It may be stereotyped that Roman Catholics view life-after-death as a matter of strict retribution for merits acquired (or lost) in this life, while Orthodox do not view God as retributive but rather as leaving us to our own devices. Venerable Abba Dorotheos describes the suffering of the soul as follows: “The conflict arising from its own bad habits punishes it all the time, the memory always be embittered, the mutterings of its passions constantly emerging, always burning it and enraging it” (quoted here).

I will be making the argument in this article that while the Orthodox Catholic and Roman Catholic views of the afterlife clearly emphasize different things, there is good reason to believe they are describing the same concept and are therefore reconcilable with one another. Before we do this, we need to give a frank overview of what each communion believes and then show the commonalities between the two.

Brief Synopsis of the Roman Catholic Versus Orthodox View of the Afterlife. In previous articles, we have discussed how the Western view of merits has historically made salvation transactional and how the Orthodox view emphasizes salvation not as a reward for good, but a reward of good. In short,  Orthodoxy’s view of our afterlife is that it is an eternal experience of how much we like the good, as the Heavenly reward and Hellish punishment are the same exact thing–God.

It was implied in my articles on the topic of merits and Purgatory that the Roman Catholic view has an over-emphasis on debt (merits are to be acquired and applied by grace through prayers, pain in Purgatory acts as a payment to God’s who has a need for justice to be done in order to negate the “temporal effects of sins,” etcetera). It was also implied that Orthodoxy de-emphasizes the retributive aspect of what it means for God to reward and punish us for our individual acts, reducing merits to nothing more than a euphemism for our being conformed to Christ by His grace–and not payment to God. It was also stated that Orthodoxy teaches that all those who die faithful to Christ have an eternity of growing more and more life Him progressively–though for some this will be painful for a time due to their attachment to desires antithetical to God. Hence, there is no concept of Purgatory as no sins are being atoned for, nor is the Christian at any time apart from God in the afterlife.

In order to prove the thesis of this article (that we Orthodox and RCs essentially believe the same thing), I think it helps one to understand that the Orthodox view is more properly “catholic” (i.e. “complete”) in the literal sense of the term. This is because it emphasizes the whole experience of life after death. Frustratingly, Roman Catholicism is focused purely on the role of merits and a narrow view of the atonement focused on payment. This is why the Roman Catholic view teaches that either:

  1. The soul descends immediately into Hell in the case of the damned.
  2. The soul goes immediately into Purgatory in the case of one who has “unatoned-for” sin that needs God to “oblige Himself in justice to accept our [through the Church’s prayers and the soul’s sufferings] vicarious atonement.”
  3. The soul immediately goes to Heaven in the case of those who are saints.
  4. There will be a general resurrection where the damned get bodies and go to a material Hell and the saints will go to a material Heaven. There will be no Purgatory after this point.

One may notice the emphasis on immediate in the preceding, because the presupposition underriding Roman Catholic thought is that God is calculatingly retributive. In logic, it is an “if, then” statement. If we do this, then God must do that–and if God must, then why would He wait?

If one cares to notice, the Orthodox view is extremely similar, but more catholic in that:

  1. The souls of all the dying are not immediately translated to their ultimate destination, but are met by angels. This meeting with the angels occurs for a limited period of time (traditionally 40 days).
  2. During this period of time, the souls of the faithless are eventually damned and experience a foretaste of eternal Hell.
  3. The souls of the faithful who have not become dispassionate (i.e. they hunger not righteousness only, but also have desires for worldly things) after angelic visitation experience a foretaste of eternal Hell. Yet, even there they experience the grace of God through intercessions on their behalf and “they are aware of their future release” (Decree 18, Council of Jerusalem of 1672). Hence, similar to the souls in Purgatory, they have hope and look forward to their heavenly reward. They essentially stop suffering when by the grace of God, they only hunger for Him. There is no incomplete atonement for sins being dealt with.
  4. The souls of the faithful after angelic visitation are translated to Heaven and grow in Christlikeness eternally.
  5. There will be a general resurrection where the damned get bodies and go to a material Hell and the saints will go to a material Heaven. There will be no souls of the faithful suffering as the result of their passions after this point.

