Sympathy for the Devil: Jeffrey Dahmer and the Tension of Redemption

By Jake Doberenz

Most people can appreciate a good redemption story—as long as it is told in fiction. Real life redemption stories tend to make us quite uneasy. When we begin to see one pattern in a person, it becomes very hard to rewire our brains to see them in a new, different light. We don’t like the dissonance.

But this is cranked up to a 100 when a person is just objectively evil by any standard you apply to them.

Plus, if most of us are honest with ourselves, we feel a cold satisfaction when evil people are punished. And recently, one such terrible person has captured the cultural zeitgeist again: Jeffry Dahmer. Last year, Netflix produced two Dahmer projects: one, a documentary with original recordings from interviews with the infamous serial killer and the other a narrative telling the story of his life and eventual death.

I first learned of Netflix’s DAHMER—Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story from my middle school students who would bring him up, often comparing him to other students in both negative and positive ways. I later learned that Dahmer’s look became a popular Halloween costume, and that Dahmer took TikTok by storm with videos calling Evan Peters, the actor who played Dahmer, a thirst trap. The fascination isn’t new, with DAHMER showing that a fandom arose around the serial killer even shortly after he was arrested. From the moment he was caught, people have had a strange interest in the cannibal, even sending him pictures and money.

In December of 2022, DAHMER surpassed one billion hours viewed according to Netflix, putting it up there with Netflix’s other streaming sensations like Stranger Things season 4 and Squid Games. It’s creator, Ryan Murphy, is set to create two additional series of Monster fearing other monstrous individuals. So it’s likely we will come to see other terrible people in more positive lights as well.

The popularity of DAHMER and its controversial sympathetic depiction of Jeffrey Dahmer gives us a unique opportunity to ask deeply moral and religious questions. Why are people evil? Should we really have sympathy for such a monster? What do the worst people among us deserve?

Yet Dahmer’s story takes yet another startling turn for us to wrestle with: the infamous serial killer was baptized into the Christian faith while in prison and expressed remorse for his actions. The minister that baptized him held a small memorial service at his church after Dahmer was beaten to death in prison. Such a basic human decency, to some, isn’t something a guy like Dahmer deserves.

So we must add a related question, because it doesn’t sit right with most of us to imagine Dahmer in Heaven, hanging with Jesus. Is it possible for such a monster to really be redeemed?

Netflix’s DAHMER and Conversations with a Killer: The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes both raise these sorts of questions. Unfortunately for those that like certainty, there aren’t definite answers.

Evil or Insane?

Modern media isn’t so satisfied with people simply being either good or bad. Like many fictional tellings of real events, we want to understand the why behind actions—a psychological concern not as present in older forms of storytelling. Especially when it comes to the truly bad characters, we want to seek a plausible answer to why someone breaks all social norms and does something terrible.

Netflix’s DAHMER actively engages the interest over “why.” Through the stories it tells and the characters who ask questions, the show explores external factors, like Dahmer’s childhood, family, relationships, and drinking, as well as internal factors (genetic, chemical, or psychological influences) as possible reasons for his behavior. A priest in the last episode even lays out several possible reasons for the “rise” in serial killers since the 1970s, which include highways, pornography, and emotionally distant fathers. But no one can offer a satisfying answer.

Both the DAHMER and Conversations with a Killer leave us with a horrible possibility—there is no solution to “why” Dahmer did all that he did. There is no way to know. We can only speculate.

Theology, unfortunately, offers us few compelling resources to explain why someone has sex with dead bodies and keeps human meat in their freezer. There’s a reason this is classically called “the problem of evil,” but any theologian worth their salt recognizes this topic as a thorny issue to navigate.

“Free will” doesn’t seem to solve the problem here, at least not in its entirety because there are times when it hardly seems like Dahmer chooses his actions. It’s clear, at least to me, that in watching Evan Peter’s Dahmer and the real Dahmer, there was a strange tension inside of him between his own desires and what he saw as right.

Dahmer may sympathize with the Apostle Paul’s statement in Romans 7:15, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”

What DAHMER didn’t explore but Conversations mentioned is that Dahmer, for a period of time, went to church with his grandma and prayed that God might take away his sexual urges. He went a while after his first killing without murdering anyone else; during this time, he used surrogates like the mannequin he stole (which DAHMER does show) to satisfy his urges. Nevertheless, he eventually let go of the difficult task of restraining himself. Although ultimately unsuccessful, he managed to overcome his urge for a time, suggesting he had some kind of conscious awareness that what he was doing was wrong.

Controlling one’s desires has a rich history in philosophical and religious thought. Pauline Christianity, like certain branches of classical Greek thought, show life in dualistic terms, either “of the Spirit” or “of the flesh.” Paul, for instance, contrasts the works of the flesh and the fruits of the spirit; he warns his readers not to gratify the desires of the flesh. As Dahmer shows in the extreme, gratifying the flesh can lead to some terrible things despite momentary pleasure.

