The Geography of Heaven and Hell

I noticed tonight in a Facebook discussion a reference to this article – thus I thought a reprint might be timely. I continue to be amazed at the literalism that infects the minds of many Christians. Just because Scripture uses the language of geography to describe something does not at all mean that we should assume that it is referring to a literal geography. Those whose imaginations are filled with various versions of heaven and hell in literal terms – it seems to me – lack imagination. The accounts of Christ after the Resurrection, though marked occasionally with very physical descriptions, are clearly marked as well with things that defy everything we know of physicality. His Resurrection is the only “image” of a tangible/non-tangible sort that we can point to for the character of life after death. Some Christians so lack imagination that they won’t let Christ off a literal throne in heaven and use such nonsense to deny the complete reality of the transformation of the Eucharist into His body and blood. In earlier centuries of the Church, such notions would (and were ) declared heresy by the Fathers. How can we worship God in awe and wonder when He is reduced to such understandable terms. Jesus Christ is Lord and His resurrected existence is the only measuring stick (if you will) of reality. 

The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) has a long history of teasing Christians into dangerous territory. I suspect that many if not most Christians have more than a little curiosity about life after death. We want to know what happens. We want to know “how things work.” And this parable – at least on its surface – seems to give more indication of “how things work” than almost any other passage in Scripture.

It gives us a geography of sorts: Lazarus is in “Abraham’s bosom” apparently enjoying good things; the rich man is in Hades and in torment; we are told that there is a “great gulf fixed between the two” so that no one can come from Hades to Abraham’s bosom and no one from Abraham’s bosom can go to Hades.

It interests me that many Christians use this parable as a “map” of the after-life, or at least as a story that supports their own “map” of life after death.

The most important feature of such maps is the very “fixed” character of their geography. What seems most important to them is that one character is in one place and the other character is in another place and there is no traffic between the two. (To read some useful Orthodox thought on life after death and Christ descent into Hades – the following article is of interest.)

It would seem that the reason some Christians like this is that it fits their own map of God and life after death. There are those who seem to like things to be stableand unchangeable – by this I mean they want a life after death (and a life before death) with clearly defined rules, boundaries, unbending laws and the like.

In such a map of things – those who obey the rules, observe the boundaries and master the laws do well. Those who do not – are punished. Such a world, it seems to them, is the way things ought to be, and to be the best way to either reward the good, correct the bad, or punish the incorrigible.

I might add that if you want a world like this – then it is even better if you can find a way to secure God as its underwriter. Many people do this under the heading of the “justice of God.” They will say that “God is just and He cannot deny His justice,” thus forcing God to have very clear rules and guaranteeing that He cannot break His own rules.

Several things to note:

1. There are no maps of the afterlife. Regardless of the descriptions in this parable – the purpose of the parable is not to teach us the topography of heaven and hell. Where, I will ask, is Abraham’s Bosom? How do we think of this as a place? Hades has the same problem – where do you place it? As for the Great Gulf – of what does the gulf consist? What sort of obstacle is insurmountable in these circumstances?

The point of the parable is found in its end: “If they have not listened to Moses and the Prophets, neither would they listen to someone even if he came back from the dead.” It is not a parable about the topography of the after-life, but a comment about our present life and our unwillingness to hear the gospel.

2. Important, and please note carefully: no matter how much some may want the world – particularly God’s world –  to be describable in clearly defined rules, boundaries and unbending laws – it’s just not the case. If there is a “rule” of any sort – it is God Himself – it is Personal – and is defined only by mercy, love and kindness.

And so it is that the “Way” forward, backwards, up or down, however you want to describe our travel in the Kingdom of God – the Way only follows the map of the heart of God. If you want to know the way to go – if you want to know how things work – then you have to know the heart of God. You have to know God Himself.

And this is all that we need to know for life here – and life hereafter. God Himself is our heaven – and in the teachings of the Fathers – God Himself is our hell – for hell is nothing other than our self-imposed refusal to accept the love of God. It is that refusal that brings its own torment.

