The Way of All Flesh—What happens to the soul after death

Part 1

Why is earthly life is so valuable to us? What does a soul experience as it separates from the body? What are the aerial tollhouses? What is life, and what is death in the Orthodox understanding? These are the topics of a series of talks with Archpriest Oleg Stenyaev, which we will be translating for our English language readers.


Dear friends, I am happy to be with you!

Today we will talk about the value of earthly life (don’t be surprised), about death, the tollhouses, the personal judgment, and man’s lot after beyond the grave.

In our times, a departure is occurring from the basics of classical Christian theology, especially in the U.S. and Western Europe: Certain “innovative” theologians are preaching opinions that were never before known to Orthodox theology,[1] or—even worse—repeating ancient heresies that were condemned by the fathers[2] at the Church Councils.[3]

To those who believe in an apokatastasis (from the Greek ἀποκατάστασις, or “renewal”, a teaching about the salvation of all things) I recommend recalling more often the words of St. John Chrysostom: “The devil convinces some to think that there is no Gehenna in order to cast them into it. God, to the contrary, threatens us with Gehenna, and prepared it so that by knowing about it we would live in a manner that would prevent us from ending up there.”[4] Therefore, it is very important for us to return to the stream of classical Orthodox Christian theology.

Holy Hierarch Irenaus of Lyon wrote, “For error does not show itself as it really is, that by appearing in its nakedness it would not expose itself for what it is. But cunningly dressing itself in alluring clothing, it achieves what seems outwardly to the inexperienced as truer than truth itself.”[5]

On the values of earthly life

In the Bible it is written, Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth; and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth, and walk in the ways of thine heart, and in the sight of thine eyes: but know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment (Eccl. 11:9).

Sometimes as a priest I am asked, “When does the point of no return come for a person? Where is the threshold beyond which he cannot return to God?”

I reply, “This threshold is physical death. As long as a man is alive, there is hope for repentance.”

In the book of the Wisdom of Joshua, son of Sirach, is written, Before judgment examine thyself, and in the day of visitation thou shalt find mercy (Sirach 18:20). That is, before the judgment has come, before the tollhouses have begun, we should test ourselves—before the moment of our physical death. Before judgment examine thyself, and in the day of visitation thou shalt find mercy. Humble thyself before thou be sick, and in the time of sins shew repentance. Let nothing hinder thee to pay thy vow in due time, and defer not until death to be justified… Think upon the wrath that shall be at the end, and the time of vengeance, when he shall turn away his face (Sirach 18:20-22, 24).

Not a few Christians look toward life beyond the grave, toward an existence after death, hoping to find there the answer to all their problems. I call such an idea of salvation “suicidal soteriology”. This is an erroneous orientation. That our earthly life is so important is something supported by both Scripture and the sayings of the holy fathers.

Our earthly life is the most important and responsible time for precisely the work of our salvation. The holy fathers emphasize the exclusive value of earthly life. The most important (decisive) life, paradoxical as it sounds, is earthly life. Why? Because here our fate is decided—where we will live for eternity. You might say that it (earthly life) is given to us in order to determine where we will be in eternity. As it says in the treatise, “Pirkei Avot” (“Teachings of the Fathers): “A person is born for death, and dies for life”; but for which life is something he decides before the moment of death. It says in the Book of Deuteronomy, I call both heaven and earth to witness this day against you, I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse: choose… (Deut. 30:19).

In the Book of the Wisdom of Joshua, son of Sirach, it says, For it is an easy thing unto the Lord in the day of death to reward a man according to his ways. The affliction of an hour maketh a man forget pleasure: and in his end his deeds shall be discovered (Sirach 11:26-27). It is easy for God to stop this life; and then everything bad immediately comes to the fore, like residue boiling up to the surface.

In this same Book we read, Before judgment examine thyself, and in the day of visitation thou shalt find mercy... Let nothing hinder thee to pay thy vow in due time, and defer not until death to be justified (Sirach 18:20, 22). Here is the mistake many people make: They put off the moment of repentance until death; although of course they do not know when their final hour will strike. They consider themselves healthy and strong and do not think much about the fact that both health and strength can vanish in an instant.

In the early 1980s, Soviet times, I knew a man named Seraphim Ivanovich Marin. He spent over twenty years in prison and camps for preaching the Gospel. When I first met him I was sixteen years old. He told me a story about his brother Nicholai. In the 1930s, Seraphim was already a Christian believer; he prayed and read the Gospels. But his brother remained indifferent to religion. One day Seraphim Ivanovich, moved by some inner inspiration, went up to his brother and said, “You should pray and read God’s Word.”

