Road to Hel(l)

“If you are going through hell, keep going.” The words of Winston Churchill which, unless hell happens to be your final destination, are worth remembering as an encouragement to strive for better times ahead. In Poland, if you take the road to Hel (one l) you do eventually have to stop, or you will end up in the sea, a rather cooler destination than hell itself. And it is the road to Hel, or rather the bus which travels along it, which has invoked the ire of one Catholic website.

The route to and from Hel, a town which lies at the end of the eponymous Hel Peninsula on Poland’s Baltic coast – and a popular summer seaside holiday destination – is served by bus route 666. According to the website, Fronda.pl, the numbering of the route is “scandalous anti-Christian propaganda, in fact simply satantic….The 666 to Hel, to put it briefly and bluntly, undermines the Christian order of the Polish state…A mentally sound person does not disregard the reality of damnation.”

Does this example of humour on the part of the bus company in truth constitute a danger to the Christian order of the Polish state or, more important, to the souls of the passengers using the bus, or those who find the whole thing mildly amusing? It is perhaps worth remembering that the Church has always appreciated a lively sense of humour, often of the bitingly satirical kind such as that exhibited by the Roman poet Juvenal or St. Thomas More, to name but two. In consequence, there is no reason to suppose that this particular joke poses any particular danger. If, as Mathew 16:18 tells us, the gates of hell shall not prevail against the Church, the bus to Hel is hardly likely to either.

Of course, true demonic possession, which is thankfully rare, is no laughing matter. But, like many problems in life, it does require a certain willingness or encouragement on the part of the person afflicted. So dabbling in the occult or satanism is to be avoided, the danger of which the late Pope John Paul II warned about. Incidentally, satan is a stickler for detail and when, after the Second Vatican Council, the Church adopted the vernacular language, it was found exorcisms were not effective, which is why exorcists thereafter were permitted to use the Latin forms.

Whether one chooses to believe or not, it seems that lack of charity is a greater danger to the Christian order than the numbering of a bus route. Christianity is a call to action, and the gospels are full of examples of, and exhortations to, practical charity, of which the best known is the parable of the good Samaritan. The correct attitude is summed up in the requirement to love your neighbour as yourself. The state does not have to be a soft touch, and it does have a duty to defend its citizens, but a Christian order without charity is simply not Christian.

Be that as it may, we come to the number 666 itself. Needless to say, much nonsense has been written about these words from Apocalypse 13:18: “Here is wisdom. He that hath understanding, let him count the number of the beast. For it is the number of a man: and the number of him is six hundred and sixty-six.” Thus, the number has entered popular culture as a sign of satan, for example, as Damian’s birthmark in the film The Omen, but this means nothing.

It is not certain that 666 is even the exact number. In the days before printing, copying errors often crept into transcriptions over time, especially in the case of numerals since the Greeks used letters of the alphabet for numerals. However, without dwelling on transcription differences (whether is it 666 or 616), by a process known as gematria (from the Greek word for geometry) words and sentences are read as numbers by the assigning of numerical, instead of phonetic, values to each letter of the alphabet. As it turns out, the number “666″ has specific reference to Caesar Nero in Hebrew. Unsurprisingly, the variant reading, 616, has specific reference to Caesar Nero in Latin and Greek. Thus, we have all three sacred languages concurring in the interpretation of the “mark of the beast” as Caesar Nero. And while we are at it, the translation “beast” is not strictly accurate in modern English. The Greek word, therion, refers simply to a wild animal, even an insect, whereas in modern English the word “beast” carries a pejorative, or even monstrous, connotation.

The upshot of all this is that the reference is to the pagan Roman emperor Nero who serves as a representative of the pagan Roman empire opposed to Christian Rome. Thus, having the “mark of the beast” meant doing obeisance to the pagan emperors of Rome and, since Nero and his pagan empire are long gone, there is no need to worry about 666.

A final word: since the Church favours learning and truth over ignorance and superstition, the latter also undermine the Christian order of the state.

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