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.