Take Jeffrey Dahmer, please (that BTK guy, too)

tunnel3I was on the road this weekend and, believe it or not, WiFi was a problem at the hotel I visited in New York City. How hard is it to find a Starbucks in that town? Anyway, I wanted to add a quick note about Newsweek’s cover from last week — specifically the poll on what people believe about salvation and heaven.

Now, our friends at Beliefnet have already jumped on this. Click here for the “Who Gets Into Heaven?” package and, more importantly, click here for editor Steven Waldman’s essay, “The Pearly Gates Are Wide Open.”

It seems that more and more Americans are thirsting for religious experience and spiritual depth, of some kind, but they also believe that this has nothing to do with salvation and eternal life. In effect, we are watching the rise of the charismatic universalists.

Here is the crucial information from Waldman’s report.

Traditional Christians will flinch at the word “earn” in the lead, but keep reading.

One of the central tenets of evangelical Christianity is that to be saved — to earn admission into heaven — you must accept Jesus Christ as your savior. Yet 68% of “born again” or “evangelical” Christians say that a “good person who isn’t of your religious faith” can gain salvation, according to a new Newsweek/Beliefnet poll.

This is pretty amazing. Evangelicals are among the most churchgoing and religiously attentive people in the United States, and one of the ideas they’re most likely to hear from the minister at church on a given Sunday is that the path to salvation is through Jesus. Apparently, rank-and-file evangelicals have a different view. . . . Nationally, 79% of those surveyed said the same thing, and the figure is 73% for non-Christians and an astounding 91% among Catholics. The Catholics surveyed seemed more inclined to listen to the Catechism’s precept that those who “seek the truth” may gain salvation — rather than, say, St. Augustine’s view that being “separated from the Church” will damn you to hell “no matter how estimable a life he may imagine he is living.”

It is interesting that American Catholics now appear to be to the theological left, on salvation issues, of the secular public. That’s another story.

The evangelical numbers are actually not all that surprising for those who have followed the career of sociologist James Davision Hunter. Long before he wrote his famous Culture Wars study, he wrote a book titled Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation. He found, in the late 1980s, that a growing number of evangelicals at Christian colleges and universities were drifting away from the traditional Christian belief that salvation is found through Jesus Christ, alone. This fundamental change in the evangelical world is a major story, even if it is a generation old.

All of this made me think of heaven, hell and Dennis Rader of Wichita, Kan., and thinking about what we can and cannot know about the soul of the BTK murderer made me think about Jeffrey Dahmer. There are people who believe that everyone is going to heaven, no matter what. They get nervous thinking about Rader and Dahmer. There are people who get nervous thinking about Rader and Dahmer repenting and going to heaven.

More than a decade ago, I wrote a Scripps Howard News Service column about this and, in the wake of the Rader case, several people have written me asking for copies. The problem is that this column predates my tmatt.net website. I would like to post it here, so that people using Google can find it on their own. I believe the contents are still newsworthy and point to a story linked to the Rader and Newsweek stories. The original title on the column was this: “Take Jeffrey Dahmer, please.”


Most Americans have a good idea who they want to see go to hell — murderers, dictators, drug dealers and, certainly, anyone who tortures and kills children.

So this week’s bloody news from the Columbia Correctional Center in Wisconsin inspired many to utter a plea to the powers of darkness: Take Jeffrey Dahmer, please.

But it’s hard to ponder the fate of this infamous killer without running into a paradox. While most people in this nominally Christian nation say they believe in hell, their actual beliefs clash with both liberal and conservative versions of Christianity.

“Most people wanted Jeffrey Dahmer to fry,” said the Rev. Kendall Harmon, an Episcopal theologian from Summerville, S.C., whose doctoral work at Oxford University covered 20 centuries of teachings about hell. “Now that he’s dead, they’re celebrating and they’re absolutely sure he will burn in hell, because that’s what happens to people like him.”

Dahmer died on Monday after he was attacked while cleaning a prison bathroom. He died while saving the life of another inmate, shielding the body of a man who was under attack. This inmate was critically injured and a third is the prime suspect.

Dahmer was serving 15 consecutive life terms after confessing to killing 17 young males. He also said he dismembered some of his victims, had sex with their corpses and ate parts of their bodies. The blond-haired, blank-faced killer became a national symbol of the demonic. Dahmer confessed his crimes, but no one seemed inclined to forgive him.

Nevertheless, he seemed to find peace through prison Bible studies and, in May, he made a public profession of faith and was baptized. After praying that God would forgive his sins, Dahmer became remarkably calm about his fate — even after an inmate tried to slit his throat during a July chapel service.

Traditional Christians would have to say that Dahmer is heaven bound, if his repentance was sincere.

The problem is that many people seem to believe that there are two kinds of sins, and sinners. First, there are ordinary, good people who commit garden variety sins. They go to heaven, no matter what. Then there are the really bad sinners, especially those whose sins are linked to violence, drugs or sexual perversions. They are doomed to hell, no matter what.

A Gallup poll in 1990 found that 60 percent of Americans believe in hell, while 78 percent believe in heaven. Only 4 percent thought there was any chance that they would go to hell.

This pop theology is “really sad, because all it is is a projection of modern American values onto God,” said Harmon. “You end up with something that in no way resembles Christianity and is actually a vile form of secularism. . . . What most people want is justice, on their terms, or they want mercy, on their terms. What few people acknowledge is that God is in charge and he has set his own terms.”

Ironically, public belief in hell — for really bad people — also can be seen as a rejection of a modern theological trend. Most Christian liberals have embraced one of many forms of “universalism,” the belief that all people are saved, no matter what they believe or what they do. According to universalists, Dahmer had nothing to worry about in the first place.

