LEUKEMIA TOOK the Rev. Steven Fleming to the brink o death. He peered into the abyss and decided it was "a transition point, not the end."
Bill Urban, who has AIDS, sees the abyss every day. He now
believes in reincarnation and views death as a "place of cleansing" between lives.
Charlene Douglas, a born-again Christian, feels absolutely sure of going to heaven and expects it to be a place of "joy and constant praise and worship of God."
Death has been called life's great certainty. Perhaps, then, the greatest uncertainty is what happens after we die.
Does the soul live on after the body has expired? Do heaven and hell exist? Are they tangible places or spiritual states? High priests, rabbis, theologians, pastors, medicine men and their flocks have wrestled with these questions for centuries.
The Evening Sun interviewed members of major faiths about their personal beliefs and found that views of the afterlife are as diverse as religion itself.
REV. STEVEN FLEMING
In November 1983, Fleming was diagnosed as having leukemia. The Presbyterian pastor took a medical leave from his Shippensburg, Pa., church and moved with his wife to Harrisburg so he could be closer to his doctors.
"I went there to die, I was expecting to die," he says.
Less than a year later, following chemotherapy, the leukemia was judged to be in remission. Then Fleming's life was threatened by an infection of his liver and spleen, a condition related to the chemotherapy.
Extended treatment with an anti-fungal drug saved him, and by late 1986 he was well enough to work part-time as an associate pastor in Harrisburg.
Next he came to Maryland, and for nearly four years he has been in the pulpit full time as pastor of First United Presbyterian Church in Westminster.
During the time he faced death, Fleming spent a lot of time thinking about what comes next.
"When you talk about the afterlife, I feel like I've been there," he says.
"I can talk about death because, as a Christian, I believe it's not the final reality," says Fleming, now 39. "It's a transition point, not the end. I encourage people to talk about it because our faith gives us hope of life beyond death."
He envisions a physical heaven, "a place of relationship with God." Hell, also a physical setting, is where God and love are absent.
Fleming believes that when he dies, he will be "met by the Lord" in heaven and led to "some abode where my existence continues."
He says this period of heavenly existence will conclude with "the ultimate culmination of history, a new creation" -- the storied end of the world.
"There will be a worldwide garden where everyone will be living on Earth," he says, interpreting the Bible's Book of Revelation. "Bodies will be resurrected and souls reimbued into the bodies.
"Who I am remains. I won't have my glasses or my scars from all the surgery I've had. I'll have a new form, like Jesus when he appeared to the apostles after his resurrection," Fleming says.
"This is how things will be for eternity."
Urban believes in reincarnation. He believes this is his third life on Earth.
He also believes he must have done something "horrible" in a past life to have been afflicted with AIDS in this life, but he has no idea what.
His vision of the afterlife is a product of his "salad bar of theology," the term he uses to describe his religious beliefs. It is a mix of the Protestantism of his upbringing in Chestertown, the Catholicism of his teen years, and the Eastern and New Age philosophies of his adulthood.
Urban, 35, the editor of a local gay monthly called the Alternative, sees death as "a place of cleansing," somewhat like the Catholic concept of a purgatory where souls not sinful enough for hell must be purified before reaching heaven.
For Urban, this purification takes the form of reincarnation -- returning to Earth in a new life to resolve any person-to-person conflicts remaining from his earlier life.
When he finally is purified, Urban says, he will "stay on the other side and enjoy the serenity of being with God for eternity. I'll just relax and unload all this AIDS stuff."
Urban was diagnosed as having AIDS in the summer of 1987. At that time, he was "not ready to die." He could barely cope with the horror of watching a promising life come to an abrupt end: his work on the Alternative, a new relationship, his plans to announce as a candidate for the City Council -- all of it, he thought, smashed to pieces.
But since then, he has relied on the support of family, friends and his own spiritual strength to prepare himself for death.
As a member of the steering committee of the AIDS Interfaith Network -- a local group of clergy and laity confronting AIDS from a spiritual perspective -- Urban feels he is better prepared for death than many men with AIDS.
"If you're gay, you hear all your life how homosexuality is bad, and then you hear how AIDS is bad, this scourge from God," he says. "A lot of people with AIDS were raised hearing these things. If they're religious, they think they'll wind up in hell."