If we have the eyes to see – we are already traveling the roads of heaven and hell – already dwelling in the bosom of Abraham or in the torments of Hades. The geography of that journey is the geography of love and mercy, kindness and forgiveness – or contrary – hatred and judgment, violence self-conceit, slander and calumny.

Judge for yourself – for we’ve all experienced both. Where do you want to dwell? The good news is that whatever gulf is fixed in our heart – whatever wall or chasm has been erected within us – Christ has gone there. He descended into Hades. If you will look within yourself – into the darkness of your own private hell – you will find Christ there – for He has gone there to look for you. And as sure as He trampled down death by death – He can trample down your own hell and translate you into the Kingdom of light.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.





55 responses to “The Geography of Heaven and Hell”

  1. knowablesalvage Avatar

    There is no metre to fill a measure
    Of the beat of pain
    Or pause for pleasure

    No rhyme will fit the issue
    Of a life lived with
    Or spent without You

    No word to record
    One step in Eden
    With You Lord

    But when needed
    By Your Grace
    You have changed
    All time and space

    Metre, Measure, Rhyme
    The Word, one day, I feel
    Face to face
    To Be revealed

    Words are what we know to speak of things. Some cultures have believed that to name something, could give you power over or ownership of the thing so named. We so want our facts, as we name them, to add up to a Truth we might somehow control. It is a Severe Mercy that keeps this from us. I have written of poetry:” Facts find things familiar to prop upon . Truth stands alone.” I am sceptical as to what can be known in a literal way. The word Adam uses to name where he is hiding, somehow block for him the truth of where The Word knows he is.

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  3. davidperi Avatar

    Thank you for posting. I have been reading about “Toll Houses” …the thought by some that christians, after they die, will go through Toll Houses…stations along the way…to be judged again for their deeds in this life. Fr Stephen..what are you thoughts about this? Many Orthodox do not believe in this and some may say…so and so about it. Thank you for your comments. (personally, I do not ascribe to this theological debate that it comes from non-Orthodox sources like the Egyptian Bk of the Dead, etc.?

  4. Andrew Avatar

    Very well put Father, thank you 🙂

  5. Philip Jude Avatar

    Many famous Orthodox saints seem to hold a fairly strict interpretation of the toll houses. I’ve always found the idea a bit disconcerting. I’m also interested on your thoughts regarding this subject, Father.

  6. Margaret Avatar

    Thank you for this post, Fr. Stephen!

    Concerning the comments made so far, I too would like to know if you have any thoughts about toll booths; as having read some church fathers and being an Orthodox Christian, I’ve heard about toll booths, but I’ve not read about or looked into the subject.

  7. Leonard Nugent Avatar

    Father I read most of Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev’s article. When he says “But we do know that since the descent of Christ into Hades the way to resurrection has been opened for ‘all flesh’, salvation has been granted to every human being, and the gates of paradise have been opened for all those who wish to enter through them.” I think this is truly good news!

  8. (another) Elizabeth Avatar
    (another) Elizabeth

    Fr. Stephen,
    it was here on your blog you posted that wonderful quote about the dividing line between heaven and hell going through each person’s very heart. Maybe it was in the Theophany post, or whichever one had that sweet but powerful bedtime prayer your then-young son composed (“…kill it with your sword, kill it with your sword, amen.”)…Anyway, that quote seems to fit nicely with this particular post.

  9. Rhonda Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I too am amazed by the literalism of many non-Orthodox regarding the Holy Scriptures, especially when they so readily espouse symbolism when it comes to such topics as the Literal Presence of the Eucharist or some other Orthodox doctrine that is inconvenient for them. Little do they realize that they lose both the Holy Scriptures & God in the process. I recently discussed the book Freedom of Morality by Christos Yannaras as well as Heaven or Hell being as you wrote with an evangelical family member. In the end he commented that if Orthodoxy was right about these things, then they truly terrified him. He therefore stated that he chose to believe Orthodoxy was wrong because he needed Heaven/Hell to be a reward/punishment meted out according to an absolute moral code. It was just easier for him that way.

