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Inside Dateline: Our journey into 'hell'

I suspect there are no more central questions for every single one of us than the questions about belief.  Is there a God?  Is there life after death, is there a heaven, or hell?

August 10, 2006 |

Hell, you say? (Keith Morrison, Dateline correspondent)

NBC's Keith Morrison

I suspect there are no more central questions for every single one of us than the questions about belief.  Is there a God?  Is there life after death, is there a heaven, or hell?

Americans, as we all know by now, are far more likely than, say, Europeans, to answer that whole basket of questions in the affirmative.  A Harris poll of our attitudes conducted a few years ago found that 94 percent of American adults believe in God, 89 percent in heaven and 73 percent in hell.  For professing Christians, those numbers are even higher.

But its hell we're interested in here, and it turns out that Americans have a wide spectrum of expectations about what might happen there, from truly awful torments of the fire and brimstone type, to eternal separation from God, to some unkown bad outcome after death. And here's a truly fascinating twist in our hellish expectations: hell is for other people!  Fully three-quarters of survey participants felt pretty sure they will be going to heaven when they die, while just 2 percent expected they would wind up in hell. Wishful thinking?

Which brings us to the three characters I'd like you to meet, here and in our broadcast story.

It's Carlton Pearson's story, of course, the tale of a Pentecostal bishop who wrestled with the question of hell and its place in Christian dogma, and paid a terrible price when he announced his change of heart.  But Carlton's struggle is also a real issue for millions of other sincere Christians (and non-Christians, remember, everyone now alive is or will be confronted with the question).  And Carlton turned out to be a wonderful communicator for the journey. 

In the end, he proposed some possible answers to our shared dilemma.  Do they make any sense?  Are they dangerously misguided?  I don't know, but I certainly enjoyed talking to this charismatic and intelligent man.

Now, it happens that one of Carlton Pearson's school mates at Oral Roberts University has since become one of the most influential Christian spokesmen in America.

His name is Ted Haggard, pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs.  Pastor Ted invited me to sit in the front row of his crowded, football field sized church one Sunday morning, then sat down in front of our camera to talk about hell.  Haggard is down-to-earth, funny, and extremely bright.  He also believes wholeheartedly in what he says is a strictly Biblical definition of hell: a real place, with real and eternal torments for the unsaved.  You can hear and see more of Pastor Ted's views .

And finally, Bishop Spong, who graciously invited us to his home in rural New Jersey, where he led us through a whole other way of thinking about heaven and hell.  There wasn't time to hear from John Shelby Spong in our broadcast story, but we're pleased to post parts of our interview .

For many years now, the Bishop,  a prolific author, has been urging American Christians to consider a less literal approach to religious belief, and he's quite accustomed to taking heat for proposing what some consider to be sheer heresy.

His opinions about hell, and about the saga of Carlton Pearson, are certainly worth a look.

?  We'd love to know what you think.

'To Hell and Back' airs Dateline Sunday, Aug. 13, 7 p.m.