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Barbara Walters explores life after death

'The View' host compares religious believes on afterlife for ABC special
/ Source: The Associated Press

Proving she's in the spirit of the season, Barbara Walters feigns ignorance to the pair of "reindeer antlers" perched on her head as she steps from her office to greet a visitor.

No red nose for her, however. That would be undignified.

The veteran broadcaster is in a similar good mood about her two-hour special "Heaven: Where Is It? How Do We Get There?" 9 p.m. EST Tuesday on ABC.

"I think this is one of the most important pieces that I've ever done," said Walters. "I hope it will be inspirational and to some degree educational. I hate to say that because I don't want it to sound like Comparative Religion 101."

The special will seem like a departure to people who are used to seeing Walters primarily on "The View," or during her final years on "20/20" when she became most identified with celebrity interviews.

The topic seems impossibly broad and the questions unanswerable, although that doesn't stop many from trying. The special, after a slow start that seemingly references every piece of culture that mentions the subject ("Tears in Heaven," "It's a Wonderful Life"), unfolds into a fascinating exploration of how the world sees the world beyond.

Walters travels to India to meet the Dalai Lama and to a Jerusalem prison to interview a failed suicide bomber. She speaks to people about near-death experiences, including Elizabeth Taylor, to religious leaders and to authors Mitch Albom and Maria Shriver about their books on heaven.

She poses some questions sure to become Walters legends: "Is there sex in heaven?" and "Would you like me to go to hell?"

‘It's what God wants’The former elicits some interesting cultural differences. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop of Washington, said there's no need for such earthly delights in a place where the Lord will give joy. Meanwhile, Muslim suicide bombers are often told that martyrs will be rewarded with 72 virgins in heaven.

One man seduced by that vision, Jihad Jarrar, told Walters from a Jerusalem prison that unless she became a Muslim, hell would be her final destination.

"It's not what I want," he said. "It's what God wants."

Walters said she became interested in the topic after reading a story about a doctor who worked with children who had undergone near-death experiences. She was struck by a survey that showed nearly nine in 10 Americans believe in an afterlife, and nearly as many believed a heaven exists.

"Here we are at a time when we are so technically oriented, and we have a bigger and bigger spiritual need," she said.

The popularity of books like Albom's "The Five People You Meet in Heaven" indicates many people are searching for the purpose of life. "What if we just try to find out?" she said.

She said she tried to ask the kinds of questions she believed people would want to ask yet would feel funny about. Upon hearing one fanciful vision of an unearthly paradise, she asks: "Is it possible that if heaven is this interesting that it gets boring?"

It's not all ethereal. Walters tries to dive into the science behind spirituality, and hears an expert who dismisses near-death experiences as hallucinations. The special also includes a probing look into the rise of evangelical Christianity. In an interview with Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, she uncovers a similarity to Jarrar: both men believe that following their own God is the only guarantee of entrance into heaven. In Haggard's case, it's Jesus Christ.

"Does God mean for you to be so judgmental?" Walters asks him.

A chance to do something newWalters, 74, relished the chance to do something new. She still enjoys her annual Academy Awards interview special, but said she left "20/20" because she was tired of the rigorous competition for big-name interviews. "The next `get' was always the next celebrity," she said.

"I thought, `I'm not doing what I love,'" she said. "I'm not doing foreign stories. Even though we did the president every year, we were not doing political stories. And I wanted to see if I could do something else." When it became clear to Walters and producer Rob Wallace that they had enough material for a two-hour program, they essentially auditioned for ABC. They compiled a highlight reel for network executives to ask for two prime-time hours.

She's particularly delighted that the request was granted for the week before Christmas, when spirituality is on people's minds.

Walters take pains to keep her opinions about the topic to herself — she even declines to answer when asked whether she believes in heaven — and said she was careful not to pit different religions against each other.

"I found so many of these people deeply moving," she said. "I became not more cynical, but less cynical."

She was particularly warmed by the presence of the Dalai Lama, and not simply because the hotel where she stayed while visiting him last March had little heat or hot water. The Dalai Lama, and follower Richard Gere, explained how they believe heaven is a waiting place for souls that are born again and again. The better a person's behavior while on Earth, the better their next life will be.

At the end of her meeting with the Tibetan spiritual leader, Walters asked for — and received — a kiss on the cheek.

"To be in his presence was a wonderful experience," she said. "I've said this before, but when I left, for a couple of days, I was a wonderful person. Since he talked about compassion and warmheartedness, I had no competitive thoughts. I saw only good in everything.

"It lasted a good week."