THE AERIAL TOLLHOUSE MYTH

By dogcatcher on February 25th, 2012

 

The Aerial Toll House Myth and Why this Teaching is Flawed

Background
The Aerial Toll House myth was introduced to Christianity by Gnostics in the early Church. Like many heresies, it has resurfaced throughout the existence of the Church. Its most recent retread was spurred by Seraphim Rose in his book The Soul after Death. Recently, it has been heavily integrated into the theology of Elder Ephraim and his followers. The Aerial Toll House myth states that upon death one’s soul must encounter 20 (some say 40) demonic stations within the realms of the space between the earth and Heaven. Each station interrogates the soul of the deceased for a specific transgression. If the soul fails at any one of these toll houses it is supposedly dragged to Hell by demonic spirits. This teaching comes from a dream had by Gregory, a disciple of St. Basil the New, which gives an account of the journey of St. Theodora through the Toll Houses. (This teaching has also been referred to as the dream of Blessed Theodora).Supporters of this teaching, which comes from the tenth century, often use spurious references of the writings of various Saints in an attempt to validate this myth.

How it is Used Today
The use of the Aerial Toll House teaching commands unquestioned obedience to the authority figure that propagates this myth. Only through the intercessions of this authority figure can one truly attain Salvation. In the following excerpt from the dream, Blessed Theodora explains how the intercessions of St. Basil the New delivered her soul from the torments of condemnation:

The Ethiopians [demons], however, saw this and gnashed their teeth at me. They wanted to tear me instantly from the angels’ arms and to carry me down to the bottom of hell. At this time holy Basil himself appeared unexpectedly and said to the holy angels. ‘Holy angels! This soul did great service to ease my old age, and therefore I prayed for her to God, and God has given her to me.’ Having said this, he took something out that appeared like a little bag of gold and gave it to the angels with the words: ‘Here is the treasure of prayers before the Lord for this soul! As you pass through the torments of the air and the evil spirits begin to torment her, pay her debts with this.’

The next excerpt illustrates how followers forfeit responsibility for their Salvation to another person giving that person ultimate power,

As we were rising, I dared to question the holy angels once more: ‘Do all Christians pass these torments? Is there no possibility to pass by the torments and not be tested in any of the stations?’ The angels replied: ‘There is no other way for the souls that rise toward heaven. Everyone goes this way, but not everyone is tormented like you; only sinners like you incur the torments, for they have not confessed their sins fully, and moved by a false sense of shame, have kept their really shameful deeds secret from their spiritual fathers. When a man wholeheartedly confesses his evil deeds and repents and regrets them, his sins are invisibly wiped out by God’s mercy. When a repentant soul comes here, the tormentors of the air open their books but find nothing written there; the soul, however, joyfully ascends to the throne of God.”

A clear example of how this teaching is being used to garner reliance upon Elder Ephraim, elevating him to guru status by his followers, can be seen in the following excerpt taken from the Elder Ephraim’s book Counsels from the Holy Mountain,

“When we ascend and meet the aerial toll-houses, whose prayers will deliver us? The elder’s? But they have departed from us because we grieved him in this life and so they have no power in our hour of need.” (pg. 143)

Why This Teaching is Flawed
The Aerial Toll House teaching is highly comparable to the Roman Catholic teaching of purgatory which has been thoroughly denounced by Orthodoxy. As in the case with Elder Ephraim, his monasteries and his followers, the idea that devoting one’s efforts to another person and their cause can afford them Salvation is strikingly similar to the medieval concept of indulgences. The following excerpt of the aforementioned dream of Gregory the disciple of St. Basil demonstrates the reliance on an Elder of the church:

“Then I was led into the nether reaches of hell, where the Lord has bound and imprisoned Satan. There I saw frightening torments. Thence they led me westward, and there too I saw similar horrible torments, ready for sinners. As the angels showed all this to me, they said: ‘Do you see from what misfortunes you have been saved by the prayers of the holy man?'”

Notice that according to this outdated teaching, it would be impossible for St. Theodora to achieve salvation without the prayers of her Elder in this dream. In addition, the following excerpt gives an account of the materialistic view of Heaven,

“We entered a palace decorated with gold. In its midst there were various trees that bore splendid fruit. When I looked east I saw luxurious halls, light and high. There was a large table on which stood golden vessels; they looked very expensive and were wondrous to look at. In the vessels were vegetables of all sorts, and fragrance issued from them.”