Nicholai answered, “When I reach our parents’ age I’ll go to church, pray, and read the Scriptures. But now I’m young. I want to buy a good gramophone, listen to music, date girls… There’s a time for everything.”

At that moment, as he himself testified to me, Seraphim felt something moving him. He said, as if not with his own lips, “Nicholai, see that you are not too late!”

Only a few days passed. Seraphim, on duty as a fireman, received a call from the hospital. “Your brother was in an accident. His spine has multiple fractures, and he is lying on the operating table.” Seraphim asked for time off, went to the hospital, and saw the doctor as he was leaving the operating room.

“How is my brother?” Seraphim asked him. The doctor’s eyes were very fatigued. “We did everything we could,” he said. “My sympathies are with you.”

Nicholai’s body was brought home and placed in the icon corner. The women fussed in the kitchen, and people were constantly coming in and out to express their condolences. Things quieted down only by four in the morning. Seraphim remained one-on-one in the room with his dead brother. He sat in the armchair and immediately fell into a light sleep. He saw his brother walk in, young, handsome, and healthy. He walked up very close and said, “Sima, do you hear me? I was too late…”

If a person is late for a meeting with another person he can ask forgiveness of that person. If you are late to work you can write a letter of explanation. But if you were late in making peace with God, this tragedy will have eternal consequences. The holy apostles called upon the unbelieving and undetermined: Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:20). The holy fathers teach that everything is decided in this life.

Holy Hieromartyr Clement of Rome: “Thus let us repent while we yet live on earth, for we are clay in the artist’s hands. When the potter makes a vessel and it goes awry or collapses, he can fix it. But if he hastily places it in the hot furnace, he cannot do anything about it. So it is with us: as long as we live in this world we should repent with all our hearts for the evil we have committed in the flesh, in order to receive salvation from the Lord while we still have time for repentance. For after our departure from the world we can no longer confess or repent there.”[6]

St. Cyprian of Carthage: “Take care while you can for your safety and life… We want to convince you, that while there is still the opportunity, while there are still a few centuries, bring satisfaction to God… When the time comes to depart this place there will no longer be any place for repentance, no real satisfaction. Here life is either lost or saved. Here veneration of God and works of faith provide eternal salvation. And may no one be hindered on his path to salvation by sin or years. It is never too late to repent for him who still in this world. The entrance to God’s condescension is open, and those to seek and understand the truth will easily find it. Pray about your sins even if you are at the end of life and at departure into eternal life … divine love will provide saving condescension, and death itself will be the passage to immortality.”[7] These are the words of St. Cyprian of Carthage about how life is here either lost or found, and he emphasizes the importance of earthly life. This is said not meaning that we should be attached to everything material, which all are to perish with the using (Col. 2:22)—but in the sense that our eternal fate depends on how we conduct ourselves on earth.

St. Ephraim the Syrian: “Let us pray while there is time for it. Here, while we are in this life, we can always propitiate God. It is not hard for us to earn forgiveness and to knock at the door of His mercy at the proper time. Let us spill tears while there is still time for tears to be accepted, so that in departing to the other age we will not have wept uselessly. For there, beyond the grave, tears are of no use. Here God listens to us if we call out to Him. Here He forgives, if we ask him to forgive. Here our iniquities are smoothed out, if we are appreciative. Here is consolation. There is interrogation. Here is patience. There is severity. Here is condescension. There is justice. Here is freedom. There is judgment. Thus, free will as a sacred gift granted to every human being is given precisely so that we would, in this life, be established in either good or evil.”[8]

St. Justin (Popovich): “The religious-moral state of the soul does not fundamentally change in the afterlife. If God were to change it fundamentally, then He would be violating man’s sacrosanct free will and destroying what makes him human. Nevertheless, although the soul itself may want and desire in the afterlife to totally change itself and begin a new life that would be completely different from its life on earth, it could not do this. It could not, because in the afterlife it will not have a body, which is the necessary component of the human personality for its full self-determination and activity, and because it does not have the earthly conditions and means for salvation.”[9]

In discussing whether repentance is closed to the dead, St. John Damascene wrote: “You must know, that a fall for the angels is the same as death for people. For after they fall they have no repentance, just as humans have no repentance after death.”[10] That is how the holy fathers discuss the significance of this temporary life. “Here life is either lost or saved,” for its main purpose is, “so that in this earthly life we would be established either in good or evil.” But the paradox is, that living on earth we worry more about our bodies, which will definitely perish and die, than about the soul, which can be saved only in this earthly life. Everyone knows that no matter how much we pamper our bodies, no matter how much we take care of them and treat them medically, they will die, lie in the earth, and decompose. Yet nevertheless we zealously take care of what we will definitely lose, while we rarely even remember the soul.

