Question: What is the origin of the expression “the path to hell is paved with good intentions”? Is it true?
Reply: This expression has now become proverbial. The closest source is the two-volume memoir-biography, The Life of Samuel Johnson, by James Boswell (1740-1795), which appeared in 1791. The author states that Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) said in 1775: “Hell is paved with good intentions.” The only difference is that the proverb speaks of the path to hell, whereas Johnson speaks of hell itself. It appears that the author of the aphorism – an English critic, lexicographer, essayist, and poet – relied on a dictum made earlier by the Anglican priest and metaphysical poet George Herbert (1593-1633) in his book Jacula prudentium (Latin, “Aphorisms of the Wise”): “Hell is full of good meanings and wishings.”
All three expressions share in common the idea that wishes and intentions are insufficient for salvation. This is in full agreement with the teachings of the Holy Fathers. Above all one must have faith: But without faith it is impossible to please Him (Heb 11:6). In the words of St. Ephraim the Syrian: “without oil a lamp will not burn; and without faith no one will acquire a good thought.” How many utopias, radical movements, revolutionary programs, and the like the world has seen, the leaders and participants of which have wanted to attain human “happiness” without God and against God, relying on their fallen reason. History maintains the sad and tragic memory of this. Individuals, too, blinded by unbelief, wanting to fulfill intentions that seemed good to them, have often caused evil and pain to those around them.
Faith is necessary, but it must be correct faith. Error and delusions can be many, but truth is always one. People who are motivated by mistaken religious doctrine are certain that their intentions are good, but their false spirituality leads them to ruin. All religious falsehoods are performed with the participation of demonic forces.
St. John Chrysostom says: “Faith is like a strong staff and a secure haven, saving one from mistaken judgments and calming the soul in great quiet.” The same universal teacher warns, however: “We should not consider faith alone to be sufficient for our salvation, but let us also take care for our behavior and let us lead the best life, so that both the one and the other will allow us to attain perfection.” The Holy Fathers firmly emphasize that a Christian must have a spiritually enlightened mind. Without it one can make dangerous mistakes. St. Anthony the Great considered precisely discernment to be one of the primary Christian virtues:
“Discernment is the eye of the soul and its lamp, just as the eye is the lamp of the body; therefore if this eye is light, then the whole body (our actions) will be light, and if this eye will be dark, then our entire body will be dark, as our Lord said in the Holy Gospel (c.f., Mt 6:22-23). By discernment a man discriminates in his wishes, words, and deeds, putting aside all those that separate him from God. By discernment he upsets and destroys all the intrigues of the enemy directed against him, distinguishing correctly what is good and what is evil.”