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Debate on afterlife continues to rage

When she dies, Donna Aron is going to heaven. She thinks.

The 36-year-old mother of two from Delray Beach believes in Jesus and is raising her children with Christian values. But when she gets angry or acts in what she considers an un-Christian way, she wonders: "Am I going to hell?"

"You don't stop having your doubts," Aron said. "Sometimes I feel I'm not good enough for heaven."

People of every faith wonder what will happen to them when they die. Even if they're certain they're headed for heaven (or hell), no one knows the details.

Where are heaven and hell? Will we know our families in heaven? Will we have our bodies? What happens to the person who has led a good life but has never heard of Jesus? Would a loving God consign human beings to eternal torment? How is it decided where we will go?

Every faith has many answers, but never enough to satisfy human beings' apparently limitless curiosity about the subject.

"People are desperate to know what is beyond this life," said Mitchell Reddish, religion department chairman at Stetson University in DeLand. "If they're looking for details, they'll be frustrated. If they're looking for an affirmation that there's something beyond this life, they'll get it."

The Rev. David Brazelton of Good Shepherd United Methodist Church in West Palm Beach preached about heaven and hell a month ago.

"God prepared a place for us to be with him," Brazelton said. "Hell wasn't his intention, but there had to be a place for Satan."

Brazelton subscribes to the biblical view of hell as everlasting punishment. So does the Rev. Dan Burrell of Berean Baptist Church in West Palm Beach, who preaches regularly about the afterlife.

"There is a literal heaven and a literal hell," Burrell said. "It is the driving factor of my entire ministry _ encouraging people to accept Christ to avoid hell."

Some Christian ministers take a more metaphorical view.

"There is an afterlife, a spiritual realm where we maintain an identity. It's a positive environment for most of us," said the Rev. Allen Hollis of Union Congregational Church in West Palm Beach. "I have mixed feelings on hell. A God who would consign us to eternal torment would be a cruel God."

In earliest Old Testament times, all the dead were believed to go to Sheol, or Nothingness, a shadowy underworld separated from God. In about the second century B.C., Pharisaic Jewish leaders, concerned that too many people were getting away with sin in this life, began to embrace the idea of the immortal soul and the resurrection of the dead.

Christians trace their belief in hell to the words of Jesus. The New Testament describes a "lake of fire," "weeping and gnashing of teeth" and "outer darkness."

Many early church leaders believed in a hot, fiery hell of sensory punishment.

"This was a pre-scientific understanding of heaven and hell, with heaven above us and hell below," said David Rayburn, Christian theology professor at Palm Beach Atlantic College. "They were wrestling with making sense of the world and the experience of death."

Medieval literature, with its vivid portrayals of the afterlife, has greatly influenced popular thinking on heaven and hell. Tortured souls and flaming, multileveled subterranean chambers animated Dante's fictional descriptions of the Inferno in the Divine Comedy in the early 14th century.

Protestant reformers disavowed the terrifying portrayals of hell in popular literature and art, as well as the concepts of Limbo (the eternal abode of unbaptized babies, among others) and Purgatory (a state of purification before heaven). These remain part of Roman Catholic theology.

Jewish theologians long have debated what happens when we die. Many Jews today reject the idea of an afterlife.

"It's difficult to say what is the Jewish tradition," said Sigmund Stahl, an instructor with the Commission for Jewish Education in West Palm Beach. "It depends whom you want to quote."

After about 200 B.C., rabbinic tradition developed the idea of Gehenna, a place where sinners were flayed and burned. By the 1700s, Jewish philosophers began arguing that hell did not conform to the idea of a merciful God. Although most Jews have abandoned the idea of hell and an afterlife, Orthodox Jews say the dead will rise again when the Messiah arrives.

Aharon Ungar, an Orthodox Jew from Boca Raton, believes in this world to come.

"You have a spiritual existence, a soul, but no more physical body," Ungar said. "You're able to unify with God."

Catholic theology today views heaven as a state of grace, in which we retain our individual identities. Catholics also believe in hell and purgatory, but their exact natures haven't been defined.

"For Catholics, hell plays a significant role in how you conduct yourself," said Julio Zayas, a Catholic from Jupiter, a coastal community north of West Palm Beach. "You think of an eternity of fire and burning. I would like to feel I'm going to heaven, but we've all done things that make us wonder."

Catholics believe people choose heaven or hell by the way they live. In 1990, Cardinal John J. O'Connor warned New York Gov. Mario Cuomo of "a serious risk of going to hell" for supporting legalized abortion.

According to a Gallup Poll taken that year, 60 percent of Americans believed in hell, up from 54 percent in 1965.

The poll found that only 4 percent of Americans think they're going there.

"You don't want to think about it," said Karen Albury, an Episcopalian from West Palm Beach. "Hell is a place without God, and that would be torture for me as a Christian. I believe in God, so I'm going to heaven."