The holy fathers teach that man is born to make peace with God, that only in this temporary life can we obtain peace with God and in God. We must remember this truth.

There is a story that took place not far from Constantinople. A robber often attacked peaceful citizens—he would murder, rob, beat, and rape them. It was impossible for anyone to live peacefully in that locality. When the Byzantine emperor learned of it he sent this robber a gift—a gold cross with precious stones. When the cross from the emperor was brought to the robber, he began wondering whether he was in the right occupation. This cross was a call to repentance; the robber answered the call—he returned to the city and gave himself up to the authorities. Soon it was discovered that he was terminally ill. When the robber was dying, he lay on his deathbed weeping over his mortal sins. He had a scarf that he used to wipe his tears. When he died, the demons thronged around him. He was terrified, but then two angels appeared, looking for some justification of him. These two angels could find nothing to justify him, because only ten days had passed between his last murder and his hour of death. There was not much good he could have accomplished in that time. But that handkerchief with his tears turned out to be the grounds for this man’s forgiveness. A monk who saw the angels with this handkerchief ran up to the dead man’s body. He saw the former robber, who lay there dead, and on his face was that very handkerchief, wet with his tears. That man was not late in making peace with God.[11]

There are many other stories like this.

It is written in the Book of Ecclesiastes, In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look out of the windows be darkened, and the doors shall be shut in the streets, when the sound of the grinding is low, and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird, and all the daughters of musick shall be brought low; also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets: Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern. Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it (Eccl 12:3-7).



Death for the religious man is the final penance he receives in this earthly life from God, and the faithful are called to steadfastly and courageously accept it as from the hand of God Himself.

It is said, For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain (Philip. 1:21). These courageous words were pronounced by the apostle Paul. To the person for whom, “to live is Christ,” death is also gain.

In the second Book of Maccabees, a mother persuades her sons to be courageous in the tortures and accept a martyr’s death with dignity:

Yea, she exhorted every one of them in her own language, filled with courageous spirits; and stirring up her womanish thoughts with a manly stomach, she said unto them, I cannot tell how ye came into my womb: for I neither gave you breath nor life, neither was it I that formed the members of every one of you; But doubtless the Creator of the world, who formed the generation of man, and found out the beginning of all things, will also of his own mercy give you breath and life again, as ye now regard not your own selves for his laws’ sake. Now Antiochus, thinking himself despised, and suspecting it to be a reproachful speech, whilst the youngest was yet alive, did not only exhort him by words, but also assured him with oaths, that he would make him both a rich and a happy man, if he would turn from the laws of his fathers; and that also he would take him for his friend, and trust him with affairs. But when the young man would in no case hearken unto him, the king called his mother, and exhorted her that she would counsel the young man to save his life. And when he had exhorted her with many words, she promised him that she would counsel her son. But she bowing herself toward him, laughing the cruel tyrant to scorn, spake in her country language on this manner; O my son, have pity upon me that bare thee nine months in my womb, and gave thee such three years, and nourished thee, and brought thee up unto this age, and endured the troubles of education. I beseech thee, my son, look upon the heaven and the earth, and all that is therein, and consider that God made them of things that were not; and so was mankind made likewise. Fear not this tormentor, but, being worthy of thy brethren, take thy death that I may receive thee again in mercy with thy brethren. Whiles she was yet speaking these words, the young man said, Whom wait ye for? I will not obey the king’s commandment: but I will obey the commandment of the law that was given unto our fathers by Moses (2 Macc. 7:21-30).

Here we see an example of the correct attitude toward life and death. The mystery of life is sacred gift of God, and we learn through such examples (images) the correct attitude to life (when it must be preserved, and when we must readily refuse it, if it is offered to us by means of betraying the principles of our faith). We learn here also the correct attitude toward death (which is given to us for ascent into eternal life). And naturally, He Who created us from nothingness is capable of recreating us, returning us to an even more perfect existence, about which we will speak later.

