Roy Ratcliff is the pastor who baptized infamous serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.
After Dahmer was convicted of 15 murders and sentenced to many lifetimes in prison, Ratcliff began visiting him and sharing the gospel. According to Ratcliff, Dahmer struggled to grasp the depths of God’s grace. It’s not hard to understand why. For someone who committed such atrocious acts, grace must have seemed unattainable. But in a 1994 interview with Stone Phillips, Dahmer said: “I have accepted [Jesus] as my Lord and Savior.” Though we won’t know of his sincerity until heaven, it’s possible that one of the most twisted serial killers of our lifetime said yes to grace.
Do you want to see Jeffrey Dahmer in heaven?
Ratcliff wrote a book about the time he spent with Dahmer. If you skim the comments under the book on Amazon.com, you will quickly see that our definition of grace doesn’t always reflect God’s. One reviewer wrote:
I don’t know why you, or the person who posted above you, cares about the state of Dahmer’s soul, much less has any desire to meet him in heaven. It’s just plain creepy. Some of the people who have read the pastor’s book, and written reviews, are thrilled that God can and does forgive anything, and how much hope it gives them of getting into heaven. Good Lord, what kind of sins did they commit themselves, to be “relieved” by something like that?
Not everyone shared this reviewer’s feelings, but it made me wonder about the limits we put on grace. We love knowing God can save someone like Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson from a past of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, but do we rejoice when he extends grace to a man who raped, killed, and even ate his victims? We want to see Brad Pitt in heaven while hoping Hitler didn’t have a last-minute conversion. We want God to forgive us when we worship our mini idols of leisure, but we shudder to think of a pedophile receiving the same forgiveness.
I praise God the decision isn’t ours. While I am guilty of holding onto mercy with tight, stingy fists, the God I serve is not. He offers grace through Christ to any who call on his name (Rom. 10:13).
Because of this, I might one day be singing “Holy, Holy, Holy” beside Jeffrey Dahmer. This excites me for three reasons.
1. It means there is hope for me.
Many of us have heard of King Manasseh. He’s the one who burned his sons alive and liked to hang out with sorcerers and witches (not the J. K. Rowling kind). One of the first things he did after becoming king was to “rebuild the high places” where people worshiped Baal. He didn’t listen to God until he was in a bind—literally (2 Chron. 33:10). And yet “when he was in distress, he entreated the favor of the LORD his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers. He prayed to him and God was moved by his entreaty and heard his plea and brought him again to Jerusalem into his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the LORD was God” (2 Chron. 33:12–13).
If there is hope for King Manasseh and Jeffrey Dahmer, there is hope for you and me.
I found it interesting when the Amazon commenter asked: “What kind of sins did they commit themselves to be ‘relieved’ by something like that?” So many. I have failed to be holy. I have failed to be patient. I have failed to extend the sort of mercy I’ve received. I have utterly failed my Maker. So yes, I am relieved he can save someone like me. Hoping that grace doesn’t extend all the way to serial killers and evil kings is a misunderstanding of grace. It trivializes sin and underestimates the omnipotent goodness of God.
2. It means there is hope for others.
I have a list. It’s stored in my heart, not on paper. It’s filled with names of people I love who don’t love God. When I read about Manasseh ignoring God’s voice and committing infanticide, I think about my own sins. Then I think about the people on my list. I know that unless they cling to Christ they will wear their own punishment. Until they submit to God, humble themselves, and seek his face the way Manasseh did, they will not see grace. But I rejoice in the availability of grace:
Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus. (Acts 3:19–20)
I rejoice in the assurance that if they surrender to God by clinging to Christ, they will be saved. They will be forgiven. There is hope for them. In Hebrews 7, Jesus is described as the perfect high priest. So perfect that daily sacrifices are needless since his death achieved what all previous sacrifices failed to: permanent, once-and-for-all atonement for sin:
Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. (Heb. 7:25)
“To the uttermost.” Some translations say “completely” or “forever.” There is no caveat here. Murder. Homosexuality. Infanticide. Idolatry. These sins do not pose a threat to God’s grace when we draw near to him through Christ. Every person on my list and yours is a candidate for mercy.
If God does not offer grace to sinners like Manasseh and Dahmer, there is no hope for us, and there is no hope for our loved ones.
3. It means God gets all the glory.
The extravagance of God’s grace reveals the extent of our insufficiency. We need him, and that’s uncomfortable. Humiliating. When it comes to defeating sin, Christ alone stands victorious.
Some of us hate receiving gifts. Instead of a thankful smile we respond, “You really shouldn’t have.” Acts of mercy make us feel indebted instead of blessed. But this is damning pride. My pastor reminded me in a recent sermon: “There is no catch to God’s grace but this: you can only receive it as a gift.”
I wonder what Jesus’s genealogy would look like if it were up to us. It certainly wouldn’t include Rahab (Matt. 1:5), David’s most disgraceful sin (v. 6), or the likes of King Manasseh (v. 10). Surely we would select our favorite saints and revel in the thought of linking arms with them. But God defines grace. He marks out its path, its length, its depth. The scribes in Mark 2:7 rightly questioned: “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” No one. And he offers forgiveness even to the worst person you know.
Stephen’s prayer while being stoned is extraordinary: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60; cf Luke 23:34). Perhaps even more extraordinary is Saul’s response: “And Saul approved of his execution” (Acts 8:1). The conversion and subsequent ministry of Saul, better known as Paul, is one of history’s most powerful illustrations of God’s relentless grace.
Praise God that he shows mercy to the merciless and love to the unlovely. Praise God that he redeems rebels like us.