When dreams become doctrine

Most Protestants have never heard of “Aerial Toll Houses.” The idea of Aerial Toll Houses are built upon some personal revelations of Eastern Orthodox saints, Tradition and a verse or two from scripture. Father Thomas Hopko stated on an episode of The Illumined Heart that virtually every church Father held some form of this doctrine. According to Eastern Orthodox Tradition the soul, when it leaves the body, must go through a series of “Aerial Toll Houses” which are essentially check points and the last chance demons have to encourage you to sin. Eastern Orthodoxy believes these check points are spiritual, not literal, and will affect how one receives Particular Judgement. It is believed that a departed soul awaits The Last and Final Judgement of Christ in a conscious blessed or tormented state, depending on your deeds and moral behaviour. Justification is always a future event for the Orthodox. When the soul and body separate it is believed, that demons have 20 “last ditch” efforts to rob you to your merit (so to speak) after physical death. The most detailed vision of Aerial Toll Houses was given to Gregory of Thrace in the 10th century which include:

  • 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. (source Wikipedia)

To better understand the Eastern Orthodox position I have read two titles, one that should be foundational for anyone interested in understanding Orthodoxy, the second deals with the subject of Aerial Toll Houses specifically. They are, Orthodox Dogmatic Theology by Michael Pomazansky and The Soul After Death by Seraphim Rose (often considered a Saint). I’ve read through both titles making plenty of notes along the way but for the sake of this blog post I’ll keep it short and simple.


Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky on the subject of toll-houses from Orthodox Dogmatics:

“Due to the availability of the Lives of Saints, the account of the toll-houses by the righteous Theodora, depicted by her in detail by Saint Basil the New in his dream, has become especially well known. Dreams in general express the state of soul of a given man, and in special cases are also authentic visions of the souls of the departed in their earthly form. The account of Theodora has characteristics both of one and the other. The idea that good spirits, our guardian angels, as well as the spirits of evil under heaven participate in the fate of man (after death) finds confirmation in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Lazarus immediately after death was brought by angels to the bosom of Abraham. In another parable the unrighteous man heard these words: “Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee” (Luke 12:20); evidently, the ones who “require” are none else than the same “spirits of wickedness under the heavens.”

In accordance with simple logic and as also confirmed by the Word of God the soul immediately after its separation from the body enters into a sphere where its further fate is defined. “It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgement,” we read in the Apostle Paul (Heb. 9:27). This is the Particular Judgement, which is independent of the universal Last Judgement. [end quote]

We see an argument being made from selected traditions, upon a dream and poor eisegesis and use the above example as a typical misuse of the Bible. Let me point out the portion from Hebrews where we read of the result of Christ’s atonement:

“For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified. Whereof the Holy Ghost also is a witness to us: for after that he had said before, This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, saith the Lord, I will put my laws into their hearts, and in their minds will I write them; And their sins and iniquities will I remember no more.”

The offering Christ made on behave of His people always results in the perfection and sanctification of them. In contrast to the Eastern Orthodox teaching scripture states we are sanctified by Christ alone through faith.

“…with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; (for he is faithful that promised;)”

For a more detailed response A. W. Pink’s Exposition on Hebrews is to be recommended. Using the text of Hebrews Pink demonstrates the fallacious use of Hebrews 9.27 for the shameless proof-texting it is. 

First, that the “offering” (verse 25) and “suffering” (verse 26) of Christ are inseparable. It was in and by His suffering that the Lord Jesus offered Himself unto God, and that because He was Himself both the Priest and the Sacrifice. Aaron “offered” repeatedly, yet he never once “suffered,” for he was not the sacrifice itself. It was the bullock which was slain, that suffered. But Christ being both Priest and Sacrifice could not “offer” without “suffering,” and herein does the force of the argument principally consist. The very especial nature of Christ’s offering or sacrifice, which was by the shedding of His blood in death, precluded a repetition thereof.

