To Hell and Back

Matthew Dovel believes he saw a glimpse of hell in a near-death experience.

Like most people imagine, "it was extremely hot and very humid and dense," Dovel described on ABC's 20/20.

How did he get there? Dovel said he had committed suicide with three bottles of sleeping pills and a bottle of gin, saw a couple of flashes of light and found himself in mid-free fall into a pitch-black pit.

But beyond physical pain, Dovel reportedly experienced an extreme emotional pain when people from his past approached him, pushing and screaming as Dovel relived a moment he caused them pain, he said. He also said he saw the suffering his death caused his mother and then 18-year-old daughter when they discovered him dead.

"I was on my hands and face, weeping, weeping. Not just crying but weeping for Jesus to save me," Dovel explained. He said he eventually found himself being lifted out of the pit as he was still weeping and hearing a voice that said, "You have work to do, and if you continue to live the life you are, this is where you are going to spend eternity."

When Dovel chose to commit suicide, he was hoping to end up back in the heaven he saw in an earlier near-death experience. At 12 years old, Dovel was trying to swim the entire length of a pool underwater and just as he surfaced, his friends playfully pushed him back under. A white light "engulfed" him and he had flashes of all the good moments in his life. He also said Jesus Christ appeared before him grabbing him by the wrist and saying, "You've got to go back."

Dovel was back on the side of the pool.

While a number of people have come out, some in books, describing brief experiences in heaven in near-death situations, not many have reported having gone to hell and back.

For the majority of Americans, God and heaven are real, a recent Gallup poll revealed. Fewer, however, said they believed in the devil and hell. Belief in hell peaked in 2001 to 71 percent after the Sept. 11 attacks but fell to 69 percent today.

Some individuals, most notably Universalists, believe God is too good and too loving to allow people to spend eternity in hell. Bishop Carlton D. Pearson, who ministers Higher Dimensions Family Church in Tulsa, Okla., grew his church to 6,000 members as he preached the fundamentals of Christianity - Jesus Christ is the only way to eternal life. But he now preaches that all of humanity is destined for heaven.

Pearson was named a heretic by evangelical Christians when he came out in recent years with his own "Gospel of Inclusion," a variation on universal reconciliation. His congregation shrank to only a few hundred as he preached that the death of Jesus Christ on the cross and His resurrection paid the price for all of humanity to have eternal life in heaven, without any requirement to repent of sins and receive salvation.

Miriam Van Scott, author of The Encyclopedia of Hell, told ABC that in this age of science, people are moving away from the idea of eternal damnation.

"Hell is a little too medieval," she said. "It's a little too extreme."

For most Christians, however, hell is very real. The only way to heaven, as many evangelists preach, is acknowledging you're a sinner, the repenting of sins and inviting Jesus Christ into your heart.

As Anne Graham Lotz, daughter of evangelist Billy Graham, put it, "The only way anybody ever gets into heaven is because they're holding the hand of Jesus."

As for Dovel, following his "trips" to both heaven and hell, the 45-year-old has devoted his life to suicide prevention through International Suicide Prevention, which he set up in Las Vegas. He also has his own MySpace page, under the ID "suicideexpert."

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