In the beginning, the creator made the Heaven and the Earth.

And the Earth was without form. It was a straight line.

And the firmament looked like this.

And the creator brought forth the winged fowl and the fishes of the sea and the beasts of the field and the creatures that creepeth on the land. The snake felt unloved. The anteater was ashamed because it ate ants. Clams talked. Flowers talked. Rocks talked. The dinosaur said "Gronk."

And the creator made man. Man needed a shave.

And he made woman. He called her The Fat Broad.

And it was good.

Man, it was good. When Johnny Hart's "B.C." hit the comics pages in February 1958, it was an instant sensation. For the fuddy-duddy '50s, "B.C." was edgy. The squat little troglodytes pondered existential questions. They revealed themselves to be thickheaded, fearful, lustful, prideful, stubborn, duplicitous . . . in short, thoroughly human. "B.C." was your basic cartoon about men, women and animals, but with an irresistible twist. Hart had reinvented the wheel.

Four decades later, Johnny Hart is still drawing "B.C." He also collaborates on "The Wizard of Id," a strip set in medieval times. Each appears in more than 1,200 newspapers worldwide, which reach almost 100 million readers. There are a few strips with slightly fatter circulation -- "Peanuts," "Blondie" and "Garfield," for example -- but only Hart has two bestsellers, and taken together, they far outnumber any of the others. Which means, in a sense, that he is the most widely read writer on Earth.

Everyone loves Johnny Hart. Or did, until recently. Hart is suddenly controversial.

"B.C." was never exactly P.C. The Fat Broad wasn't designed to please women. The Wizard's world has dungeons and torture; peasants are routinely hanged. But no one complains.

Then, one Easter Sunday a few years ago, Johnny Hart started drawing Christian themes into some of his "B.C." cartoons. These cartoons -- which tend to run around religious holidays -- are about peace, love and charity. But mostly, they are about Jesus as Lord and Savior and the only messenger of Truth. They cite Scripture, sometimes literally chapter and verse.

People reacted.

It turns out, Americans feel strongly about their comics page. A little torture is one thing.

But Jesus Christ?

That's when all hell broke loose.

The Washington Post still carries "B.C." Monday through Saturday, but if you leaf through the comics section today, you won't find it. Several months ago The Post dropped "B.C." from the color Sunday comics, because Sunday is the day Hart's religious cartoons most frequently appear. The file of reader complaints on the strip is as thick as a stone tablet. Some Jews were offended. Some Muslims were offended. Some secular liberals were appalled.

For similar reasons, the Chicago Sun-Times dropped the strip entirely -- daily and Sunday. Other papers, such as the Denver Post and the Los Angeles Times, have asked to be warned when one of the Jesus strips is to run, so they have the option of killing it and substituting something else. Sometimes, they do. Five times in the past year alone, The Washington Post has yanked daily "B.C." strips because of their religious content.

Hart won't go broke. He's an institution. When the Chicago Sun-Times dropped him, the Chicago Tribune gleefully picked him up. But the fact is, he is taking a risk with his reputation.

Religion is not entirely absent from the comics pages. Bil Keane's "Family Circus," for example, is sometimes set in church. A berobed Grandpa is sometimes seen beaming at his cute-as-a-button grandkids from his perch up on the clouds in Heaven. But the message is safely nonsectarian, and dippy enough to alienate no one.

Hart's religious strips are nothing like that. They aren't namby-pamby. They are unabashedly evangelistic. Appearing on pages otherwise known for gentle whimsy, these strips sometimes seem to hit like a caveman's club to the head.

For example, the one below ran in 1995:

These religious cartoons are usually clever. They are often funny, but not always. From time to time, the intensity of the message seems to extinguish the humor, such as the one that appeared on the Friday of Easter week 1996. To many, it seemed inscrutable.

The cartoon was simply four empty panels, with no art. The first panel was gray. The second was darker. The third was darker still. And the last was completely black. That final panel carried the caption: Good Friday.

And last year, around Easter, Hart drew this one:

The citations were to Christ's agony on the cross. The Post did not run it.

All of which raises two questions:

Why is Johnny Hart doing this if it gets people so riled?

And:

Why does it get people so riled?