Second, the apostle’s argument here is also built on the fact that there was a necessity for the expiation of the sin of all that were to be saved from the foundation of the world. Sin entered the world immediately after it was founded, by the apostasy of our first parents. Notwithstanding, numbers of sinners, as Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham and the spiritual remnant in Israel had their sins pardoned and were eternally saved; yet no sacrifice which they offered could remit moral guilt or redeem their souls. No; their salvation was also effected by virtue of the sacrifice of Christ. Hence it follows unavoidably that unless the merits of His own one offering extended unto the taking away of all their sins, then either He must have suffered often, or they perish. Contrariwise, seeing that elect sinners were saved through Christ “from the foundation of the world,” much more will the virtues of the Great Sacrifice extend unto the end of the world.

“But now,” not at the beginning of human history; “once,” that is, once for all, never to be repeated; “in the end of the world,” or in “the fullness of time” (Gal. 4:4). This expression “end of the world” or more literally, “consummation of the ages” is here used antithetically from “since the foundation of the world” which usually has reference to the first entrance of sin into the world. and God’s dispensation of grace in Christ thereon; as “before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4, etc.) expresses eternity and God’s counsels therein. The Divine distinctions of time with respect to God’s grace toward His Church, may be referred to three general heads: that before the law, during the law, and since the incarnation of Christ unto the end of the world. This last season, absolutely considered, is called the “fullness of times” (Eph. 1:10), when all that God had designed in the dispensation of His grace was come to a head, and wherein no alteration should be made till the earth was no more.

“Hath He appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.” He “appeared” here on earth (the Greek word is quite different from the one used in verse 24): of old He had been obscurely shadowed forth in types, but now He was “manifest in flesh” (1 Tim. 3:10). The end or purpose of this appearing of Christ was to “put away sin”—the Greek word is a very strong one, and is rendered “disannuling” in Hebrews 7:18. Let it be carefully noted that this declaration is made only as it respects the Church of Christ. He made a complete atonement for all the sin of all His people, receiving its wages, expiating its guilt, destroying its dominion. The results are that, when God applies to the penitent believer the virtues of Christ’s sacrifice, all condemnation is removed (Rom. 8:1), and its reigning power is destroyed (Rom. 6:14).

“And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgement: so Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for Him shall He appear the second time without sin unto salvation” (verses 27, 28). In these verses the apostle concludes his exposition of the causes, nature, designs and efficacy of the sacrifice of Christ, wherewith the new covenant was dedicated and confirmed. In them a three-fold confirmation is made of the uniqueness and sufficiency of the Savior’s atonement. First a comparison is drawn: pointed by the “as” and “so”. Second a declaration is made as to why Christ died: it was to “bear the sins of many.” Third, the resultant consequence of this is stated at the end of verse 28. [end quote]

In “The Soul After Death” Seraphim Rose relies on similar argumentation for Aerial Toll Houses. A few quick points:

  1. Rose explains the “out of body” or after death occult experiences and, using descriptions of the accounts, explains how they are similar to Eastern Orthodox teaching. He struggles to create differences between the two beliefs but they are very similar.
  2. Rose (and Pomazansky) rarely quote scripture and when they do it’s out of context.
  3. Eastern Orthodox experiences of Toll Houses are accepted without criticism. The occult experiences are outright denied even when strikingly similar. One troubling detail, the Orthodox are surrounded and attacked by demons, while the non Orthodox are usually at peace and rest.
  4. Rose accepts the teaching on Toll Houses without attempting to provide argumentation for it. It’s accepted without pause.
  5. The emphasis throughout both works is the sinner and the sinners ability to perform works and to live morally, almost as if training to outrun their attacks after death, thus escaping the snares of demons.
  6. St. Mary, Guardian Angels and Saints are viewed as guiding and guarding the soul after death with the prayers of the faithful living relieving the suffering of departed souls. These are the means by which God is said to save a soul, through St. Mary, Angels and the intercession of Saints, what is often lacking is an emphasis on Christ alone to save. There is an edifice built around Christ that obscures Him.
  7. Christ is mentioned in the “out of body” occult experiences more often than in Rose’s account of the Eastern Orthodox description. That is the impression.
  8. The final court of appeal for both Rose and Pomazansky are the subjective experiences recorded in Eastern Orthodox tradition.


