The Good Place: great questions, medium answers

 
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In the opening scene of The Good Place, celestial being Michael (Ted Danson) explains that most world religions and philosophies get their respective understandings of the afterlife only about five per cent right. Only Doug, a 1970s high-schooler, under the influence of magic mushrooms, got anywhere close. Of course, we also discover by the end of the first season of this clever NBC comedy series that —spoiler alert—Michael is a demon and that much of what he’d said to the recently deceased Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) and her friends Tahani (Jameela Jamil), Jason (Manny Jacinto), and Chidi (William Jackson Harper) in the Disney-fied afterlife he’d designed for them were lies intended to torture them in new and creative ways.

Four seasons and 53 episodes later, The Good Place aired its series finale earlier this year, culminating with a redrawing of the pre-existing afterlife system of judging humanity, which placed them in either heaven (“the good place”) or hell (“the bad place”). As a TV series, it did a remarkable job of making entertainment out of ethical discussions, with each of the primary characters bringing their different philosophies and life experiences to wrestling with the complexities their bizarre afterlife revealed. Of course, there were startling plot twists, evolving romances, unexpected cameos, and a few too many jokes about lurid forms of torture and demonic flatulence – as one may expect from a sitcom.

Remarkably—or not—the philosophical sources for the discussions in The Good Placeavoided those of most of the dominant world religions. This is understandable—writing jokes on religious themes is stepping into fraught and contested territory—but is also the largest gap in any serious themes the series might have been seeking to explore. Perhaps this is why the first two-and-three-quarter seasons were more successful in their storytelling. It is much easier to ask questions about moral philosophy, challenge assumptions and mock our common human fallibility. The greater challenge for the series came when the story demanded that the characters begin to discover answers.

But with the The Good Place finale having aired, and the series now complete, it’s interesting to reflect on some of the important things that its characters discovered—and a few of the things they might have missed. Perhaps these are a few insights the show might have benefitted from if the creator Michael Schur (also known for his work on The Office and Parks and Recreation) and his team of writers had considered the insights the Bible offers.

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What The Good Place got right

We don’t know much about the afterlife.

While speculation around the afterlife has occupied a lot of space in Christian tradition, the Bible is surprisingly short on detail, more often describing life after this by what is not there—for example, “no more death or sorrow or crying or pain” (Revelation 21:4)—than the specifics of what will be. Death is a mystery to us and we simply cannot see beyond it, whether for ourselves or those we love. Either we somehow accept the inevitability of our non-existence or we try to have faith that somehow death will be defeated (see 1 Corinthians 15:26). Beyond that, there is so much we don’t know.

What we do isn’t good enough to get us into “the good place”

Seeking to understand the afterlife judicial systems depicted in The Good Place, the four humans discover that no-one has been admitted to “the good place” in more than 500 years. While there have been good people, great leaders and noble humanitarians throughout history, the increasing complexity of modern life and the mixed motivations that we all live with undermine our ostensibly good actions. When we are honest with ourselves, we can recognise that same impure motivation in even the best things we might do. The Bible goes further, reminding us that nothing we do is “good enough” (see Isaiah 64:6) and “none is righteous, no, not one; no-one understands; no-one [truly or purely] seeks for God” (Romans 3:10).

Rejecting “the bad place”

Many of the jokes in the series are uncomfortable, but creative, descriptions of the physical and psychological tortures of “the bad place” and the demonic delight taken in the suffering inflicted. It mocks and undermines the legitimacy of the traditional understanding of hell—and deservedly so. As Chidi states explicitly in one of the final episodes: “Live anything less than the most exemplary life and you are brutally tortured forever, with no recourse—the cruelty of the punishment does not match the cruelty of the life that one has lived.” This is one of the characters’ key arguments for overhauling the afterlife. The teaching of everlasting torture in hell is also illogical, unbiblical and something we need to continue to reject from Christian tradition.

An afterlife perspective offers different values to those we see now

In a way, Jesus told a similar story—a parable—about a rich man and the beggar who lived at his gate (see Luke 16:19–31). After death, the two men were treated in ways that largely reversed the fortunes they had experienced on earth, with the heartless rich man punished and the former beggar comforted. Jesus wasn’t so much depicting the afterlife as urging that we live differently today, caring more for the needs of others and keeping the eternal consequences of our choices and priorities in mind. Similarly, the main story arc of The Good Placeis how each of the central characters became better people through the course of confronting big ethical questions and the lives they had lived previously.

What The Good Place got wrong

Our immediate passing to another conscious existence is not automatic.

Again belying much of Christian tradition—and the entertaining premise of The Good Place—the Bible’s most common description of death is sleep (see Ecclesiastes 9:5; John 11:11–15; 1 Thessalonians 4:13). Those who have died are not being tortured in hell, still trying to get into “the good place”, or trying to solve existential and ethical puzzles. The Bible suggests that they sleep peacefully, awaiting a resurrection that is yet to come.

We can work our way back into “the good place”

The solution offered by the four humans at the end of the final series is “the medium place” in which all but the worst of humanity have the opportunity to take a series of tests and learn to be better people, until they ultimately qualify for “the good place”. In the Bible, eternal life is a gift from God that is offered through responding to the invitation that comes to us in Jesus (see Ephesians 2:4–10). If we choose to follow Jesus, we can begin to live an eternal kind of life now and He will care for our eternal destiny (see John 3:16).

The ultimate “Good Place” is our world re-created and restored—so it isn’t boring

One of the more interesting choices by Mike Schur and the writers was how The Good Place, in its penultimate episode, depicted “the good place” as endless pleasure, which over time becomes meaningless and ultimately tiresome. But the ultimate promise of the Bible is that God will re-create and restore our world, as it was originally created and intended to be (see Revelation 21:1). There are suggestions that the best of human culture will also be restored: “And all the nations will bring their glory and honour into the city” (Revelation 21:26). With all humanity who have chosen to be on the right side of this history, following Jesus and His ways, we will work to build, grow and learn, creating and caring for the good world that God has made and re-made.

God was missing—and God is the point

The Good Place had a number of characters with supernatural roles—architects who built and administered their respective neighbourhoods, ever-present personal assistants such as Janet (D’arcy Carden) who could respond to any request and a judge (Maya Rudolph) who arbitrated the objections of afterlife participants. But in the series’ exploration of the afterlife, God was sorely missing. The grand story of the Bible is the story of how the relationship between God and humanity was broken. It is God who has moved through time and space to seek to restore that relationship, with the ultimate goal of making us and our world anew. And the central reality of the Bible’s depiction of the afterlife is proclaimed with a shout: “God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them” (Revelation 21:3). However little we might know about our future, the Bible assures us that God will be there with us.

The Good Place was a clever and creative way to question and even challenge some of the assumptions of religious and popular traditions about the nature of afterlife and human life, as well as asking what it means to be good and to live well. But it is easier—and more within the reasonable expectations for a TV show—to make jokes and ask questions than it is to find answers and offer hope. Both the questions and the answers matter, because what we believe about our eternal future directs our priorities, choices and values today. The Good Place is a prompt to ask ourselves those questions again—and to look beyond ourselves in search of better answers.

Nathan Brown is book editor for Signs Publishing Company in Warburton, Victoria. Please note that discussion of a media product in Signs of the Times does not imply an endorsement or recommendation. The Good Place is rated M for crude humour and drug use.