As we know, Evil shall slay the wicked (Ps. 34:21 KJV). The Septuagint (Ps. 33:21) gives a more emotional interpretation: The death of sinners is evil. In the Gospel of Luke there is a parable about the foolish rich man who thought within himself, saying, What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits? And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry. 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? (Lk. 12:17-20). The words, “thy soul shall be required of thee,” do not impart the whole tragedy of the death of a sinner whose soul has so melded with his body (fleshliness). The Church Slavonic translation is more expressive of this passage: “Душу твою истяжут,” which [in English] would mean that the soul will be torn, painfully, while the body is still alive, like arms or legs being torn from a living body.

How can it happen to the soul of a sinner that, not being a physical body itself, it has so melded with the body that the process of separation resembles a process of tearing? St. Justin (Popovich) gives a very interesting answer to this question in his Eschatology: “The sinful souls who are voluntarily united with sins and permeated with them in earthly life cannot mechanically be free of them with their departure from the body or ascent into the afterlife… the sinful soul is not forcibly freed from its beloved sins, which during its life in the body has turned them into something like a component of its being.”[12]

A word-for-word translation of the ancient Greek phrase, “Thy soul shall be required of thee” takes on an even more decisive shade, “Thy soul shall be demanded back.” Here God does not simply “tear out” the soul; He as if takes it away, as one might confiscate his property from someone who had received it for temporary use but had done it irreparable damage. It is said, Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are (1 Cor 3:16-17).

Here is how St. Theodora, a disciple of the great saint Basil the New, describes the horrors of the hour of death: “When the hour of my death came, I saw faces that I had never seen before, I heard words that I had never heard. What shall I say? Terrible and serious calamities, about which I had no understanding, met me because of my deeds. How can I relate the physical pain, heaviness and difficulty that the dying are put through? It is as if an unclothed person falls into the fire, is burned, melted, and turns into ash—that is how a person is destroyed by fatal illness at the bitter hour of the separation of soul and body. When I neared the end of my life and the time came for my departure, I saw a multitude of ethiopians milling around my bed. Their faces were dark like soot and pitch, and their eyes like burning coals. This vision is as terrible as fiery Gehenna itself. They began causing disturbance and noise. They roared like wild animals and beasts; some barked like dogs, others howled like wolves. Looking at me they threatened angrily, grasping at me, gnashing their teeth, wanting to devour me then and there. Meanwhile, they prepared charters and unfurled scrolls on which were written my evil deeds, as if they were waiting for a judge that was bound to come. My wretched soul was seized with great fear and trembling. Not only did the bitterness of death torment me but also the terrible appearance and rage of the frightening ethiopians were like another, terrible death. I looked away in order not to see their horrible faces or hear their voices, but I could not get away from them. They milled around everywhere, and there was no one to help me. When I had lost all strength I saw two light-bearing angels of God in the form of two inexpressibly beautiful youths, coming toward me.”[13]

In the 48th psalm the moment of death is described as similar to Theodora’s description: An evil day… The iniquity at my heel shall compass me about (Ps. 48:6) “An evil day”—the day of death—and after death our sins surround us. The soul leaves the body and finds itself surrounded by demons. Every sin has its “guardian angel”—a demon. In the 39th psalm the psalmist exclaims, For evils without number have encompassed me; mine iniquities took hold of me, and I became unable to see. They are multiplied more than the hairs of my head, and my heart hath failed me (Ps. 39:16-17). The heart has stopped, and the man sees his sins before his eyes. What a horrible sight!

When she was told by the Archangel Gabriel of her approaching repose, the Most Holy Virgin Mother of God prayed tearfully to the Lord to save her from the evil spirits of the air. When the hour came for her Dormition, her Son and God came down to her together with a multitude of angels and righteous spirits. And before she gave her most holy soul into the all holy hands of Christ, the Mother of God prayed to Him, saying: “Receive now my spirit in peace and guard me from the dark realms, so that I would not be met my any of satan’s attacks. The Son of God answered the Virgin Mary’s prayer and carried her blessed soul to the Heavenly Kingdom.[14]


