When it comes to those who wish to either dismiss the idea of the toll houses, or to label them as heretical, I have often been amazed, both at the evidence that they are willing to ignore, and what they seem to think proves their case.
Let me say up front that no one I have ever come across takes the toll house imagery in a literalistic fashion. The toll houses are a particular way of speaking about a reality that is spoken about by the fathers and the services in various ways. However, the various ways that they speak about it, all point to the same reality.
One of the articles from the modernist website "Public Orthodoxy" that has been referenced by several such people in recent weeks, is "Aerial Toll Houses, Provisional Judgment, and the Orthodox Faith: A Review of The Departure of the Soul According to the Teachings of the Orthodox Church," by Stephen J. Shoemaker. And this article has been cited as proof that the toll houses are not a mainstream part of the Tradition of the Church. This article was published in 2017, and it is by a bonafide patristic scholar. In fact, I just got a copy of one his books a few weeks ago, so I don't doubt that he has a high level of familiarity with the writings of the Fathers. However, after making the case that the toll houses are not, in his opinion, found in very many of the documents of the first millennium of Church History, he wraps up his review of an 1,111 page book, with this comment:
"In the contest of angels and demons over the newly departed soul, then, the monks have admittedly identified a vibrant tradition that reaches back into the ancient church and has been witnessed by many authorities – in contrast with the aerial toll houses."
The problem with this statement is that the aerial toll houses are precisely an image of "the contest of angels and demons over the newly departed soul." So far from Dr. Shoemaker refuting the toll houses, he actually confirms them.
He goes on to assert that:
"The problem, however, is that this is not the only such tradition about the fate of the soul, and herein lies the fundamentalism that steers this volume and generates its misrepresentation of the Orthodox faith. It is a fundamentalism that insists on reading a part of the tradition, isolated from the complexity of the whole, in the most literal fashion, when perhaps more nuanced, figurative interpretations are warranted instead. For instance, how should one understand such a tradition, when read literally, in light of the well-established practice of prayer for the dead that does not mention the toll houses? The Orthodox tradition is much broader and diverse than its presention [sic] in this book. In seizing on a single strand of this tradition and investing it with absolute authority at the expense of legitimate, alternative perspectives, the book is fundamentally grounded in error, obscuring and distorting, rather than clarifying and disclosing, the full teaching of the Orthodox Church."
The problem with what he says here is that he does not demonstrate at all how the idea that there is a conflict of angels and demons over the soul of the departed contradicts anything else in the Tradition of the Church. Now if there were many Fathers that could be cited that objected to this idea, then he would have a case, but he doesn't.
We are speaking about a reality that is beyond our normal experience in this life, and so, as is the case with many spiritual and theological issues, we have to speak about them in verbal images. Verbal images point us to a reality, but they are not the reality itself. Often we have a variety of images. For example, when it comes to how Christ has saved us, we have the image of "ransom" which comes from the lips of Christ Himself (Matthew 20:28). This is an image that conveys part of the reality. It is not the only Biblical image, but it is also not an image that we are free to toss out. It is also an image, like most images, that can be pressed too far. And so, one could take it to mean that Christ is given as a ransom paid to the devil, but as we know, St. Gregory the Theologian responded to that idea with "fie upon the outrage!" (Second Oration on Easter, 22). Each image we find in Scripture tells us part of the whole, and we have to take them all together, and not press them beyond their intended purpose.
This contest between angels and demons over the soul of the departed is a reality, and it is part of what we call the particular judgment. In a recent interview, George Demacopoulos, one of the editors of "Public Orthodoxy," suggested that the toll houses denied that we would be judged by Christ (A new leader for the Greek Orthodox Church in America (The Greek Current, May 20th, 2019), at the 26:10 mark). This is of course not at all true. As Christians, we all know that there will be a general resurrection, and that some will be raised to life, and others to eternal damnation, but we will all stand before the final judgment. However, the particular (or partial) judgment, which is a universal teaching of the Church, is what happens when we die, prior to that final judgment. We will spend the time between our deaths and that final judgement somewhere. The particular judgment is what determines where we will spend that time, at least initially, before the final judgment. Many people will spend that time receiving a foretaste of torment, because they died in rebellion against God, and they will spend that time in Hades. We find a description of one such person in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus:
"And in Hades [the rich man] lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame" (Luke 16:23-24).
