Some PTL devotees threatened his life. Others harassed his wife.

Still, for the last year and a half, Rufus Reynolds held his tongue.Now that he's no longer presiding over PTL's bankruptcy case, the 81-year-old federal judge let loose last week in his quick-witted, call-it-as-you-see-it style.

Of Jim Bakker, he said, "What puzzled me was why people were interested in that little sawed-off runt."

Of Bakker's followers: "I didn't know Christians could be so critical. They would just chew me out. If I hadn't been as old as I am, or had as much service, I couldn't have taken all this. I'd have gotten out, to hell with it."

Of the bankruptcy case: "I worked harder on this case for success than any other case I've ever had . . . I consider it a failure."

Reynolds spoke candidly for two hours Thursday, on condition his comments not be reported until Sunday, after his tenure as judge in the PTL case ended Dec. 31. His mood ranged from delight over some of the crazy antics in the case to sadness over the results of the last - and most publicized - of the 40,000 cases he handled in 42 years as a bankruptcy judge.

He poked fun at himself and at Jim and Tammy Bakker. But he spoke seriously about several things: mismanagement and lavish spending by Jim Bakker, and the need for Congress to pass strict rules of accountability for television evangelists.

When Reynolds was assigned the case in June 1987 - three months after Jim Bakker left PTL - he had high hopes for the ministry's survival. He stepped down Saturday discouraged and somewhat cynical. He tells this anecdote:

"Some lady called . . . at the bankruptcy court in Columbia and wanted to know if Judge Reynolds was a Christian . . . I said, `You tell her I was when I started this case, but now I plead the Fifth Amendment.'

". . . I'm not joking. It really shakes you up when you see a Christian like Jimmy Bakker, (Jimmy) Swaggart and all of them come in and have no conscience but have a Christian view that all the money that comes in is under their control - they can spend it anyway, just as much on themselves or any other person.

"That is wacky. . . . It's not consistent with what I consider the Bible and the Christian faith."

When Reynolds took on the PTL case, he was outspoken on bankruptcy law - not religion. After 42 years, he's the longest-tenured of the nation's 232 bankruptcy judges, a courtly yet colorful figure on the bench who hasn't lost the down-home touch of his rural upbringing in Moore County, N.C. He describes himself as a "lukewarm Christian," a Methodist who used to teach Sunday school but now attends church about once a month.

He quickly immersed himself in PTL. He bought a $350 VCR and watched hundreds of videotapes of Jim and Tammy Bakker on their national TV shows before they resigned in March 1987. The first video was an eye-opener - Tammy Bakker making peanut butter pie in the first half of a show, discussing penile implants in the second half.

From a legal standpoint, the PTL case was routine. In terms of public impact, it paled beside large corporate bankruptcies. Yet, for Reynolds: "It was a nightmare. I have never heard anything so emotional like it before, so explosive, so publicized."

For Bakker and hundreds of followers - and the media - the case took on epic proportions.

In November, Reynolds ruled in a civil case that the Bakkers and a former aide, David Taggart, had collected nearly $7.7 million in excessive pay and perks as leaders of the TV ministry. Reynolds ordered them to repay the money to PTL.

In December, a federal grand jury indicted Bakker and former top aide Richard Dortch on criminal fraud and conspiracy charges, accusing them of diverting more than $4 million in PTL money for their own benefit.

Still, people wrote to Reynolds begging him to let Bakker back at PTL.

One day, Reynolds said, he received 6,000 letters in the mail; another day, 4,000.

One caller told his wife, "You tell the judge we've got $50,000 collected, and we're going to expose him to all his crookedness, advertise in newspapers."

Several people threatened his life.

"They didn't say, `I'm going to kill you.' They said, `The Lord's going to take you.' "

For the first time as a bankruptcy judge, Reynolds was guarded by U.S. marshals. He said the FBI was called on to investigate the threats.

Reynolds usually is outspoken on the bench. But in the PTL case, he said, he held back because of the intensive media coverage.

What he didn't say - but what he thought - when Jerry Falwell quit was, "Thank God, you're leaving."

Falwell, the Virginia television evangelist who took control of PTL at Bakker's request in March 1987, wanted to run PTL his own way without listening to the judge, Reynolds said. Bakker claimed Falwell was trying to keep PTL for himself. And when Falwell submitted a reorganization plan, Reynolds said, it appeared that's what the plan would have allowed Falwell to do.

Falwell quit Oct. 8, 1987, saying a ruling by Reynolds invited Bakker's return.

David Clark soon took over PTL as a court-appointed trustee, and Reynolds thought Clark might pull the ministry through. But Clark couldn't raise money the way Falwell did.

"Just every turn there was failure."