This teaching espouses a highly materialistic concept of the afterlife which is overwhelmingly rebuked by Orthodoxy. To invoke the fear of one’s eternal well being is a powerful tactic used to command loyalty and obedience. Moreover, this tactic has been used repeatedly by extremist factions of various religions. Incorporating highly materialistic expectations of Heaven and Hell help relate the afterlife to life as it is known on Earth. The promise of residence in an Elder’s heavenly palace due to intense devotion and loyalty is highly comparable to the concept of 72 virgins promised to extremist Muslim sects.
This teaching, which can lead to manipulation of certain followers, is not supported by the doctrines of Orthodox Christianity. As Orthodox Christians, we apply a simple standard to separate our true beliefs from theories of faith built upon speculation by some. We caution our faith abiding laity to accept or believe only that which “has been believed everywhere, always and by all” or at least by “almost all” of our church Fathers. See St. Cyril of Jerusalem Catechetical Lecture 4:17 and St. Vincent of Lerins Comminatory 2. Stringing together bits and pieces of words, sentences, commentary, icons or a dream to enslave the minds of our unsuspecting laity is serious form of spiritual abuse. The proponents of this heresy take obscure and unaccepted quotes and create an unnatural dependency by the laity on their “spiritual fathers”.

The Practice of quoting out of Context
The practice of quoting out of context, which is also referred to as “contextomy” but most commonly called “quote mining”, is referred to as a logical fallacy and a:

“type of false attribution in which a passage is removed from its surrounding matter in such a way as to distort its intended meaning…. As an appeal to authority, it involves quoting an authority on the subject out of context, in order to misrepresent that authority as supporting some position.” See Wikipedia’s definition of Fallacy at www.wikipedia.org.

Scriptural support for the Aerial Tollhouse myth is done through quote mining. In his book The Soul after Death, Seraphim Rose uses several nonconsecutive verses from the Holy Bible in an attempt to validate the Toll House myth. These verses are used out of context in the pursuit of making a nonexistent connection to the Toll House myth. However, the Aerial Toll House myth is not supported by any of the Church Fathers. At the bottom of this article the reader will find a list of writings by various Saints that refute the Toll House teaching. In many instances the reader will discover the Toll House teaching is contrary to what the Church Fathers taught. Some who ascribe to the Toll House teaching attempt to use St. John Chrysostom as evidence for a Saint who supports the myth. Yet, they completely ignore the fact no mention of the Toll House is made in not only the Divine Liturgy, the Creed or Orthodox funeral services as well.

The Aerial Toll House myth is one of many heresies that have infiltrated our Church over the course of its existence. These teachings are not only false, they turn the focus away from Christ and place it on a spiritual guru. It is the responsibility of all Christians to be vigilant against the resurfacing of such out of place teachings in order to maintain the well being of our Church.

For further reading it is highly suggested to consider reviewing the following material:

• The Soul After Death by Fr. Seraphim Rose
• The Toll House Myth: The Neo-Gnosticism of Fr. Seraphim Rose by V. Rev. Dr. Michael Azkoul and Irene Matta, M.Th.
• Father Seraphim Rose and the Dogma of Redemption: A Study in Neo-Nestorianism published by Synaxis Press

Quotes which contradict the teaching of the Aerial Toll House Myth:

• “We ought not to fear the demons or even Satan himself, for he is a liar and speaks not a word of truth…and with him are placed the demons, his fellows, like serpents and scorpions to be trodden underfoot by us Christians.” The Life of Saint Anthony

• “But if the demons had power not even against the swine, much less have they any over men formed in the image of God. So then we ought to fear God only, and despise the demons, and be in no fear of them.” The Life of Saint Anthony

• “For if while the soul dwells in the body the devil cannot bring violence about it, clearly when it departs from the body, he likewise has no power over it.” St. John Chrysostom (Homily on Lazarus II)

• “This convicts the false writings called ‘revelations’ which, being composed by the originators of the corrupt heresies under the influence of demonic fantasies, describe the celestial dwelling in the sky…the pathways to Heaven, the places set apart for judgment, the manifold figures of the hosts of the sky, and their diversive activities. But all these things are shadows of a mind inebriated by conceit and deranged by the working of demons.” St. Isaac the Syrian, Epistle to Symeon of Caesaria

• “And He will come again with glory to judge the living
and dead. His kingdom shall have no end.” The Nicene Creed

• “I charge therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His Kingdom: Preach the Word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers: and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables. But you be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing. 2 Timothy 4:1-8