  10. Leonard Nugent Avatar

    Philip Jude I read the Orthowiki about the tool houses. Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev in the linked article mentions some thoughts that Aquinas and others in the western church have had we have since walked away from. I guess both church’s have missed it on this question

  11. Philip Jude Avatar

    “In the end he commented that if Orthodoxy was right about these things, then they truly terrified him. He therefore stated that he chose to believe Orthodoxy was wrong because he needed Heaven/Hell to be a reward/punishment meted out according to an absolute moral code. It was just easier for him that way.”

    There still is “reward” and “punishment,” it’s just meted out by ourselves. We either turn toward God or away from God. The former is its own reward, the latter its own punishment. Hell is being at war with God, plain and simple.

  12. fatherstephen Avatar

    It’s true that I keep some thoughts rather close to my chest. I cannot find any significant support for Toll Houses in the earlier fathers, and find the kind of literalism that some would apply to them to be even beyond what Seraphim Rose himself wrote. I think it enjoys a popularity among some Orthodox today of which it is not deserving. Better to spend time forgiving enemies than find new reasons to argue or hate people. I trust in Christ for my salvation, my guardian angel to do what he has been assigned to do, and the Mother of God and the saints to pray me through whatever. I have no other help or salvation than Christ. These things (whether geological or quasi legalistic) have no place within my heart. I apologize to those who may be offended by such a heart as mine.

  13. Margaret Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, thank you for sharing your thoughts concerning toll houses. I have not read Seaphim Rose on this point and do not feel the need to do so. I am so comforted by your encouraging words here. Thank you!

  14. Mark Andrew Moje Avatar

    Another excellent article. I’ve been reading a lot of your articles Father Stephen since I found your blog. While I am not Orthodox but Eastern Catholic, your writings have enriched my own Eastern spirituality.

    This is bar none my favorite blog, and i eagerly await every new article.

  15. […] Stephen hits another one out of the park in “The Geography of Heaven and Hell.” After he notes the tendency (I won’t even say “of some,” because I think […]

  16. Karen Avatar

    Thanks be to God! Father, thank you for this repost.

  17. Marc Deneau Avatar
    Marc Deneau

    Thank you Father Stephen about your clarifications, and thank you about you comments about the toll houses. I myself can’t believe the concept of these dreaded «toll houses». The intent behind this concept may be good (generating repentance) but like any «man-made» attempts at salvation, in the end it only generates unhealthy fear. It has unfortunately penetrated the thinking of many otherwise excellent theologians over generations. I personnally see it as folklore and as such it should be, in my opinion, rejected as having no solid evidence in the teachings of our Holy Fathers.

  18. Brian Niphon Andrews Avatar

    I will certainly forgive the thoughts of your heart, Father, concerning the toll-houses. But it seems to me that this is a very ancient belief, and well-attested by more recent saints like Archbishop John Maximovitch.
    I am curious, however, as to what you make of the traditional time periods of prayer for the dead (pannikhidas on the third or fortieth day, for example) if you do not subscribe to the doctrine of the toll-houses. Surely you do not maintain that these also are pious fictions?

  19. Galatian Avatar

    Reading Timothy (Kallistos) Ware’s book on Orthodoxy, he says that many within the Eastern tradition hold to the idea of universal salvation whilst others do not. He also suggests that Hell is one of our own making – the choosing not to take advantage of what God has made available.