Death itself is described in Theodora’s narrative in the following way: “Finally death itself came, roaring like a lion and very terrible in appearance. It looks like a man, only it had no body and was made only of naked human bones. It had near it various instruments of torture: swords, spears, arrows, scythes, saws, axes, and other weapons I have never seen. My poor soul trembled when it saw this. The holy angels said to death, ‘Why are you taking so long? Free this soul from its body, free it quietly and quickly, because she does not have many sins.’ Obeying this command, death came near me, took a small hatchet and first cut off my feet, then my hands, and then step-by-step cut off the rest of my limbs with the other instruments, separating joint from joint, till my whole body died. Then, taking up a small machete it cut off my head, making it as if foreign to me, for I could no longer turn it. After this, death made a sort of drink in a cup and raised it to my lips, forcing me to drink it. This drink was so bitter that my soul could not endure it—it shuddered and leapt out of my body as if it were forcefully torn from it. Then the bright angels took it into their hands. I turned around and saw my body lying breathless, insensate, and immobile, like someone who has removed his clothing and cast it aside and then looks at it. That is how I looked at my body from which I had been freed, and was very amazed at it.”[15]

One doctor I know carefully read this description of death in Theodora’s narrative and noted that the process of dying can be described precisely that way: “First it cut off my legs, then arms, and then… the rest of my limbs, separating joint from joint, and my whole body died… it cut off my head.” And in fact when a man dies, the legs and arms first grow cold, then the internal organs (blood circulation stops), and then comes death—“it cut off my head” (brain death[16]).

Let us note also the words: “I turned around and saw my body lying breathless, insensate, and immobile, like someone who has removed his clothing and cast it aside and then looks at it. That is how I looked at my body, from which I had been freed, and was very amazed at it.” Many who have experienced so-called “clinical death” have seen, like Blessed Theodora, their body from the outside—there have been tens of thousands of testimonials like this collected. And this is testimony from people of varying faiths, nationalities, gender, and age. It is amazing that although there are differences in details, their descriptions of the death experience are the same.


St. Gregory the Dialogist, Pope of Rome, says, “We must seriously contemplate how terrible the hour of death will be for us, what horror there will be for the soul, what remembrance of all evils, what forgetfulness of all passing joys, what fear and wariness of the Judge. Then the evil spirits will search for all the deeds in the departing soul; then they will bring forth for all to see the sins it inclined towards, in order to draw their accomplice into the torments. But why do we speak only of the sinful souls when these spirits come even to the dying elect and search out everything belonging to them, if they had any success with them? There has been only One among men, Who before his suffering fearlessly said, I will not now speak many things with you. For the prince of this world cometh, and in me he hath not any thing. (Jn. 14:30).[17]

In this life the existence of our body is supported by our soul, and when the soul departs from the body, the body dies. It has been said, The body without the spirit is dead Jas. 2:26). Outside the body the soul does not have the fullness of existence, as we will see further on. But in the future, when the body resurrects and the soul returns to it, then the resurrected body will communicate the fullness of being to the soul. We read, in all things; that your whole spirit, and soul, and body, may be preserved blameless in the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thess. 5:23). That is, the whole person is the spirit, the soul, and the body. And if we can only save the soul in this earthly life, then the salvation of the body is in all things; and the body should be preserved blameless in the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The day of the salvation of the body is the day of the Resurrection of the bodies, in the coming of the Lord.

After death

The soul spends the first three days after earthly death on the earth, according to the Church’s teaching, near those places that were dear to it. St. Macarius of Alexandria writes, “For two days the soul is allowed along with the angels accompanying it to walk the earth, where it wishes. Therefore the soul that loves the body sometimes wanders near the home where it departed from the body, and sometimes near the coffin where the body has been laid; and in this way it spends two days like a bird seeking its nest. But the virtuous soul walks among those places where it had the custom of working righteousness.”[18]

Usually I tell my parishioners: When you die, don’t waste your three days walking around the places you remember from earthly life or hang around your own dead body. Take advantage of the opportunity the soul has to be transported at the speed of thought and take a posthumous pilgrimage to Jerusalem, spend three days at the Lord’s Sepulcher—all for free!

St. Macarius of Alexandria taught the importance of a church funeral: “When on the third day offerings are brought to the church, the soul of the dead receives from the angel guarding it ease in the sorrow it feels from its separation from the body; it feels this because the psalmody and offerings in the Church of God are made for it, and from this is born good hope… On the third day, the One Who rose from the dead commands in imitation of His Resurrection that every Christian soul be taken to heaven to worship the God of all.”[19]

