Warning: This article contains spoilers of The Good Place finale.
The Good Place should be applauded for executing an amazingly challenging concept: creating a comedy whose narrative arc was driven by moral philosophy, as well as for giving us the single funniest sequence of any comedy in the last decade (assuming you love blood splattering all over people in a Monty Python-esque fashion.) Although nothing quite matched Season One for laughs and the amazing plot twist, I watched much of the next three seasons because I wanted to see where the show would land on the big questions, which I confront and think about—and sometimes preach about—as a Christian pastor:
IN CASE YOU MISSED THE WHOLE THING (SPOILER ALERT)
For the uninitiated, in The Good Place, four deceased humans, Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani and Jason find themselves in a new form of hell (aka, “The Bad Place”) which was built on Sartre’s quote that, “Hell is other people.” Michael, the demon-architect, who was running everything, designed a place where humans' deepest fears and anxieties are multiplied and amplified for all eternity. However, the twist is that the four humans think they’re actually in heaven and are deeply anxious about being found out that they don’t belong because they have not lived virtuous lives. However, over time, they actually start to become better people, ruining The Bad Place’s experiment and converting the demon-architect, Michael, to their side. (After this, Season’s 2 and 3 run through some crazy situations and reversals, but the basic quest is: will the four humans get to the true “good place.”)
THE PHILOSOPHICAL UNDERPINNINGS
The primary argument of the show is Humanistic, and seeks to illustrate that over time, people (and even demons!) can morally improve if exposed to good moral philosophy and to healthy, loving relationships. The secondary argument is that if there is an afterlife, then it should be a combination of pseudo-purgatory (where ALL people have the opportunity to improve until they’re ready for heaven), perfect human pleasure (because it wouldn’t be heaven without that), and Hinduism (so that after you’ve had your fill of heaven and are satisfied, you can quietly exit the universe).
The show’s creator Michael Schur, is indebtedness to both Hinduism and Clemson University philosophy professor, Todd May, for his perspectives. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Schur said:
“There's the thing in Hinduism … You get better and better and reborn and reborn, and eventually you kind of nail it, and when you're reborn you become a god. But the thing is, you're not a god forever. You're a god and you're hanging out with the other gods, but you slowly use up your karma. You burn off those karmic chits that got you there, and when you're out, you start over. That sort of weirdly makes sense to me. The process can't just be that you get to god status and then you're just there forever. That's not a reward; it's a punishment. Being anywhere forever, no matter how great it is, ends up being a punishment. So it made total sense to me that at some point, you'd be like, ‘All right, back in the pool.’"
That perspective, combined with Todd May’s view on death that, "… death is something that on the one hand takes away meaning from us because it cuts us off, but on the other hand it gives us meaning because if we were immortal, life would be shapeless,” does an excellent job at revealing the limits of Humanism (with a wink and a nod to a comedic spirituality where the humans end up being wiser than the deities) in a very mainstream format.
All along the way, The Good Place reinforces the belief that most people really want to be good, but are living in a world that makes being good nearly impossible. However, according to the show, if people were given the right environment and enough opportunities, they—at least millions of them every year—would continually improve until they finally “arrived.” That’s a rather Pollyanna assumption—but one which many, many people in the West share. But the whole construct rests on one enormous omission: God. The closest approximation to God in the show is “The Judge,” who is interested in theoretical fairness regarding the afterlife but displays no love for the human race. But the God I know, the God revealed by the “prophets and apostles,” is not like “The Judge” at all, but of Himself, spoke these words:
“The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6-7)
Without God, the best we can do is craft morality around human happiness and strive to be good people, making the world a good place. Ironically, the best we can do without God is try to get back to Genesis 1:31, “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good…”
Maybe Schur wanted us to believe in the afterlife he proposed—but I doubt it. For as one character put it (paraphrasing), “Not knowing what happens after we die is part of the fun.” Add that to the concept that mortality actually brings meaning to life—and you end up with a very death-embracing outlook. So, net-net, since we’re all going to die, and we don’t know what happens next, let’s love each other, forgive each other and make this place the best place we can make it. Without God, that’s the best we can hope for.
