April 26, 2004 12:00 PM

From the excitement of the crowd milling around a Barnes & Noble bookstore in Montgomery, Ala., April 1, you’d think rock stars were signing books. Or J. K. Rowling at least. But Harry Potter isn’t the adventure hero on anyone’s mind just now—God is. And Carol Armstrong, for one, didn’t mind waiting two hours to be the first in line to meet the guys—Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins—who have brought the Bible’s words to life in their now-concluding fictional 12-book series Left Behind. “I’d stay here until midnight,” says the 33-year-old marketing employee for Sam’s Club. Ditto Andrew Gilmore, 17, a local high school junior. “The books got me more interested in Christianity,” he says. Oh yeah, he adds, “I like the action.”

He has plenty of company. Based on the judgments meted out in the Bible’s “Book of Revelation” by God to non-believers, the novels in the series have done more than make coauthors LaHaye, 78, an evangelical preacher, and Jenkins, 54, a former sportswriter, multimillionaires. The tales of battles between the dashing hero, pilot Rayford Steele, and the evil villain, world leader Nicolae Carpathia, are the fastest-selling adult fiction series on the market. The ninth book, Desecration, published a month after 9/11, became that year’s top hardcover fiction seller, knocking out John Grisham for the first time in seven years. And the final installment, Glorious Appearing: The End of Days, sold out its first 1.9-million-copy run even before it hit the stores on March 30. Little wonder that ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY has put LaHaye and Jenkins in its list of the 101 Most Powerful People in Show Business for the past two years. “There’s a God hunger right now,” says Jenkins, citing also the success of Mel Gibson’s $353-million-earning Passion of the Christ. “People are looking for something beyond themselves.”

Of course page-turner plots don’t hurt, either. In between the locusts, the plagues and the hailstorms, there are biochip implants, an evil leadership in the U.N. and a 10-mile lightning bolt shaped like a cross pulsating in the sky. Explains Jenkins: “If the fiction was written just like a sermon, it wouldn’t sell like it has sold.”

And from the moment 18 years ago when “the Lord gave me the fantastic idea” to use fiction to relay the prophecies, says LaHaye, his intent has been to sell—not just books but “salvation. We’re trying to help people accept Christ so they won’t be left behind.”

The Detroit native, who has been a preacher for 57 years—almost as long as he has been married to his Bob Jones University sweetheart, Beverly, 75—was no stranger to writing even before his current series. He is the author of more than 50 works of nonfiction, some of which have angered members of the gay community. (He stands by the belief expressed in his 1978 book The Unhappy Gaysthat “the homosexual lifestyle is not really a happy lifestyle.”) And in the ’70s he offended many by calling Catholicism a “false” religion, meaning simply, he says today, that “I don’t believe in the Catholic religion.”

Still, it wasn’t his potential for stirring controversy that concerned him back in 1986—it was his inability to write fiction. So he began looking for a creative collaborator: “I prayed specifically to find the right person.”

Enter Jenkins. A born-again Christian who attended Moody Bible Institute in Chicago while working as a journalist (he was a sports editor at The Des Plaines Suburban Times at 19), Jenkins had written more than 50 works of fiction when LaHaye’s agent introduced the two in 1991. “We just hit it off,” says Jenkins, who lives with his wife of 33 years, Dianna, 56, in Colorado Springs. The two quickly agreed on a format: LaHaye outlines what will happen in each book, according to his literal interpretation of the Bible. And Jenkins embellishes with characters, details and subplots.

Though both are committed to Christian causes, the two granddads don’t always agree. LaHaye, for instance, who lives in Rancho Mirage, Calif., is a football fan who skis double-diamond slopes for fun, while Jenkins is a baseball man whose idea of extreme sports is competitive Scrabble. Still, when it comes to their books, they never cross words. “I defer to him on theology; he defers to me on fiction,” says Jenkins. “It just works out.”

The second coming of Christ in Glorious Appearing brings their Left Behind stories to an end. But LaHaye and Jenkins are planning a prequel, a sequel and even, they hope, a big-screen movie. LaHaye says he sees Mel Gibson as Rayford Steele: “I’ll look into those beautiful blue eyes of his and say, ‘Mel, I’ve got something for you to pray about.’ ” Sounds divine.

Karen S. Schneider. Kristin Harmel in Montgomery

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