But it is more important to request that the dead be commemorated at the proskemedia at the Liturgy. Particles taken [from the prosphora] (for the living and the dead) are brought during the Cherubic Hymn from the table of oblation to the throne, or holy table. And at the end of Communion the particles are brushed from the diskos to the chalice containing the Body and Blood of Christ and thus washed by Christ’s Blood, which has enormous significance, especially for reposed souls. St. Gregory the Great (the Dialogist), Pope of Rome, taught that, “We must know that the Holy Sacrifice brings benefit only to those dead who earned in this life the possibility to be helped by the good deeds done for them by others. Meanwhile we must also always think about how much surer it is to do good deeds ourselves in this life, rather than hope that others will do them for us after our death. It is more blessed to leave this world free than to seek freedom once we have been bound. Therefore, the more clearly we see the paucity of this age, the more we should disdain it with our whole souls, make daily offerings of tears to God, and bring the Sacrifice of Christ’s Body and Blood each day.”[20]

The words, “We must know that the Holy Sacrifice brings benefit only to those dead who earned in this life the possibility to be helped by the good deeds done for them by others” correspond perfectly with what Christ said, Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? (Matt. 7:16) This does not mean that man is saved by his own works; it is more his works that reveal in him the saving gift of grace, as the apostle James said, Yea, a man may say, thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works (Jas. 2:18). It is not works that give birth to faith but faith that make a person virtuous. Therefore, in the teaching of the aerial tollhouses there is not even a hint of Pelagianism.

The words, “We must also always think about how much surer it is to do good deeds ourselves in this life, rather than hope that others will do them for us after our death,” does not mean that the living can do good deeds for the dead. But first of all it tells us that the dead man’s will had such a strong moral influence on the living that they (the living) continue after his death to abide under his good influence; and this is undoubtedly the dead one’s merit. It has been said, Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation (Heb. 13:7). What St. Gregory said—that it is surer to do good deeds in this life—is true, for we can leave good or bad influence after our death; and so it is better for us to take care for the soul while it is still in the body, and we have time for repentance and correction.

On the third to the ninth day the soul is taken to worship God and see the beauty of Paradise. It has been said, And that there are laid up for us dwellings of health and safety, whereas we have lived wickedly? And that the glory of the most High is kept to defend them which have led a wary life, whereas we have walked in the most wicked ways of all? And that there should be shewed a paradise, whose fruit endureth for ever, wherein is security and medicine, since we shall not enter into it? (For we have walked in unpleasant places.) And that the faces of them which have used abstinence shall shine above the stars, whereas our faces shall be blacker than darkness? ([Slavonic] 3 Esdras 7, 51–55 [Sepuagint][21] 2 Esdras 51-55).

On the ninth to the fortieth day the soul passes through the tollhouses, after which the time comes for the personal judgment. After the judgment the soul is sent to the place where it will abide until the Second Coming of Christ.

Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose), who always viewed modernists and neo-Protestants with skepticism, noted a brochure by the evangelist Billy Graham. Fr. Seraphim wrote, “Thus, the Protestant Evangelist Billy Graham writes in his book on angels: “At the moment of death the spirit departs from the body and moves through the atmosphere. But the Scripture teaches us that the devil lurks there. He is ‘the prince of the power of the air’ (Eph. 2:2). If the eyes of our understanding were opened, one would probably see the air filled with demons, the enemies of Christ. If satan could hinder the angel of Daniel for three weeks on his mission to earth, we can imagine the opposition a Christian may encounter at death…. The moment of death is satan’s final opportunity to attack the true believer; but God has sent His angels to guard us at that time.” (Billy Graham, Angels, God’s Secret Messengers, Doubleday, New York, 1975, pp. 150–51.)[22] It is remarkable that using only the Bible, a Protestant author came to such a discovery. This once again proves not only the patristic, but also the biblical origin of the teaching on the aerial tollhouses.

[1] Fr. Seraphim (Rose), who was well acquainted with the system of Orthodox education in the U.S. and Western Europe, wrote: “Perhaps no aspect of Orthodox eschatology has been so misunderstood as this phenomenon of the aerial toll-houses. Many graduates of today’s modernist Orthodox seminaries are inclined to dismiss the whole phenomenon as some kind of "later addition" to Orthodox teaching, or as some kind of "imaginary" realm without foundation in Scriptural or Patristic texts or in spiritual reality. Such students are the victims of a rationalistic education which is lacking in a refined awareness of the different levels of reality which are often described in Orthodox texts, as well as of the different levels of meaning often present in Scriptural and Patristic writings. The modern rationalistic over-emphasis on the "literal" meaning of texts and a "realistic" or this-worldly understanding of the events described in Scripture and in Lives of Saints—have tended to obscure or even blot out entirely the spiritual meanings and spiritual experiences which are often primary in Orthodox sources. Therefore, Bishop Ignatius—who on the one hand was a "sophisticated" modern intellectual, and on the other a new and simple child of the Church—can well serve as a bridge on which today’s Orthodox intellectuals might find their way back to the true tradition of Orthodoxy” (The Soul After Death, 2nd ed. [Platina: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1995], 16).