"Johnny is the most controversial person on the comics pages," says Richard S. Newcombe, president of Creators Syndicate, which distributes "B.C." "Johnny is also the most courageous person on the comics pages. To be outspoken on the subject of Christianity is exposing yourself to ridicule. It's easy to mock the religious believer."

Newcombe says the cartoons are inventive and thought-provoking and he has encouraged Hart to continue them despite objections from some newspaper editors. Every time one runs, he says, the syndicate gets hundreds of letters. Some are critical, but most, he says, are from approving Christians.

To understand why Hart does it, Newcombe says, you have to meet Johnny: He is humble and filled with love.

Johnny Hart has been talking amiably for six hours. His voice is gentle, almost timid.

He says:

Jews and Muslims who don't accept Jesus will burn in Hell.

Homosexuality is the handiwork of Satan.

America was founded as a Christian nation, and should remain one. The country's moral decline began the day that prayer in the public schools was outlawed.

Angels travel at the speed of thought. Some are the lackeys and stooges of the Devil, and they whisper temptations in our ears.

God probably engineered the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin as punishment for trying to give away holy land in violation of biblical commands.

The end of the world is approaching, maybe by the year 2010.

And:

Johnny Hart is going straight to Heaven.

Hart is 68, looks a decade younger, with tousled silver-white hair and a mildly bemused expression. On this day he is working alone in a studio the size of an amphitheater. It is out in the country, 20 miles east of Binghamton, N.Y.

Binghamton is a factory town on the edge of Appalachia. In the obituaries of the local paper, the Binghamton Press and Sun Bulletin, no one dies. A person goes "home to be with his Lord and savior, Jesus Christ."

Hart was born here, and loves it.

His studio has an atrium with a 30-foot ceiling, thickly paneled walls, two pool tables, a piano, a drum set, a bar and exercise equipment. There is a panoramic picture window overlooking a 25-acre lake, which Hart owns. His house is a quarter-mile down the road, which he also owns. It is all part of a 150-acre estate.

Cavemen have been very good to Johnny Hart.

Even though they never existed.

Hart once thought they did, but has since changed his mind. He brandishes his leather-bound family Bible, generously annotated in the margins.

"I am a literalist," he says, which means that he believes the words of the Bible are literally the word of God, not metaphors, not parables, but the literal truth. Early fundamentalist Bible scholars, working backward from the Gospels, placed the Creation roughly at 4004 B.C.

Which means the Pleistocene Era never occurred. No Stone Age.

But . . .

"I don't believe in carbon dating," Hart says. "It is so inaccurate."

But what about surviving stone tools and cave paintings and such?

Hart theorizes that after the Tower of Babel, when God angrily banished disobedient people to the four corners of the Earth, some of them went to inhospitable areas, such as the Arctic Circle. Those people might have had to dress in skins and use primitive tools. You could call them cavemen, maybe.

Neanderthals? No. Since the Creation, Hart says, man has existed as man. There were no forebears. "No species ever evolved into another species," he says. "Darwin is a lie."

Outside the studio, in the grass, is a large wooden model of "Gronk," Hart's winsome, toothy, lovesick dinosaur. Did dinosaurs exist?

Oh yes, Hart says. "The Bible called them leviathans or behemoths." Hart theorizes that all dinosaurs died out in the Great Flood, because they were left off Noah's Ark. The ark, he explains, had limited deck space. "They wouldn't have tried to put a giant dinosaur aboard."

The Bible is an oasis of sanity in a confusing world, Hart says. The material world fills a man with too many choices. He despairs. But the Bible cures this, Hart says, because its message is simple: Be good. Worship Jesus. Avoid Hell.

Hart values simplicity. He is not big on change. He has been married to his wife, Bobby, for nearly 50 years. He has known his chief gag-writing assistant since high school, and his Wizard collaborator, Brant Parker, just as long.

"I am a basic person. I take things back to the basics. Ergo, `B.C.' "

Above the mantel is a huge framed painting of Jesus on the cross. Hart picked it up in Jamaica. It is no great work of art, but he likes it because the thorns around Jesus's head are oddly conical. Hart loves this. It's funny: Jesus looks like the Statue of Liberty.