    You might accuse Protestants of an over-literal view of those portions of scripture which deal with the afterlife, especially the bad outcome, but it cannot be denied that Jesus said many of these things, over and over again, and in many contexts: some parabolic (as in the “Dives and Lazarus” story) but others of a plain old variety: “watch your step” – watch your step if you deny me before me (lest I deny YOU before my Father); watch your step if you do not help your brothers and sisters in need (lest I say DEPART FROM ME), watch your step if your eye or your hand lead you into sin (lest you are cast into Gehenna with all your faculties).

    We can argue the toss about what exactly happens, but it doesn’t look pretty to me. Repent often; call on him for mercy and strength to resist temptation; ask for deliverance from evil – and yes believe that in one way shape or form he has ransomed us from our sin.

  20. Brian Avatar

    I am quite certain Fr. Stephen did not intend for this topic of “toll-houses” to become the focus of his post, but I myself was once troubled by what I had heard until I read an excellent essay written by Fr. Michael Pomazansky. And since it is falls within the context of amazement “at the literalism that infects the minds of many Christians” as well as Fr. Stephen’s own expression of faith (“I trust in Christ for my salvation, my guardian angel to do what he has been assigned to do, and the Mother of God and the saints to pray me through whatever. I have no other help or salvation than Christ.”), I offer these excerpts from Fr. Michael’s essay in the hope that others find it as helpful as I did. Forgive me, Father. If you feel it is inappropriate, please delete it from your blog.

    “The subject of the toll-houses is not specifically a topic of Orthodox Christian theology: it is not a dogma of the Church in the precise sense, but comprises material of a moral and edifying character, one might say pedagogical. To approach it correctly, it is essential to understand the foundations and the spirit of the Orthodox world-view…

    “It is perfectly clear to anyone that purely earthly images are applied to a spiritual subject so that the image, being impressed in the memory, might awaken a man’s soul. “Behold the Bridegroom cometh at midnight, and blessed is the servant whom He shall find watching…”

    “We respond to the discussion on the toll-houses, a topic which is secondary in the realm of our Orthodox thought, because it gives an occasion to illuminate the essence of our Church life. Our Christian Church life of prayer is uninterrupted mutual communion with the heavenly world. It is not simply an “invocation of the saints,” as it is often called; it is an interaction in love…
    “For the soul there is no death. Life in Christ is a world of prayer. It penetrates the whole body of the Church, unites every member of the Church with the Heavenly Father, the members of the earthly Church with themselves, and the members of the earthly Church with the Heavenly Church. Prayers are the threads of the living fabric of the Church body…

    “Threats are necessary; they can and should warn us, restrain us from evil actions. The same Church instills in us that the Lord is compassionate and merciful, long-suffering and plenteous in mercy, and is grieved over the evil doings of men, taking upon Himself our infirmities. In the Heavenly Church are also our intercessors, our helpers, those who pray for us. The Most Pure Mother of God is our protection. Our very prayers are the prayers of saints, written down by them, which came from their contrite hearts during the days of their earthly life. Those who pray can feel this, and thus the saints themselves become closer to us. Such are our daily prayers; such also is the whole cycle of the Church’s Divine services of every day, of every week, and of the Feasts.

    “The enemies of the air are powerless against such help. But we must have faith, and our prayers must be fervent and sincere. There is more joy in heaven over one who repents, than over others who need no repentance. How insistently the Church teaches us (in its litanies) to spend “the rest of our life in peace and repentance,” and to die thus! It teaches us to call to remembrance our Most Holy, Most Pure, Most Blessed Lady Theotokos and all the saints, and then to commit ourselves and one another unto Christ our God.”

  21. lhwhitaker Avatar

    “It would seem that the reason some Christians like this is that it fits their own map of God and life after death. There are those who seem to like things to be stable and unchangeable – by this I mean they want a life after death (and a life before death) with clearly defined rules, boundaries, unbending laws and the like.”

    Well, since the Church teaches them that God’s laws are stable and unchangeable: “You cannot do this; you must not do that; you absolutely positively cannot do THAT,” isn’t the desire for a stable unchangeable heaven and hell understandable?