But it’s hard to escape what the Bible says about eternal judgment. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus claims that he will someday put the “righteous people at his right and the others at his left. . . . Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Away from me, you that are under God’s curse! Away to the eternal fire which has been prepared for the Devil and his angels!’”

Harmon is convinced that hell matters. The 20th century has seen more than its share of hellish spectacles, from the Holocaust to Hiroshima, he said. Meanwhile, 19 centuries of Christian doctrine about hell have faded into fuzzy sentiment about a lowest common denominator heaven.

“This should make us pause and think,” he said. “Is this just a coincidence, or have we begun to take evil less seriously?”

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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.

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    I’ve suspected for a while that most Americans believe in a sort of cartoon version of the Doctrine of Election/Reprobation. In this view, Dahmer’s actions as a serial killer demonstrated that he is one of the damned, a Bad Person, and therefore destined to Hell no matter what else he does.

    It is interesting that American Catholics now appear to be to the theological left, on salvation issues, of the secular public.

    I have no idea what this sentence means. Doesn’t the secular public, being secular, by definition have no position on salvation issues? What am I missing here?

  • ceemac

    It is possible to take evil/sin very seriously and be a universalist. You don’t even have to be a liberal. Ever heard of Karl Barth. Now I will be the first to admit that most universalists in the US do not come at it from a Barthian angle. But some of us do.

  • tmatt


    I agree on the “secular” complaint. What is a better word? “General” public?

    In other words, Catholics are now to the moral left of people who have no particular religious believe and show up as the “general” people or the generic national average….

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    Terry, I’m not sure what you’re trying to say. Are you comparing American Catholics to the American populace in general (of which something like 80 to 90% are religious, depending on which surveys you believe), or to the secular minority (10 to 20%), or are you lumping some of those self-professed believers in with the seculars?

    And what conclusions about morality (“to the moral left”) are you deriving from beliefs about who goes to which part of the afterlife? How does the faith-vs-works argument map into left-vs-right? (I’m guessing awkwardly, just like almost everything maps onto left-vs-right.) Are you saying that a Catholic who adheres to the Catechism is liberal (for being more universalist) rather than conservative (for adhering to the teachings of his church)?

    And what the heck does it mean when a non-Christian answers a question about salvation? Moslems and Buddhists believe in salvation (though probably not quite the same as the Christian concept), but Jews and atheists don’t.

  • Maureen

    I am flabbergasted and delighted. I never, ever heard that Dahmer died saving another inmate — just that he’d been killed in a prison fight. What a miraculous thing, that a serial killer, someone with that little empathy for others — would save someone else’s life by giving up his own!

    Praise God. The angels must have rejoiced.

  • Sydney Carton

    As a Catholic, I hope that the Catechism is updated to clear things up. There is indeed no salvation outside the Church. And while “the Church” might include things like baptism by desire, it is universally understood as the Catholic Church, under the leadership of the Pope. The Church says all are called to be Catholics. Hopefully, Ratzinger will clear up the teaching on this a bit.

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    Sydney, I think “universally” (as in “universally understood”) might not mean what you think it means.

  • http://molly.douthett.net Molly

    “Most Christian liberals have embraced one of many forms of “universalism,” the belief that all people are saved, no matter what they believe or what they do.”

    I don’t embrace this. I think there are people who through their actions self select out of the grace of God, reject it, and damn themselves. Now, what GOD decides to do with these individuals when meeting face to face, well, that’s God’s perogative.

    I met someone a while ago who said this: (rough quote)
    “Jesus said he was the way, the truth and the life and that no one comes to the Father but through him. I believe that what Jesus said about himself was true but I also believe that how Jesus gets us there is his to decide. I figure I’ll go with following him wherever he leads and leave the accomodations up to him.”

  • http://catholicaetestudines.blogs.com/ Thomas

    I feel the need to pick at the excerpt of Mr. Waldman’s essay in the post. He seems to think that St. Augustine’s teaching/the teaching of the Church hundreds of years ago and the teaching of the Church now conflict somehow. They do not (though you may get different emphases depending on whom you ask). Those “who seek the truth” in the passage of the Catechism who are saved are saved through Jesus Christ and His Church. Before attempting to set the authority of St. Augustine (who is quoted heavily in the Catechism) against the Church, perhaps it would be helpful to examine paragraphs 846-48 of the Catechism which affirms that “all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church his body” (including for those who are honestly ignorant and desire these only implicitly). This is not available, however, to those who know the necessity of the Church yet choose to remain outside of or to leave the Church, as Vatican II states (Lumen Gentium, article 14). The Church has never taught “Feeneyism,” a heretical rigorist distortion which was formally condemned in 1949 when Fr. Leonard Feeney attempted to present it as the teaching of the Church, yet one is not saved without Christ and his Church. Sometimes people do not think about how the Church is not a temporary expedient that will be done away with at the end of time – have you ever heard Catholics speak of heaven as the “Church Triumphant”? (see the Catechism, paragraph 954). I think people who just want to say, “right or left, which one?” will be disappointed, because the Church is bigger and older than such categories. One might say that the teaching of the Church respects the necessity of the Covenant God established by His Church, the fact that we are not to despair (have zero hope) of the salvation of any person, and also that God isn’t looking to play “gotcha” and send people to hell on a technicality. The parts of the Catechism I refer to are here http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P29.HTM and here http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P2B.HTM
    and the whole thing and the Council documents here: http://www.vatican.va/archive/index.htm

  • http://molly.douthett.net Molly

    Is the word of the day “monat?”

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