It is an intriguing comparison. Hart reminds you that the same First Amendment that journalists love to invoke is not just about freedom of speech and the press. It is also about freedom of religion.

Hart says he cannot understand why some readers -- and some newspaper editors -- get so angry at his religious messages when all he is trying to do is impart to the world The Truth as he knows it to be.

It's that simple, he says.

It's not that simple, says Abraham Foxman.

Foxman, president of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, is asked to leaf through a half-dozen of Hart's religious cartoons. Some are quite ardent. One, for example, shows a cavewoman washing clothes in a stream. The water not only cleans the clothes, but turns them a pristine white. She looks up and realizes that the stream is a river of blood running down from a hillside containing three crosses.

Foxman is torn: The cartoonist, he says, seems to have genuine religious convictions, and he has a right to express them. But Foxman wonders what these cartoons are doing on the comics page, next to "Beetle Bailey" and "Hagar the Horrible."

Foxman considers a hypothetical scene: Jewish parents come downstairs one Sunday morning to find their young daughter reading her favorite comic strip, the one about cavemen. The cavemen are telling the little girl that Jesus Christ is God, a redeemer of souls, the only road to Truth. This is not what the parents have taught her; it seems to suggest that their belief system is wrong.

Foxman decides these parents might well be angry, and with some justification:

"This is an exclusionary message. It is not a subtle exclusionary message, it is a very clear exclusionary message if you are not of that faith." He says the fact that this is on the comics page makes the message particularly insidious.

"It is almost stealthlike. The only way you can decide not to read it is after you have read it."

What should be done about this? Probably nothing, Foxman says. He does not believe in stifling free speech. He confesses to uncertainty.

Johnny Hart is not uncertain at all.

He is asked about the hypothetical Jewish child: Under those circumstances, are these religious cartoons appropriate?

"Yeah."

Why?

"Because it's the truth. What purpose would I serve if I had the answer to the mystery of life only I did not tell it for the sake of what other people believe?"

That little girl, he says, needs his message: "If I drew a cartoon that said, okay, you worship your God, and you can go to Heaven, too, then I am lying to her. I am sending her to Hell!"

This is, by any measure, an extreme view for a contemporary Christian.

Hart stops. Laughs.

"It sounds cold, I know. I sound like I know all the answers. I do. This is the truth."

Good newspapers print the truth, or at least try to. And part of seeking truth is publishing disparate opinions. Few people, whatever their politics, seem to find this marketplace of ideas inappropriate, particularly when the issue is education or criminal justice or Bosnia, or some other clear matter of public policy.

But what about private policy?

Daniel Polsby is a law professor at Northwestern University. He teaches the First Amendment. He is Jewish. He doesn't believe in the divinity of Jesus. But he thinks Hart is a hero for free speech.

Unsolicited, Polsby wrote a letter to Hart's syndicate in 1997, complimenting the cartoonist's religious strips for their defiance of commercial pressure. Polsby thinks the issue is about a fundamental hypocrisy as old as faith, as noxious as the Inquisition. It is, he said, about the intolerance of one religion for another. And the tyranny of the liberal intellectual elite. He mentions the strip "Doonesbury."

"A lot of people who love it when Garry Trudeau does it with his religion, which happens to be the secular religion of politics, can't stand it when Johnny Hart does it with his religion."

Trudeau almost never speaks for the record. But he said he would be willing to look at some of Hart's religious cartoons.

He read them. Laughed.

"Please tell me this is not controversial," he said.

"What's the problem -- that, God forbid, Johnny Hart still believes in God? These are good," Trudeau said. "What's important is that he still honors his first professional obligation, which is to entertain. If he wants to stimulate people into thinking about the nature of faith, more power to him. I don't disagree with the law professor. [Hart] is writing about his values as much as I am writing about mine."

That's what Garry Trudeau thinks about Johnny Hart.

This is what Johnny Hart thinks about Garry Trudeau:

"Too liberal."

Over the years, "B.C." has evolved. In the beginning, the story line was mostly about cavemen making basic discoveries about life.

Thor, the scientist caveman, invents the wheel and then adds a feature: a long wooden peg you jam into a hole on the running surface of the wheel as you are riding it. This, of course, causes the rider to be pitched face-first into the ground. "I've invented brakes!" Thor croaks proudly, his nose smushed flat against the road.

