When Wisconsin minister Roy Ratcliff received a phone call that an inmate at a nearby prison wanted to be baptized, he had no idea that the prisoner in question was Jeffrey Dahmer--a man known worldwide for his crimes of murder, dismemberment and cannibalism.

After performing the requested baptism in 1994, Ratcliff began traveling to the prison for weekly one-hour meetings with Dahmer. In a new book, Ratcliff discusses his experiences--and whether Dahmer's conversion was genuine. 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 did not fully 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. The questioner always seemed to hope I’d answer: “No, he wasn’t sincere.” The questioner seemed to be looking for a way to reject Jeffrey as a brother in Christ instead of seeing him as a sinner who has come to God. The subtext of such questions was simple. They didn’t want to think of Jeff as a brother. Such ungraciousness is contrary to the Christian spirit.

Was Jeff saved? Were his sins taken away? Is 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, too anemic to cover his sins? Did Jeff mean it when he said, “I’m so sorry for what I’ve done. God help me, I’ll never do that again”?

Why was it inconceivable that Jeffrey Dahmer could come to faith?

I became convinced of Jeff’s sincerity by one happening. On a certain visit we came to the end of our study time together. The prison guard had given us the signal, but right then, before I stood to leave, Jeff bared his soul.

“I feel very, very bad about the crimes I’ve committed. In fact, I think I should have been put to death by the state for what I did.”

“I agree with you,” I said. “You should have been put to death by the state for the crimes you committed.”

He replied, “If that is true, am I sinning against God by continuing to live?”

“Boy, you sure picked a time to bring this up,” I answered. “We can’t go into all this now, but I can see where you are going.” I asked him to read the first half of Romans 13 (13:1-7) before my next visit. “That passage relates to your question,” I said.

“I will. Take care – I’ll see you next time,” he said as I left.

On the drive home all this ran through my mind. Jeff was thinking of suicide. Would he take matters into his own hands and kill himself? Did he feel so bad about himself that he no longer wanted to live?

At my next meeting with Jeff, I began with his question, “Am I sinning against God by continuing to live?”

I told him, “Romans 13 does say God has placed a sword in the hand of the governing authority. That’s why I agreed with you last week when you said you thought the state should have put you to death.”

“Yes,” he replied. “But has the state failed its duty by not putting me to death?”

“I can’t answer that question. I can say that God has put a sword in the state’s hand, and the state has that right from God. This state has apparently chosen to lay down its sword and take up a rod instead.

“What is our responsibility to the state?” I asked him.

“Well, it says the Christian must submit to the governing authority,” Jeff replied.

“Right. We aren’t to judge the state for what the state has decided to do, but submit to the state. By continuing to live, you are submitting to the state.”

“I see,” he said, thinking about what I had said.

“What that means is that you must try to be the best prisoner you can be. You must not disobey the rules, nor subvert the system. You accept your position as a prisoner of the state for life, and serve God as best as you can for as long as God allows you to live.”

“Okay,” was all he said.

But I wasn’t finished with him yet. “When you ask, ‘Am I sinning by continuing to live?’ are you implying that you are thinking of suicide?” I pressed.

“Yes, I admit I’ve thought of suicide. But when I thought I should take my life, I just couldn’t do it,” he confessed. "My main concern is that I do the right thing,“ he replied.

After that, how could I question Jeff’s sincerity? Jeff wanted to please God. He knew he had done terrible things, and he needed me to tell him that his life mattered regardless. I could relate to how he felt. I understood his heart.


more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad