December 14, 1998 12:00 PM

As a novelist, Tim LaHaye has always been guided by three strict rules: no sex, no nude scenes and nothing that “denigrates Jesus Christ.” Not exactly the formula to inspire a stampede at the local Barnes &c Noble, one might think.

But over the past four years, LaHaye, 72, a retired evangelical minister, and his collaborator, ex-sportswriter Jerry B. Jenkins, 49, have stunned the publishing world by selling more than 2.5 million copies of their novel Left Behind and its three sequels, all based on the Book of Revelation. “This is unprecedented,” says Lynn Garrett, the religion editor at Publishers Weekly. “This is the most successful Christian-fiction series ever.”

What readers have been scooping up—not only at Christian bookstores but also at retailers such as Wal-Mart and Target—are fictional tales of what fundamentalist Christians call the Rapture, when it is said that Jesus will return to take all genuine Christians bodily to heaven. Those left behind, according to the LaHaye and Jenkins version, which is set in the immediate future, will endure seven years of social chaos, wars, a deadly earthquake and finally the reign of the Antichrist in the form of the Secretary General of the United Nations. “We don’t want to scare people, but what we’re saying is scary,” says Jenkins. Adds LaHaye: “If you’re not a good Christian, your future is pretty grim.”

LaHaye, an ordained Southern Baptist minister, has been spreading that word for decades, as a preacher, a conservative political activist—associated in the ’80s with Jerry Falwell—and the author of 43 books ranging from self-help marriage guides to primers on religion. “The most rewarding thing in the ministry,” he says, “is affecting the lives of people.”

Born in Detroit, LaHaye was just 9 when his father, a machine repairman, died of a heart attack, prompting his mother to go to work in a Ford factory to support her three children. Discovering a love of preaching while working as a lifeguard at a Christian summer camp, LaHaye went on to South Carolina’s Bob Jones University, where he met fellow student Beverly Davenport, whom he married in 1947. He served a Minneapolis congregation before moving in 1956 to San Diego, where he took over the evangelical Scott Memorial Church and later helped found the 637-student Christian Heritage College in nearby El Cajon. Beverly, meanwhile, founded the Concerned Women for America, a public-policy group with 500,000 current members, which opposes abortion and advocates school prayer. She also began hosting a Christian radio talk show syndicated to 100 stations. “I’m the one who likes to put on the nuts and bolts,” says Beverly, with whom LaHaye has four grown children. “Tim is the visionary, a person a little bit ahead of his time.”

After leaving his pulpit in 1981 to devote more time to writing and politics, LaHaye came up with the idea of a novel about the Second Coming. “Sitting on airplanes and watching the pilots,” he says, “I’d think to myself, ‘What if the Rapture occurred on an airplane?’ ” For three years he looked for a cowriter. Then, in 1992, a literary agent introduced him to Jenkins, a fellow evangelical Christian who has written 130 books (including, as a ghostwriter, an autobiography of Rev. Billy Graham) and does the writing for the comic strip Gil Thorp. “I felt comfortable with Jerry,” says LaHaye, 23 years his senior. Adds Jenkins: “It’s like a father-son thing.”

LaHaye, who lives in Rancho Mirage, Calif., sends outlines based on biblical texts to Jenkins, who lives on 4½ acres in Zion, Ill. Then Jenkins produces a first draft, working 8-to 10-hour, days and breaking only for fast-food lunches with his wife, Dianna, a home-maker and the mother of their three sons. He sends LaHaye 100 pages at a time. “Tim makes sure the theology is right,” says Jenkins.

Some critics charge that the theology is in fact rather exotic. Randall Balmer, a professor of religion at Barnard College who has written extensively on fundamentalism, faults the novels’ theological underpinnings. “They don’t see this as allegory but as literal truth,” he says. Others are troubled by the books’ bleak view of the government and the U.N. Says Paul Boyer, a University of Wisconsin professor specializing in religious history: “It feeds the most paranoid strands in American life today.”

The Left Behind series also feeds the coffers of LaHaye and Jenkins, who have made some $5 million on the books. Jenkins gives 20 percent of his earnings to Christian charities, while LaHaye plans to put his money into getting a book he has written about Jesus published in several languages. Says LaHaye, whose fifth book in the series with Jenkins is due out in February: “I feel humble that God has given us a vehicle to affect the minds of other people.”

Thomas Fields-Meyer

Grant Pick in Zion

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