The Good Place [a reflection]
Note: spoilers ahead.
Over the years of having been a Christian, I have had many conversations with folks about why they find Christianity to be something they must reject. I enjoy asking people what Christianity actually is, and by far the most common narrative I have heard goes something like this:
Christians believe that if you’re a good person—your good outweighs your bad—then God will reward you when you die by sending you to Heaven, but if your bad outweighs your good then you go to Hell. I know plenty of good people who aren’t Christian, so I just can’t stomach the idea of a God sending people to hell just because they accidentally believed the wrong religion.
This is a pretty understandable narrative, but it’s about as accurate a portrayal of orthodox Christian belief as how Fox News would describe the sincerely-held convictions of a democratic presidential candidate. Some of the individual words happen to be right—Christians do “believe” things, and some of those things are “God,” “Heaven,” and “Hell.” It’s even true to say that Christians care about good deeds and bad deeds, but the way these words are put together remind me of the “poetry” produced by machine learning algorithms: off by 90 degrees, matching the form but lacking the heart, and coming off as kind of unintentionally humorous.
I was surprised a few years ago when I heard about a new show called The Good Place, because its premise is almost precisely that description of Christianity above, but acting like it’s a novel concept. When you die, every single good or bad deed in your life gets translated into a point value, and if your points are high enough you get to go to The Good Place, and if not then your fate lies in the hands of demons from The Bad Place. The show follows Eleanor Shellstrop as she finds herself in The Good Place, and then it picks up steam as she confides in fellow newcomer Chidi Anyagonye that she must’ve been put there by mistake. They soon meet the other leading characters Jason Mendoza, Tahani Al-Jamil, Michael, and Janet, and the rest of the show follows these 6 characters on a wild, twisting journey through the afterlife.
The show is genuinely fun to watch: it succeeds as a comedy, and I found myself rooting for the characters as they help one another and shape one another. The show is chock-full of heady moral philosophy, which I found to be pretty surprising for a show that actually got greenlit. The characters explicitly wrestle with questions of freewill, meaning, justice, and moral meaning, which is just honestly not what I would expect to find in a mainstream TV show. The sheer number of plot twists and crazy changes of direction is also pretty entertaining: it never feels predictable, and after most episodes I would find myself wondering what would happen next. Eventually you discover that none of the main characters were meant to be in The Good Place, and then you discover that they have actually been in The Bad Place the whole time and it was just designed to be especially awful for these people. Their neighborhood gets rebooted hundreds of times. They try to escape The Bad Place to get to The Good Place only to land back in their earthly lives. They finally end up convincing The Judge that the current system of “good vs. bad deeds before you die” is fundamentally flawed and means basically everyone goes to The Bad Place, so she agrees to try a new system where people have the opportunity to get better after they die in order to try to go to The Good Place.
Near the very end of Season 4, they finally find themselves in The Good Place, for real this time, but this is where they encounter the biggest plot twist of the show: the actually Good Place… kind of sucks. When the constraints of time, evil, and your own limitations are removed and you can do whatever it is you want, and then you actually do all those things, what happens after that? The Good Place is where people are doing endless variations on the same thing for eternity, and instead of making them happy, it makes them brainless and bored. There is no agenda imposed upon you in The Good Place, but that also means it lacks any moral directionality; it necessarily has no teleological aim. The show asserts in the very first episode that various religions like Christianity got a few things right here and there about what the afterlife would be like, but it proffers this as the superior vision.
This Good Place is in many respects a Heaven crafted after the image of late modernity in the West; individualist expressivism is front and center, and if there is any meaning in life it stems from your own ability to be authentically you and not to be someone else’s idea of who you should be. If there is a Judge of all the Universe, we don’t really know much about her, and she seems to be pretty hands-off, mostly interested in bingeing through TV shows and podcasts. If she gets involved with human affairs, it’s with an air of annoyance because she just wants to get back her own stuff.
