There is a story told here -- although not in front of the Rev. Jerry Falwell or his supporters -- about the day Billy Graham, Oral Roberts and Falwell died and went to hell.

The three evangelists had hardly settled in before Satan called God and said, "You've got to get these guys out of here."

"Why?" God asked.

"Because," Satan replied, "Billy Graham's saving everybody, Oral Roberts is healing everybody and Jerry Falwell's raised enough money to air-condition the place."

Falwell would probably appreciate the compliment.

"Every preacher of the gospel is a successful salesman," says Falwell, who raises more than $1 million a week, primarily through "The Old-Time Gospel Hour." The weekly Sunday morning show is taped at his Thomas Road Baptist Church here and appears on 392 television and 500 radio stations around the country.

But critics say that while Falwell is an undeniably brilliant salesman, his fund-raising techniques and audits commissioned by his own church raise troublesome questions about what happens to the money he raises.

"The tradition in religious fund-raising is that donors give on faith and ministers are accountable to God," said Nancy DeMarco of the Council of Better Business Bureaus in Washington, which receives 1,000 inquiries per year about Falwell's mininstries. "Our feeling is that everyone, secular and religious charities, should be accountable by the same standards," said DeMarco. Because of Falwell's refusal to disclose certain financial information, his ministries do not appear on the bureau's list of charities that meet its standards of financial accountability.

That doesn't concern Falwell. "Our donors feel like they have a good, healthy control over us," he said. "They trust us. Our letters are very, very honest and specific."

Falwell says he composes a new fund-raising letter each week, one week for the Gospel Hour, the next for Moral Majority, the right-wing political lobby he founded two years ago.

Falwell says he spent too much time on Moral Majority, which has a $5 million budget of its own, last year so he is now focusing on the Gospel Hour, which like his church will celebrate its 25th anniversary this year.

Since the early days of his ministry Falwell has been an ardent proponent of what he calls "saturation evangelism" -- a philosophy he once defined as "preaching the gospel to every available person at every available time by every available means." Among the means Falwell mentions are "telephone evangelism" "cassette evangelism", "Sunday school bus evangelism" and, of course, television evangelism.

Each week he devotes a substantial portion of the first half-hour of the Gospel Hour to fundraising. Like the fast-talking salesmen of late night TV who urge viewers to order a Vegomatic or Garden Weasel, Falwell exhorts his followers to pick up the phone, call a toll-free number, and pledge money in return for a gift.

Become a "Faith Partner," pledge $10 per month and receive a Faith Partner Bible, two free "Jesus First" -- "the T on first forms a cross" -- lapel pins and a "monthly letter from me with personal information about our family, our ministry and inside conversation," Falwell tells viewers. Or send a pledge to the 15,000 Club and receive a brick from Liberty Baptist College.

Although Falwell says he spends only 17.5 cents of every dollar collected on fundraising, a 1980 audit shows he spent more than $23 million, or half his ministries' total expenses, to raise money.

That figure includes $11.4 million for radio and TV time but not the more than $12 million Falwell spends on payroll costs alone or any of the ministries' other administrative expenses.

Recently Falwell solicited funds on behalf of starving refugee children in Southeast Asia and East Africa. "There are many who believe in foreign missions," Falwell said in an interview. "I'm very oriented toward the refugee problem. People who aren't have never really had their hearts broken."

That settlement was reflected in a recent fund-raising letter that featured pictures of cadaverous children and captions underneath like this: "By the time you read this, this child will probably be dead."

Buried in the letter is the disclosure that only $100,000 of the estimated $500,000 the appeal is expected to raise will go to another relief organization for the refugees. The rest goes to Falwell's "The Old-Time Gospel Hour."

In drafting such appeals, Falwell relies heavily on the advice of Jerry Huntsinger, founder of a Richmond advertising firm that specializes in religious fundraising. In 1980 Falwell paid Huntsinger $562,485, a figure nearly comparable to the $700,272 the ministry spent on foreign missions.

Huntsinger declined to be interviewed. But recent advertisements in "Religious Broadcasting" Magazine outline his philosophy and techniques.

In an ad entitled "This Spring, Examine The Logic Of Being Illogical," he suggested:

"It seems logical that your donors would appreciate success stories and stories that have a happy ending. And yet, logical or not, when a success story is tested against a disaster story, the success story almost always turns out second best.

"Under almost all circumstances, a 'crisis appeal' will out-pull a victory appeal. . . . Donors love to see their name in print and they continue to respond positively to the kind of personalization that can be generated by computer letters. . . . a newsletter mailed with an appeal will bring in immediate cash.

"As a fund-raising executive, you are dealing with the deepest problems of human misery, and since the problems are too much for you to bear alone, you must somehow communicate all this misery to your donors so that they can share the burden with you."

Those eager to share Falwell's burden are his viewers, who, University of Virginia sociology professor Jeffrey K. Hadden found are predominately married or widowed women over 50 who are not well-educated and live in the South.

Although Falwell has claimed that 25 million people watch the Gospel Hour each week, a forthcoming book by Hadden says that February ratings by the Arbitron show that Falwell's viewers number less than 2 million.

Some say Falwell's exaggerations are not limited to claims about the size of his TV audience. A 1980 promotional film about his religious empire includes a mention of a 100,000-watt radio station, WRVL, "The Voice of Liberty, now the strongest station in central Virginia." The station only began operating 10 days ago on a temporary two-week license from the Federal Communications Commission.

Hadden says that Falwell's overstatements are partly a result of the increasing competition among TV evangelists. Despite two recent studies that show the audience for television evangelists may have peaked in 1978, Falwell says he will continue to spread his message, expand his empire and raise the money to do both.

"I think the Gospel Hour has an unlimited potential for growth," he said. "There are 227 million prospects in the U.S. to be reached with the message of Christ. I don't think we've touched the hem of the garment."