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When ‘The Good Place’ Goes Bad

This post was originally published on this site

The Good Place is an intriguing television show. It takes a single-camera sitcom with lovable characters and a healthy dose of positivity, and pairs it with moral philosophy and questions about the afterlife. It’s kind of like if Lost and Parks and Rec had a baby.

In its four seasons, the show—reviewed by TGC in 2018—has proven to be a fascinating window into contemporary ideas about morality, life, death, and the afterlife. By last month’s series finale (spoilers ahead), titled “Whenever You’re Ready,” the whole gang (reformed “dirtbag” Eleanor, neurotic philosophy professor Chidi, socialite Tahani, and Floridian DJ Jason) finally arrive in the actual Good Place. They have helped one another grow morally, saved humanity from extinction, and rewritten the rules of the afterlife. It seems their problems are finally over.

But heaven turns out to be another problem. The actual Good Place, where you essentially have infinite magic wishes, is a disaster. It seems that being able to do whatever you want, for eternity, gets boring pretty fast. With no end in sight, there’s no urgency to live, learn, or love.

It seems that being able to do whatever you want, for eternity, gets boring pretty fast.

A thought from an earlier season—“knowing you’re going to die is what gives life meaning”—provides a solution to this final problem: fix heaven by finding a way for it to end. So they create a door that Good Place residents can walk through when they’ve had enough of heaven and want to cease existing. And knowing that you can eventually stop existing allows you to find meaning in the meantime. In the world of The Good Place, eternal life is a problem, and the solution is to know that one day you can kill yourself.

The final episode, though hailed by many as a perfectly peaceful conclusion, comes off as bleak and depressing. One by one we watch the characters walk through the door and stop existing. It’s like watching a show about someone planning and going through with an assisted suicide, with no acknowledgement of any wreckage left behind.

When Heaven Is A Problem

In The Good Place, heaven is a place where you are in total control. Want to play Madden in an actual NFL stadium with fans cheering you on? Done! Want to learn anything and everything? Start with Nick Offerman teaching you woodworking! Want to go to France? Step right through this magic portal. You name it, you get it. But this feature soon morphs into a bug: can an eternity like this satisfy?

The Good Place realizes that no, it can’t. In fact, this level of self-determination is closer to hell than heaven. You are trapped in a world of every desire at your fingertips, with diminishing returns and therefore nothing to look forward to. Self-determination writ large is a kind of slow torture. And this problem is so big that the only way to make heaven work is to create a way for you to commit eternal suicide. It’s a fascinating realization for a society that often struggles with the idea of hell while embracing the idea of heaven. It seems the buffet spirituality embraced by Western culture doesn’t just have a judgment problem. It also has a joy problem.

The Good Place foregrounds the connection between self-determination and “choose your own adventure” spirituality in contemporary Western culture. It’s the idea that you can pick and choose spiritual bits from a variety of sources and create a bespoke spirituality for yourself that is winsome, caring, and positive. Yet whatever we pick and choose—whether we talk about “the universe” as having a kind of cosmic, impersonal karma or a grandfatherly God who is nothing but proud of you—there is a conspicuous absence of anything ever making demands on us we wouldn’t choose for ourselves. In Tim Keller’s words, the universe never “crosses our will.” It never decides we shouldn’t do something we’d like to do, or that we should do something we’d prefer to avoid. We have a way of getting spiritual and staying in control.

Yet it’s this concept of spirituality that makes the Good Place a problem. If we get everything we want—if we are the biggest thing in our universe—then there’s nothing to capture our attention besides the frivolity of our imaginations. This kind of absolute freedom to choose our destiny is, oddly enough, a kind of slavery. We are chained to ourselves. Eternal entertainment quickly turns sour. Once we’ve finally achieved full control, we are all that’s left.

Ponder that long enough, and you realize why the idea of non-existence might eventually be appealing.

An Infinitely Better-Than-Good Place

The Christian vision of heaven is far different. It’s more tangible than many understand: our ultimate home is not a spiritual realm of halo-topped souls floating in cartoonish clouds. It’s a new earth, freed from groaning, at last expressing the full glory for which it was intended. God is at the center, replacing the sun itself, because his glory shines so brightly (Rev. 21:23).

The Good Place never considers this answer to the problem of heaven: perhaps at the heart of existence is a being so infinitely glorious that we never tire of him. What if heaven is about meeting the source and satisfaction of our deepest longing, not just a better version of what we already know and understand? Perhaps there is more in heaven than can be dreamt by our philosophy.

What if heaven is about meeting the source and satisfaction of our deepest longing, not just a better version of what we already know and understand? Perhaps there is more in heaven than can be dreamt by our philosophy.

We don’t think enough about the infinity of God. He is holy, transcendent, larger than we can conceive. His greatness and goodness is such that a day in his presence is worth a thousand elsewhere (Ps. 84:10). Angels shudder at his size, heavenly beings bow down, multitudes cry out his worth. In the new earth, all this infinity will be near us in love and glory. The Bible paints a picture of a place that isn’t just good, but infinitely glorious.

Of course, this cuts both ways. A God this big will by necessity cross our will. He will have something to say about who we are and how we live. But a God of this size also gives us an eternity that will never leave us desiring non-existence. An infinitely good God, by definition, can never get old. There’s always more to see, experience, appreciate, discover. Because it’s not just us left eternally to ourselves and our desires—what we thought we wanted until we got it. It’s us rescued from ourselves, forgiven and adopted by God through the sacrificial blood of the Son of God.

For the Christian, our Good Place was secured at another place—Golgotha, the place of a skull. Good Friday, not our good behavior, makes the Good Place possible for us—and it also makes it far greater than just “good.” It’s a place, after all, where an infinite God will give us something infinitely better than ourselves: himself.