[2] The Symbol of the Faith of St. Athanasius the Great (430-500) teaches: “With His Coming all people will resurrect in their bodies and each will give account of his deeds: those who did good will go to eternal life, and those who did evil will go to eternal fire. This is the catholic faith, and anyone who does not hold to it steadfastly and faithfully cannot be saved.”

[3] Resolution of the Local Constantinople Council of 543 on the general salvation (anathema of Origen): 9: If anyone says or thinks that punishment of demons and unclean [spirits] is temporary and that it will come to an end in some period of time, or that there exists an apokatastasis of demons and unclean [spirits], may he be cut off from the communion of the faithful (Anathema).”

[4] The Encyclopedia of the Orthodox Faith from A to Z in the sayings of the Holy Fathers, (Klin: Christian Life, 2004) p. 15 [Russian].

[5] See St. Irenaus of Lyons, Against Heresies, vols. 1, 2.

[6] Cited from: Silvester (Malevansky), Archimandrite, Experience in Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, (St. Petersburg: Abbes Thaisia Society, 2008) 5:79 [Russian].

[7] Cited from: Ibid., 80-81

[8] Cited from: Ibid., 81,

[9] St. Justin (Popovich), Dogmatics of the Orthodox Church: Eschatology (Moscow: Publishing Council of the Moscow Patriarchate, 2005) 5:83 [Russian].

[10] Cited from: Silvester (Malevansky), Archimandrite, Experience in Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, 5:83 [Russian].

[11] Mark (Lozinsky), Igumen. Patericon for the Preacher, 776; V. Guriev, Archpriest, Prologue (Sergiev Posad: Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra, 1996) 117 [Russian].

[12] St. Justin (Popovich), Dogmatics of the Orthodox Church: Eschatology, 52-53 [Russian].

[13] See: Life of St. Basil the New. The tollhouses of St. Theodora. Vision of Gregory, disciple of St. Basil, on the Last Judgment (Moscow: Siberskaya blagozvonitsa, 2009) [Russian].

[14] The Menaion, August 15.

[15] See: Life of St. Basil the New.

[16] Brain death in modern medicine means the moment of death.

[17] See: St. Gregory the Dialogist, Selected Works vol. 7. Forty Conversations on the Gospels. Conversation 39:8 (Moscow: Palomnik, 1999).

[18] St. Macarius of Alexandra, Homily on the departure of the souls of the righteous and sinners (Christian readings, 1832, August).

[19] Ibid.

[20] St. Gregory the Great the Dialogist, Selected Works. Conversations on the lives of the Italian fathers on the immortality of the soul (Moscow: Palomnik, 1999) 705-6.


[22] Fr. Seraphim (Rose), The Soul After Death, 8th ed. (Platina: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2009), 84.