Now as for those who object to the idea that if you die without repentance, the demons will drag you down to Hades, and see it as "horrific"... something "contrary to the mercy of God," etc. -- when compared with this depiction by the Savior Himself of the fate of the rich man, how you get there seems to me to be a rather small matter. However bad the ride might be, it's the destination that would be the real downside to the whole deal.
And the objection to the idea that God might use demons, the devil, or evil men for that matter, to deliver judgment upon human beings, is contrary to Scripture, which is full of references to precisely that. The entire book of Habakkuk, for example, is about the Prophet Habakkuk's struggle with the idea that the people of the Kingdom of Judah, though sinful and rebellious, were punished at the hands of an even more evil nation (the Babylonians).
Both George Demacopoulos in that same interview, and Fr. Evan Armatas, on a recent episode of "Orthodoxy Live" (Ancient Faith Radio, May 19, 2019), appeal to the the funeral service, and its lack of references to toll houses, as proof that the Church does not teach such a thing. There actually is an allusion to the trials the soul endures after death in second sticheron of Monk John, which we sing towards the end of the service:
"Alas! What an agony the soul endures when from the body it is parting; how many are her tears for weeping, but there is none that will show compassion: unto the angels she turns with downcast eyes; useless are her supplications; and unto men she extends her imploring hands, but finds none to bring her rescue. Thus, my beloved brethren, let us all ponder well how brief is the span of our life; and peaceful rest for him (her) that now is gone, let us ask of Christ, and also His abundant mercy for our souls" (Funeral Text of the Greek Archdiocese of North America)
And in the stichera after the last kiss for the departed, (in the eighth sticheron) we sing:
"When the soul is about to be carried away from the body with violence by dread Angels, it forgets all kinsmen and acquaintances and is troubled concerning standing before the tribunal that is to come, that shall pass judgment upon vain things and much-toiling flesh. Then, entreating the Judge, let us all pray that the Lord will forgive him (her) the things he (she) has done" (The Office for the Burial of a Layman, vol 3, Book of Needs, (South Canaan, PA: St. Tikhon Seminary Press, 1999, p. 210). This hymn is not found in the online text of the Greek Archdiocese, which is a very much abbreviated version of the Funeral service).
Furthermore, if the souls of the departed were instantly in the eternal bliss of heaven, there would be little reason for all of the prayers in the funeral and memorial services that we do for the departed, which clearly suggest that at least most souls are in need of such prayers.
But we have more services than just the funeral service, when we pass from this world to the next. The very first service we will likely hear, before our deaths, if a priest is available, or if we wish to pray these prayers ourselves, as many saints have done before us, is the service for the departure of the soul. There are two versions of this service in the Book of Needs: one is "The Canon of Supplication to our Lord Jesus Christ and the Most-Holy Theotokos, the Mother of the Lord, at the Parting of the Soul from the Body of any Orthodox;" and the other is "The Order at the Parting of the Soul from the Body when one has Suffered for a Long Time," which is attributed in the Book of Needs to St. Andrew of Crete.
In the first of these services, we find, for example:
"Noetic roaring lions have surrounded me, seeking to carry me away and bitterly torment me. Do thou crush their teeth and jaws, O pure One, and save me" (The Canon of Supplication to our Lord Jesus Christ and the Most-Holy Theotokos, the Mother of the Lord, at the Parting of the Soul from the Body of any Orthodox, vol 3, Book of Needs, (South Canaan, PA: St. Tikhon Seminary Press, 1999, p. 76).
"Count me worthy to pass, unhindered by the persecutor, the prince of the air, the tyrant, him that stands guard in the dread pathways, and the false accusations of these, as I depart from earth" (Ibid., p. 77).