Peter, the philosopher caveman, decides that parallel lines will never meet, and sets out to prove it: He takes a forked stick, and drags it in the sand behind him, setting off on a round-the-world journey, parallel lines following in his wake. Months pass. He trudges through tundra and desert. Finally he returns to the starting point, bearded, exhausted, triumphant. His fellow cavemen look on with contempt: The two forks of the stick have worn down to a single nub. The parallel lines have met.

All in all, it was a breathtaking succession of discoveries.

In time, however, the strip got a little more ordinary, and, perversely, modern. Nowadays, anachronisms abound. There are references to current politics, to airplanes, even to the Internet. Increasingly, the gags are generic situational humor, still funny but often indistinguishable in content from what might appear in "Blondie" or "Hi and Lois."

This was almost inevitable. In time, as "B.C." matured, Johnny Hart ran out of things to discover.

Then he discovered Christ. And put him in the strip.

It was the ultimate anachronism: Christ, in a cartoon whose title means "Before Christ."

There was no signal moment, Hart says, of his religious conversion. He had always been a Christian, but mislaid his faith in the early 1960s after his mother, only 52, fell ill with cancer. Hart prayed to God, daily, for her to be cured. It didn't work.

"I got mad at God," Hart says quietly.

He strayed from Christian faith. Dabbled with reincarnation. Dabbled with Ouija boards. Once, he said, he actually believed he was communicating with his dead mother. Painstakingly, letter by letter, Hart says, the toy gave him his mother's long-lost family recipe for lemon sherbet: Bobby made it, and it was exact. Hart's mother also told him she was in Hell. That bothered him, a lot.

Life, says Hart, became complicated. He began drinking highballs at 10 a.m. every day, just as he starting drawing "B.C." In the beginning, he says, it helped him. He became less inhibited. But the drinking soon got out of hand. Things got confusing. Hart blames it on the stresses of modernity.

"There is so much information coming at us, we can't put it all together. It's like a jigsaw puzzle that you have half done, and someone comes up and dumps another jigsaw puzzle on top. And you finally get them separated, and then someone dumps another one on top."

Material goods, and having fun, became overwhelmingly important to him. In 1977, he spent a fortune to buy this house and studio, and found himself shuffling around a giant compound, fabulously wealthy, and unhappy.

Local cable TV could not reach past the lake, and so he needed a satellite dish. The installers were born-again Christians. They kept the TVs tuned to religious stations. Hart began watching. Bit by bit, he decided this was The Truth.

Hart sees the thumbprint of God in all of this. There are coincidences he cannot otherwise explain, not the least of which is the name of the town to which he had moved. It is called Nineveh.

In the Bible, God orders Jonah to warn people to repent their evil ways or be destroyed. Instead, Jonah flees. God finds him, saves him from the whale. And so, Jonah heads for a city and delivers a brief, terrifying sermon on the need to repent. The people heed him, confess their sins, wear sackcloth and are spared.

That town was Nineveh.

It took a few years, but Hart eventually became convinced that God gave him a second chance, too. That God sent him to Nineveh, N.Y., to urge repentance, to warn people that their souls are in jeopardy unless they embrace Jesus.

But how? He was just an ordinary man.

Who happened to speak to 100 million people every single day.

Hart financially supports several fundamentalist religious ministries. He gives generously to cancer research. He donates his time and the use of his characters to the B.C. Open, a yearly celebrity golf event that raises tens of thousands of dollars for local charities. These good works, however, will not get him into Heaven, he says. His simple, unquestioning devotion to Jesus will.

Jesus, Hart says, has repaid his faith a thousandfold. His religion has helped him understand his own life better.

For example, he has decided that the scary message of the Ouija board was bogus, the handiwork of the Devil, trying to foment despair.

He has concluded that God took his mother early not because death can be random but because his own prayers were defective. He was not yet a knowledgeable Christian, he says, and he did not know how to pray correctly. He made at least one technical error: "I didn't ask in the name of Jesus."

Still, something bothers him: His mother was a good person, he says, but he suspects that she was not a devout enough Christian. He worries that when he arrives in Heaven, she will not be there.

