The American scene

Most people in the US believe in heaven and hell. And a lucky few have even had sneak previews

A poll three months ago by the ABC network confirmed that American faith is holding firm: 80 per cent of the population believe in heaven and, of those, 85 per cent are confident that up is where they're going. A slightly lower 71 per cent believe in hell. Unsurprisingly, there is considerable curiosity about these final destinations. And where there is curiosity, there will be books to satisfy it - at a price.

Two H&H guidebooks are currently being advertised on Rush Limbaugh's ultra-right-wing talk show (which claims to have 20 million listeners). They are Choo Thomas's Heaven is So Real (published three years ago but still going strong) and Bill Wiese's 23 Minutes in Hell (published a couple of months ago and selling like hot cakes).

As Thomas records: "On January 19, 1996, I woke up at 3:00 in the morning. My body was shaking. I turned my head on the pillow to look in the direction of the sound, and there, all aglow, was a figure dressed in white garments. IT WAS THE LORD." The trip that follows is something of a let-down - all Persil-white robes and celestial choirs belting out heavenly muzak.

Bill Wiese is a real-estate agent (most of whose kind, one hopes, will spend longer than 23 minutes roasting for their sins). His blood-curdling story also starts at the favourite hour for out-of-body tourism. His wife, Annette, was woken at 3.23am one morning last year by terrible screams coming from the living room. She found her husband on the shag carpet, in the foetal position, holding his skull. He, too, had taken the 3am trip - but in the opposite direction from Thomas.

He found himself "dropped into a prison cell with rough huge stone walls and bars on the door. I didn't know where I was yet, all I knew was that it was extremely hot." He soon realised he was not baking alone. With him were four cell mates who would terrify the toughest San Quentin con - 13ft-tall "things" with scales, giant jaws and razor-sharp claws on the end of one unnaturally long arm. They were "assigned", Wiese apprehended, "to torture me". And they attacked their assignment with gusto. One demon, uttering unrepeatable profanities, threw him against the stone wall - "and every bone in my body just broke". Another proceeded to shred the flesh off the mangled bones. "There was no blood, just flesh hanging, because life is in the blood, and there is no life in hell." And the smell is "atrocious".

The lighting, too, leaves much to be desired - "the place is darker than the iron mines in Arizona". A good thing, perhaps, since "you are also naked in hell. It is just another thing to have to endure. Shame!"

Despite his injuries, thirst and shame, Wiese managed, in the minutes that were left to him, to crawl out of his cell, where he heard "billions of people" screaming. It was, he rather lamely says, "annoying". By now, he realised he was "3,700 miles deep in the earth". Apparently, that's where the 13ft demons have their domain and where "billions of people" currently reside, 15 per cent of them from God's Own Country and every one of them - as Limbaugh's listeners might say - a damned "liberal".

Once his 23 minutes were up, Wiese was released from his torments by the Lord himself. Why had he been subjected to this experience? Not, it seems, because of any sins, but "because people do not believe that this place exists". He goes on to lament that "even some of my own people do not believe this place is real". Wiese was charged with writing a book to bring the reality home to the sceptics.

23 Minutes in Hell is currently top among the infernal tourism guides genre, displacing Mary K Baxter's A Divine Revelation of Hell (Jesus gave her the full 40-night tour) and Jennifer Perez's Hell Is Real: I know, I went there! (Jesus took Perez round despite her being only 15 - presumably He shielded her innocent ears from the profanities). Let's hope those 9 per cent of disbelieving believers mend their view before they find out the hard way that hell is indeed real - and very smelly.

This article first appeared in the 22 May 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Heroes of our time - the top 50