"Behold, terror has come to meet me, O Sovereign Lady, and I am afraid of it. Behold, a great struggle awaits me, in which be thou unto me a helper, O Hope of my salvation" (Ibid., p. 77).
"Do thou translate me, O Sovereign Lady, in the sacred and precious arms of the holy Angels, that sheltered by their wings, I not see the impious, foul and dark form of the demons" (Ibid., p. 79).
"Do thou count me worthy to escape the hordes of bodiless barbarians, and rise through the aerial depths and enter into Heaven, that I may glorify thee unto the ages of ages, O holy Theotokos" (Ibid., p. 81).
In the second of these services, we find:
"Behold a multitude of evil spirits are standing about, holding the handwriting of my sins, and they cry out exceedingly, shamelessly seeking my lowly soul" (The Order at the Parting of the Soul from the Body when one has Suffered fro a Long Time, vol 3, Book of Needs, (South Canaan, PA: St. Tikhon Seminary Press, 1999, p. 87).
Have mercy on me, O all holy angels of the Almighty God, have mercy upon me and save me from all the evil toll-collectors [which should actually have been translated as "toll houses," telonion poneron, in the Greek text], for I have no good deeds to balance my evil deeds" (Ibid., p. 90).
These prayers are literally the final instructions given to those about to depart this life, but these are by no means the only prayers in the liturgical tradition of the Church. For example, at Cheesefare Saturday Matins, we hear the hymn:
"We ever give thee thanks and magnify thee, O pure Theotokos; we venerate and praise thy childbearing, O full of grace, and we call upon thee without ceasing: Save us, merciful Virgin, in thy love; deliver us from the fearful scrutiny which we must undergo before the demons, and in the hour of our examination suffer not thy servants to be put to shame" (The Lenten Triodion: Supplementary Texts, trans. Mother Maria and Bishop Kallistos Ware (South Canaan: St. Tikhon Seminary Press, 2007, p. 58).
At the prayer to the Theotokos at the end of Small Compline, we ask each day for her "at in the hour of my departure, to care for my wretched soul, and drive far away from it the dark countenances of evil demons" (The Great Horologion (Brookline, MA: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, p. 1997, p. 230).
At the Saturday Midnight Office, at the prayer of St. Eustratius, we pray:
"And now, O Master, let Thy hand shelter me and let Thy mercy come upon me, for my soul is troubled and in sore distress at its departure from this, my wretched and defiled body, lest the evil counsel of the adversary come upon it and hinder it because of the sins I have committed in this life, whether in ignorance or in knowledge. Be gracious unto me, O Master, and let not my soul behold the gloomy and darksome countenance of the wicked demons, but let Thy radiant and luminous Angels receive it. Give glory unto Thy holy Name, and by Thy might lead me up unto Thy divine tribunal. When I am to be judged, let not the hand of the prince of this world seize me, that he might drag me, the sinner, down unto the deep of Hades; but stand Thou by me, and be Thou unto me a Saviour and Helper" (The Great Horologion (Brookline, MA: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, p. 1997, p. 48).
Many, many more examples could be cited here.
You also find many examples of commentaries on the Scriptures by the Fathers, which allude to this same reality.
For example, in Luke 12:20, in the parable of the rich fool, most translations read, like the King James Version:
"But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?"
However, the King James margin note, correctly notes: "Gr[eek], do they require thy soul."
Young’s Literal Translation notes this fact in its translation:
"And God said to him, Unthinking one! this night thy soul they shall require from thee, and what things thou didst prepare -- to whom shall they be?"
In the commentary of Blessed Theophylact (which is pretty much the gold standard when it comes to commentaries in the Orthodox Church) he makes a point about the verb translated by the KJV in the passive voice as "shall be required", but he points out that that it is is in the active voice, future, third person, plural -- and so should be "they shall require".