At the end, though, Dahmer seems to feel guilt. In his closing statement before being found guilty, Dahmer stated: “I know how much harm I have caused. I tried to do the best I could after the arrest to make amends. … I feel so bad for what I did to those poor families, and I understand their rightful hate [the show uses ‘anger’ instead of ‘hate’]. I know I will be in prison for the rest of my life.”

In DAHMER, his statement trails off there. Conveniently, however, the show left out his next line according to the official transcript: “I know that I will have to turn to God to help me get through each day. I should have stayed with God. I tried and failed and created a holocaust.”

Toward the end of his closing statement, after asking for no considerations from the judge before sentencing and apologizing to the victim’s families, he quotes 1 Timothy 1:15-17:

“Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of who I am the worst. But for that very reason, I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life. Now to the king eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever.”

Evil? Insane? Or both? It’s difficult to tell.

Perhaps the best answer isn’t found with a theologian, but with a judge. The judge in the case regarding, Dahmer’s brain after his death, tells the court in his ruling:

“When one considers an individual like the deceased, there is a temptation to try to know, and know definitively, why someone like Jeffrey Dahmer is what he is—or was. I think there’s a real danger there. There are no easy answers when it comes to someone like him. You’ll never know why he did what he did. It’s an uncomfortable truth, to be sure, but it’s one you need to come to accept.”

The Trouble with Grace

In the Conversations with a Killer episode “Evil or Insane?” Roy Radcliff says that when he agreed to baptize Dahmer, that Dahmer was relieved, afraid that Radcliff would say you are “too evil.” But Radcliff baptizes him anyway, presumably because Christian baptism is precisely designed for such evil people to be reborn. When Dahmer emerges from the baptismal water, Radcliff uses a familiar Christian image: “Welcome to the family of God.”

It might not sit right that Jeffrey Dahmer be considered a “brother in Christ.” While I cannot claim anything about his heart or God’s heart, baptism is a symbolic and spiritual ritual that marks a transition and transformation from the old, to the new. Again, to Paul, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

In the last episode, when Dahmer talks to the prison’s resident priest, he contrasts himself with another serial killer, John Gacy, because, unlike Gacy, he admitted to everything once he was arrested. But Gacy claims he made his peace with God and is going to heaven. He wants to know if Gacy is forgiven, although he suggests he doesn’t deserve forgiveness.

The prison priest’s response to Dahmer’s question sums up a key Christian concept quite nicely: “That’s the thing about grace: we don’t deserve it but we get it anyway.” The most radical and perhaps offensive element of Christianity is grace.

Grace has the connotation of divine favor and justification before God. New Testament scholar David DeSilva notes in his book Transformation: The Heart of Paul’s Gospel that in ancient times, justification meant being in line with the norms of society or the law. So, in Paul’s view of Christianity, to be justified in the eyes of God is to be considered in line with God’s will.

DeSilva’s argument is that Paul’s letters view God’s primary work in humans as transformation. He sidesteps the religious debate between God’s election of the saved where we have no choice in the matter and a “works-based” salvation where humans can only be justified if we do the right things. Instead, he believes Paul views God and humanity in partnership. The transformation that results is ongoing; but it seems to be offered to anyone.

Even, perhaps, a serial killer cannibal.

The Apostle Paul himself notes how much of a sinner he was, even boasting that he was the chief of sinners (we’ve already seen 1 Timothy 1:15, which Paul may or may not have written). In some of his writings, he harps on how unworthy he was to be a part of the family of God. “For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me” (1 Corinthians 15:9-10).

Even a great apostle of the early church recognizes that it’s in God’s power to bring the worst sinners to repentance. God can transform the worst kind of people.

I’m not here to comment on whether or not Jeffrey Dahmer is in Heaven. That is up to God, not I. However, I do think it’s profoundly important to entertain the possibility that even the worst people can be redeemed. That’s key to the Christian message.

God of Forgiveness, God of Vengeance

Yet depicting evil people in any kind of positive or sympathetic light can make us uncomfortable. Grace is profoundly offensive because it goes against our nature to categorize everything as good and bad. Monsters are supposed to be evil. That’s their category. Crossing categories makes our shortcut-loving brains go haywire.

One opinion article that reflects on the show’s positive portrayal of Dahmer really stuck out to me. This author seems to typify the view that such crimes put someone firmly and unmovably in the “monster” category. Katya Luzarraga of the Wayland Student Press writes:

“…as soon as we start watching a show designed to reveal all the intimate details of the killer’s life, we begin to view them as human beings, and we begin to form sympathies for a person we shouldn’t feel sympathetic for. Dahmer was not a human being, and should never be categorized as such. He lacked the capacity to care for others, and he blatantly disregarded the value of human life when he killed his victims. He should be remembered as an evil person, but he is constantly being glamorized by the film industry. This is the wrong type of attention.”