  22. Leonard Nugent Avatar

    There has been a great discussion about toll houses and purgatory and what it’s all like. Let me suggest the following..whenever you see a hungry or a homeless person and you have some way to give him or her a sandwich, do that and whatever it’s like will take care of itself.

  23. Karen Avatar

    Brian, thank you. I think I read that essay a few years ago. I recall it was quite helpful. If the entire essay is online, would you be able to include the link for those who might like to have it as a resource?

    Re: tollhouses, I think the pedagogical aspect of such images is really key to understanding their place in the tradition. Like Jesus’ parables in the Scriptures, they point to a spiritual truth, but if we try to form too literal and precise analogies between them and the dogmatic teachings of the Church, we will go astray. What I understand from the tollhouses (and a conviction I had developed through being a student of the Scriptures and of my own heart before I encountered this teaching) is that we do not magically become someone different in the moments after we die than the person we are in the process of becoming before we die. Few of us reach the particular judgment having been entirely released in this life from all our sinful inclinations or temptations. Any ongoing unfinished spiritual work in our soul will still have to be dealt with after death in the same way that we deal with it in the sanctification process in this life, i.e., through dependence upon Christ and His Church, through repentance and faith. I’m comforted by promises such as, “. . . He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6). It’s interesting that this verse explicitly says to a particular group of Christians that Christ’s work in them will continue until (and I don’t know Greek, but there is a word translated “until” in the Scriptures that does not imply the action stops after the event it pertains to, but is meant to affirm a perpetual process) the “day of Christ Jesus,” i.e., His Second Coming. IOW, it is an explicitly Scriptural teaching that our relationship with God doesn’t remain static after death, but continues to be infinitely perfected. It seems to me, Fr. Stephen has pointed the way forward where he says: “I trust in Christ for my salvation, my guardian angel to do what he has been assigned to do, and the Mother of God and the saints to pray me through whatever. I have no other help or salvation than Christ.”

  24. Darlene Avatar

    One could read your article as supporting Universalism. I’ve come to discover there is a strand of that running through current Orthodoxy in some circles. However, Heaven and hell are realities of which our Lord Jesus Christ spoke, notwithstanding the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. Being familiar as you are with Protestant Evangelicalism, Father, you must know there are numerous passages that non-Orthodox Christians point to within Holy Scripture that refer to Heaven and hell. And these passages speak of both of these realities as actual places, not just makings of our own imagination.

    My point: even if this particular parable doesn’t speak specifically about “the topography of heaven and hell,” there are many places in Scripture that do. Jesus spoke of a place where men will “weep and gnash their teeth.” Matthew 8:12, 13:42, 13:50, 22:13, 24:51, Luke 13:28. There will be a place where the sheep and goats are separated according to what they have done in this life, a place where Christ will say to some, “Depart from me.” Matthew 25:41 There is no getting away from that even in proclaiming the rich love and mercy of God. There is no way to soften such a reality thereby distorting the words of our Lord Jesus. To do so is to mislead people into thinking it will turn out just fine for everybody in the end no matter how they have lived.

  25. fatherstephen Avatar

    I do not advocate Universalism – but the passages you cite do not describe “place” (what do teeth have to do with place)? The fathers do not generally treat the descriptions of heaven or hell in a literal or topological sense. One should read St, Mark of Ephesus in his refutation of the errors of the RC Church, definitively denying the “materiality” of the fire of hell. The is not a recent strain, but part of patristic teaching. By no means do I say or have I said that heaven and hell exist only in the imagination. Indeed, the imagination can often be part of hell itself. They are what they are, but the nature of hell is not properly described as “real” because God alone is real. Hell, indeed, is a failure to embrace that which is real. (I admit I’m using “real” in a nuanced manner, but it is necessary). Heaven is indeed real, because it is in Christ. The best and clearest definition of hell that I can think of in Scripture is Christ’s statement in John chapter 3, “This is condemnation – that Light has come into the world and men preferred darkness to the Light, because their deeds were evil.” This is less metaphorical than “the worm dieth not” or “gnashing of teeth” etc.

