This is part two of my series on psychopaths and Christianity. For the first article on Ted Bundy, click here.
Evangelical Christians love their trophy conversions, dramatic stories of notorious sinners that find their way to the foot of the cross. For example, forty years ago I was fascinated by Run Baby Run, the story of the conversion of notorious New York gang leader Nicky Cruz. Trophy conversions were important for illustrating the transformative power of the Gospel: they could buoy Christian faith and serve as sales pitches in evangelism as well. And there was likely no conversion more dramatic than that of the notorious Milwaukee Cannibal, Jeffrey Dahmer.
Like Ted Bundy, Dahmer killed many people and was also a necrophile who committed unspeakable acts with the corpses. But unlike Bundy, Dahmer also cannibalized the corpses, a grisly practice that earned him the ignominious moniker by which he is known. If there was anybody you would have thought least likely to become a Jesus follower, surely it would have been Jeffrey Dahmer.
While in prison for his horrific crimes, Dahmer’s initial request for baptism was sent to Wisconsin Pastor Roy Ratcliff. (Dahmer was later beaten to death by a fellow inmate on November 28, 1994) Ratcliff initially was informed simply that an inmate was seeking baptism. It was only later that he was shocked to discover the individual in question was the notorious Milwaukee Cannibal. After baptizing Dahmer, Ratcliff agreed to meet with him weekly in order to disciple him in his new faith.
Ratcliff recounts the unique experience in his article “Saving Jeffrey Dahmer.” As he observes, the first thing he had to deal with was the skepticism of others. Ratcliff reflects, “This question bothers me. Why question the sincerity of another person’s faith?” To be sure, Ratcliff acknowledged that a Christian who failed to show fruit might raise questions. But, he laments, people didn’t ask whether Dahmer was producing fruit in his Christian walk. They weren’t interested in evidence of a changed heart. They simply focused on his admittedly egregious sins: “The people asking me [about Dahmer] 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.” As Ratcliff suggests, the incredulity seemed to suggest a two-tiered approach to sin, as if there were the middling sins of humanity generally and then the really awful sins of the psychopath. But we are all sinful before God and we’re all deserving of death.
To be sure, Ratcliff had his own questions, too. But it was one particular exchange that persuaded Ratcliff of Dahmer’s sincerity, one exchange that pointed unequivocally toward the fruit of a changed heart. Dahmer stated that he believed he should have been executed for his crimes. Ratcliff agreed and admonished Dahmer to read Romans 13. On their next meeting Ratcliff notes that while the state has the right to use the sword, they opted not to use it in Dahmer’s case. And the best he could do in return would be to aim to be the best prisoner he could be in godly submission to the state’s authority. Dahmer agreed heartily, stating firmly that he now wanted to do the right thing. That stated resolve was enough for Ratcliff who concluded: “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.”
Dahmer as Witness to Grace
Other Christian writers have spoken in favorable terms of Dahmer’s conversion as well, invoking it as a sign of grace while never raising the possibility that it might be anything less than genuine. In his book, An Anchor for the Soul, Ray Pritchard makes the point in a provocative section titled “Jeffrey Dahmer and Mother Teresa.” As you can guess, Pritchard concludes that whether we are Mother Teresa or Jeffrey Dahmer or anybody else, we are all infinitely far from God’s perfection. Pritchard then recounts an occasion where he pointed out to his congregation that there are no righteous people. A week later a congregant, concern etched on his face, asked Pritchard where a righteous person could be found. Pritchard replied:
“Pointing to the cross on the wall behind the pulpit, I declared that Jesus is the only righteous man who ever lived.
“And compared to him, I am Jeffrey Dahmer.”
Max Lucado also refers to Dahmer’s conversion as a powerful illustration in his popular book In the Grip of Grace. Lucado begins by articulating the depth of Dahmer’s depravity and his own profound revulsion to it: “The Milwaukee Monster dangled from the lowest rung of human conduct and then dropped.” But as repugnant as Lucado finds Dahmer’s sins, he then admits that one thing troubles him even more than the sins themselves, and that is Dahmer’s ability to seek, and receive, forgiveness for them: “Sins washed. Soul cleansed. Past forgiven.” Lucado then uses this revulsion as a basis to illumine that troubling two-tiered approach to human depravity:
“Ever wrestled with the deathbed conversion of a rapist or the eleventh hour conversion of a child molester? We’ve sentenced them, maybe not in court, but in our hearts. We put them behind bars and locked the door. They are forever imprisoned in our disgust. And then, the impossible happens. They repent.
