July 10, 2007 — -- Matthew Dovel says he calls himself "a hostile witness to heaven and hell."
Dovel is one of the thousands of Americans who have reported what are called near-death experiences. Although science can find no facts to support the notion that people have actually glimpsed the afterlife, many people brought back from the brink of death swear they've been to heaven.
Far fewer report visiting hell, but Dovel believes he's seen both. And he's had a few brushes with death.
Dovel's first near-death experience happened when he was 12 years old and was trying to swim the entire length of a pool underwater. As he surfaced, his friends playfully pushed him back under.
"I was completely out of breath," he said. "The instant that I took the breath of water in, a white light engulfed me. And I flashed back over my life. It was just all these good moments in my life. I was completely happy to be at this place."
In that moment, Dovel says, a "beautiful creature" came out of the light. "It was Jesus Christ and he grabbed me by the wrist, and said you've got to go back," Dovel said. "I'm instantly on the side of the pool, on my back."
Dovel had been rescued by his friends, but that glimpse into the afterlife left him confused and profoundly depressed. "A rage came over me … an uncontrollable anger towards God that I had to come back."
The next decade became a constant cycle of booze and cocaine-fueled binges, even after he married and had a daughter. "I would drink till I blacked out, and found out that cocaine allowed me to drink more, and stay awake, and not black out," he said.
But the drugs and alcohol never came close to recreating that euphoric boyhood memory of heaven, so he came up with a most unlikely plan to return.
"I just said, 'I can't live like this another day.' And at that moment, I had chosen to commit suicide," Dovel said. "It was like a joy came over me. It would be the answer to all my problems. And the world would be better off without me. And I'd get to go back to heaven."
Dovel bought his favorite gin and three bottles of sleeping pills, and then drove to a remote bird sanctuary near his home in Anchorage, Alaska. He swallowed the pills and drank the gin sitting in the front seat of his car overlooking a marsh. In an instant, he says, he was no longer completely in this world.
"And I get a flash of light and I'm suddenly outside," he said. "And I'm thinking, 'How did I get out here?' And I notice there's no color. Everything's gray. And I put my head back … and the moment I close my eyes, there's another flash … and I'm in mid-free fall into a pit that's pitch-black."
Dovel's lifelong wish to return to heaven had ended in a personal vision of hell.
"It was extremely hot and very humid and dense," he said. "Just smoke coming out of the ground." The experience then became extremely painful — not physically, but emotionally.
"I'm living in my past," he said. "And all the people that I had met throughout my life, they would come to me and get within my face and start pushing and screaming … and I would relive a moment that I had caused them pain."
Then, he says, he saw the suffering his death would eventually cause. He still finds it painful to remember after almost 20 years.
"My mother … I was there when she collapsed, finding out I was dead from suicide," he said. Dovel says he experienced all the pain he would cause people in the future from his suicide — like his daughter. Dovel describes the vision he saw of her: "She was 18, and she's sitting on the floor, contemplating suicide, 'cause I wasn't there for her."
But the experience of begging to be released from the pain was the most painful of all. "I was on my hands and face, weeping, weeping. Not just crying but weeping for Jesus to save me," he said.
And Dovel believes that he was eventually saved. "I was pretty much lifted up by the back of my neck, and slowly, very slowly, lifted out of this pit. I remember I was still weeping, and a voice told me, 'You have work to do, and if you continue to live the life you are, this is where you are going to spend eternity.'"
Dovel says he woke up a day later back in his apartment. How he got there remains a mystery. Did he actually visit hell? Or was his journey a drug-fueled hallucination? Or a trick played by neurons frantically firing in a dying brain?
Counselor and educator Jan Holden, who has interviewed hundreds of people who are convinced that they've been to the "other side" and back, thinks it's possible it's all a trick of the brain, but that the people who've had these experiences are convinced they have been to another reality.
Holden said, "They've remembered dreams. They've hallucinated, and they can say that their near-death experience was nothing like either of those. They say that it's absolutely real. And that their consciousness is functioning much like it does in the body, except for some sort of additional abilities."
This theory likens the brain to a cell phone or a radio receiving these hellish or heavenly images from some other place. Science can't say for sure, but regardless of the cause, the effect is startling.
Of all those who "die" and return, the vast majority are profoundly changed. Dovel says, "This is something so horrific that when I came out of that, I quit a $1,000-a-week drug habit cold turkey."
Dovel sobered up, moved to Las Vegas and devoted his life to suicide prevention through International Suicide Prevention, his nonprofit organization. He helps people deal with the aftermath of suicides.
Dovel said, "I see horrific things that we do to ourselves … and people say, 'How can you handle that?' It's nothing to me. … It doesn't even come close to what I experienced in hell."