Ted Bruckner8/25/2021 2:41 pm
The Septuagint Ecclesiastes 11:9, 10 … Rejoice, O young man, in your youth; and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth, and walk in the ways of your heart SPOTLESS, and NOT in the sight of your eyes and know that in all these God shall bring you into judgment. Also, remove ANGER from your heart, and put away desire from your flesh because youth and THOUGHTLESSNESS are vanity. It's sad Orthodox Christians in the West use the Masoretic Text; it's so falsified and mutilated.
Christine6/29/2021 5:21 pm
I'm just an inquirer from a protestant background, but I'm thoroughly confused. Our priest believes in the tollhouses but he says its like asking someone who is learning addition to do calculus. An acquaintance of mine told me that she believed that if you didn't make it up the ladder of divine ascent, you didn't fall off into hell, but your soul would reenter your body. That can't take 40 days. God's time is not our time. There is a priest on YouTube who says we can pray for the dead 20 years after they died and because God is outside of time and knows past, present and future all at once, our prayers apply to the judgment at the moment of their death. I actually prefer that interpretation rather than thinking that our loved ones are suffering or standing around their bodies at our human understanding of 3 days or 40 days, etc. This is not helpful for making converts. This and the constant Greek-Russian conflict and insistence of having services in the language of the "old country" is what is holding back a mass conversion of many protestants. We are tired of being entertained instead of worshipping God. Every Greek festival or other event held in an Orthodox church in the US could be welcoming new people if the current members wanted them. Before my father died, my mother had inquired about Greek Orthodoxy at the local church after going to the festival and the priest didn't seem welcoming and when she asked how much of the service was in Greek, he indicated a lot, but she could read the translation. It was like a Greek club instead of the missionary zeal of the early church. Now I'm trying to get my whole family to agree to join and having many problems. It shouldn't be this off-putting with controversies like this. It is the true church in my opinion.
Micke Stensson3/14/2018 6:50 am
”The Scriptures are not more profound, not more important than Holy Tradition but, as said above, they are one of its forms — the most precious form, both because they are preserved and convenient to make use of. But removed from the stream of Sacred Tradition, the Scriptures cannot be rightly understood through any scientific research.The Church has her origins, not in the Scriptures but in Sacred Tradition. The Church did not possess the New Testament during the first decades of her history. She lived then by Tradition only — the Tradition St. Paul calls upon the faithful to hold (cf. 2 Thess. 2:15).” Elder Sophrony of Essex.
ChiRho9/29/2016 4:29 pm
Thank you for translating this into English. I look forward to reading the others in this series.
Bob9/28/2016 7:59 pm
A truly provocative article raising questions (as Castrese noted)about the apparent contradiction between saving our soul in this earthly life and benefiting from prayer made on our behalf when we are deceased. Just what are those benefits? What does prayer do for the souls of the deceased? What evidence from Scripture supports such claims? And what about those souls who for whatever reason outside their control are not prayed for? Are they any less acceptable to God irrespective of the faith they lived on earth? And for how long are the prayers needed? Not too many years will pass before no one is left who will pray for those souls because they will not consider their personal connection to the earlier deceased. Is our place in the after-life to be dependent on the living and yet unborn people that live after we are departed? God forbid that should be the case because then our hope would have to turn to successive generations instead of focusing our hearts on Christ while we have breath of life and the choice to do so.
Castrese Tipaldi9/27/2016 6:50 pm
I find the article a bit problematic in those parts where it seems to give very little importance to the prayers for the dead. If the state of the the souls after death is absolutely immutable, why bother with prayer and almsgivings (they ARE deeds for the dead)?

This is extremely pernicious for the servants of God, above all those who have come to the Church late in their life, who have the totality of their relatives departed in the error (in many case without anybody showing them the Church while they lived). They could be lead to desperation, a desperation which will be answered by those who caused it.

The task of a pastor is to keep their flock's heads in hell and DESPAIR NOT!

Eternity is for the age to come, after the Lord's coming, this time in glory and with great power. Until then, the departed cannot do anything anymore for themselves, but WE CAN do it for them!
Bob9/21/2016 8:07 pm
It's amazingly condescending and elitist to say how remarkable it is that by using ONLY the Bible, a Protestant author (implying, of all the least likely people!) could come to such a discovery related to the "tollhouses." I don't discount the merit of patristic teaching, but if the basis for such is not of the Scripture, then anyone could make anything up at any time. So far as I see it, too much extrapolation has been made to specify what happens in the first 40 days after death. Paul said, "To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord." I leave it there. The author is correct in saying our only time to acquire eternal salvation is in this earthly life, so that should remain our focus.
Anthony9/19/2016 3:54 pm
An especially important for western converts to Orthodoxy who have had their minds (and souls) poisoned by heretical teachings from modernist pseudo theologians who have by and large themselves been sent packing helter skelter from canonical Orthodox Churches. Most of those who attack the Church's Tradition on life after death and in particular the Toll Houses have done so out of spite and malice towards Fr Seraphim Rose. There are loads of Orthodox books on the subject besides Fr Seraphim's work The soul after death:

Trampling down death by death - Fr Spyridon Bailey

Life after death - Met Hierotheos of Nafpaktos

How our departed ones live - Monk Mitrophan

Spiritual Counsels vol IV - St Paisios

Life after death according to the Orthodox Tradition - Prof Jean Claude Larchete

Eternal mysteries beyond the grave.

Avoid any poison written by Dr Michael Azkoul phd or Ron Haler who uses the name "Lazar Puhalo"

Here you can leave your comment on the present article, not exceeding 4000 characters. All comments will be read by the editors of OrthoChristian.Com.
Enter through FaceBook
Your name:
Your e-mail:
Enter the digits, seen on picture:

Characters remaining: 4000

to our mailing list

* indicates required