Due to the main difference between the preceding views is the Orthodox emphasis on meeting angels immediately after death instead an immediate translation to some sort of afterlife “destination,” we must ask ourselves: Is this important? Is it Biblical?

Aerial Toll Houses and Their Place in a Christian Conception of the Afterlife. The angelic visitations referred to in the previous section are popularly called within Orthodoxy “Aerial Toll Houses.” In the eyes of many, Aerial Toll Houses are “an Orthodox version of Purgatory.” This would not be very accurate if we have a good understanding of what Aerial Toll Houses are.

The seed of the Aerial Toll House doctrine is ancient. What we do know from the Scriptures and early Patristic evidence is that when the soul leaves the body, it is met by angels:

[T]he beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom (Luke 16:22).

God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul will be required of you [by demons(?)]’ (Luke 12:20).

“But when the king [God] came in to see the guests [those who died], he saw a man there who did not have on a wedding garment. So he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you come in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the servants [angels], ‘Bind him hand and foot, take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’” (Matt 22:11-13).

[W]hen 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…Hence also God by His Son teaches us for whose sake these things seem to have been done, always to strive earnestly, and at death to pray that our souls may not fall into the hands of any such power (St. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Chap 105, 150 AD).

[M]y soul is distracted and pained at its departure from this my wretched and filthy body…Be merciful unto me, O Master, and let not my soul see the dark countenances of the evil spirits, but let it be received by Thine Angels bright and shining (The Prayer of St. Eustratius, late third century AD).

The Scriptures make reference to demons often as “powers” or “principalities” (Eph 6:12, see also Mark 13:25, Rom 8:38, Eph 3:10, Col 1:16, Col 2:10, Col 2:15, 1 Pet 3:22). It appears that these angels dwell not in the depths of Hell, but in the air (Eph 2:2).

Suffice it to say, saints such as Anthony of the Desert, Athanasius, Ephrem the Syrian, and Chrysostom took the preceding teaching and added the imagery of payment and a trial to it. The payment, strangely enough, is paid to the demons. The trial too is not before God, but before the demons.* All of this occurs as the souls ascends from the body into the air, the dwelling place of the angels (both good and bad.)

*Being that the Ransom view of the atonement has Christ’s blood being a payment to the Devil, such an idea was not strange to the fathers.

In my humble opinion, the following is the meat and potatoes of the Aerial Toll House doctrine:

The payment and trial at these toll houses represent are our own individual struggles with sin/passions. So, the demons tempt us to evil, but it is only if we give in to evil that we fall pray to them. The demons accuse us of the sins we have committed in our lives to lead us into despair and fall prey to our own passions. It should not surprise us that Satan literally means “accuser” in Hebrew. Likewise, “devil” means the same thing in Greek. We use these words so often in English, we presume they are English words when they are in fact not!

The “tolls” being paid to these demons are an illustration of not a literal payment, but rather how we overcome them by our merits (which are represented as an asset.) The Orthodox view of merit, as we discussed before, are not rewards for work but are our good works themselves–in short, the degree we are conformed to the image of Christ is in a sense our merit. This conformance is what gives us victory over the passions and the demons, permitting us to enjoy God for eternity (i.e. “go to Heaven.”)

In short, Aerial Toll Houses represent the struggling of the soul when accused by demons after death. The struggles are the result of our own sinfulness/lack of Christlikeness.

When we get to some of the icons and descriptions from the middle ages, the preceding doctrine is illustrated very imaginatively. There are different levels of demons, they cover different sins, the prayers of saints/loved ones/our own merits act as the toll payment to the demons, etcetera. (See the account of Theodora for more detail.) When we get this vivid in detail, “Aerial Toll House” becomes an apt description of what is being described at this point.

