The Soul’s Journey After Death

Ancient Orthodox Icon depicting the spiritual testing a soul endures after leaving the body

Ancient Orthodox icon depicting the spiritual testing a soul endures after leaving the body

Early Church Fathers describe the soul’s journey after death . . .

St. John Chrysostom:

Then [after death] we will need many prayers, many helpers, many good deeds, a greater intercession from angels on the journey through the spaces of the air. If when traveling in a strange 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. Ephraim the Syrian:

When the fearful hosts come, when the divine takers-away command the soul to be translated from the body, when they draw us away by force and lead us away to the unavoidable judgment place—then, seeing them, the poor man . . . comes all into a shaking as if from an earthquake, in all in trembling… The divine takers-away, having taken the soul, ascend in the air where stand the chiefs, the authorities and world-rulers of the opposing powers. These are our accusers, the fearful publicans, registrars, tax-collectors; they meet it on the way, register, examine, and count out the sins and debts of this man—the sins of youth and old age, voluntary and involuntary, committed in deed, word and thought. Great is the fear here, great the trembling of the poor soul, indescribable the want which it suffers then from the incalculable multitudes of its enemies surrounding it there in myriads, slandering it so as not to allow it to ascend to heaven, to dwell in the light of the living, to enter the land of life. But the holy angels, taking the soul, lead it away.

St. Athanasius the Great, describing a visionary experience of St. Anthony:

At the approach of the ninth hour, after beginning to pray before eating food, [he] was suddenly seized by the Spirit and raised up by the 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 has 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 groaning, 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 the 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 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. Macarius the Great:

When you hear that there are rivers of dragons, and mouths of lions, and the dark powers under the heavens, and fire that burns and crackles in the members, you think nothing of it, not knowing that unless you receive the earnest of the Holy Spirit (II Cor. 1:22), they hold your soul as it departs from the body, and do not suffer you to rise to heaven.

St. John Damascene, from the Divine Liturgy:

O Virgin, in the hour of death rescue me from the hands of the demons, and the judgment, and the accusation, and the frightful testing, and the bitter toll-houses, and the fierce prince, and the eternal condemnation, O Mother of God.

St. Cyril of Alexandria:

What fear and trembling await you, O soul, in the day of death! You will see frightful, wild, cruel, unmerciful and shameless demons, like dark Ethiopians, standing before you. The very sight of them is worse than any torment. The soul, seeing them, becomes agitated, is disturbed, hastens to the angels of God. The holy angels hold the soul; passing with them through the air and rising, it encounters the toll-houses which guard the path from earth to heaven, detaining the soul and hindering it from ascending further. Each toll-house tests the sins corresponding to it; each sin, each passion has its tax-collectors and testers.


Orthodox Christian leaders for the past two centuries describe the soul’s journey after death, in agreement with the Early Church Fathers . . .

St. Seraphim of Sarov:
“Two nuns passed on. Both had been abbesses. The Lord revealed to me that their souls were having difficulty getting through the aerial toll-houses. Three days and nights, I, a lowly sinner, prayed and begged the Mother of God for their salvation. The goodness of the Lord, through the prayers of the Most Holy Mother of God, finally had mercy upon them. They passed the aerial toll-houses and received forgiveness of sins.”

St. Theophan the Recluse:
“No matter how absurd the idea of the toll-houses may seem to our ‘wise men,’ they will not escape passing through them.”

St. Ignatius Brianchaninov: 
“The teaching of the toll-houses is the teaching of the Church.”

St. Macarius of Moscow (1879-1882):
After quoting numerous examples of Church Fathers who taught the toll-houses he says, “Such an uninterrupted, constant, and universal usage in the Church of the teaching of the toll-houses, especially among the teachers of the 4th century, indisputably testifies that it was handed down to them from the teachers of the preceding centuries and is founded on apostolic tradition.”

St. Barsanuphius of Optina: 
“Pray to the Mother of God. She will intercede for you in this life, and, after death, she will help you pass through the tollhouses and reach the heavenly Kingdom.”