“Our response? (Dare we say it?) We cross our arms and furrow our brows, ‘God won’t let you off that easy. Not after what you did. God is kind but he’s no wimp. Grace is for average sinners like me, not deviants like you.”
For Lucado, that’s where the problems start, in our self-satisfied refusal to extend to Dahmer the same grace God extended to us. Thus, he admonishes us,
“It’s one thing to have an opinion. It’s quite another to pass a verdict. It’s one thing to have a conviction; it’s another to convict the person. It’s one thing to be repulsed by the acts of a Jeffrey Dahmer (and I am). It’s another entirely to claim that I am superior (I’m not) or that he is beyond the grace of God (no one is).” 
Of course, Lucado is right that nobody is beyond God’s grace. And Pritchard is correct that there is only one truly righteous person. And Ratcliff is spot on to recognize that we can’t be absolutely sure about any person’s heart. But each of these legitimate points is only part of the truth. And having only part of the truth can be dangerous … especially when you’re dealing with a psychopath.
Dahmer the Lost Soul
In my opinion, the most troubling discussion of Dahmer’s conversion comes in Kathleen Norris’ book Amazing Grace: A vocabulary of faith. In the book, Norris reflects how she was intrigued by Jeffrey Dahmer’s story when she first encountered it in the media, though she wasn’t sure why she was drawn to Dahmer. She reflects, “It may have been because a policeman said that Dahmer seemed so enormously relieved to have been caught. The photographs in the news did not depict someone who was belligerent, or boastful, as serial murderers often are. He seemed bewildered, exhausted, a lost soul.”
Note that Norris assumes that the psychopath or serial killer will tend to present himself as belligerent or boastful. But this is an erroneous assumption, for as Martha Stout noted, the most common and powerful modus operandi for the psychopath is pity. (See my article on Ted Bundy.) When Dahmer presented himself as a “bewildered, exhausted, a lost soul” he was engaging in the very same predatory pity play that he had regularly used to isolate and exploit victims. Far from being exceptional, the self-presentation as a “lost soul” was part of his modus operandi.
Norris then goes on to provide a sympathetic reflection on the genesis of Dahmer’s crimes. Her reflection is certainly well-intentioned, but it is also dangerously misguided and serves as a disturbing example of how quickly good Christian intentions can go awry:
“I believe Jeffrey Dahmer shows us what the fear of abandonment can do to the human spirit. To judge by one survivor’s account, a man who had met Dahmer in a bar and had gone to his apartment, it was when he decided to leave after only one drink that Dahmer seemed to panic. This man got out; others were not so fortunate. Apparently it was the thought of being alone again, of having the person leave his life, that prompted Dahmer to go over the edge and begin drugging the drinks so that these men would stay forever. What seems saddest to me about the loss of human lives is that it might have been prevented. Dahmer had known for some time that something was wrong and he had sought help. Several times he had turned to a church and that seemed to allay the madness for a time. But it did not hold.”
Having begun with the assumption that Dahmer is simply a “lost soul,” Norris proceeds to interpret his professed repentance, conversion and subsequent behavior in this light. Suddenly the amoral psychopathic predator that drugged, raped, killed, dismembered and cannibalized more than a dozen men is merely a lonely soul crying out for companionship. Incredibly, Norris recasts Dahmer’s failure to successfully restrain, kill, and eat one of his victims as a tragic failure to connect with another human being. This is a reinterpretation of Dahmer’s life so radically disconnected from reality that it is hard to believe we are talking about the same man.
As I noted above, these kinds of analyses are that much more attractive because of the important kernel of theological truth that they contain. It is indeed the case that I am no more righteous on my own merits than Jeffrey Dahmer, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) Whether it is Ted Bundy or Mother Teresa, Jeffrey Dahmer or Max Lucado, you or me, if any of us is to be saved it will be by God’s grace alone. In addition, I concur emphatically that an omnipotent God can save a psychopath. As God says through the prophet Jeremiah, “I am the LORD, the God of all mankind. Is anything too hard for me?” (Jeremiah 32:27) I have no doubt that the same God who spoke the world into existence and sustains it every moment can save a psychopath if he so chooses.
But to stop there critically misrepresents some very important facts. Perhaps I can frame things with a story. Imagine that your sister Janet has suffered vicious beatings from her husband Al for several years. The pattern is a familiar one. Al beats Janet brutally, she walks out, he turns on the tears and pleads with her that he’ll be different, and she returns. And then the cycle repeats.
After this same cycle has repeated countless times Janet comes to your door late one night hysterical, with a cracked tooth, a broken nose, and a black eye. “That’s it!” you scream. “No more Janet. Leave this monster!” Janet agrees and resolves to break it off with Al once and for all. But then the next morning Al comes knocking on your door. “Janet,” he calls out, “Please forgive me! I accepted Jesus last night! I’ve changed!” Would you suggest that Janet open the door? Of course not!
