Television journalist Barbara Walters admits she had no religious training and doesn't practice any religion. But after a year spent working on the ABC News special on heaven, Walters found herself fascinated by the afterlife. "I've done years and years of specials," she told Beliefnet, "but I care more about this one than anything I've ever done." For the two-hour program, "Heaven: Where is it? How do we get there?," which airs December 20 at 9 p.m. EST, Walters traveled the world, interviewing dozens of religious leaders, as well as scientists and atheists. The result is an intriguing look at what heaven means in many different religious traditions, what people who claim to have had near-death experiences believe about the afterlife, and why heaven has such a powerful hold on the popular imagination. Walters recently spoke with Beliefnet about what she learned about heaven and her own views of the afterlife.
Why were you interested in covering the topic of heaven?
I found it interesting that as people become more technically oriented all over the world, at the same time people are becoming increasingly spiritual. The success of the Da Vinci code--even though it was a great yawn--also showed people's interest in religion.
I also found that for myself, since I've had no religious education, it was so interesting to see the different versions of heaven and what life on earth means. To Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the purpose of life is to go to heaven. To Rabbi Neil Gillman, there is a heaven, but it's more important to lead a good life. To the Tibetan Buddhists, it is a road to nirvana, and the purpose of life is to be happy. To the atheists, the purpose of life is the purpose of life. To someone who has been close to death, and felt that they had reached heaven in a near-death experience, that's as close as we come to hearing someone's vision of heaven. All of these different aspects--even the scientific view, that some people are born with a gene that makes them more spiritual than others--the more we got into it, the more interesting it became.
What did the religions that you covered have in common when it comes to teachings about heaven?
First of all, the Jewish religion has a great deal in common with the Christian religion because, as Rabbi Gillman points out in the show, Christianity is based on Judaism. Christ was Jewish. There are religions that are very restrictive or judgmental, perhaps, that say, if you do not believe in our faith, you don't go to heaven. This is very compelling, but it's restrictive. We asked the cardinal if there was sex in heaven, and he said that was one of the questions asked of the Lord. [Catholics] believe that they don't need to have sex in heaven, because there is the joy of the Lord. But for Muslims, everything that they don't have on earth is what they get in heaven. They can drink, they can have sex. All of the forbidden pleasures on earth, you can have in paradise.
All of the religions--with the exception of Tibetan Buddhism, which doesn't believe in a heaven--teach that heaven is a better place. At the end of the program, I say that heaven is a place where you are happy. All of the religions have that in common.
Had you thought much about heaven in your personal life before doing this show?I think everybody wonders, is there life after death? Recently, when I've been at dinners, I've gone around the table and said, "How many of you believe in life after death?" It's so interesting to see your friends' answers, because sometimes it's very surprising. Sometimes you'll find that husbands and wives disagree.