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A matter of death and life

It is something of a truism to say that “life-styles determine death-styles.” Not only do anthropologists and other scholars see the value of this point, but no less of an authority than Metallica incorporated it into “Frantic” on their 2006 album, St. Anger. Whatever Metallica meant, it is generally understood that if we want to understand a community’s treatment of, and attitude toward, the dead, we should look first to the values and priorities that shape their daily life. We should understand the construction of the dead’s identity by looking at how the living construct their identities. Why did the Egyptians imagine death as a journey to join Amon-Re in his boat? The answer is simple enough: because Egyptian life revolved around the Nile and pharaohs held their processions on boats rather than on land.

In Christian and other religious communities, though, we need to turn this truism on its head. It is just as likely that death-styles determine life-styles. Indeed, it is very often the case that what people think happens during or after death may very deeply affect how they live their lives and, more importantly, how they understand the makeup of their own community. A very basic example is a 2012 study that found a belief in Hell correlates to lower crime rates. This makes sense—if people imagine a punishment in the afterlife, they may try a bit harder to be good in this life. So, rather than death being merely modeled on life, it is equally true that we model life on death.

Among Byzantine Christians and their descendants, the Eastern Orthodox Churches, death impinges on life in some surprising ways. In the compendious Life of Basil the Younger (10th c.), we encounter a particular narrative of judgment that takes place directly after death. In this narrative, some of whose elements have their origins as far back as the Egyptian afterlife myths; the soul, recently ripped from its body, must pass through twenty-one “tollhouses” staffed by demons, whose titles resemble those of Byzantine court officials. Each “tollhouse” is dedicated to a particular sin—anger, gluttony, magic, slander, etc.—and at each one the soul must give an account of its actions in life and pay the associated “toll” in the form of good deeds. If the soul cannot pay, the demons presumably take it to punishment in Hell. This narrative of “tollhouses” offers a vivid albeit very idiosyncratic explanation of “particular judgment”: one that God enacts on an individual soul after its death as opposed to the cosmic judgment God performs at the end of the world.

Generally, Eastern Christian literature uses visions (or even mentions) of particular judgment to exhort readers to a life of virtue and piety. In the face of death that ends physical pleasures, and the judgment that condemns them, people are encouraged to live simply and to cultivate charity and love. The circumstances of judgment matter less than its criteria, which are generally drawn from the New Testament. But with the “Tollhouses,” something unexpected happened. This narrative became a watchword for the Eastern Christian community and a boundary marker against Rome and other Christians.

In fact, just before Constantinople’s fall, there was a concerted effort to reunite the Eastern and Roman Churches. Negotiations of a sort took place at the Council of Ferrara-Florence (1438-39) and were briefly successful in uniting the heads of East and West Churches. Of course, not all were satisfied with an agreement they saw as a surrender to Rome. Bishop Mark Eugenikos argued four great errors of the West that made reconciliation impossible: the primacy of the Pope (an ecclesiological problem), Western additions to the Nicene Creed (a doctrinal problem), unleavened bread (a ritual problem), and Purgatory, the Western doctrine of the purification of souls after death. Mark roundly rejected Purgatory as a Western innovation that took away God’s judgment. He was, however, quite content with the Tollhouses and their demonic masters. Mark used what many would see as speculaation in order to draw his line in the sand. The Tollhouses or Purgatory marked out a boundary point between two church communities.

Mark’s arguments would prove portentous for Orthodox Christians centuries after the collapse of the Byzantine Empire. Despite their popularity, the Eastern Churches have never rendered any opinion on the Tollhouses. So, in the 20th century, they once more became the topic of great debate.

“If the soul cannot pay, the demons get it and, presumably, take it to punishment in Hell.”

This time, though, both sides were composed of Orthodox theologians, priests, and bishops. Are the Tollhouses a dogma of the Church, a teaching of the Church that members are free to reject (a theologoumenon), or a heresy?  For those engaged in them, this question is far from disinterested academic discussion. Opponents use fiery denunciations and shocking, even violent, language to describe the other. Each side musters its arms from centuries of Christian literature, seeking to establish its position on antiquity and neither hesitates to accuse the other of heresy, Gnosticism, and denial of the divinity of Christ—in short, of not being Orthodox Christians. The debate rages in internet forums, Facebook groups (there are now three, with total membership in the thousands), and church publications. Thus, the Tollhouses continue to serve as a boundary-marker: not only are they used to exhort people to lifestyles of piety, they are used as a shibboleth to discern whether a person is Orthodox and part of the ecclesial community, or a heretic and, therefore, outside the community.

Of course it all depends which side you speak to, what your answer means. And so whatever speculation one undertakes, one finds both a community to join and one to despise. So it is that an idiosyncratic and obviously fictive narrative of what happens after death has become, in the contemporary Orthodox Churches, a matter of life and death. Or perhaps I should say, of death and life.

Image Credit: “A grave pit” by Andreass. CC by 2.0 via Flickr.

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