Sunday, November 14, 2010

Is the Road to Hell Paved With the Skulls of Priests and Bishops?


By John Sanidopoulos

A well-known idiom reads: "The road to hell is paved with good intentions". The origin of the imagery of this proverb, most popularly attributed to St. John Chrysostom, has many forms which has come down to us, but the most popular version is: "The road to hell is paved with the skulls of erring priests, with bishops as their signposts." The fullest form seems to be: "The road to Hell is paved with the bones of priests and monks, and the skulls of bishops are the lamp posts that light the path." Some even say that St. Athanasius wrote before this: "The floor of hell is covered with the skulls of bishops." The truth is, however, that no one can find the primary source for these quotes, as some even attribute it to later writers such as Alphonsus Ligouri, John Eudes, Teresa of Avila, and even Dante.

What is interesting is that all of these writers were critical of the clergy in their time. Yet for some reason, this is the quote that has been chosen to be attributed to them. The imagery certainly seems inspired by Dante, while the Early Fathers, with all their strong rhetoric, did not decorate language so strongly in their criticisms of the clergy so as to make such an over-generalized comment. The only thing we do find, which may also contribute to the origin of this quote, are certain tales in the Desert Fathers who provide frightful images of hell. There is even one saying which speaks of a lazy monk who died and was later seen in hell by a weeping Elder in a vision, to which the lazy monk comforted his Elder saying: “Abba, don’t be weeping like that, because I can tell you something really true that will cheer you up - I am standing on a bishop’s shoulders!” It should be noted, however, that some scholars do attribute this last tale to some time after the 6th or 7th century.

Since we can confidently say that St. John Chrysostom never said these words, we must look to other sources. What seems most probable to me is that the post-Dantian imagery coupled with the over-generalization of criticism of the clergy in the quote evokes something one would find in the writings of the Protestant Reformers. If we look at the issue textually, we do find in the writings of John Wesley the attribution of the following quote to St. John Chrysostom: "The road to hell is paved with the souls of priests" (see here). In the book The Works of John Wesley (v. 26 p. 237, OUP 1982) there is a footnote that the word 'souls', "... is almost certainly a misreading of Wesley's tremulous writing of 'sculls'...." The note goes on to say that various Victorian writers agree in referring this proverb to St. Chrysostom, "...but so far this has not been traced in his writings." Though I have not confirmed it, it would seem probable to me that the possible source for this quote attributed to Chrysostom would be a corpus of later writings known as Pseudo-Chrysostom that are falsely attributed to the real Chrysostom. Perhaps it was from this that John Wesley, who was a Reformer well-read in the Church Fathers, got this quote.

According to T.J. Buckton in Notes and Queries (ser.1.V.117, 1852, p.92) it is “probably quoted at second or third hand, and with rhetorical embellishments - certainly not from the original direct - an expression of St. Chrysostom, in his third homily on the Acts of the Apostles: 'I know not if there be many in the priesthood who are saved, but I know that many more perish.'" An actual translation of this passage from Chrysostom's third homily of Acts more accurately reads: "I do not think there are many among Bishops that will be saved, but many more that perish." Chrysostom here is definitely talking about bishops, in context, and trying to deter men from corruptly obtaining high ecclesiastical office. We know that simony was a major issue in his time and he played a major role in making it cease.

I have posted before concerning the sin of rashly rebuking priests (here), but sometimes it is necessary. In the New Testament we have some provisions on how this is to be done:

“If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:15-17).

“Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. Those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning" (1 Timothy 5:19-20).

There are also examples, as in Galatians 2:11-14 where St. Paul writes:

"And when Kephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face because he clearly was wrong. For, until some people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to draw back and separated himself, because he was afraid of the circumcised. And the rest of the Jews (also) acted hypocritically along with him, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not on the right road in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Kephas in front of all, 'If you, though a Jew, are living like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?'”


It is always important when reading the Holy Fathers and Holy Scripture to first consider the context in which they are speaking before applying it to our own situation. For example, when Chrysostom said what he really said, it is well known that simony was a major issue. Furthermore, within his memory was the Arian controversy of the 4th century when it is said that approximately one third of the bishops in the Church became Arian (even more in the area of Constantinople), along with countless priests and entire dioceses. Even in St. John's time Christological heresies were still very much in vogue among the clergy and laity. Within this context, we can very much understand the need to preach such things to the simple people of Constantinople so they not go astray and follow a false gospel.

And we should always consider that Chrysostom's words of caution were not only spoken about bishops and priests, but about lay people as well. He is noted to have also said in one public homily: "Out of this great number of people, how many do you think will be saved? Among so many thousands of people, we would not find a hundred who are."

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