Wineskins Archive

January 21, 2014

The Baptism of Jeffrey Dahmer: Can the Chief of Sinners Be Saved? (Jan – Feb 1994)

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by Rob McRay
January – February, 1994

23“Who do you think are candidates for the title, ‘the chief of sinners’?” We were studying First Timothy in our Wednesday Bible study. Our text was Paul’s description of himself as a violent, blasphemous persecutor who had been saved by grace. My question was slow to draw response. One theologically astute member responded that he was—that each of us is as guilty of being a sinner as anyone else. He made a valid point. But Paul seemed to be saying that as the chief of sinners, he was somehow worse than the rank and file of sinners. So I pressed on, and the nominations were those I expected. After Hitler, I knew that in Milwaukee Jeffrey Dahmer would be among the first nominated—and he was.

Jeffrey Dahmer is our local monster. He is serving 15 consecutive life sentences in a Wisconsin prison for 17 of the most grotesque murders ever committed. His crimes are so unimaginably horrifying that I cannot even describe them. In Milwaukee you don’t have to, for they were vividly described, day after day, in graphic detail, during his televised trial.

Was Paul really a worse sinner than Dahmer? If God’s unlimited mercy could save Paul, could it also save Dahmer? The question prompted an interesting and, for the most of us, unsettling theoretical discussion. The one who seemed the most comfortable that Dahmer could also be saved by God’s grace was the member who had identified himself as the chief of sinners.

Late Wednesday afternoon, April 6—just four weeks after that class—I found myself on the phone with Curtis Booth, who works with a prison ministry in Oklahoma. A prisoner in Wisconsin had completed a Bible correspondence course and wanted to be baptized. They needed a local minister to arrange it. We had talked for several minutes before he mentioned the prisoner’s name … Jeffrey Dahmer.

I admit I was speechless. The thought occurred to me that I had just 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.

His story seemed somehow credible and incredible at the same time. Mary Mott, a Christian in Virginia, had seen a television report on Jeffrey Dahmer and concluded that if anyone needed the gospel, he did. So she sent him a World Bible School correspondence course. Jeffrey Dahmer was searching for some answer to the distress in his conscience (surely that must be an understatement). The Bible study offered a glimmer of hope.

I explained to Curtis Booth that the prison was a few hours away, that I was leaving the next morning for a theology conference, but that I would find someone to take care of the request. I then called the prison chaplain to confirm the story, but he had left for the day. Still uncertain that the story could be true, and reeling from the implications if it were, I called Roy Ratcliff. Roy is a minister in Madison, Wisconsin, a friend I felt I could call, and a man who knows the gospel of grace. I related the story, confessed my confusion, offered my assistance, and left town.

The chaplain told Roy that Dahmer had indeed requested to be baptized. He agreed to be baptized. He agreed to set up a meeting and to investigate where the baptism could be performed. A couple of weeks later, Roy sat in a small room inside the prison and waited uneasily for Jeffrey Dahmer to enter Roy discovered that Jeffrey was as anxious about the meeting as he was.

Jeffrey’s biggest fear was that Roy would say no—that Roy would tell him he could not be baptized. When Roy said that he would indeed baptize Jeffrey, and that he would visit the prison regularly to study with him, Jeffrey seemed genuinely amazed, relieved, and grateful.

On Tuesday, May 10, in a whirlpool in the Columbia Correctional Institution, Roy baptized Jeffrey Dahmer into Jesus Christ.

Earlier that same day, John Wayne Gacy was executed in Illinois. But Wisconsin doesn’t have the death penalty, so Jeffrey will spend the rest of his life in prison. And there is nothing he can ever do to atone for his crimes. He will die in prison, and there is nothing …nothing … he can do to atone for his sins.

But the blood of Jesus Christ can cleanse even “the chief of sinners!” If it can’t—if Jeffrey Dahmer cannot be saved by grace—then no one can. Not me … and not you.

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life (1 Timothy 1:15-16).Wineskins Magazine

Rob McRay

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