Luzarraga goes on to note that the real focus should be on the victims who are never coming home, and not on Dahmer himself. However, DAHMER often features the victim’s point of view and the show spends considerable time on the injustices of the Milwaukie police department. Might it be possible to both sympathize with Dahmer and remember his victims?

I believe this is the beautiful tension that DAHMER allows us to ponder.

The theme really comes home in the last episode, where faith plays a major role. Glenda Cleveland admits to her pastor that she hates Dahmer and can’t forgive him, that she isn’t even satisfied with seeing him behind bars. The pastor listens to her and offers his advice: that she should pray about it. He validates her anger but urges her to turn to God so that her heart can be transformed.

The scene where Dahmer says he doesn’t believe he can forgive himself comes right before Cleveland says she doesn’t believe she can forgive Dahmer. Both are recipients of thoughtful pastoral counsel. Both are told to imagine that forgiveness is possible.

While Dahmer and Cleveland learn about forgiveness, another inmate, Christopher Scarver, chooses a very different path. Scarver is depicted as a Christian but struggles with the evilness that Dahmer committed. He feels compelled to kill Dahmer, which he does while on cleaning duty. Before he murders Dahmer, he mentions that his god is a “God of vengeance” and that he is a vessel of that vengeance.

There’s certainly that option. If we see our enemies as monsters, as less than human, it becomes possible to dispose of them. Monsters, almost by definition, don’t change. We can skirt around ethical considerations if we simply change the category. Yet if history is any indication, whenever we label  fellow humans as something other than human—whether it’s the outsiders as barbarians or Black Americans as 3/5ths of a human, only more evil follows.

While perhaps it’s wrong to root for the bad guy, it’s not wrong to see the bad guy as human. For they are human. St. Augustine, though writing about actual monstrosities in The City of God, recognizes that if anyone is born of a human, they are a human—and no matter how monstrous they look, they deserve the same respect and dignity offered other humans. There are also several medieval Christian traditions (like that of Saint Christopher in the Eastern Orthodox church) about dog-headed cannibals who, when baptized, gave up with their pagan ways and became committed followers of Christ.

In other words, Christian tradition says that if a person is a human, they have humanity, and all the rights and privileges that come with that. In that case, we are only left with the God of forgiveness.

Dahmer’s story as the Netflix show depicts it presents a possibility that Dahmer wasn’t objectively evil, as many factors did and may have influenced him. He just needed help. Both the show DAHMER and documentary Conversations with a Killer show that Dahmer’s defense was trying to get him declared insane. Ultimately, he was not declared insane, which meant he didn’t get the psychiatric help he needed and desired. But his capture and imprisonment did give the objectively evil man a chance to be redeemed, as uncomfortable as that may be.

Unlike the opinion piece above, I think it’s good to see that the monsters among us aren’t of a different flesh. The failures of society, family, government, and even religion all play a part in crafting monsters. But they are just humans—whether we like it or not. Our actions do not change that fact. If they are human, then they can be redeemed. And if the worst people can be redeemed, than there is definitely hope for the rest of us.

Jake Doberenz is an early career theologian who teaches middle school while writing and podcasting online. He graduated with a Master of Theological Studies at Oklahoma Christian University. Jake occasionally blogs at and quite often tweets at @JakeDoberenz. His creative work can be found at.


One Comment Add yours

  1. ganglerisgrove says:

    I read this quickly because I”m getting ready for a class, but this was compelling. I was particularly taken by your closing wherein you write,

    “Unlike the opinion piece above, I think it’s good to see that the monsters among us aren’t of a different flesh. The failures of society, family, government, and even religion all play a part in crafting monsters. But they are just humans—whether we like it or not. Our actions do not change that fact. If they are human, then they can be redeemed. And if the worst people can be redeemed, than there is definitely hope for the rest of us.”

    Yes, but even more so, I think a mirror that forces us to examine the failures of our society is an opportunity to do better a a society (whether or not we DO better, is an entirely different story). It also makes me think about what I termed recently in a discussion with my husband, the ‘Jack the Ripper effect.” if we expect those committing evil deeds to LOOK different from our neighbor, from us, from the guy down the street, then we will dismiss evil, miss it even when it’s right in front of us. I”m moved to consider Arendt’s comments on the banality of evil. it’s not something visibly demonic and excessive, but … us, the normal, the mundane, the regular, the banal. that’s unsettling but makes it all the more imperative that we tend our societies and each other in ways that nurture the good.


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