Review: Dark Journey, Deep Grace: Jeffrey Dahmer’s Journey of Faith
“Is heaven for boys like me? I’ve been terribly bad. Could I possibly go to heaven too?” These words were spoken by Pastor Roy Ratcliff from the pulpit at the memorial service of Jeffrey Dahmer. Pastor Ratcliff’s answer was unequivocal: “The answer for both the little girl and for Jeff is the same: Yes, heaven is for people just like you.”1 The “little girl” mentioned by Pastor Ratcliff is a reference to a little girl asking the same question in Max Lucado’s Six Hours One Friday, which Pastor Ratcliff used as an illustration in his address at the memorial service.]
Jeffrey Dahmer was known in American society as the Milwaukee Cannibal. He was a serial killer who, between 1978 and 1991, committed the rape, murder and dismemberment of seventeen men and boys. Some of his later crimes included necrophilia, cannibalism and permanent preservation of victims’ body parts. He was eventually sentenced to sixteen consecutive life sentences. After serving a little less than three years in prison, he was viciously beaten to death by a fellow inmate at the Columbia Correctional Institution.
On 6 April 1994, Pastor Rob McRay received a telephone call from Curtis Booth, a worker at a prison ministry in Oklahoma. A prisoner in Wisconsin had completed a correspondence Bible course and had requested baptism. This was not in itself an unusual request, but when Booth mentioned the name Jeffrey Dahmer, Pastor McRay was speechless.
The thought occurred to me that I had been made the object of some kind of prank. I finally, hesitatingly, asked, “Is this legit?” Booth’s response was, “Yes. Do you know who Jeffrey Dahmer is?” I assured him that everyone in Milwaukee knew who Dahmer was.2
As it turns out, McRay was unable to commit to meeting with Dahmer, but promised that he would arrange for another pastor—one who lived closer to the prison—to take care of it. Ratcliff was a friend of McRay’s and lived closer to the prison, so McRay called Ratcliff and asked him to visit Dahmer in prison. Ratcliff agreed to do so.
Dark Journey, Deep Grace is the story of Ratcliff’s unlikely friendship with a convicted serial killer. It is the story of God’s unassailable grace in the life of one who considered himself to be the chief of sinners (see 1 Timothy 1:15–16).
Ratcliff’s 176-page book is divided into fifteen very readable chapters, followed by an epilogue in the form of some personal reflections. McRay provides the foreword in the form of an article that was first published in 1994 in Wineskins magazine. From a typographical perspective, I personally found the line spacing initially a little off-putting, and the character spacing on the typeface appears to be inconsistent, at some points appearing tighter than other points. These, however, are secondary concerns to the story contained in the book, which is fascinating.
Chapters 1–2 recount the request that Ratcliff received and his initial meeting with Dahmer. Chapter 3 offers a brief, matter-of-fact account of Dahmer’s crimes and chapter 4 asks (without definitively answering) the pressing question: What led Dahmer to commit such heinous acts?
Chapters 5–6 recount his path to faith, his eventual baptism and his agreement to meet regularly with Ratcliff for discipleship. Chapter 7 recounts Ratcliff’s experiences with the media following the baptism of Dahmer. Chapter 8 speaks of the discipleship relationship that developed between Ratcliff and Dahmer during their weekly meetings.
Chapter 9 tells of a failed attempt by a fellow inmate to murder Dahmer, and how the attack sobered Dahmer to the fact that he had so much more he wanted to accomplish for God in his prison life.
In chapter 10, Ratcliff speaks of a letter he received from Dahmer’s father, Lionel, concerned that Ratcliff would cease his visitation, and Ratcliff’s assurance in return that he was committed to the discipleship relationship for as long as Dahmer would agree to meet with him.
In chapter 11 Ratcliff reflects on the friendship that developed between him and Dahmer over the seven months that they spent together, and in chapter 12 he recalls how he heard of Dahmer’s death and the media frenzy that once again followed the event. Chapter 13 recounts the experience of the memorial service held for Dahmer at Ratcliff’s church.
The final two chapters take the form of reflections. In chapter 14 Ratcliff seeks to answer the question that he has so often been asked: Was Jeffrey Dahmer insane? Having established that he was quite sane both at the time of the murders and in his post-conversion life, Ratcliff seeks to answer another question—perhaps the real crux of the matter: Was Jeffrey Dahmer sincere?
In the epilogue, Ratcliff reflects on the fact that he genuinely considered Dahmer a friend. Ratcliff was alienated by some and applauded by others, but to him it was not a matter of acclaim. He developed a genuine friendship and discipleship relationship with Dahmer, and it saddened him that any professing Christian would call into question the genuineness of Dahmer’s faith.
The book is not intended to be a theological treatise of any description, though it is littered with Ratcliff’s theology. In what amounts to a biographical account, we find reflections on God, sin, salvation, grace, forgiveness, restitution, Christian growth and death. Ratcliff has a pastor’s heart, which comes through clearly in his writing. In it all, we are reminded that no one, regardless of their sins, is beyond the reach of God’s grace.
It is not uncommon to hear of professions of faith by prison inmates. It is understandable, to a degree, that Christians would view such professions with scepticism. In this book we have the first-hand account of the pastor who baptised and discipled one of the world’s most infamous serial killers. And he has no question whatsoever that Dahmer was saved by God’s grace.
One of the most common questions put to me about Jeff has to do with the sincerity of his faith. And I usually hear this from Christians. They ask if Jeff was truly sincere in his desire for baptism and in his Christian life. My answer is always the same: Yes, I am convinced he was sincere.
This question bothers me. Why question the sincerity of another person’s faith? Baptism represents a change in lifestyle. A person is expected to change after being baptized. When people don’t change, we begin to wonder. Why were they baptized? Did they not really comprehend what was involved?
I can understand those kinds of questions.
But Jeff’s circumstance was different. The people asking me didn’t know about his post-baptismal life. They were basing their question on what he did before he was baptized, not after. That bothers me.
Jeff was judged not by his faith, but by his crimes.3
Ratcliff further asks, “Was Jeff saved? Were his sins taken away? Was he a Christian believer? Did he repent of his sins? Or was the blood of Christ shed on the cross somehow too weak, too thin, and too anemic to cover his sins?”4 To ask the question is to answer it.
Jeffrey Dahmer was no doubt a complex character. There are a plethora of books on the market that detail his crimes, and also a reflection on his story told from a father’s perspective. Some conspiracy theorists even suggest that he did not come clean in admitting all his crimes. This title is different.
The Wikipedia article on Dahmer simply states, “Dahmer gradually devoted himself to religion and became a born-again Christian.” I first learned of Ratcliff’s book by reading Preston Sprinkle’s Charis, in which he mentions Dahmer’s story and relationship with Ratcliff. I immediately ordered Ratcliff’s book and was deeply engrossed from the moment I opened it.
When Saul of Tarsus was converted to Christianity, few believed it—until Barnabas came alongside the young Pharisee and discipled him in the faith (Acts 9:26–27). Jeffrey Dahmer had his own Barnabas—a seasoned pastor named of Roy Ratcliff.
This book will not get you into the mind of a serial killer. That is not its intention. It will tell you about Dahmer’s questions about faith. You will learn of his impossible desire to offer restitution. You will read of the struggles he had with embracing God’s full forgiveness in Christ. But above all, you will be reminded that the gospel is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes (Romans 1:16)—even the chief of sinners.