In chapter 10, Rose uses the letters of John of Shanghai and San Francisco (St. John Maximovitch) as an authority to provide more details of this teaching.

According to John of Shanghai and San Francisco the soul is hindered by the body and becomes more active after death. This struck me as a Gnostic holdover. It is admitted that all cultures have after death or “out of body” experiences and again, the Eastern Orthodox teaching is not examined but stated and believed without criticism. In the letters we read that a soul has two days to linger on earth, visiting places that were special to the individual when alive, but on the 3rd day the soul moves into “another spheres” and “passes through legions of evil spirits which obstruct its path and accuse if of various revelations…”

According to The Soul After Death the soul visits heavenly habitations and hell for 37 days, still not knowing where it will end up… On the 40th day the soul will stop in heaven or hell until the Last or Final Judgement. This is considered a taste of blessedness or torment. The Priest may offer a Liturgy (similar to the Roman Catholic Mass) and prayers on behalf of the deceased resulting in a change in the departed soul.


A word in closing: 

I’m left haunted by this seemly pagan teaching founded on a dream, a nightmare and forced upon the scriptures. It maybe true, that this doctrine of Aerial Toll Houses is not considered universally “orthodox” by the Orthodox, but it is still embraced by millions of Eastern Orthodox believers. It is considered “dogma” by a large portion of the Eastern Church. It’s soul shaking to think that for 1,500 years Christians in the East have believed in such a doctrine, one that utterly lacks confidence in Christ to save, that places such emphasis on fallen sinners to evade demons and find rest for their wicked souls. It’s haunting to think that even after death we have to struggle to prove our faithfulness to Christ before we can enter our eternal rest. There is no rest in Christ for the Orthodox. The idea that demonic powers are seeking to “devour the soul of the spiritually weak,” even after death, robs Christ of His promises to save by faith alone. Simple, heartfelt faith in Christ’s work on the Cross is almost never in view. For the Orthodox the sinner is on a constant hamster wheel of merit and faith, faith and merit never finding rest.

I will end with 1 John 5.11-13 and with an old prayer:

“And this is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life. These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God.”

Let us prayer:

O God, most high, most glorious, the thought of Your infinite serenity cheers me, for I am toiling and moiling, troubled and distressed, but You are for ever at perfect peace. Your designs cause You no fear or care of unfulfilment, they stand fast as the eternal hills. Your power knows no bond, Your goodness no stint. You bring order out of confusion, and my defeats are Your victories: The Lord God omnipotent reigneth.

I come to You as a sinner with cares and sorrows, to leave every concern entirely to You, every sin calling for Christ’s precious blood; revive deep spirituality in my heart; let me live near to the great Shepherd, hear His voice, know its tones, follow its calls. Keep me from deception by causing me to abide in the truth, from harm by helping me to walk in the power of the Spirit. Give me intenser faith in the eternal verities, burning into me by experience the things I know; Let me never be ashamed of the truth of the gospel, that I may bear its reproach, vindicate it, see Jesus as its essence, know in it the power of the Spirit.

Lord, help me, for I am often lukewarm and chill; unbelief mars my confidence, sin makes me forget You. Let the weeds that grow in my soul be cut at their roots; grant me to know that I truly live only when I live to You, that all else is trifling. Your presence alone can make me holy, devout, strong and happy.

Abide in me, gracious God.

Yours in the Lord,



5 thoughts on “When Dreams Become Doctrine

  1. Wow, this is completely new (and strange) to me. It seems strange that one of the toll houses relates to punishment for superstition when this belief seems very superstitious to me. I wonder how widely this is believed?

    1. I actually wrote this post at the beginning if the year and forgot about it. When I read it over it bothered me again so I posted it. Wait until you read my post on Pure Land Buddhism 😉

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