In a previous article, I made note that the doctrine of purgatory has pre-Christian antecedents. Christian apologists over the years have made different counter-arguments when dealing with issues such as these. Saint Justin Martyr speculated that Satan planted nuggets of truth among the pagan religions in order to deceive us (Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter 69). Others will say that enlightened pagans grasped onto some legitimate truths and that we cannot automatically call anything that is pagan, such as the Pythagorean Theorem, false. Yet others may say a broken clock is right twice a day.
Most secular historians may simply say that what is considered small-“o” orthodox Christianity in reality developed from the syncretism between Near-Eastern pagan and Jewish thought, essentially being a melding between the two. Protestants adopt a similar line of reasoning when addressing the issue of doctrines that are outside the pale of their own tradition.
Without commenting too much on how I personally would explain away the following excerpt from the late second to early third century excerpt of the Gospel of Mary, I will simply state the obvious–what we have is clearly a description of Aerial Toll Houses in explicitly Gnostic language. From my limited study, this is the earliest mention of the doctrine of Aerial Toll Houses that I am aware of:
10) And desire said, I did not see you descending, but now I see you ascending. Why do you lie since you belong to me?
“Desire” appears to be a reference to the physical body, called “the flesh” in the Scriptures (i.e. Rom 7:18). In Gnostic theology, the physical is essentially bad and sinful (a cosmological pollution created by the Aeon Sophia’s failed contemplation of Bythus, the chief Aeon/god of the Gnostic pantheon) and the spirit/soul belongs to the realm of the Aeons. In short, verse 10 is stating that the flesh did not see the soul ascending up to the heavens towards the Pleroma (the Gnostic heaven where the Aeons dwell.)
11) The soul answered and said, I saw you. You did not see me nor recognize me. I served you as a garment and you did not know me.
The flesh is merely the garment of the soul, as the flesh is disposable and sinful.
12) When it said this, it (the soul) went away rejoicing greatly.
13) Again it came to the third* power, which is called ignorance.
“The third power” appears to be a reference to one of “the angelic powers” (Eph 6:12; see also Rom 8:38, Eph 2:2, Eph 3:10, Col 1:16, Col 2:10, and Col 2:15). These powers are essentially demons.
*Probably a reference to a demonic guard shutting the soul out from the “third heaven” (2 Cor 12:2), or in other words, Paradise.
14) The power questioned the soul, saying, Where are you going? In wickedness are you bound. But you are bound; do not judge!
Identical to Aerial Toll House theology, the demons essentially put the soul bound towards heaven (here the Pleroma) on trial. The accusation the demon is making is that the soul judged others and so will be judged.
15) And the soul said, Why do you judge me, although I have not judged?
The soul here denies it is guilty of the sin of judgement.
16) I was bound, though I have not bound.
Probably a reference to difficulty in confronting the demon.
17) I was not recognized. But I have recognized that the All is being dissolved, both the earthly things and the heavenly.
The reference to “the All is being dissolved” pertains to the spiritual and physical realms of creation being replaced. In orthodox Christian theology, they are replaced with a new heavens and a new earth. In Gnosticism, the physical realm is done away with, as the physical world is a cosmic pollution.
Verse 17 also gives us a window in Gnostic soteriology. By acknowledging the “truth” of the old things passing away, the soul is liberated from the demon. While some may be quick to conflate this with Protestant soteriology, this would be overly simplistic as (most) Gnosticism was in fact more extremely ascetic than orthodox Christianity.
18) When the soul had overcome the third power, it went upwards and saw the fourth power, which took seven forms.
Beyond the “third power” demon lay seven more–as we will see, these demons appear to be not actual entities. Rather they represent our own personal doubts, ignorance, and weakness.
19) The first form is darkness, the second desire, the third ignorance, the fourth is the excitement of death, the fifth is the kingdom of the flesh, the sixth is the foolish wisdom of flesh, the seventh is the wrathful wisdom. These are the seven powers of wrath.
As we referred to in the preceding, the “fourth power” represents personal impediments to Gnosis (i.e. salvation in Gnosticism.) The teaching in the passage appears to be that man must conquer the demons by not sinning and conquer his own weaknesses by having right-mindedness. Similar to the Platonic view that one can turn away from Earthly things and be saved (in an intellectual sense) by beholding “the good,” Gnosticism is simply a more moralistic, Christianized presentation of the same sort of thought.
20) They asked the soul, Whence do you come slayer of men, or where are you going, conqueror of space?
21) The soul answered and said, What binds me has been slain, and what turns me about has been overcome,
22) and my desire has been ended, and ignorance has died.
Similar to Buddhism, the death of one’s desires (in Orthodoxy we call these “the passions”) and personal enlightenment lead one to salvation. As we can see, the human soul is here referred to the “slayer of men.” Hence, the trial with the fourth power represents how with our minds can conquer the “flesh.”
23) In a aeon I was released from a world, and in a Type from a type, and from the fetter of oblivion which is transient.
The reference to an Aeon is likely not a reference to time, but to one of the deities of Gnosticsm. It seems that what is being described is Gnostic theosis, or in other words, becoming a Aeon/type/truth/part of the Pleroma. In a sense, one becomes merged with the divine realm of Gnosticism. “Pleroma” simply means “fullness,” and is used in the New Testament without any Gnostic undertones.
24) From this time on will I attain to the rest of the time, of the season, of the aeon, in silence.
It appears the soul literally becomes god/Pleroma. Orthodox contradicts such a view of theosis due to the essence/energy distinction. We can share in God’s energies in Orthodoxy (i.e. we can reflect His light and be transformed by it), but we cannot become divine in substance nor uncaused. Because Gnosticism’s gods, the Aeons, were all created beings, the Gnostic view of divinization allowed for “full membership” in the Pleroma for those who were “saved” by Gnosis. This is similar to how Mormons believe they become divinized into created gods.
Conclusion. I would like to end this article without any attempt at making a profound observation. Instead I will simply note the following:
- Gnosticism obviously borrowed from Biblical language and some of Paul’s opaque references to “powers” and such to justify a Greek-dualist cosmology and polytheistic theology.
- Gnostics might have borrowed from early, orthodox Christian, beliefs about Toll Houses in order to create a Gnostic/Platonic allegory about the ascent to the truth; or…
- Toll House theology is dependent upon Gnosticism/Platonism. In short, it borrows from Hellenistic imagery of how the soul is tried after death in order to convey a spiritual truth–that after we die, our souls are tried in some sort of way. While Gnostics argue the trial is of the mind over the flesh, in Orthodoxy the trial is a particular judgement for sins. This judgement is understandably trying and so the prayers of the living on behalf of the dead can (theoretically) bring the deceased soul comfort. Orthodox argue that such a line of reasoning was held by the Apostolic Church, as we have evidence of first century Christian and Jewish practices of praying for the dead, even those that were known to be saintly (i.e. 2 Tim 1:18). Whether the practice of praying for the dead serves as adequate proof that Aerial Toll Houses were orthodox Christian belief before they were employed by Gnostics in their writings is a matter of debate.
While none of these things decide whether Aerial Toll Houses are dogma (or not) in the Orthodox Church, they do give us a lot to think about when it pertains to the history of Christian doctrine.