Blessed Theophylact says:
"Notice also the words "they will require". Like some stern imperial officers demanding tribute, the fearsome angels will ask for your souls, and you will not want to give it because you love this life and claim the things of this life as your own. But they do not demand the soul of a righteous man, because he himself commits his soul into the hands of God and Father of spirits, and he does so with joy and gladness, not in the least bit grieved that he is handing over his soul to God. For him the body is only a light burden, easily shed. But the sinner has made his soul fleshy, something difficult to separate from the body. This is why the soul must be demanded of him, the same way that harsh tax collectors treat debtors who refuse to pay what is due. See that the Lord did not say, "I shall require thy soul of thee," but, "they shall require"" (The Explanation of the Holy Gospel According to Luke. Fr. Christopher Stade, Trans. (House Springs, MO: Chrysostom Press, 1997), p. 148).
One of the oldest Christian texts we have is St. Justin Martyr's "Dialogue with Trypho", and in it, he says:
“And what follows of the Psalm, -- ‘But Thou, Lord, do not remove Thine assistance from me; give heed to help me. Deliver my soul from the sword, and my only-begotten from the hand of the dog; save me from the lion’s mouth, and my humility from the horns of the unicorns,’—was also information and prediction of the events which should befall Him. For I have already proved that He was the only-begotten of the Father of all things, being begotten in a peculiar manner Word and Power by Him, and having afterwards become man through the Virgin, as we have learned from the memoirs. Moreover, it is similarly foretold that He would die by crucifixion. For the passage, ‘Deliver my soul from the sword, and my only-begotten from the hand of the dog; save me from the lion’s mouth, and my humility from the horns of the unicorns,’ is indicative of the suffering by which He should die, i.e., by crucifixion. For the ‘horns of the unicorns,’ I have already explained to you, are the figure of the cross only. And the prayer that His soul should be saved from the sword, and lion’s mouth, and hand of the dog, was a prayer that no one should take possession of His soul: so that, when we arrive at the end of life, we may ask the same petition from God, who is able to turn away every shameless evil angel from taking our souls" (Dialogue with Trypho, ch. 105, ANF 1, p. 251f).
"Accordingly, being under the sentence of death, knowing that there is One Who saves and One Who delivers, 'In Thee have I put my trust,' he says, 'save me' from 'weakness' and 'deliver me' from captivity. I think that the noble athletes of God, who have wrestled considerably with the invisible enemies during the whole of their lives, after they have escaped all their persecutions and reached the end of life, are examined by the prince of the world, in order that, if they are found to have wounds from the wrestling or any stains or effects of sin, they may be detained; but, if they are found unwounded and stainless, they may be brought by Christ into their rest as being unconquered and free. Therefore he prays for his life here and for his future life. For he says: 'Save me' here 'from them that persecute me; deliver me' there in the time of the scrutiny 'lest at any time he seize upon my soul like a lion.' You may learn this from the Lord Himself who said concerning the time of His passion: 'Now the prince of this world is coming, and in me he will have nothing' [John 14:30]. He who had committed no sin said that he had nothing; but for a man it will be sufficient, if he dares to say: 'The prince of this world is coming, and in me he will have few and trivial penalties.' And there is a danger of experiencing these penalties, unless we have some one to deliver us or save us. For, the two tribulations set forth, two petitions are introduced. 'Save me from the multitude of them that persecute me, and deliver me, lest at any time I be seized as if there were no one to redeem me" [Psalm 7:2-3] (The Fathers of the Church, vol. 46: St. Basil, Exegetical Homilies, trans. Sister Agnes Clare Way, C.D.P (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1963), p. 167f).
And many more quotes of this kind are found throughout the Fathers. It just cannot be disputed that this is so, which is why so few of those who wish to dismiss this teaching of the Church actually dare to engage the evidence.
For those who wish to see more of that evidence laid out, the text "The Departure of the Soul According to the Teaching of the Orthodox Church" does so. You can also see Evidence for the Tradition of the Toll Houses found in the Universally Received Tradition of the Church online, for a small bit of that evidence.
There is nothing Gnostic about this. To avoid being dragged down to Hades, there are no secret passwords, handshakes, or incantations that will save you. You simply need to pray for "a Christian ending," and strive, by God's grace, to prepare for such an ending. A Christian ending is one, wherein a person dies, having a clear conscience, and with faith and repentance toward God. If you die in that way, you will have nothing to worry about.