Is there a way to reconcile the Roman Catholic and Orthodox views of life after death? From the preceding, we can see that Aerial Toll Houses and Purgatory have virtually nothing in common other than the concept of payment. The former are an illustration of the struggles the soul experiences after departure from its body when confronted by demons and the latter is a theological necessity for Roman Catholics to make sense of their view of merit and atonement.

However, between these two very different doctrines I see something that links the Orthodox and Roman Catholic view of the afterlife in common–merits.

The 800 pound gorilla in the room is that Orthodoxy has historically allowed for the discussion of “merits” in a way that would be scandalously Roman Catholic. In the account of Saint Theodora (written by Saint Basil the New sometime in the 10th century) we see her “debts” being paid to demons with “a little bag of gold.” Sometimes the “debts” are paid by “some of my good deeds” according to Saint Theodora, and when “these were not enough, they added something from the treasure [of prayers] given me by the holy man Basil.” Throughout the story, Theodora’s own good deeds often fall short to pay the toll, but then the prayers of the deceased Basil compensate for it.

During this process, the Orthodox theology of life after death is described in stark “Roman Catholic” terms:

When the soul parts from its body and desires to go to its Creator in heaven, the evil spirits prevent the soul and show to it its sins. If the soul has done more good deeds than evil, they cannot keep it; but if the sins outweigh the good deeds, they keep the soul for some time, shut it up in the prison where it cannot know God, and torment it as much as God’s power allows them, until that soul, by means of prayers of the Church and good deeds done for its sake by those who are still on earth, should be granted forgiveness.

In the preceding, we see something that no Christian communion affirms today (“…if the sins outweigh the good deeds…”), a reference to “the prison” which appears consistent with both the Orthodox view that the said prison is a foretaste of Hell and the Roman Catholic view of Purgatory, and a statement that God’s grace is made effective “by means of prayers of the Church and good deeds done for its sake” which amounts to an endorsement of a treasury of merits.

If we Orthodox can read the writings of Saint Basil the New in a way that is charitable and consistent with Orthodoxy, it begs the question why we cannot do the same with Roman Catholic doctrines?

  • Purgatory is an analogue for those who experience the pains of Hell after death and experience eventual release through works, prayers, and liturgies done on their behalf.
  • The Western view of concupiscence is essentially an analogue for the passions in Orthodoxy.
  • “Vicarious atonement” achieved by suffering in Purgatory is an analogue for those who benefit from Christ’s atonement by having fellowship in His sufferings, being made conformable unto his death as Saint Philaret of Moscow wrote.
  • Similarly, the Roman concept of the “temporal effect of sins” that need atoning for is an analogue for the passions/sins not repented for fully which preclude souls from heavenly enjoyment. As Abba Dorotheos speculates, those habits and passions not completely done away with in this life cause us to suffer their consequences eternally. Like Roman Catholics, Orthodox believe that these cannot be conquered by accruing merits after death, but entirely by God’s grace often through the means of prayers, alms from the living, and the Eucharist.
    • It is not uncommon to find in the lives of the saints that there are those with deathbed repentances who are translated straight to heavenly enjoyment after death. So, it is a mystery as to when the “temporal effect of sins”/unsettled passions have a clinging effect eternally and when they don’t, and what proportion do.*
  • The treasury of merits is an analogue for the works, prayers, and liturgies of the Church.
  • The Roman Catholic view of merits may be reinterpreted along the lines of the Orthodox view of merits. The CCC states, “The charity of Christ is the source in us of all our merits before God” (CCC, 2011). Hence, merit may be reduced to a way of speaking of our own Theosis in gradations (i.e. the more merit, the more Theosis.)

It also is worth mentioning that Roman Catholics have not dogmatically affirmed that Hell, Purgatory or Heaven are necessarily created realities. This removes an obvious point of difference with Orthodox doctrine. Furthermore, the treasury of merits is not something that Roman Catholics believe can be purchased (medieval abuses dogmatically condemned in the Council of Trent not withstanding).