  26. fatherstephen Avatar

    I think God’s commandments are for our salvation – I’m not terribly interested in stability. It’s too easy to divorce the commandments of God from God Himself. All then that is left is Phariseeism. It is why Orthodox praxis has always included economy as well as strictness – whatever is most useful for the salvation of someone’s soul. Which makes pastoring a truly fearful thing.

  27. fatherstephen Avatar

    I have no idea that these are “pious fictions” but I think the quote given by Pomozansky in (the other Brian’s) comment says things pretty well. The toll houses are not very common across a broad reading of Orthodox fathers. They have gained a strange prominence in the late 20th century for a variety of reasons about which I do not care to comment. The Egyptians and the Jews did 40 day mourning periods with no particular notion of tollhouses. Your argument (on the days) would not make much sense of anniversary panikhidas. We pray because we pray and we pray as the Tradition teaches us. But we do not pray because of the actions of demons. They do not determine Holy Tradition.

  28. Brian Niphon Andrews Avatar

    I appreciate your reasoning, and I appreciate the quote by Fr. Michael Pomozansky. I am not sure what to think about this, but I do like what you said.
    And for the record, I too regret the hijacking of the post by the notion of the toll-houses. I really liked the original point you were making.

  29. leonard nugent Avatar
    leonard nugent

    I think my favorite Mark of Ephesus quote of all time is “We seek and we pray for our return to that time when, being united, we spoke the same things and there was no schism between us.”
    May this be so some day

  30. fatherstephen Avatar

    It’s a nice thought, but the quote is a wee bit “cherry picked.”

  31. fatherstephen Avatar

    I agree that one could find evidence of “universalism” in some Orthodox circles. There are several reasons. One is the traditional popularity of St. Isaac of Syria in Russian theology. St. Isaac does not profess pure universalism but he can be read that way. Another is the influence within English-speaking Orthodoxy of the writings of Met. Kallistos Ware. I have spent a fair amount of time with him (personally) as well as reading his work. He is, of course, a very serious scholar, among the best Orthodox scholar on the fathers in a number of generations. He has a wonderfully gentle spirit. He does not teach universalism, but I have heard him say that there is something wrong with a heart that is less than compassionate about the subject. Within the West there is rightly a great reaction against the errors of much teaching that has almost delighted in the wrath of God and the punishment of sinners. True humility would weep and pray for the salvation of sinners. This compassionate strain is very deep within Athonite spiritual teaching and finds welcome among those who look for an answer to an angry Christianity that delights in destruction and punishment (or so it would seem). I do not find such teaching to be particularly common among those who are simply seeking for an easy guarantee that what they do in this life doesn’t matter. That’s an easy thing to assert, but impossible to prove, and uncharitable to many. I do not personally know any universalists in my relative extensive contact within the Church. There may be some – but I do not know them. I readily confess to emphasizing in the extreme the love and mercy, and kindness of God. St. Luke says (6:35) that God is kind “to the ungrateful and the evil.” I believe it is for God’s love that Christ came into the world. Indeed, Christ Himself said (Jn. 12:47) that He did not come into the world to judge the world but to save the world.

    Nevertheless, it is the firm teaching of the Church that our life with Christ begins with repentance – and I gladly teach that we do not and cannot come to Christ without repentance. Repentance is the very character of the Orthodox life (full-time repentance). That repentance will be evidenced in the state of our heart – where both the Kingdom of Heaven as well as Hell can be found (according to St. Macarius).

  32. Leonard Nugent Avatar

    Hans Urs von Balthasar has written a great book dealing with the subject of universal salvation called “Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved”? In it he asks the question, Dare we not hope this?

