2016-06-30
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.

Barbara Walters on different views of heaven
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?

Barbara Walters on whether she worries about
an afterlife
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.

What I feel more and more is how important it is to live your life in a better way, and not to worry about it. What happens will happen.

That's similar to what the actor Richard Gere tells you on the program.
Yes. He has been a Tibetan Buddhist since he was in his 20s. He tries to live his life to be helpful, which is why the Buddhist philosophy is very appealing to people. It is a philosophy that teaches compassion. We took a little trip after [interviewing the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala] around India for a couple of days. For about three days, I was a wonderful person. Then on the fourth day, I began to yell at my producer. "Why didn't we get that? We should have taken this picture!" But I was great for three days.

If there is a heaven, do you expect to go there?
I have no idea.

Were you taught anything about the afterlife when you were growing up?
No, it's not something that was discussed. I didn't have a very religious family. So this was an education for me.

What was the most surprising thing you learned about heaven from the people you interviewed?
I wouldn't use the word surprising; I was educated. I was inspired by the people who devote their life to their religion, in each case, whether you agree with them or not, trying to do good. I found talking to the young failed suicide bomber the most unsettling and depressing--that there could be that much hatred and ignorance. Some of it I found very funny, and charming, like when the cardinal [McCarrick] told me that when he goes to heaven, he hopes he gets his hair back.

I've done years and years of specials, but I care more about this one than anything I've ever done. I think there's a great need and a great soul-searching in this country.

Returning to the failed suicide bomber you interviewed--what was it like to talk to him?
The Israeli government allowed us to enter a high-security Israeli prison and interview a suicide bomber who didn't make it. To go into that prison, when we finally got permission, and to sit across the desk from him, and to speak to him, and hearing him tell me that as a non-Muslim, I would not go to heaven and that I would go to hell, was a very moving and very frightening and very sad experience.

A similar thing happened with Ted Haggard, an evangelical pastor, who said because you were not a born-again Christian, he couldn't say for certain if you were going to go to heaven. How did it make you feel to be told that you weren't guaranteed a place in heaven?
Well, since I never thought that I was, it didn't depress me too much. And I really do believe that the most important thing is the way you live your life on earth. But I think it's enormously comforting to believe that you're going to see your loved ones.

Barbara Walters on her favorite prayer
Although I myself don't go to church or synagogue, I do, whether it's superstition or whatever, pray every time I get on a plane. I just automatically do it. I say the same thing every time.

I say, "Dear God, thank you for all my blessings. Thank you for everything that I have in my life. Take care of my family and make this a safe trip."

Because I feel if I don't, I'm in danger.

From movies to pop songs, heaven has a huge hold on the popular imagination. Why do you think that is?

Barbara Walters on where heaven is located
First of all, I think we're all concerned about life on earth and if this is all there is. And because heaven has always been this wondrous, mystical place. Before we had airplanes and astronauts, we really thought that there was an actual place beyond the clouds, somewhere over the rainbow. There was an actual place, and we could go above the clouds and find it.

there. Is there a place somewhere? Some of the religions think there is, that there's absolutely a place. Some of them think it's not a place but it's a spiritual feeling. The Buddhists feel that you are recreated as some thing, as an insect, or an animal, or a person, but that you're not in some beautiful shiny place.

Are we closer to heaven or hell?

Read more on page 2 >>


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  • You asked the Dalai Lama a very interesting question, about whether or not we're currently closer to heaven or to hell.
    Barbara Walters on the Dalai Lama
    He thought we were closer to heaven. He believes in the benevolence of nature. I also thought it was interesting when I asked him if he was a God. He laughed and said, "I have an eye infection. If I were a God, I wouldn't have an eye infection. But for the past few days I've had an eye infection. This proves that I'm not God." He said, "What I am is a teacher." This is a man who, no matter what you feel about Buddhism, to meet him and to be in the warmth of his personality, the humanity of his personality, is an amazing experience. He gave each of us white scarves, which is a symbol of Buddhism, and I think we all felt the better for being with him.

    And what would you say to the question that you asked him, about whether or not we're closer to heaven or hell?
    It depends on what day you get me.

    Today?

    Barbara Walters on whether we're closer to heaven or hell
    It would be nice to feel that we are a better world, a world of more compassion and a world of more humanity, and to believe in the basic goodness of man. But when you listen to the news and read the papers and see the harm that people do, too often in the name of God.look at some of the major problems in the world. Aren't they a fight over which God you believe in? In the name of God, people kill each other? In the name of God, people kill themselves? In the name of God, bombs are thrown and countries are torn apart? That's hard for me to fathom.

    The stories of people who claimed to have had near-death experiences were fascinating.
    Yes, and these are very sensible people. These are very normal, not necessarily very spiritual people. And yet their experience was such that the near-death experience transformed their lives. Now, you can tell them that scientifically, something happens to the brain that creates a hallucinatory experience, which is how [near-death experiences are] explained by many scientists. They will say, "Yes, but I saw it, I felt it." They believe that they did experience something real, and nothing can persuade them that they didn't.

    Did you believe their stories?

    Barbara Walters on believing in heaven
    I certainly would like to. I think if you can believe that there is a heaven, it graces your life. If you can believe that when you die, you go to a better place, it certainly makes life more comfortable on earth. Especially if you experience tragedies, and everyone does--deaths, pain, humiliation, whatever. If you believe that you have a near-death experience and you come back, and you can tell it to your children, that's wonderful. I think that these people have a very special grace.

    If there is a heaven, is there anyone you'd like to meet there?
    Of course, you want to see your family.

    One of your guests was talking about having dinner with Ernest Hemingway...
    Well, that's the thing about heaven. It must be very crowded, but in heaven, there is no barrier, there is no age, you meet everyone. I also wonder what happens to all these people who were born before the birth of Christ. Where do they go? Are they all in limbo? What happened to all the Egyptians, or the Chinese, or the Greeks? Where did they go?

    The person who made the comment about Hemingway was author Anthony DeStefano, who has a very specific vision of what he thinks heaven will look like. Was that common--did other people have ideas about what heaven will actually look like?

    Barbara Walters on what happens in heaven
    Almost everyone did. The idea of heaven is that it's a place where you're happy. If you're happy because it's a place where you have sex, great. If you're happy because there's beautiful music and rivers of honey, that's wonderful. If you're happy because you're in God's presence, that surpasses any kind of happiness.

    Also, what Mitch Albom talked about was the idea of heaven being a place where you meet your loved ones. That's why his book, "The Five People You Meet in Heaven," has been so successful. It is seen as a place where you meet your loved ones, and where, in a sense, you are forgiven. You have no guilt.

    You said before that it's more important to you to find heaven on earth. How do you do it?
    I am just aware that life is to be cherished. I am grateful, I do have a good life. I don't know how I would feel if I were very ill, or very poor, or if I had a series of tragedies. I might be praying for death and an afterlife.

    What do you hope people take away from watching your heaven show?
    I hope that they'll be inspired. I hope it will lead them to question their views and listen to other people's views. This [show] is not a lecture. It should be a heavenly two hours.

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