THE GRACE PLACE
But with God, a new element is introduced: grace. Theologically-speaking, The Good Place is a “second-tablet show.” “Second-tablet” refers to the idea that Moses received the 10 Commandments on two tablets of stone. The first tablet commanded us to love God. The second tablet commanded us to love one another.
According to The Good Place, all of our morality can be evaluated based on how well we uphold the second tablet. However, there's two fatal flaws with this assumption.
1. We can’t pick just one tablet. We can’t choose to love God and hate people (“If anyone says, 'I love God,' and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” 1 John 4:20), but we also can’t love people and ignore God (“And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” Hebrews 11:6).
Why? Because God is real, and as the Creator and sustainer of all life, deserves our love and worship. And people, made in God’s image, are intrinsically valuable, were made for one another as well as for God, and therefore also ought to be loved. But love without God is a social construct, and nothing more. And along with love, heaven and eternity also collapse under their own weight once you remove God. They just don’t make sense.
2. The second flaw, though, is that even if we could pick one tablet, we still couldn’t obey it perfectly, no matter how many lifetimes we were given. Obviously, I can live a life without committing adultery—but can I live a life without looking lustfully at one other woman (as Jesus taught)? Sadly, no. Likewise, I can go through life without killing people—but can I go through life without acting out in anger? Again, sadly, no. None of us can actually be good; because in the real moral law, “good” is perfect (“You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:48). Is perfection required for entrance into heaven? Well, not in a fictionalized version of heaven. But in the real heaven—in the glorious realm of the actual Holy, Compassionate, Perfect God—yes, perfection is required. Which is why the real heaven is the grace place, not the good place.
The hope of the gospel of Jesus Christ is that people are saved by grace. We are not saved by becoming better people. We are saved by God who is “compassionate and gracious”—but who also “does not leave evil unpunished.” By believing in not just the teachings of Jesus, but by believing in his “death-as-my-sacrifice,” and in his “resurrection-as-my-new-life,” you are declared perfectly righteous before God—even though you aren’t. You are right, perfect, good, in His eyes, because you are united to the Son of God by faith. How can faith have that much power? Because God has chosen to bless faith. Faith sets us in our proper relationship to God: repentant, humble, trusting, loving and willing to obey.
The Good Place is filled with doors—doors being an ancient symbol for death and transitions. Now hear Jesus in light of that symbolism, “I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture.” (John 10:9)
Which door will you walk through?
Will you be a enslaved to the “second tablet” all your life—endlessly striving for self-improvement, secretly judging people who fail to meet your definition of goodness, agonizing over the awful state of the world and just hoping that some type of heaven awaits you?
Or will you be set free by faith in Jesus?
The promise of Heaven, according to the scriptures, is that those who believe in Jesus will experience the fullness of the glory and presence of God, which is the only thing that is eternally satisfying.
It’s not death that makes life significant, as May asserts, but rather, death makes life urgent. You don’t have unlimited time. You don’t even know how much time you have. Life by faith in Christ opens up eternal vistas that give us patience and power to both enjoy and endure this life—especially when death comes, not as a door we walk through—but as knife that cuts us through.
To the Humanist, death is a bit of a relief—we don’t have to be anywhere forever. But this is because the great pursuit of humanism is the “pursuit of happiness.” I applaud The Good Place for recognizing that our own happiness can never be eternally satisfying. Every party gets old. I only wish they knew that human happiness is most deeply linked to God’s glory—which never gets old.
For the Christian, life is given significance by our relationship with God, knowing that while we are still alive on earth, we can know Him through scripture, commune with him through prayer and worship, and develop deeply meaningful relationships with brothers and sisters in the faith. God’s grace continues to work in the life of the Christian. Empowered by the Holy Spirit indwelling in us, Christians are called to participate in the process of growth and maturity—of becoming more like Christ.
And unlike Schur’s view that the “fun” is in not knowing what comes in the afterlife, for the Christian, the joy is in the assurance of what will come.