  33. Brian Avatar


    When I first read Fr. Michael’s essay on the subject, it was in a book entitled “Selected Essays.” The only complete on line version I’ve been able to find since is here:

  34. Ralph Annis Avatar

    Ralph Annis Says:
    Religion is what men would do
    About God
    While our neighbor lives in want
    Our enemy whaled, lies wounded
    We at our bowl praying
    For a bigger bowl
    God weeps and wonders
    What next
    To do about man

  35. easton Avatar

    thank you, father stephen. your point that we should all hope for everyone to be saved is well taken, and for us not to want that, shows a darkness in our hearts…

  36. Brian Niphon Andrews Avatar

    Jim Parker,
    It is clear that you have not been reading this blog for any significant length of time. Father Stephen and his readers have been engaging the question of salvation and what the Lord Jesus Christ did for us for a long time. Orthodoxy is the ancient Christian faith, and brings a great deal of depth to these questions. While I am sure that you are motivated by a sincere love for the Lord, your approach would be more effective if you took the time to engage the things that people here actually think and believe. Read and think about what Orthodoxy teaches instead of preaching at us about what you think. Your attempts might then be more effective. And hey, you just might learn something.

  37. Karen Avatar

    Thanks for that link, Brian!

  38. Angie giallourakis Avatar

    I often find myself seeking a response to my Evangelical friends as we discuss this very subject. I am not a theologian…only an Orthodox Christian who believes in our Faith.

  39. Andrew B Avatar
    Andrew B

    An observation. It is appears to be impossible to describe Paradise in terms that are anything but circumlocutions (one example = “Abraham’s bosom”). By contrast, hell is replete with the literalisms of the unbending — we have the impassable gulf, the weeping and gnashing of teeth, outer darkness, etc.

    When he ascended into the heavens, Jesus did not become a spaceman. On the contrary, he entered into the deeper consciousness of all where he dwells to this day — as ruler of all.

    The gospel can only be understood as a meal shared.

  40. Andrew B Avatar
    Andrew B

    Please forgive me — I ought to have said deepest consciousness. Thank you.

  41. Andrew Avatar

    Thanks for sharing Father Stephen. I often wonder why humans want to be so literal with respect to the scriptures and even more so the fascination with the end times. I guess our nature desires that certainty or that “map of the afterlife”.

    ” Better to spend time forgiving enemies than find new reasons to argue or hate people.” Amen.


  42. Sloane Avatar

    The ariel-toll house belief is a heresy. Archbishop Lazar has a wonderful YouTube channel where he refutes the toll-houses, and talks about a host of subjects as well as his sermons.

    For those of you who enjoy YT please see his channel

  43. fatherstephen Avatar

    It cannot be categorized as heresy – no synod has made such a pronouncement. Use the word heresy carefully (even when one is a retired Archbishop).

  44. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Whether the Toll Houses are as Fr. Seraphim described them, relying on earlier descriptions, or not: something happens in the 40 days after our repose or the Church would not mandate 40 days of prayer for the departed. Forty days of prayer for the forgiveness of their sins and the their acceptance into the Kingdom. Apparently there is time of transition of some sort both for us and for the departed.

    Certainly our intercessions and the intercession of the saints can be efficacious and the Church would not call for such prayers at such a time if there were not a good reason for it.

    To me the reason is many fold–a time to begin the healing of the grief of those left behind; a time to invoke God’s mercies for our departed brethren and friends; a time to recall that we are indeed in a “one-storey” universe.

  45. […] across recently. (And, for those who haven’t seen it, Father Stephen Freeman’s post on The Geography of Heaven and Hell is worth reading on this […]

  46. Sloane Avatar

    You’re right Father…it may not be an official heresy but it is like one. You ether believe it or you don’t (or you don’t care)…like some people believe in a young Earth and others in an old Earth…

  47. Anna Avatar

    I am surprised at the controversy that the aerial toll houses still arise among the Orthodox in the West. While they don’t have quite a literal existence in the sense that some people seem to assign to them in order to argue against them, they are neither imaginary, nor a heresy. There is a text by St. John (Maximovitch) of Shanghai and San Francisco on life after death which can be easily found online. Please note that the author cites reputable Church Fathers in support of his account.

