Some time ago I wrote a blog post about the Commandant of Auschwitz–Rudoph Hoss–baptized and brought up as a Catholic, went to the devil, but before his execution went to confession, made a complete statement of remorse and apology and received the sacraments. I was more active on social media at the time and I remember one very bitter reader who said my post angered him so much that he vowed he would never worship a God who would forgive someone like Hoss.
I remembered this after watching a few episodes of Netflix’s new drama series on the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. Dahmer, you will recall, was a homosexual serial murderer who preyed on young men. He would drug them, kill them and ultimately abuse and dismember their bodies. He retained and fetishized body parts, and was involved in necrophilia and cannibalism. I should warn readers that the series if very dark with foul language, some nudity and disturbing scenes of Dahmer’s activities. It was too much for me and I won’t be watching any more of it. I saw enough, however, to be curious about Dahmer’s life after he was caught and sent to prison.
Dahmer was finally murdered in prison by another inmate, but before his demise he confessed fully, showed remorse and in prison he was visited by a Protestant pastor who led him to the Lord. Dahmer then claimed to be a “born again Christian” and was baptized. One is therefore in the situation of assessing his spiritual destiny. We cannot determine the eternal state of anyone’s soul, but we can use situations like this to analyze the various theologies that help to inform us.
Knowing Evangelical Christianity’s theology I assume that the pastor who baptized Dahmer would believe in “eternal security” This is the belief that a person who repents and accepts Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is therefore “saved”. He is a born again Christian who will go to heaven when he dies. However, human compassion and common sense questions this. Here is a man who said he knew what he was doing and was not insane when he lured, drugged, murdered young men for his own sexual pleasure then mutilated them, abused their bodies and cannibalized their body parts–preserving some as fetish objects. Here is a man who quite simply, was evil. Perhaps he was demon possessed, we don’t know, but we know that he gave in to the temptations and willfully engaged in the most cruel, depraved and obscene actions.
Can such a man be forgiven? Of course. God’s mercy to the penitent soul extends to the Rudolph Hosses and Jeffrey Dahmers of this world. Nevertheless, the Protestant notion that Hoss and Dahmer zip straight into heaven at their demise violates not only common sense, but the human demand for justice and compassion for victims.
The Catholic answer is Purgatory. Dahmer and Hoss may truly be redeemed and forgiven by the blood of the Redeemer, but God has created us with Free Will, so it follows that we are responsible for our choices and their outcomes. Dahmer was murdered and Hoss executed, so they both paid for their crimes with their own lives, but after their death the need for them to pay a further price and make reparations will continue. Purgatory is the state after this life where that process of purification is continued. If Dahmer and Hoss are saved, then they will have many long years in purgatory working out the temporal weight of their crimes.
The Protestant objection is that this is “salvation by works” and that Christ’s saving work saves us completely. This unsubtle theological position does not leave room for personal responsibility or the infused power of grace. The Catholic belief in purgatory includes the teaching that the purification we undergo is accomplished by God’s merciful grace. It is only through Christ’s redemptive action that they can be forgiven, and it is only through the grace outpoured that the sinner can continue the purification process. Furthermore, if the soul is truly repentant, then they actually WANT to undergo the pains of purgatory. They do so as the boy who throws a baseball through his neighbor’s window. He is shocked and ashamed of what he has done and wants to not only apologize, but also to pay for the window.
So is Jeffrey Dahmer in heaven? I don’t know, but we can hope that he is in purgatory, and we can even pray for his soul as we pray for the souls of his victims. Indeed, concern for the victims should not be forgotten, and one of the problems with “real crime” programs is that they pander to our curiosity about evil and, in focussing on the monsters of depravity, too often neglect the suffering of their victims.