A pastor in the lobby of hell

So you are the pastor of an ordinary, middle-of-the-road mainline church in the heart of flyover America.

You face the tough issues of life, both public and private. You know many of the secret hopes and terrors of ordinary people, the kinds of everyday challenges that do not make headlines. You help people search for answers.

Then, in a shattering blitz of headlines and camera crews, you find yourself reading stories — this is from CNN.com — such as the following about the BTK murderer, a man that you thought of as a leader in your quiet flock.

Film at 11. And here is the news:

Sgt. Tom Lee testified Rader told him that after strangling his 53-year-old neighbor, Marine Hedge, in her home on April 27, 1985, he took her body to his church where he took photographs of her in bondage positions. Rader dumped the body in a remote ditch.

Lee said Rader told investigators he took the body to the church to “have his way with her” — to fulfill his sexual fantasies.

Rader had left black plastic sheets and other material at the church in anticipation of the killing.

“He advised to me that she was going to the church alive or dead — either way,” Lee said.

That is just the tip of this hellish iceberg.

So you are the pastor at this scene, sitting in that courtroom with the families — on both sides of the terror. You hear the testimony. You hear the verdict. What are you thinking? What are you praying? What questions have you silently screamed at the heavens in recent weeks?

There’s a feature story in there, right? That’s the story that Deb Gruver went after for The Wichita Eagle, writing about Pastor Michael Clark. For starters, he considered majoring in criminology in college. He ended up wrestling with good and evil in another arena, after working as both a teacher and in real estate. Seminary did not prepare him for this.

Gruver has some of the human details. Still, I found myself wanting more. This pastor has been stuck in the foyer of hell and he has to be asking some questions. We see glimpses, but that is all.

Clark has taken some criticism for continuing to minister to Rader. Some have questioned how a church could support a serial killer. Clark has tried to meet with Rader about two times a week. Their most recent meeting was Tuesday morning. He won’t divulge what they talk about it, but he says Rader has shown remorse for his crimes.

Clark says it’s not his job to forgive Rader. That’s God’s job.

“I can guide him to the point where he asks God for forgiveness,” he said.

The experience, Clark says, has helped him grow.

“It never, ever made me question my faith,” he said. “Never. In spite of all the pain and suffering, I still have come to understand that God is being good.

“We say God is the truth,” the minister continues. “I can tell you right now I’ve come to understand that concept in a whole different way. . . . I’ve gotten in touch with evil in a whole different way.”

This is the kind of story that makes people sweat on the theological left and the right. Remember when the unthinkable happened and Jeffrey Dahmer became a born-again Christian and then, while the cynics moaned, actually died trying to protect another man from being beaten in prison? This case could follow a similar path.

Does Rader deserve heaven or hell? The liberal answer is that everyone is going to heaven. For many, that isn’t a comforting answer in this case. But what about the other side of the coin? What if Rader repents? Then the most conservative of Christians has to say that he is bound for heaven. That’s the Good News. But how many people in Wichita want to hear about that doctrine, right now?

I predict that Pastor Clark has given this issue some thought.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

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  • http://www.christianitytoday.com/ctmag/ Ted Olsen

    Jody Wilgoren follows up in today’s New York Times: “A Pastor Who Stayed by a Serial Killer’s Side

  • http://www.wrandomwramblings.blogspot.com Scott Roche

    Wow. Well if the question is can he go to Heaven, the answer is yes. If the question si will he, the answer is only God knows.

  • EBeth

    For too long evangelicals have taught cheap grace; saying that this monster could go to heaven if he says a contrite prayer (My God, think how many prayers he must have said as an elder of that church!!) should make us think: is God’s grace really so cheap that we can murder, rape, and torment and then, right before we die, ask for forgiveness? Is that truly God’s nature? That idea isn’t substantiated in the Bible.

  • http://www.christianitytoday.com/ctmag/ Ted Olsen

    EBeth: You might want to re-read the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. The answer to those who preach cheap grace is not to deny true grace.

  • Gary McClellan

    Considering the story of David… murderer (and more than just Uriah, there were more killed in that battle than just him), then there is certainly room to consider the possibility of this man recieving forgiveness. Only God can know what is in his heart (obviously), so I won’t make any further statement on that.

    That said, that Pastor is in the ultimate difficult situation. I can only hope and pray that I never find myself in that tricky a situation in my own ministry. To me, it sounds like he’s doing the best he can under the circumstances.

  • http://www.philhoover-chicago.blogspot.com Phil Hoover-Chicago

    Remember the “thief” on the Cross…where Christ told him, “this day you will be with ME in Paradise?”

    That story is still in the Scriptures. We must remember that anyone who turns to Christ in this life–regardless of the heinousness of their sins–that Jesus Himself said He would not cast out.

    Even murderers who are active church members.

    May the God of grace, justice, and holiness be glorified in all the earth.

  • J-D

    I agree that it’s not about “cheap grace”, but “true grace” is not always so easy to find when you have stained your soul so badly – especially staining it all the while professing to follow the Truth. Well, thank God it’s not MY responsibility to judge either way regarding Rader. I will say, though, that he’ll have a long time in prison to “work out his salvation”. It will be interesting to see what he does.

  • http://www.anotherthink.com Charlie

    I wanted to know more after reading Gruver’s story, too. What I can’t begin to fathom is how Rader could be capable of carrying out these unspeakable acts and at the same time live among his friends as a follower of Jesus Christ. He doesn’t claim to be suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. He admits his guilt. He calls himself a “monster.” In other words, he gives every indication of understanding the horror of what he did, and of the urges he still has to murder and torture.

    I don’t think of myself as naive. I once knew a Sunday School teacher who saw church as the perfect place to meet and seduce vulnerable women.

    What I want to know about Rader is this: was his involvement in church a deliberate lie to hide his life as a murderer, was he in church in an attempt to gain control over his evil desires, or… what?

  • AlyD

    The Raders are traditionally Lutherans, and when I say traditionally I mean for the last 150 + years. I did a story tying this Rader to the Raders that populate half the county I live in; Dennis Rader’s great-great-great-great uncle Andrew founded or had a hand in founding 2/3 of the Lutheran churches in this little corner of SW Mo.
    All that is to say, church attendance may have been a matter of keeping up appearances.

  • http://n/a ah

    I’m with Charlie. What was Rader thinking? Or had addiction to unspeakable sin made him so numb he wasn’t thinking?

    The pastor’s dilemma, a fierce one, is more social than theological, I think. Of course he is willing to be present with sinners so long as they don’t tell him to go away. But associating with the most visible of the lowest, challenges his position in the community. To the extent (and it’s huge) that people go to church for pleasant and profitable social purposes, it’s a damaging public scandal.

    That is, the Gospel was early on characterized as scandalous. He, and the church, are now on the hot seat to make increasingly sure they are offering a Gospel that paradoxically is strengthened by, rather than destroyed by, scandal.

    I agree, it’s sweating-all-night territory.