Urban has no such fears. Indeed, he is matter-of-fact about death.
"My funeral arrangements are all done, and they're pretty complicated because I want the service to embrace all the people in my life," he says.
His funeral will be held in the Roman Catholic church he attends, but it will include readings and music to make his Protestant relatives feel at home. Rabbis as well as Christian ministers will be on hand, reflecting Urban's involvement in interfaith circles.
Urban also has picked out his final, physical resting place -- a burial plot in West Baltimore.
"We're liable to think we can work our way to heaven by piling up the good deeds. But it doesn't work that way," says Douglas.
"You don't get to heaven because Jesus died and you did good works," she says. "You get to heaven only because Jesus died for you and you accept that he died for your sins."
Douglas, 37, a doctoral candidate in occupational health at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, accepted Jesus as her personal savior during a service at her church 11 years ago.
Her entry to the realm of the saved also changed her views of the afterlife. Growing up in "a good Baptist home" in Cleveland, she held the idea that if you went to church and were a "nice person," you would go to heaven.
"But now I'm eternally secure, and I have a very clear view of what will happen to me when I give up this life on Earth," says Douglas.
That view is of an otherworldly but physical place of "joy and constant praise and worship of God." She knows she will go there because it is promised in the Bible, and as a member of the fundamentalist Berean Bible Church in East Baltimore, she takes the Good Book literally at its word.
"In John, Chapter 14, it says, 'In my Father's house are many mansions: If it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.' "
She adds, "I know there is a place in heaven for Charlene Douglas."
Douglas is convinced she will have nothing to do with hell because it has nothing to do with her.
"Hell was never created for man," she states. "It was made for Lucifer and his angels because they rose up against God. God has given us a way to avoid hell, if we become saved through Jesus. But you could end up in hell by dying in your sin, by ignoring salvation through the Lord."
To Douglas, hell is as real a place as heaven, "a burning, sulfurous lake of fire," and Satan, who oversees that fiery lake, is equally real.
"Satan is not just some funny guy like Caspar the Friendly Ghost," she says.
"We don't know what Satan looks like, but he's more terrifying than any image I or Stephen King could imagine. My comfort is that God is that much stronger."
Buckley describes himself as a "mainstream Christian" who regularly attends a Roman Catholic church in northeast Baltimore.
But he is "very skeptical about life after death. If someone came up to me and said he'd had a vision of heaven, I'd have a lot of questions."
The first one would be, "Are you feeling all right?"
As chairman of the theology department at Loyola College, Buckley understands the centuries-old desire to visualize heaven and hell.
"People have these concrete images, as if heaven is some bright, clean place with a banquet going on, and hell is a dark, gloomy dungeon," says Buckley.
"The word itself, 'afterlife,' suggests a great deal of continuity, but it seems to me there's more discontinuity. Everything ends. That's it. Death is really serious."
Though many people believe in a physical heaven, Buckley and most other modern theologians offer the concept that heaven, if it exists at all, is a place of the spirit.
It is an idea that arose in the 16th century as the Dark Ages gave way to the Renaissance.
But the debate is never-ending. Various theories of the afterlife, some dating at least to the first millennium before Jesus Christ, continue to be kicked around by believers and skeptics alike, says Buckley.
Personally, the professor remains unconvinced. "There's just a lot we don't know. I mean, no one's ever come back to tell us what really happens on the other side."
Buckley suspects there is no such destination. He believes that when his body perishes, his existence will end.
"Instead of worrying about going to heaven after we die, maybe our focus should be on trying to make a heaven here, trying to attain a pure love of neighbor," Buckley says.
Fuller, raised Episcopalian, found the Christian concepts of heaven and hell "repugnant."
"You have this one life, one shot, and if you mess up, too bad. You're off to hell," she says, sarcastically giving her reading of the Christian ideas she grew up on.
Since converting to Tibetan Buddhism 11 years ago, Fuller has developed an entirely different outlook. Because Buddhists believe in reincarnation, the 39-year-old psychologist now regards death as a sort of birth.
"Death is really no big deal," she says. "It's not a thing to fear. It leads to life in a new state, a new form."
As Fuller explains it, one's consciousness takes three days to leave the body after death.