St. John of Kronstadt:
“When you pray for the repose of the soul of the departed, force yourself to pray with your whole heart remembering that to do so is your essential duty, and not only that of a priest, or ecclesiastic. Represent to yourself how necessary repose is to the departed one, and how greatly he (or she) needs the prayers for him (or her) of the living, being a member of the one body of the Church; how the demons are contesting his (or her) soul from the angels, and how it trembles, not knowing what its eternal destiny will be. Our prayer of faith and love for the departed means much in the Lord’s sight.”

St. Nikolai Veilmirović: 
“O, let no one speak of the happiness of tomorrow’s day. Behold, yet this night your soul may depart your body and tomorrow you will find yourself surrounded by black demons in the tollhouses!”

St. John Maximovitch:
On the third after death the soul “passes through legions of evil spirits which obstruct its path and accuse it of various sins, to which they themselves had tempted it. According to various revelations there are twenty such obstacles, the so-called “toll-houses,” at each of which one or another form of sin is tested.”

St. Justin Popović:
Volume 3 of his Dogmatics of the Orthodox Church (1980) contains the toll-house teaching.

Elder Michal of Valaam:
“I knew that [the tailor] expected a gift; for a gift he would do anything and he would both know how to do it and do it. But I also know that for even the smallest participation in this type of work – that is, bribe and gratuity – I would have to answer for sin when I go through the toll houses; and so I left him with nothing. One must have caution so as not to give others an example and participate in sins.”

Archbishop Theophan of Poltava (ROCOR):
A young man who had reposed appeared to the Archbishop and asked him to pray for him to pass safely through the toll-houses, which he did. The man appeared again later to thank the Archbishop and to ask him to offer prayers of thanksgiving.

Elder Cleopa of Sihastria:
“If you confess thoroughly before your death, your soul is saved. As the soul passes through the tollhouses, any sins that were absolved by the priest on earth have been erased from the record by the Holy Spirit.”

Elder Porphyrios:
“I didn’t want to think about hell and about tollgates. I didn’t remember my sins, although I had many. I set them aside. I remembered only the love of God and was glad.”

Elder Paisios: 
“When a soul is well prepared and ascending to Heaven, the demons can’t assault it. If it isn’t prepared, it is tortured by the demons. Sometimes God may allow a soul with unpaid debts at the time of his death to see the tollgates, so that we, who will continue to live, struggle to repay our debts here. Do you remember reading about the event with Theodora? In other words, God provides that some people see certain things to help others repent.”

Fr. Seraphim Rose: 
See chapters 6, 10, and Appendix III: “Answer to a Critic” in his Soul After Death.

Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica:
“In this world it is possible for a person to expend great effort and labor for the good of his fellow men, yet for his soul to remain soiled without sin. A person can pass through most of the toll-houses, yet to be pushed into the abyss as he reaches the toll-house of mercy, for in spite of all his efforts he failed to notice that his heart was firmly bound to the power of hades … Such a person is under the rule of the spirits of wickedness, according to the level of his unmercifulness. Even during his earthly life he is in their power. When his soul departs his body, such a person will be in their power.”

Hieromartyr Daniel Sysoev: 
“When a person dies he is met by angels. The angels of God help a person while demons attack him and intimidate him … The demons detain those at the toll houses who are attached to the earth, those who think too much about the earthly.”

Fr. Michael Pomazansky:
“Based on these indications of Sacred Scripture, from antiquity the Holy Fathers of the Church have depicted the path of the soul after its separation from the body as a path through such spiritual expanses, where the dark powers seek to devour those who are weak spiritually … The path of the soul after its departure from the body is customarily called the “toll houses.”

Archbishop Nathanael of Vienna and Austria (ROCOR):
He conveys the traditional teaching that Christ received the soul of the Theotokos because she prayed to be spared the vision of the toll-house demons.

Bishop Alexander (Mileant) of Buenos Aires (ROCOR):
“These wandering spirits of the heavens upon seeing a soul led by an angel approach it from all sides reproaching it for sins committed throughout its life. Being extremely insolent, they attempt to frighten the soul, bring it to despair and thus take hold of it. During this trial the Guardian Angel bolsters the soul and defends it.”

