The phenomenon of what has become known as the Aerial Toll Houses is Eastern Orthodox in origin. It was made popular again due to the efforts of Fr. Seraphim Rose (1934-1982) in his book, The Soul After Death. But it’s an olden belief. Etymologically these “toll houses” are also named “telonia”, from the Greek:τελωνεία / telonia, customs). Not all Eastern Orthodox Ecclesiastical offices are sold on the idea, but the immense literature on the subject by renowned Orthodox saints, theologians, and ascetical personages place it in the category of being a spiritual probability. An immense Volume, The Departure of the Soul, According to the Teaching—A Patristic Anthology (2016), numbering 1111 pages is indeed a vast anthology of the said personages who give absolute witness and credence to the phenomena. According to the literature, once the soul leaves the body it enters an aerial realm that is populated by a denizen of evil spirits that block the passage to Heaven in toll-houses where the demons proceed to accuse the soul of past sins with the intent of dragging it down in the fiery depths of hell.
Hence, at the moment of death the soul begins a process of testing and spiritual struggle. This process is dramatically rendered as passing through a gauntlet of both angels and demons. The demons seek to claim the soul for their own, typically invoking their sins and offences in good prosecutorial style, while the angels defend the soul by appeal to her virtue and good deeds. (Eclectic Orthodoxy)
The holy Apostle Paul calls the fallen angels the spirits of wickedness under the heavens (Eph. 6:12), and their chief the prince of the powers of the air (Eph. 2:2). When the soul of a Christian, leaving its earthly dwelling, begins to strive through the aerial spaces towards the homeland on high, the demons stop it, strive to find in it a kinship with themselves, their sinfulness, their fall, and to drag it down to the hell prepared for the devil and his angels (Matt 25:41)
“For the testing of souls as they pass through the spaces of the air there have been established by the dark powers separate judgment places and guards in a remarkable order. In the layers of the under-heaven, from earth to heaven itself, stand guarding legions of fallen spirits. Each division is in charge of a special form of sin and tests the soul in it when the soul reaches this division. The aerial demonic guards and judgment places are called in the Patristic writings the tollhouses, and the spirits who serve in them are called the tax-collectors” (Fr. Seraphim Rose, The Soul After Death, pgs. 64, 65)
Whether the soul is finally seized and overcome by the demons, or taken to the Blessed Halls of Heaven depends on the state of the soul at death and the continual intercession (prayers) of the living.
Bishop Ignatius quotes many Holy Fathers who teach concerning the toll-houses. Here we shall quote just a few. (Fr. Seraphim Rose)
St. Athanasius the Great, in his famous Life of St. Anthony the Great, describes how once St. Anthony, “at the approach of the ninth hour, after beginning to pray before eating food, was suddenly seized by the Spirit and raised up by angels into the heights. The aerial demons opposed his progress: the angels, disputing with them, demanded that the reasons of their opposition be set forth, because Anthony had no sins at all. The demons strove to set forth the sins committed by him from his very birth; but the angels closed the mouths of the slanderers, telling them that they should not count the sins from his birth which had already been blotted out by the grace of Christ; but let them present — if they have any — the sins he committed after he entered into monasticism and dedicated himself to God. In their accusation the demons uttered many brazen lies; but since their slanders were wanting in proof, a free path was opened for Anthony. Immediately he came to himself and saw that he was standing in the same place where he had stood up for prayer. Forgetting about food, he spent the whole night in tears and groanings, reflecting on the multitude of man’s enemies, on the battle against such an army, on the difficulty of the path to heaven through the air, and on the words of the Apostle, who said: Our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities and powers of this air (Eph. 6:12; Eph. 2:2). The Apostle, knowing that the aerial powers are seeking only one thing, are concerned over it with all fervor, exert themselves and strive to deprive us of a free passage to heaven, exhorts: Take up the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day (Eph. 6:13), that the adversary may be put to shame, having no evil thing to say of us (Titus 2:8).”
St. John Chrysostom, describing the hour of death, teaches: “Then we will need many prayers, many helpers, many good deeds, a great intercession from angels on the journey through the spaces of the air. If when travelling in a foreign land or a strange city we are in need of a guide, how much more necessary for us are guides and helpers to guide us past the invisible dignities and powers and world-rulers of this air, who are called persecutors and publicans and tax collectors.”
St. Isaiah the Recluse, a 6th-century Father of the Philokalia, teaches that Christians should “daily have death before our eyes and take care how to accomplish the departure from the body and how to pass by the powers of darkness who are to meet us in the air” (Homily 5:22). “When the soul leaves the body, angels accompany it; the dark powers come out to meet it, desiring to detain it, and testing it to see if they might find something of their own in it” (Homily 17).