What I find most impressive about the show is its gutsiness to be honest about how hollow its vision of Heaven is. I honestly expected them to get to The Good Place, finally have the time they want to do the things they desire, everyone is happy, and the credits roll. Instead, in a place where hedonism can fully and finally be expressed, the end result is not eternal bliss but eternal doldrums.
Finally, after thinking the problem through, Michael comes up with a solution: he creates a door that you can walk through when you’re finished living and you will cease to exist. Jason Mendoza plays a flawless game of Madden in a stadium full of people cheering him on and realizes what we all do at some point: getting to the top of the ladder doesn’t satisfy. The mountaintop experience doesn’t satisfy. So he bids farewell to Janet and then walks through the door. Chidi also gets to a point where he experiences what he describes as “quietude,” a sense that he has done everything he wants to do and there is nothing else left for him to finish, so he also walks through the door much to Eleanor’s protestations.
Eleanor grieves in her own way, realizing that Chidi had actually been a big piece of what she was living for. She meanders around a little, and eventually feels like she’s finished doing what she needs to do after helping Mindy St. Claire move from The Medium Place into a neighborhood on the way to The Good Place, and after helping convince The Judge to change Michael from a Demon/Fire Squid into a human on earth. She walks through the door and dissociates into a million beautiful little bokeh particles, which then fall gently down onto earth and cause people to be a little kinder and make better decisions.
This is what strikes me as gutsy: after crafting a thoroughly modern idea of what happens after we die, and after our fearless humanist heroes use their moral-philosophical superpowers to convince The Judge to make the afterlife an even better afterlife, it still is so hollow that they admit that not existing at all is better than being in their idea of Heaven.
Being transformed into pretty little bokeh particles is supposed to pull on our heartstrings and make us think, “Wow, what a beautiful vision of the afterlife,” but I can’t shake the feeling that it’s just smoke and mirrors to bedazzle us into not noticing how vapid it all is. It also drives home the conviction that not only is the Christian understanding of the afterlife more beautiful, it’s also robustly substantive, rich, and whole in contrast to the hollowness of living forever for yourself.
Indeed, even the word “afterlife” is pretty unhelpful in speaking about Christian belief. There are certainly churches here and there that would teach the point of life is to say a specific set of words to God after which he is obligated to save you after you die (as long as you’re pretty well-behaved for the rest of your life) and bring you to heaven where you’ll get your own mansion. But this is a pretty challenging vision to defend with the actual words of the Bible and the historic creeds that the Church has confessed for the past couple thousand years.
Jesus doesn’t present a pitch for his abilities to get you set up well after your life ends; instead, he says every single person on earth already is dead, and he comes to give life, not an afterlife. Eternal life is a life lived in the presence of God, and that life starts now, not when you die. Eternal life is a life lived under the conviction that we all as a population and as individuals have fallen short of the goodness we were made for, and praying to receive Jesus as Lord is to admit that we need a Lord—someone who is in charge that is not you.
The eternal state is not eternal retirement with a bottomless bank account, but a life lived in the new city of God, constantly resting in the presence of God, always oriented around God. The hollowness of living forever for yourself does not correctly imply the goodness of non-existence, but rather that we were never made to live for ourselves in the first place! The show actually got this right in some ways: the main characters did better when they were together and started to deteriorate when they were separated. But this was all done for the sake of proving to the system that they were good enough to go to The Good Place, whereas the Christian vision is that all of the earth and the heavens is the good place, but its goodness flows from the God who is Goodness itself, the God who gives of himself to grant us life and breath and everything, the God whose nearness is our only good. He is not a disinterested Judge who finds us irritating and wants us to get out of his hair, but one who didn’t need to create us in the first place but did and is invested in bringing us back home to himself.
The Good Place is an enjoyable show. Its four seasons are interesting and fun to follow along, but at the end it must come to the conclusion that a good place without the God who is Good is a bad place. Existence without the one for whom we exist is worse than non-existence. The good life will not come from finally getting to do all the things we want or having a chance to be who we want to be. It comes from being who we were made to be and then doing what we were made to do. God is the Good Place. only Good Place. Eternity is being with him and oriented toward him.