Hart pauses. Starts to say something, then stops. Ten seconds pass.

It probably won't matter, he decides. If she's not there, he says, God will probably erase all memory of her from his mind. "Heaven," he says, "is a blissful, pain-free eternity. How much happiness can you have if you know that people you loved on Earth are not there?"

Hart's religious cartoons began appearing in 1989, and continue today. They are hard to ignore. They are impossible to be unaffected by, one way or another. At times, they are absolutely ingenious. This one appeared last Christmas:

Why are newspapers so hesitant to print these things? Why does it make them so uncomfortable? Polsby, the law professor, calls it cowardice, a "micro-psychotic episode of intolerance."

Leonard Downie Jr., executive editor of The Washington Post, makes no apologies for eliminating the Sunday strips, or occasionally dropping one on weekdays. In fact, he says, several ran in the paper that he would have killed had he known about them in advance. He says these decisions are neither cowardice nor censorship -- just an ordinary exercise of editing judgment.

"Everything in the newspaper is edited," Downie said, "and there is no reason the comics are not edited, too." Religion is a personal matter, he said. "We don't promote individual religions anywhere in the paper. We let people discuss religion as an issue, but we don't advocate a particular religion."

Besides, said Downie, there were several "B.C." strips that made him and other editors particularly uncomfortable. They seemed, he said, just a little . . . ugly.

On May 10, 1998, a Sunday "B.C." showed a rock that had been defaced with graffiti. Disgustedly, a bird says, "I hate graffiti." Suddenly, startlingly, the rock stands up. It is John, the turtle. "Me, too," he says.

The graffiti on his shell included a big swastika.

That one ran in The Post and resulted in an impassioned letter, in schoolgirl script, from three 8-year-olds, one of whom lost relatives in the Holocaust.

And then there was this cartoon, which ran nationally last April 6, but not in The Post. The Post killed it.

It was clearly about Jesus entering Jerusalem a week before his death. It was, on one hand, rather clever: a joke with modern, Clintonian overtones, about public apathy to immorality.

But some editors saw something disturbing in it, too. It seemed to be treading on some old ground, long disavowed by mainstream Christians. It seemed to be blaming Jews for the death of Christ.

"No," says Johnny Hart. "That's not what I was saying."

Pause.

"Though I am not too sure that's not true."

Hart says his point was subtler: that when Jesus entered Jerusalem five days before his death, the Jewish residents did not come out to greet him. Hart says he was just stating a historical fact.

"I was not in error," he says, smiling. "But I was pretty rude."

His cartoons, he said, "have nothing to do with hating Jews. Would I have chosen as my Lord and Savior the greatest Jew who ever walked the Earth?"

And the swastika?

"I just associate swastikas with graffiti. I meant no offense by it."

Humor and religion do not easily intersect. Religion entails faith, and humor frequently relies on skepticism and doubt. In this tricky arena, Johnny Hart sometimes treads like a man walking on eggshells with hobnail boots.

Hart says people are just too sensitive. For example, he says, he sees nothing wrong with the expression "Jewing somebody down." He opens the Bible to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, where Abraham is attempting to persuade God not to destroy the towns. Abraham bargains: What if we could find 50 righteous men, would you spare the town? God says yes. Well, what if we could find 40? Yes, God says. Well, what if there were 10?

"Abraham is Jewing God down!" Hart says joyfully.

Not ordinarily known for its yuks, the Bible is an endless source of amusement to Hart.

He turns to a passage in which Jesus is lecturing his disciples. The Messiah is saying "Peter, Peter, why do you do this?"

Hart says it's a funny line if you read it a certain way.

He demonstrates:

"Pete -errr, Pete -errr, vy do you do dis?"

It is Jesus Christ, with a thick Yiddish accent.

Hart is laughing. His guest, who is Jewish, is laughing, too.

It's definitely a tricky arena, religion and humor.

Perhaps the most cryptic and controversial strip Hart ever drew appeared in newspapers April 19, 1998. Post editors let it run, a decision they regretted.