I cannot help but feel (I cannot prove this, I am not a theologian), that Orthodoxy’s whole dispute with Roman Catholicism pertaining Purgatory is over word choice (“I don’t like how you talk about ‘merit'”) and illustrations (“I don’t like the imagery you employ and the literalness you use to describe progressive sanctification after death.”) If we can look past Saint Basil the New’s choice of words and imagery, recognizing that he is communicating what is substantively Orthodox doctrine about how our souls meet angels after death, then the same should be true for the words and images consistent with the Western tradition.

Conclusion. This is the end of my speculations on merits and Purgatory. Permit me some closing comments.

When taken at face value, I find the ramifications of a literal belief in merits as a matter of strict reward and punishment as disastrous. However, God does not shy away from strict retributive language in the Scriptures. Nor do the fathers. Nor do even recent saints (“[God] will justly recompense everyone according to their merit,” Saint Nicolai of Zica.) Hence, if we are honest with ourselves, I cannot help but notice a double standard among Orthodox against Roman Catholics in this regard.

Roman Catholics grin and bear their uniate brothers who share the same doctrines pertaining to the afterlife that we Orthodox have, telling themselves they are in agreement (somehow) and are just explaining themselves differently. Yet, we Orthodox cannot repay the favor, even though it is not same impossible leap of logic. Not only does Roman Catholicism literally accept Orthodox doctrine within their eastern rites, the Roman rite no longer popularly affirms the most grandiose and literal conceptions of Purgatory that they have had in the past. We literally have a recent Pope describing Purgatory in very Orthodox terms: “Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Saviour” (Pope Benedict XVI quoted here). Hence, Roman Catholicism has been moving towards Orthodoxy and a non-literal view of their own doctrines of the afterlife.

Ironically, at the same time, the exact opposite has occurred in Orthodoxy in one respect. The pagan and Gnostic imagery of the Aerial Toll Houses has recently experienced a renaissance of sorts. Among some Orthodoxy, a litmus test of purity is whether you believe in the existence of said Toll Houses (a doctrine so unpopular until recently, many learned Orthodox did not even know it existed.) This shows that we Orthodox will accept exaggerated illustrations of our own doctrine as long as they are time-honored in the Church, but otherwise be extremely distrustful of illustrations we are not familiar with–even when those who teach them are of authority and literally tell us that they agree with us!

I want to be careful not to act like we should all hold hands and sing kumbaya. Roman Catholicism is too transactional in their emphasis and neglectful of important doctrines by not emphasizing more clearly how Heaven and Hell are an experience of the face of God and that our souls experience angelic visitations after death. If Orthodoxy is the true Catholic Church, then we are to expect we do a better job preserving, and teaching, Apostolic doctrine.

However, let us being the Church and all not let it all go to our heads. We have much to gain by recognizing where we are agreement with our separated brethren in communion in Rome. We have enough real massive differences between us both that need serious attention (i.e. ecclesiology, Pneumatology, and Palamasism.) Purgatory  and merits do not need to be added to that list.

*To be honest, my Protestant bent would lead me to believe that those with sincere faith and trust in God when they lose “the flesh” at death no longer struggle with the same passions. This is why Saint Paul writes that in this life, “[N]o longer am I the one doing it [sin], but sin which dwells in me” (Rom 7:17). Faithful people are repentant of their sins, but unable to fully conquer the desire to commit them due to bodily weakness as Saint Paul elaborates upon in Romans 7. Hence, while a degree of trepidation is healthy, the belief one is surely lost due to their “residue” (i.e. remaining concupiscence that fuels our desire for them) runs against God’s promises and the peace He gives us in Christ. This is not to say that it is impossible to stop desiring a given sin and, in fact, there is a great assurance in the fact where we no longer desire it that we have gained victory over a passion.