Erga means work, act, or deed.
So, on the one hand, a person cannot say, “I love God, I believe in God,” but they never help the poor, they never do anything for anybody. On the other hand, a person can say, “I gave my body to be burned and I worked miracles in Christ’s name.” And the Lord may also say, “Yes, you did it, but you didn’t really love. It wasn’t really done from love. It was done out of vanity and pride.”
What would make more sense than to say to a person that you can’t just say you love someone, you have to show it in what you do, and then in the next sentence to say to the person that, however, what you do had better really be from love, and not from vanity, or pride, or judging others? That is so simple. That is not even paradoxical. That is just saying two truths that are both true. There is nothing really super-duper mystifying about that.
Kevin Allen: What does this all say, Father, about the sacraments? You mentioned, which got us off on the tangent, which is a good tangent, by the way, the baptism in the hospital room, and you go to get the water, your friend dies, and you say that he was baptized by intention.
Fr. Thomas: Wait a minute, I didn’t say that. Gregory, the Theologian said that God may honor that intention.
Kevin Allen: Okay, he may honor that intention.
Fr. Thomas: Yes, I didn’t say it. But I wouldn’t even say about him that, if he did get baptized, that he was saved. Because I could say that baptism was not done, really, it was only done as a last-ditch hope for magic, that if a person really thought that if you were sprinkled with water you would get to go to heaven, and that would be blasphemous. It is certainly a teaching of our Church that you could be baptized and go to hell, and also not be a member of the Orthodox Church and be saved. That’s a clear teaching of the Bible and the saints. Again, it may sound paradoxical, but it’s not paradoxical at all. I think it’s only paradoxical for people whose god is not the real God, but is a god that they are making up, according to their fallen human minds.
Kevin Allen: Father, there are evangelicals who are listening out there, and they are saying, “You know what? These Orthodox, they have no idea whether they are saved or not, even if they have lived a righteous life, and they have spent all their time on their face prostrating, and tears, and everything else.” What you are saying is, you never know.
Fr. Thomas: Yes, I would say that is absolutely true, and the evangelical is completely and totally wrong. But I would say the evangelical is right if their answer to the question, “Are you saved?” is “Yes, absolutely, as far as God and the blood of Christ,” but to say that I can be saved, simply by saying that I accept Jesus as my savior, is blasphemous.
Kevin Allen: So you are making a distinction between the efficacy of the atonement from God’s perspective versus the appropriation of that from our perspective.
Fr. Thomas: Yes, and I wouldn’t even call it a perspective. I would simply say the reality is that the whole world, including Mao Tse Tung, Bin Laden, and everybody else are saved, as far as Jesus Christ is concerned, because he did it for absolutely everybody on the Cross. But I would also say that the only way that that salvation becomes ours is when we accept it, and believe it, and give ourselves over to the grace of God. No one can save themselves by their own works.
If you take the text of Ephesians that everybody loves to quote, and happily, I am sitting here at my desk, so I will just find it and read it. “By grace you have been saved through faith. This is not your own doing. It is the gift of God. Not because of your works, that any man should boast, for we are God’s workmanship,” poiema in Greek, “created (made in Christ Jesus) for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8-10).
So it’s not by our works that we are saved, but once God saves us, he saves us for good works. He saves us to actually do good things. And we cannot say that we believe in him and not do good things. And if we can’t do good things, and don’t do good things, at least we should repent over it, and not say that we don’t need to. We should repent over it and say, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
That is a clear teaching of our saints. On their death beds, they all said, “Pray for me. Pray for me that I would really accept the salvation of my Christ.” But to say, “Yeah, I’m going to heaven, and you will, too, if you accept Jesus as your savior.” That is so awful. It is so horrid, that you don’t even want to say it. It gives you the creeps to say such a thing.
Kevin Allen: It would sure put a lot of preachers out of business.
Fr. Thomas: Good! (laughter)
Kevin Allen: (laughter)
Fr. Thomas: If they are preaching that, they are in the business of Satan.
Kevin Allen: Ouch. Okay.
Fr. Thomas: They are not in the business of God if they are preaching that.
Kevin Allen: We’re going to get emails on this one, Father.
Fr. Thomas: I mean, Jesus Christ, himself, said in St. John’s Gospel, “The one who believes in me,” and that is a singular participle, “will do the works that I do, and greater works than these will he do because I go to the Father.” So the causality of Jesus being glorified and going to God, the Father, and sending the Holy Spirit means that there will actually be human beings whose faith and grace in Jesus means they have actually performed more works than Jesus, himself, did when he was on the earth. That is in the Bible. Read the Bible.
I would make two suggestions to the whole world if I could. And if could command it, I would command it. I would say to people, “Throw away all your theological presuppositions, as much as you can, and sit down, and pray to God to illumine your mind and heart, and then read through the entire New Testament, slowly, three times, before you have another theological discussion in your life.” Read through it carefully, slowly, with prayer, and then see what you come up with.
Kevin Allen: Father, we got a very interesting dialogue going on the tollhouses and on thanatology, the soul after death. I want to close and make sure when I quote this, Father, that you are in agreement, because for Nick Muzekari, who has been very interested in getting your response on this, I am going to end with a quote from St. Macarius of Egypt on this whole issue of tollhouses that we have been speaking of. He is one of them who has written on it. He writes:
When the soul abandons the body, a certain great mystery is enacted. If the deceased has departed unrepentant, a host of demons and rejected angels and dark powers receive that soul and keep it with them. The completely opposite happens with those who have repented. For near the holy servants of God, there are now angels and good spirits standing by, surrounding and protecting them, and when they depart from the body the choir of angels receives their souls to themselves, to the pure eon.
Fr. Thomas: Yes, that is fine, but I would say, let’s be careful. We have four different Gospels, and we have hundreds of different saints. I could imagine a person coming to Macarius and saying, “Macarius, what about a person who, one part of him loves Christ and wants to be with him, but still is caught by these demons, and they are hanging on to him. What about that?” And he would say, “Oh, that death would be a terrible conflict. Let’s pray for that person to make it through so that they ultimately would be purified.” I think that’s what he would answer.
Kevin Allen: Fair enough. Fr. Thomas, we need to end on that. We sure appreciate you coming on and talking with us today.
About the Author
Very Reverend Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko (March 28, 1939 – March 18, 2015) was an Orthodox priest and theologian of the Orthodox Church in America. He was the Dean of St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary from 1992 until 2002, having also taught there from 1968 until 2002.
Fr. Hopko was a prominent Orthodox Christian lecturer and speaker, well-known both in Orthodox and ecumenical circles. Many of his recordings are available via Ancient Faith Radio. The Hopkos retired to live near the Monastery of the Transfiguration in Ellwood City, Pennsylvania, where he continued sharing his vocation with the community there until his repose on March 18, 2015.