Can you imagine anybody saying that by keeping the door closed you’re falling into a two-tiered view of human sin? Or that you’re questioning the omnipotent power of God to save whomever he chooses? Such statements would be positively absurd and even offensive. And yet this is the way many Christian authors treat the professed conversions of psychopaths. They embrace them as genuine without question, trumpet them as trophy conversions to a skeptical world, and cast a pall on anybody who would raise a cautionary flag. This is really irresponsible, for psychopaths are masters of the pity ploy and deception. As one psychopath mused, “I lie like I breathe, one as much as the other.” To conclude that Dahmer had a genuine conversion based on a testimony coupled with a contrite disposition which is no different from his behavior when he was on a predatorial killing spree is naïve and irresponsible in the extreme.
Dahmer the Predator
Dahmer’s Christian supporters would have done well to spend some time with the countless people that were tricked by this psychopath. In his article “Duped, Drugged, and Eaten: Working with the Jeffrey Dahmers of the World,” Len Sperry points out that Dahmer successfully evaded arrest for more than a decade due to his uncanny ability to manipulate everybody around him. And that includes police, parole officers, and even psychologists and psychiatrists, in other words, the very people who were supposed to be trained at identifying manipulators and liars.
Most shockingly, Dahmer succeeded in persuading several physicians and psychiatrists to prescribe to him the various medications that he employed in the drugging of his victims, despite the fact that his own history of alcoholism was a strong contraindication for the prescription of these medications. Sperry was himself a native of Milwaukee and knew several of the doctors who were duped by Dahmer. This led him to wonder, “How could these guys, most of whom held specialty boards in forensic psychiatry, have been so conned?” It’s a fair question. But the answer is really as straightforward as it is disturbing: like so many psychopaths, Dahmer was simply an outstanding con-artist.
If these hardened, trained professionals could be duped, one can only imagine how easy it would be to manipulate a well-meaning but naive pastor preaching a gospel of grace and forgiveness.
Given that Dahmer is a psychopath, should Ratcliff have even agreed to baptize him? To be honest, I don’t have a clear answer to that question. Perhaps he could have done so, but given Dahmer’s clinical diagnosis I would suggest it wiser for Ratcliff to advise postponement of baptism at least for a period of time. However, the issue that most concerns me is Ratcliff’s decision to meet regularly with Dahmer. From the perspective of the forensic psychologist wise to the modus operandi of the psychopath, these are not innocent discipleship meetings. Rather, they are risk-laden interactions with a predator who is long accustomed to grooming victims for various forms of exploitation. In that sense, it is not unlike stepping into the circus ring with a wild lion. As Robert Hare puts it, “Psychopaths tend to see any social exchange as a ‘feeding’ opportunity, a contest, or a test of wills, in which there can be only one winner. Their motives are to manipulate and take, ruthlessly and without remorse.” If even trained mental health professionals and hardened police officers can be conned by psychopaths, how much more vulnerable to abuse is the trusting pastor or lay Christian giddy with the prospect of a dazzling trophy conversion?
 Ratcliff and Lindy Adams, “Saving Jeffrey Dahmer.” Belief Net, (online) at http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/Christianity/2006/11/Saving-Jeffrey-Dahmer.aspx
For further discussion see Roy Ratcliff and Lindy Adams, Dark Journey Deep Grace: Jeffrey Dahmer’s Story of Faith (NP: Leafwood, 2006).
 Ratcliff and Lindy Adams, “Saving Jeffrey Dahmer.”
 Pritchard, An Anchor for the Soul (Chicago: Moody, 2011), 61-63.
 Pritchard, An Anchor for the Soul, 64.
 Lucado, In the Grip of Grace (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1996), 35.
 Lucado, In the Grip of Grace, 36.
 Lucado, In the Grip of Grace, 36.
 Lucado, In the Grip of Grace, 38.
 Norris, Amazing Grace: A vocabulary of faith (New York: Riverhead Books, 1999), 177.
 Norris, Amazing Grace: A vocabulary of faith, 178.
 Cited in Hare, Without Conscience, 40.
 “Duped, Drugged, and Eaten: Working with the Jeffrey Dahmers of the World,” in Duped: Lies and Deception in Psychotherapy, ed. Jeffrey Kottler and Jon Carlson (New York: Routledge, 2011), 47-55.
 “Duped, Drugged, and Eaten: Working with the Jeffrey Dahmers of the World,” 50.
 Hare, Without Conscience, 145.