St. Gregory the Dialogist (†604), in his Homilies on the Gospel, writes: “One must reflect deeply on how frightful the hour of death will be for us, what terror the soul will then experience, what remembrance of all the evils, what forgetfulness of past happiness, what fear, and what apprehension of the Judge. Then the evil spirits will seek out in the departing soul its deeds; then they will present before its view the sins towards which they had disposed it, so as to draw their accomplice to torment. But why do we speak only of the sinful soul, when they come even to the chosen among the dying and seek out their own in them, if they have succeeded with them? Among men there was only One Who before His suffering fearlessly said: Hereafter I talk not much with you: For the prince of this world cometh, and hath nothing in Me (John 14:30)”
Abba Theophilus, one of the desert fathers: What fear, what trembling, what uneasiness will there be for us when our soul is separated from the body. Then indeed the force and strength of the adverse powers come against us, the rulers of darkness, those who command the world of evil, the principalities, the powers, the spirits of evil. They accuse our souls as in a lawsuit, bringing before it all the sins it has committed, whether deliberately or through ignorance, from its youth until the time when it has been taken away. So they stand accusing it of all it has done. Furthermore, what anxiety do you suppose the soul will have at that hour, until sentence is pronounced and it gains its liberty? That is its hour of affliction, until it sees what will happen to it. On the other hand, the divine powers stand on the opposite side, and they present the good deeds of the soul. Consider the fear and trembling of the soul standing between them until in judgement it receives the sentence of the righteous judge. If it is judged worthy, the demons will receive their punishment, and it will be carried away by the angels. Then thereafter you will be without disquiet, or rather you will live according to that which is written: “Even as the habitation of those who rejoice is in you” (Ps. 87.7). Then will the Scripture be fulfilled: “Sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Isaiah 35.10).
The Number of the Toll Houses
There are twenty toll-houses, though the number is not dogmatic, and different sources list varying numbers:
At the first aerial toll-house, the soul is questioned about sins of the tongue, such as empty words, dirty talk, insults, ridicule, singing worldly songs, too much or loud laughter, and similar sins.
The second is the toll-house of lies, which includes not only ordinary lies, but also the breaking of oaths, the violation of vows given to God, taking God’s name in vain, hiding sins during confession, and similar acts.
The third is the toll-house of slander. It includes judging, humiliating, embarrassing, mocking, and laughing at people, and similar transgressions.
The fourth is the toll-house of gluttony, which includes overeating, drunkenness, eating between meals, eating without prayer, not holding fasts, choosing tasty over plain food, eating when not hungry, and the like.
The fifth is the toll-house of laziness, where the soul is held accountable for every day and hour spent in laziness, for neglecting to serve God and pray, for missing Church services, and also for not earning money through hard, honest labor, for not working as much as you are paid, and all similar sins.
The sixth toll-house is the toll-house of theft, which includes stealing and robbery, whether small, big, light, violent, public, or hidden.
The seventh is the toll-house of covetousness, including love of riches and goods, failure to give to charity, and similar acts.
The eight is the toll-house of usury, loan-sharking, overpricing, and similar sins.
The ninth is the toll-house of injustice– being unjust, especially in judicial affairs, accepting or giving bribes, dishonest trading and business, using false measures, and similar sins.
The tenth is the toll-house of envy.
The eleventh is the toll-house of pride– vanity, self-will, boasting, not honoring parents and civil authorities, insubordination, disobedience, and similar sins.
The twelve is the toll-house of anger and rage.
The thirteenth is the toll-house of remembering evil– hatred, holding a grudge, and revenge.
The fourteenth is the toll-house of murder– not just plain murder, but also wounding, maiming, hitting, pushing, and generally injuring people.
The fifteenth is the toll-house of magic- divination, conjuring demons, making poison, all superstitions, and associated acts.
The sixteenth is the toll-house of lust– fornication, unclean thoughts, lustful looks, unchaste touches.
The seventeenth is the toll-house of adultery.
The eighteenth is the toll-house of sodomy: bestiality, homosexuality, incest, masturbation, and all other unnatural sins.
The nineteenth is the toll-house of heresy: rejecting any part of Orthodox faith, wrongly interpreting it, apostasy, blasphemy, and all similar sins.
The last, twentieth toll-house is the toll-house of unmercifulness: failing to show mercy and charity to people, and being cruel in any way. [Orthodox wiki]
From reading all of these it would seem that not too many souls would stand a chance eclipsing those demons in the toll-houses. All of this purported phenomena is not without its “Orthodox” critics, including Archbishop Lazar (Puhalo) of Ottawa, who considers this teaching controversial, even false (describing it as gnostic or of pagan origin). I always fallback on our own Lankavatarian adage, “What the mind focuses on determines its reality.” If you continually focus on encountering all manner of demons after death, then you will surely encounter them and possibly determine your fate millennium fold. By and large the identification of the beings who are encountered is mostly the product of subjective interpretation based on religious, cultural and personal background. Then again, the Orthodox are the Orthodox, with a millennium-fold tradition and history. Who are we to insist that their spiritual experiences are null and void? If one is a member of their fold, then one must accept their principles. If one is outside their fold, who are they to insist that everyone follow suit? At any rate, within the bracket of our series, the soul is considered here to be immortal. But not without its being subjected to outside spiritual powers.