The consciousness then enters a period of 49 days, known as the bardo, in which it encounters myriad images and sounds, both peaceful and terrifying.
"You're born again following the bardo, hopefully in human form," says Fuller.
Reincarnation is a progression in which each new life builds on the previous one.
"You're trying to improve yourself and attain enlightenment, nirvana, in each life you live," says Fuller.
"Once you attain nirvana, you remain in that ultimate state and never return to earthly life."
The friends and relatives of Khalil Abdul-Rahman did not understand -- and could not believe -- his bland response when his older brother died of a heart attack not long ago.
"They wanted me to show more grief," says Abdul-Rahman, 42, a computer consultant in Columbia and a practicing Muslim for 14 years. "But they didn't realize that my concept, the Islamic concept, is that all our times to die are set by the Creator.
"I grieve because I won't see my brother again, but I don't cry and worry about what could have been done to prevent his death."
And yet, although his brother was a "very good, helpful person to others," Abdul-Rahman questions whether his brother went to heaven. The potential obstacle, as he sees it, was his brother's faith in Jesus as a divine figure who grants eternal salvation to those who believe that he is the son of God and that he died for mankind's sins.
Acknowledging Jesus as an important prophet but not a divine entity, Muslims claim there is only one god, one "Creator" -- Allah.
But Abdul-Rahman allows that heaven is not only for Muslims. It is for "all people of all faiths, who follow the right path, who do good things with good intent." He sees a place in heaven for his wife, a Methodist, because Islam teaches that life mates will be joined in heaven as long as both had adhered to "the right path."
Abdul-Rahman says Christianity and Islam share basic views of heaven and hell, but a key difference is that Muslims claim the individual, by his actions, is solely responsible for gaining either eternal paradise or damnation. Conversely, Christians believe salvation is promised through one's actions and a belief in Jesus as man's savior.
Until he converted to Islam in 1976 and took an Arabic name meaning "close friend" and "servant of the most merciful," Abdul-Rahman was known as Larry Thompson. A native of New River, Va., he was raised in a devoutly Baptist family.
As a boy, he held the traditionally Christian view of heaven as "a physical place of peace and comfort. It was not an imagined state. Once you reached it, it was eternal." He thought of hell also as a physical location, "hot, flaming, uncomfortable all the time." Reigning as the central figure of hell was Satan.
In his early 20s, Larry Thompson left the Baptist church. For the next six years, he would not attach himself to any particular faith, but he was, he says, "looking around." His search, guided by readings and conversations with Muslim friends, eventually led him to Islam.
His Muslim vision of the afterlife differs little from his former Christian view, he says, though he subscribes to the Muslim concept of "infinite layers" in both heaven and hell.
The better one's actions on Earth, the higher the "layer" of heaven he will reach; the worse his actions, the lower he will sink into hell.
When Baer was in her early 30s, she needed emergency surgery for acute appendicitis.
At the time, she and her husband were childless. She told him she was afraid she would die before they could start raising a family.
A decade later, Baer, 42, and her husband have two daughters. She is less fearful of death these days because she has her two girls, and through them, Baer believes, she will live on, long after her own death.
The girls already embody the continuity of her family, Baer says. Traits in the children -- a gesture, facial expression or vocal inflection -- remind her of deceased loved ones of earlier generations.
Like most Jews, Baer does not believe in heaven and hell as literal places of reward and punishment for earthly actions. As a child, however, she had a sense of the afterlife as a physical setting.
"What I remember from childhood is being taught that, when it was time for our messiah to return, all the dead would come back to life," she says. "They were all in heaven, of course, and heaven was up there, somewhere, in the sky. It was so far away. I used to look up and wait for the skies to open up and my late grandmother would come down."
It was years later, as an adult, that she left behind the fantastic stories of youth and developed the belief that "we live on in our deeds, in our kids, what we've taught them."
And death, she says, "is the state I was in before I was born: I wasn't. The difference is that, after death, I will have been. And I will be alive in my children and in the people whose lives I touched," including those she has helped through her work as a nurse during the past 20 years.
"Those people may not even know my name," Baer adds. "But they'll be people whose lives I affected, and maybe they will be here after I'm gone. I believe that's how the soul lives on."