The vilest offender
In a previous post, I reviewed a book by Roy Ratcliff titled Dark Journey, Deep Grace, which is the account of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer’s journey to faith. As I said in that post, I read the book in the space of a few hours. I was enthralled to read how God converted a man who was guilty of some of the most shocking crimes in recent history.
Ratcliff notes in his book that he is commonly questioned as to the sincerity of Dahmer’s profession, but that he has no doubt that he was sincere. Reading the book, I can find no good reason to doubt Ratcliff’s conviction—though that conviction may not be widely shared.
Ratcliff hits the nail on the head when he writes, “Jeff was judged not by his faith, but by his crimes.”1 The consistent testimony of the New Testament is that believers are known by their fruit, not by their past sinful lifestyles (see 2 Corinthians 5:17).
Roy Ratcliff not only baptised Jeffrey Dahmer, but also developed a discipleship relationship with him over a period of seven months. The relationship would have continued had Dahmer not been murdered. If anyone had opportunity to witness the fruit of conversion in Jeffrey Dahmer’s life it was Roy Ratcliff. And yet it is those who never met him, who know of his infamy only by what they have seen, heard and read, who call into question the sincerity of his faith.
The vilest offender
Christians love Fanny Crosby’s To God Be the Glory, which includes these words: “The vilest offender who truly believes / that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.” We rejoice as we sing those words, but do we really believe what we are singing?
If we really believe that “the vilest offender” receives “pardon” the moment he “truly believes,” why is it so impossible to imagine Jeffrey Dahmer, who would certainly be a prime candidate for “the vilest offender,” received pardon for sincere repentance? Ratcliff asks the pointed question: “Was the blood of Christ shed on the cross somehow too weak, too thin, and too anemic to cover his sins?”2
Is there in some way an inability in Christ’s sacrifice to cleanse the sins of the vilest offender? Put another way, was God able to save Jeffrey Dahmer? Was Christ’s sacrifice sufficient?
The unwavering testimony of Scripture is that it was. No one is beyond the reach of God’s grace. Jesus specifically said, “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). Those who recognise that they are sinners are called to repentance.
But is there a limit to the sin that you can commit and still be called to repentance? Paul wrote, “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20; cf. 1 Timothy 1:8–11). There is hope of forgiveness for the sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, men who practice homosexuality, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, and (1 Corinthians 6:9–11). If grace is available for them, why not for a modern-day serial killer?
But perhaps those who raise questions about Dahmer’s conversion doubt not God’s ability to save, but his willingness to do so. Again, this flies in the face of what Scripture teaches. Jesus extended the invitation to “all who labour and are heavy laden,” promising, “I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). John famously wrote that whoever believes Christ will have eternal life (John 3:16–18). Quoting Joel 2:32, Paul wrote, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13). He knew this because “the gospel … is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). If Jeffrey Dahmer could be classified as one part of “everyone” then God was clearly willing to save him.
By his fruit
Ratcliff is correct: Those who question the sincerity of Dahmer’s faith are judging him by his crimes, not his fruit. The whole world knew of his crimes; very few had opportunity to learn of his fruit. The pool of those who had opportunity to visit him in prison was very small. Roy Ratcliff was able to not only visit him, but to invest in a discipleship relationship with him every week over a seven-month period. He saw the fruit of faith in Dahmer’s life.
Ratcliff paints the picture of a man who was hungry for truth. The request for baptism came at Dahmer’s request, and there was a sense of urgency about it. “I was surprised. Jeffrey had studied the subject beyond basic Bible correspondence courses. He was familiar with Bible passages about the subject; he understood the purpose and place of baptism.”3 He expressed an equal urgency regarding Communion, and was eager to discuss with Ratcliff his questions about the Bible. He was hungry to both know and obey truth.
Dahmer also displayed a willingness to take Christian counsel from a mentor. For example, he wondered about the wisdom of gathering at the interdenominational chapel gathering once a month, because he knew that there were professing Christians there who did not share his biblical convictions. Ratcliff wisely advised him to go. Prison hardly presented him with opportunities to find a church with which he was comfortable, but Ratcliff advised him that, as a new Christian, he needed fellowship. Dahmer took his counsel well and began attending chapel.
Yet another example was a desire to do things right. He wondered aloud to Ratcliff one day whether he should consider suicide, because he had come to believe that the Bible teaches capital punishment. Since he had committed murder, he ought to have been executed. He wondered if he was sinning against God by being alive and should therefore take his own life. Again he took the counsel of an older, wiser brother well when Ratcliff advised him that his responsibility was to submit to the government. It was the state’s responsibility to execute murderers. In Dahmer’s case, the state had failed its responsibility, but Dahmer had no business ending his own life. The state had sentenced him to prison and he needed to submit to the state in that regard.
A desire for service and evangelism also manifested itself after his conversion. A failed attempt was at one point made on Dahmer’s life while in chapel. When next he met with Ratcliff, he told him that that experience had awoken him to the fact that he no longer desired death. For the longest time he had struggled with thoughts of suicide, but now he realised that he didn’t want to die because there were so many other inmates with whom he wanted to share the gospel, so many other things he wanted to do for God.
Another element of fruit was a desire to die to his old life. Like many prisoners, Dahmer received a lot of mail in prison. Much of it was religious in nature, which he didn’t particularly mind, but a lot of people sent him pornography. He expressed his frustration with this because the pornography ran the risk of bringing back old memories and desires he was struggling to overcome. Ratcliff spoke to the prison chaplain and asked him to ensure that pornography was stopped before it got to Dahmer, something that evidently worked because the matter was never raised again.
Dahmer committed crimes of unspeakable brutality and perversion, but after his profession he exhibited fruit of salvation. He was hungry for truth, willing to change and listen to counsel, determined to do right, passionate about evangelism and service, and passionate about dying to his old life of sin. Have we any right to question a profession because of former sins when such fruit was clearly forthcoming?
“The vilest offender who truly believes / that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.” We sing it with gusto, but do we really believe it? Do we want to believe it?
Jonah was reluctant to go to Nineveh because he knew that God would save the Assyrians there if he preached the gospel to them. He did not think that they deserved to be saved—and he was right: No one deserves to be saved!
Jeffrey Dahmer did not deserve salvation. Neither do you! Salvation is necessarily by grace because no one deserves to be saved.
Jonah felt that the crimes of the Assyrians were too horrendous to warrant grace. Many feel the same about Jeffrey Dahmer. But to suggest that that is the case is really to trample underfoot the Son of God, to profane the blood of the covenant and to outrage the Spirit of grace (see Hebrews 10:29). You see, God did not ignore the sins of the Assyrians. They were saved because Jesus Christ was punished for their sins. The same can be said of Jeffrey Dahmer.
If Jeffrey Dahmer received an instant pardon—and Ratcliff’s book presents convincing evidence that he did—he received it only because Jesus willingly took upon himself the sins of Dahmer. You were saved because Jesus died for your sins. Jeffrey Dahmer was saved because Jesus died for his. No Christian is impressed with Jonah’s outrage in the book bearing his name, but if we shake our heads in denial of Dahmer’s conversion, we share Jonah’s arrogance, and God’s closing words to him (4:10–11) can be paraphrased to us: “Should not I pity Jeffrey Dahmer, for whom my Son shed his cleansing blood on the cross?”