Have Fun in Hell, Fidel

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Have you heard the one about Judgment Day for Fidel Castro? It goes like this:

Cuba's longtime dictator dies and arrives at the Gates of Heaven. Saint Peter does not open the gates, but sends him to Hell. By the time Castro gets to Hell, he realizes that he forgot his suitcases in Heaven.

The Devil sends some cronies to retrieve them and upon arriving, they notice the gates closed with Saint Peter nowhere to be found. They decide to climb the gates. Saint Peter returns shortly thereafter to find them and asks, "Castro is in Hell for a few minutes and we already have refugees?"

Considering last night's Republican debate in Tampa, Florida, Newt Gingrich might not find that one so funny.

Moderator Brian Williams asked the candidates, first Mitt Romney, what would they do as President upon receiving news that Fidel Castro has died. "Well first of all," Romney began, "you thank heavens that Fidel Castro has returned to his maker and will be sent to another land."

Another land? That's some strange language for Hell that we'll return to later.

A combative Gingrich rejected that notion: "I don't think Fidel is going to meet his maker. I think he's going to the place."

Weak! For a candidacy sustained on sound bites from debate performances, Gingrich should be the last one to shy away from naming "the place" for what it really is: Hell. What's more, the newly Catholic Gingrich's stated concept of Hell seems tinged with his residual Protestant eschatology, an apparent certainty of the afterlife.

Any good Catholic (if there is one) would tell you that they pray for the dead. There's no sureness of where a soul goes when it leaves the temporal world. A quick paging of the Catechism would reveal that on the Last Judgment occurs a "resurrection of all the dead, 'of both the just and the unjust.'" Only then does Jesus judge the living and the dead.

Even Castro gets due process.

Now, Romney's labeling of Hell as "another land" is not so timid as much as it is vague. You see, Mormons don't really believe in Hell as it is commonly understood. Upon death, Mormons imagine your soul travels to a Spirit World, a sort of Purgatory, where it lives in paradise or prison. Those who lived righteously stay in Spirit paradise, and the wicked are held in Spirit prison. Here these souls remain until resurrection and judgment.

Here's where things get bizarre: upon judgment, souls are sent to one of four places. The Celestial Kingdom, the highest and most sought after Heaven, makes its souls gods and goddesses over their own worlds. The Terrestrial Kingdom is inherited by those who lived a decent life, but "rejected the fullness of the Gospel" (Doctrine and Covenants, 76:79). The Telestial Kingdom is reserved for those who remained in the Spirit prison and includes "liars, and sorcerers, and adulterers, and whoremongers, and whosoever loves and makes a lie" (Doctrine and Covenants, 76:103).

While the Telestial Kingdom sounds like Hell, it isn't. It's still a Kingdom of Glory, albeit the lowest and least glorious. The truly wicked souls are cast into the "outer darkness." The Church's 10th President, Joseph Fielding Smith attempted to explain it as "the most severe punishment," but ultimately, "cannot be described, except that we know that it is to be placed beyond the benign and comforting influence of the Spirit of God -- banished entirely from his presence" (Doctrines of Salvation, 2:220).

For most Mormons, the outer darkness is out of mind. The idea that they may inherit one of the lower Kingdoms is hellish enough. Latter-Day Apostle John Widtsoe understood the feeling as a "heavy regret that we might have received a greater reward, a higher kingdom" and that the lost opportunity will be a hell of its own.

The Universalist strain running through the Latter-Day afterlife is perhaps why Romney sent Castro to the elusive "another land." He might end up in the Telestial Kingdom and he might be wicked enough to occupy the outer darkness with Cain and Joseph Smith's murderers.

Surely Castro wouldn't end up in the Celestial Kingdom as a god of his own world. He's had plenty of experience as one here, and that didn't work out so well.

Nicholas G. Hahn III is the editor of RealClearReligion. Follow him on Twitter @NGHahn3.

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