Archimandrite Panteleimon (Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville):
“When the Christian soul, led by the holy angels, begins its ascent to heaven, then the spirits of darkness remind it of all its sins which have not been made up for by penance.”

Constantine Cavarnos: 
The toll-houses are taught in his The Future Life According to the Orthodox Church, pp. 23-30.

Met. Hierotheos Vlachos:
“According to the teaching of the Fathers of the Church, the soul … senses the presence of the demons who are called customs demons, and is possessed with fear because of having to pass through customs … The holy Fathers teach all these things not from their imagination, but from enlightening experiences. Sometimes other holy men have revealed these things to them, and at other times they themselves, illumined by God, have had such frightening experiences.”

Met. Kallistos Ware: 
“It is the normal teaching in the Orthodox Church that, during the period immediately following death, the soul, accompanied by the guardian angel, passes through a series of twenty-two telonia, celestial toll or custom houses … This teaching about the toll houses has early origins; while not a dogma of the Church, it is far more than mere legend or pious opinion.”

Elder Ephraim of Philotheou and Arizona:
“Keep this struggle constantly in mind; think and note that we also have to pass the aerial toll-houses which impede souls from ascending as they present the deeds of our life in order to obstruct our souls’ ascent and drag them down into Hades.”

Archimandrite Zacharias Zachariou:
Rdr. Andreas Moran relates: “when my late wife died, Archimandrite Zacharias said, ‘her soul went straight up – no hindrance’. Being blessed with much grace, this must mean either that she did not endure passage through the toll houses or that the demons had nothing in her.”

Archimandrite Vasilios Bakogiannis: See his After Death pp. 59-67.

Fr. Thomas Hopko: 
“So, my opinion is that the teaching is that, when a person dies, a huge battle, it’s the last battle, in a sense, to see whether that 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 … it’s a very old teaching; you find the teaching about toll houses is in practically every Church Father: you find it in Saint John Chrysostom, you find it in John of the Ladder; the first development of it was in Saint Cyril of Alexandria.”

Nikolaos P. Vassiliadis:
at death “the soul undergoes a detailed and thorough examination by the demons since an invisible but relentless warfare is waged between the good and the evil angels for the soul’s possession.”

Protopresbyter Vassily Boshchanovskiy: 
“The universal faith of the Church in the reality of the personal judgment after death finds its illustrative depiction in the Church Patristic teaching about the toll houses beyond the grave.”

Fr. Artemy Vladimirov: 
He relates how happening upon the Tale of St. Theodora led him to offer his first confession and a dramatic conversion to faith in Christ at the age of 18.

Fr. Maximos of Simonopetra (formerly Nicholas Constas):
“The tradition of the tollgates was firmly established throughout the east long before the end of late antiquity.”

Vladimir Moss:
“The doctrine of the toll-houses, of the particular judgement [sic] of souls after death, is indeed a fearful doctrine. But it is a true and salutary and Orthodox one. Let us therefore gather this saving fear into our souls, in accordance with the word: “Remember thine end, and thou shalt never sin” (Sirach 7.36).


This is day ten of the 40 Days of Blogging.
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About Fr Joseph Gleason

I serve as a priest at Christ the King Orthodox Mission in Omaha, Illinois, and am blessed with eight children and one lovely wife. I contribute to On Behalf of All, a simple blog about Orthodox Christianity. I also blog here at The Orthodox Life.
This entry was posted in Hell, Particular Judgment, Sirach 7:36. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Soul’s Journey After Death

  1. Reblogged this on The Simple Life and commented:
    When one is planning a long trip, does he not plan his route, consult a map or GPS, set his affairs in order, carefully pack his belongings and assure himself that he will have everything he needs for the journey? The longest, most arduous journey you will ever take is when your soul separates from your body and begins your assent to God. Death is a journey of immense importance. Should you not likewise plan for this journey?

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