We sometimes use the phrase that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” when we try, somewhat cynically, to find the good in someone’s actions which have somehow not met (our) expectations, or worse, which have actually caused more harm than good. This common phrase is more poignant theologically than would appear at first or even second glance.

Paradoxically, the phrase itself, “good intentions” seems to contradict the notion of “hell,” no matter how we might define both terms. Should not good intentions of themselves produce good? More forcefully, how can good intentions not effect good? Furthermore, if good intentions are reflections of the persons so acting, would it not be problematic to insinuate that such persons are wittingly or unwitting leading folks to hell?

So, how do sinners know what a good intention is, let alone decide what a whole host of good intentions are? What is our reference point? What criteria are fitting? If a traditional definition of sin is being turned in upon our selves (incurvatus in se), then sinners by nature use themselves as their reference point for their good intentions. In that light, how can the “good intentions” of sinners lead anywhere else but away from God, i.e. to hell?

The only phrase in the Apostles’ Creed lacking explicit biblical support is the notion that Jesus “descended into hell.” Based on the prevailing judgement of the religious leaders of his day, and the crowds and the Roman authorities, Jesus was scourged and crucified out of the best of intentions. According to John’s gospel, Caiaphas explains “that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:50). When Jesus “descended into hell” he descended into the midst of our personal, social, religious, and political good intentions. Incuravatus in se is a very vicious circle.

If the road to hell is figuratively and literally paved with our good intentions, then how is the road to heaven constructed? How is it recognized, and how do we know when we are on it? The word for road or way in (biblical) Greek is odos (for example, an odometer measures how far we have travelled along the road or on our way). According to St. John, Jesus describes himself as “the way [odos] the truth and the life” (John 14:6), and St. Matthew writes, “For the gate is narrow and the road [odos] is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:14).

Churches of all denominations view themselves as having a mission. That mission is reflected in the theology, leadership, and people of each denominational persuasion. Those churches most likely have more good intentions than they do people, and St. Luke’s is no exception. This means also for us that exercising our individual and communal good intentions runs the risk at every turn (in upon ourselves) of undermining the mission inaugurated in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. What a quandary we face!

Apart from his crucifixion, what have we sinful human beings contributed to Jesus Christ being and creating both the way of life and the way that leads to life? If we have not had and do not have anything constructive to contribute in God’s soulful endeavour in Christ, then why do Christians continually use ourselves and our experiences as the points of reference for the churches’ mission and actions?

St. Paul writes, “When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ ‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (I Corinthians 15:54-58).

By raising Jesus Christ from the dead, God has made us sinners the point of reference for his salvific work as a pure gift of grace. Not our sin, but instead our justification by faith alone is the way in which Christ leads and carries us through life and into eternal life. How can we at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church best reflect and communicate this gift of God’s justifying grace in all our words and works?