Peter the caveman etches a message on a stone tablet and casts it out to sea, where it will presumably be read by a distant civilization. The message reads: "Over here, we are changing our statue in the harbor to read, `Give me your lying, worthless trash./ Your sleazy scum who cheat and steal/ who see our faith as balderdash/ and sin with vulgar zeal.' " Hours later, a reply comes floating into shore. It reads:

"A dysfunctional country! Ha! I doan bleeb it! You theenk you are unique, do you? You lousy, steenking, racist pig of a Yankee infidel!"

That was the entire strip.

Muslims saw it as anti-Arab, because it used the word "infidel." Nearly everyone who wrote a letter thought it xenophobic, a condemnation of immigrants. Hart was forced to write a lengthy explanation on the Creators Syndicate Web site.

It was contrite, though it fell short of a full-scale apology.

The cartoon was not a condemnation of immigrants, Hart explained, but of ourselves. The country has become "a crime-ridden, greed-driven, hateful, angry mess. We are light-years ahead of where we were less than four decades ago, in blasphemy, profanity, name-calling and disrespect." Peter was decrying this change, Hart wrote, not celebrating it. The final panel, he said, showed that other countries, the source of our immigrants, were scornful of us even though we rescued their people. Hart said he regretted the language of the final panel, the use of vulgar dialect. He apologized, if anyone was offended.

To many, this answer did not seem all that satisfying.

Today, Hart blames his own haste. He did not subject the cartoon to his usual self-editing. But he denies, absolutely, that he is anti-immigrant.

"We are a nation of immigrants," he said.

Pause.

You can almost hear the oncoming crunch, crunch, crunch of eggshells.

"The only thing I object to is when they come over here illegally and have a child so the mother and father can get on, ah . . ." Hart gropes for the word. Stares out the window, at that beautiful lake. "You know, the lists for the money."

Welfare?

"Yes, welfare."

"Ever get to where a word just does not come to you?"

This has been happening more and more to Hart. Sometimes he will lose his train of thought, and stare out that big picture window in mid-sentence. His mind is still fertile. The creativity is there. But he's getting older, and there are these mental hiccups.

Hart remains unbowed. These days he has a new project, something Big.

He wants to draw an elaborate cartoon, a mural, rendered as a time line, with various overlays, explaining the meaning of life.

It will be simple enough so the average person can read it in 20 minutes. He calls it "my 20-minute thing." It will be, he says "a road map to Heaven." It may be, he says, the most important thing he has ever done.

"C'mere," he says conspiratorially. He goes to a wall in his studio, and moves a cabinet. Behind it, thumbtacked to the wall, is a cartoon mural on brown paper. The paper extends the length of a wall, maybe 15 feet. It begins with Adam and Eve, progresses through their banishment, the dispersal of people to cities, the Tower of Babel. It stops in mid-story, after maybe five feet. The rest of the wall is blank brown paper.

Next, Hart marches into another room. On a table, beneath some drawings, is another mural, one that will be overlaid on the first, somehow.

This one is much darker, nightmarish, even. It shows Jesus descending into Hell, vanquishing the Devil, rescuing the souls of the ancients. It shows the Rapture, in which God saves good Christians before they must face Tribulation. There's a lot of hellfire. This one is also unfinished.

Hart says there will be other overlays, still undrawn. He should be finished with this project by now, but he keeps getting distracted: "Each time I start on it, can't get it all together. The phone rings or a project comes up."

This distraction, he says, has been going on for five or six years.

Hart says he knows why this is happening.

It is not that the answers in life are less simple than he thought.

It is not that he is getting older and ideas don't come as fast or sharply as they used to.

It is surely not that he is afraid to finish.

It is that when someone tries to do God's work, he is "inviting a lot of aggravation by Satan."

The Devil is distracting him.

He looks at the first mural, and then that hellish overlay.

"You know," he says suddenly. "There is not an end to the overlays. There'd have to be one on all the prophecies and the fulfillments of them, and on blood sacrifices . . ."

He looks away, lost in thought. Plays with his wedding band. It is engraved with the name "Jesus."

"Maybe," Hart says, slowly, "it can't be done."

This thought startles him.

"Damn," he says.

"There's Satan again."

CAPTION: Hart's Easter strip, which isn't running in this paper today. Above, the hands of the creator.