RALEIGH, N.C. — If there had been time, Marie Exley would have liked to start a family. Instead, the 32-year-old Army veteran has less than six months left, which she'll spend spreading a stark warning: Judgment Day is almost here.
Exley is part of a movement of Christians loosely organized by radio broadcasts and websites, independent of churches and convinced by their reading of the Bible that the end of the world will begin May 21, 2011.
To get the word out, they're using billboards and bus stop benches, traveling caravans of RVs and volunteers passing out pamphlets on street corners. Cities from Bridgeport, Conn., to Little Rock, Ark., now have billboards with the ominous message, and mission groups are traveling through Latin America and Africa to spread the news outside the U.S.
"A lot of people might think, 'The end's coming, let's go party,'" said Exley, a veteran of two deployments in Iraq. "But we're commanded by God to warn people. I wish I could just be like everybody else, but it's so much better to know that when the end comes, you'll be safe."
In August, Exley left her home in Colorado Springs, Colo., to work with Oakland, Calif.-based Family Radio Worldwide, the independent Christian ministry whose leader, Harold Camping, has calculated the May 21 date based on his reading of the Bible.
She is organizing traveling columns of RVs carrying the message from city to city, a logistics challenge that her military experience has helped solve. The vehicles are scheduled to be in five North Carolina cities between now and the second week of January, but Exley will shortly be gone: overseas, where she hopes to eventually make it back to Iraq.
"I don't really have plans to come back," she said. "Time is short."
Not everyone who's heard Camping's message is taking such a dramatic step. They're remaining in their day-to-day lives, but helping publicize the prophecy in other ways. Allison Warden, of Raleigh, has been helping organize a campaign using billboards, post cards and other media in cities across the U.S. through a website, We Can Know.
The 29-year-old payroll clerk laughs when asked about reactions to the message, which is plastered all over her car.
"It's definitely against the grain, I know that," she said. "We're hoping people won't take our word for it, or Harold Camping's word for it. We're hoping that people will search the scriptures for themselves."
Camping, 89, believes the Bible essentially functions as a cosmic calendar explaining exactly when various prophecies will be fulfilled.
The retired civil engineer said all his calculations come from close readings of the Bible, but that external events like the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948 are signs confirming the date.
"Beyond the shadow of a doubt, May 21 will be the date of the Rapture and the day of judgment," he said.
The doctrine known as the Rapture teaches that believers will be taken up to heaven, while everyone else will remain on earth for a period of torment, concluding with the end of time. Camping believes that will happen in October.
"If May 21 passes and I'm still here, that means I wasn't saved. Does that mean God's word is inaccurate or untrue? Not at all," Warden said.
The belief that Christ will return to earth and bring an end to history has been a basic element of Christian belief since the first century. The Book of Revelation, which comes last in the New Testament, describes this conclusion in vivid language that has inspired Christians for centuries.
But few churches are willing to set a date for the end of the world, heeding Jesus' words in the gospels of Mark and Matthew that no one can know the day or hour it will happen. Predictions like Camping's, though, aren't new. One of the most famous in history was by the Baptist leader William Miller, who predicted the end for Oct. 22, 1844, which came to be known as the Great Disappointment among his followers, some of whom subsequently founded the Seventh Day Adventist church.
"In the U.S., there is still a significant population, mostly Protestant, who look at the Bible as kind of a puzzle, and the puzzle is God's word and it's predicting when the end times will come," said Catherine Wessinger, a professor at Loyola University in New Orleans who studies millennialism, the belief in pending apocalypse.
"A lot of times these prophecies gain traction when difficulties are happening in society," she said. "Right now, there's a lot of insecurity, and this is a promise that says it's not all random, it's part of God's plan."
Past predictions that failed to come true don't have any bearing on the current calculation, believers maintain.
"It would be like telling the Wright brothers that every other attempt to fly has failed, so you shouldn't even try," said Chris McCann, who works with eBible Fellowship, one of the groups spreading the message.
For believers like McCann, theirs is actually a message of hope and compassion: God's compassion for people, and the hope that there's still time to be saved.
That, ultimately, is what spurs on Exley, who said her beliefs have alienated her from most of her friends and family. Her hope is that not everyone who hears her message will mock it, and that even people who dismiss her now might still come to believe.
"If you still want to say we're crazy, go ahead," she said. "But it doesn't hurt to look into it."