  48. fatherstephen Avatar

    Yes, you are correct.

    First thought: Why are there not a long train of writings on this throughout Orthodox history and why so much only at the end of the 20th century? This alone demonstrates what place such a teaching holds in the life of the Church. It is a controversy, because it was presented as a controversy and an attack only in its present manner in the later 20th Century from California.

    Second: There is also a line of writings and thoughts within Orthodoxy that is opposed to this as well. It does not hold the place of Church dogma, and should not be taught as such (though it has a place in some liturgical material where its interpretation could be everywhere from literal to quite metaphorical or typological) or argued as such. I have witnessed the consecrations of Bishops, in which the faith (as dogma) is carefully rehearsed. It does not rise to that level and contemporary Orthodox should not think of this in such a way. I only address the issue when someone else raises it. I have not and will not (as I currently think) post on the topic. Too confusing for the non-Orthodox. The publication and dissemination of St. John’s writing on the topic, was not, I believe, at his own effort (other than within a small publication within a small corner of the Orthodox world). It has, in that sense, been taken out of the context in which he offered it, and published in a manner that he himself would have thought unwise. That, is my speculation, which could be wrong. Not everything saints say or write should be shared. None of us in this corner of the world, for instance, have seen all that St. Seraphim of Sarov taught. The Church thought that some things should not be published or shared.

  49. Leonard Nugent Avatar

    I have never read any respected writing from any saint from any church about any topic that I didn’t find something in it that I thought was just flat out wrong. This has never failed to happen.

  50. Anna Avatar

    Father, bless!

    Thank you for your kind reply and for publishing my comment with the link to St. John’s text in it. My intention is definitely not to make a polemic out of this (and even if I did, there is nothing I could add to what St. John wrote and his extensive patristic references).

    My understanding is that Fr. Seraphim Rose (because I believe you allude to him when you say California) wished to counter the exceedingly rosy presentation of life after death in the popular culture. The part I don’t understand is why some people raised against him and how they could do this in good conscience, given the patristic and hymnographic references that support Fr. Seraphim’s account.

    I’m not sure I follow your second point. Yes, it’s not a dogma, but it’s a part of the Orthodox Tradition, one of those iotas we shouldn’t leave out. In my personal opinion, it should be explained rather than swept under the carpet. You use the term metaphor, which I personally agree with, but I believe the metaphor describes poetically a spiritual reality.

  51. Andrew Avatar

    If I may. The aerial toll house is a metaphor (or icon) — much like Fr. Stephen’s one story universe. Do please bear in mind that nothing at all can be properly understood unless the light of Pascha shines on it. Whatever that light shines upon will become a light.

    Many many years Father.

  52. fatherstephen Avatar

    Part of the conflict since Fr. Seraphim raised the question (and I agree with your understanding of his intention) – was that the toll house image, had earlier been an argument within Orthodoxy itself. It is part of the Church’s history – but many would not describe it as having risen to the place of Tradition – but that is where much of the argument begins. Your statement, “the metaphor describes poetically a spiritual reality,” is very helpful and well put (it seems to me).

  53. Andrew Avatar

    The one story metaphor is a vast improvement on toll houses, Father. You seem to have been able to utterly dispense with historicity as it is understood in the western mind. The toll house view of the life of Christ is seen through a rear view mirror as it were, whereas your one story transcends time and consequently leads to spaces that are largely undiscovered…

  54. Leonard Nugent Avatar

    Andrew, toll houses are just one of many things that can be discussed as viewed in a rear view mirror. Mostly these discussions are counter productive.

  55. Andrew Avatar

    Thank you, Leonard. Mostly, yes — agreed.

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