God’s scandalous grace invaded Portage, Wisconsin, with unwelcomed splendor in April 1994. It sailed past several churches and seminaries and targeted a criminal serving multiple life sentences in the Columbia Correctional Institution. It’s not uncommon for thieves and murderers in prison to encounter God’s grace, but this day was different. The villain who attracted God’s love was a man who had killed, had sex with, dismembered, and eaten portions of (in that order) seventeen young men. Reviled as the epitome of human depravity – is human a fitting term? – Jeffrey Dahmer turned heads and stomachs with his imaginative acts of necrophilia and cannibalism.
His vile behavior elicited a nauseating response when it hit the news in the early ‘90s. How could this happen? America, a country that has a long leash on immorality, was stunned with disbelief.
But what happened in April 1994 was even more shocking than Dahmer’s depravity. While in prison, Jeffrey Dahmer gave a television interview and mentioned in passing that he wished he could find some inner peace. A Christian woman named Mary Mott saw the interview and thought, I know where you can find inner peace. So she mailed several Bible studies to Dahmer. After receiving them, Dahmer immediately read them all and wrote Mary Mott back, asking for more. So she sent more. Shortly after, Mott contacted Roy Ratcliff, a minister who lived near the prison, and asked him to visit Dahmer to share the gospel with him. Ratcliff nervously agreed. He visited Dahmer, told him the good news about Jesus, answered some questions, studied the Bible with him, and eventually saw God’s grace flood Dahmer’s dark soul with life. Dahmer accepted Jesus as Savior and King – a deranged cannibal rearranged by grace.
Dahmer’s bloodstained hands were washed clean with the blood of the Lamb. All the acts of murder, pedophilia, necrophilia, and cannibalism were thrust down to the bottom of the sea – no longer to have a voice in God’s courtroom. Seven months later, Dahmer was killed by an inmate with a broomstick. And now, as far as we know, he’s still celebrating his redemption with Jesus in Heaven.
Grace, however, was unwelcome when it invaded Portage.
Many people were cynical, doubtful, even angry – like the Old Testament prophet Jonah – over Dahmer’s “religious experience” in prison. Roy Ratcliff recalls with discouragement that many people he talked to doubted Dahmer’s conversion. And most of these doubters were 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.” Ratcliff is grieved. “Why question the sincerity of another person’s faith?” If a person confesses Christ and yet fails to demonstrate any evidence that the confession was genuine, then there’s room to doubt. But the cynicism lobbed at Dahmer’s conversion did not focus on his post-conversion life – whether there was evidence of faith – but the evil he committed before he came to Christ. “Jeff was judged not by his faith, but by his crimes.”
According to Ratcliff, these Christian cynics believed that some crimes are too vile, too twisted, too unspeakable to be forgiven. We believe in grace. But we’ve got to draw the line somewhere. We’ve got to put a leash on grace before it runs free and breaks out of our gated community.