Warning: Contains Spoilerish discussion of the finale of the Good Place, and the whole series.
After we finished watching The Good Place, closing the green door on the final chapter of the story of four misfits from earth saving each other, and the entire universe in the process, I turned to my wife and asked ‘if heaven was just me for eternity, how long would it take for you to choose non-existence?’
She didn’t answer.
But that’s one of the profound questions asked in the Good Place’s exploration of the afterlife. What is worth living forever for? Is mastery of every craft imaginable enough to keep you occupied? Once you’ve read all the books, or played the perfect game of Madden — once you’ve achieved your ‘end’ — reached your telos — what can sustain you for an eternity? Is love, even love for a soul mate, enough?
The Good Place has punched above its weight when it comes to tackling philosophical questions — the Trolley Problem episode (which gets a callback in the finale) will no doubt make it into university lecture theatres for a Jeremy Bearimy or two. When we tackled the question of hell as a church about 18 months ago we showed a clip from the Good Place where arch-demon turned arch-itect, Michael, explained the scoring system that secured your place in the afterlife. We thought we were clever when we argued modern life is more complicated than the system allows, and our participation in systems built on sinfulness means we can never hope to escape the consequences of our sin on our own steam — and the Good Place writers obliged by making that season 3’s narrative arc.
Without spoiling season 4, having discovered that the system is fundamentally flawed, so that nobody can earn their way into the Good Place anymore, the team of humans; Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani and Jason, with the supernatural assistance of Michael, and super-computer Janet, have to come up with a better system.
They basically design purgatory, a process of testing and refining that will ultimately let any and every human earn their own salvation; so that people can find their way into the Good Place again. The problem here is that the system is geared against the human, so fixing the system allows humans to extract themselves from its corruption, over time. The darker part of human nature — that we might ourselves be the problem — is not part of the philosophical anthropology — an optimistic humanism — served up by the show.
This is the best and most just system humans can devise, it’s also the most hopeful. Even the demons get on board — they too have been victims of ‘the system’ — and at this point the writers might have been able to pack up having delivered a literal ‘happily ever after’ to every human.
But they don’t. There’s a moment a few episodes from the end where most shows, with happy endings, would finish. Eleanor and Chidi sitting on the couch, looking out over a glorious vista, reflecting on how paradise is having time — an eternity even — with the person you love. But the writers want to press in to just how satisfying (or not) that sort of eternity might be…
And this is where season 4 gets interesting. We get a pretty serious and imaginative attempt to depict the after life; a take on heaven that never tries to take itself too seriously, and ultimately serves as a vehicle for the show’s final philosophical message — life here on earth can be a bit heavenly if we muddle our way through towards self-improvement and more compassionate relationships. It’s life now that has meaning, especially because life and love might (will) one day end. You can have infinite Jeremy Bearimys to work this out, or four seasons of the Good Place.
The Good Place (the place, not the show, or rather, the place as depicted in the show) offers an individual the chance to continue their personal development — the process they’ve used to secure salvation — or simply to enjoy the fruits of their labour. It’s a place of rest, work, and play. There’s continuity with life on earth in a way that is profound and comforting. The old order of things has passed away. Death is dead.
Something about the picture of heaven the show offers up reminds me of C.S Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien without enchantment. It’s not that the hypercoloured reality the Good Place serves up is not imaginative, it’s that in a cosmos where everybody saves themselves and heaven revolves around one’s particular individual desires — even if only the good ones — there’s a hollowness. And it’s this hollowness the show presses into powerfully, without really resolving in a way I found satisfying.
Chidi and Eleanor meet one of Chidi’s philosophical idols, who reveals that an eternity in the Good Place with all good things on tap, a gushing, never-ending stream of goodness has left people incapable of much thought or imagination at all. Heaven has become monotonous. Even the Good Place is broken, and our band of heroes has to fix it.
Their diagnosis is that the joy offered by the Good Place will only truly be joy if it can end. Death is what gives life its purpose and pleasure its meaning. If when you’ve lived a full life you can walk through the door and push out into nothingness. The Good Place ultimately serves up the best end as euthanasia — ‘the good death’ — only not to end one’s suffering, but to finish one’s pursuit of pleasure and desire; to find satisfaction and so stop searching.
If it’s fleeting and to be enjoyed in the face of death. There’s something very much like Ecclesiastes in the mix here; Ecclesiastes without any sense that ‘life under the sun’ might point to some greater reality. A telos beyond the self. And here’s where The Good Place offers a less compelling version of heaven than Lewis, Tolkien, or the Bible.
Lewis wrote stacks on joy, on its fleeting, ephemoral, nature here in this world — though he saw our pleasures now anticipating the pleasures of the new creation, throwing us towards a more substantial reality than the one we enjoy now. He says moments of pleasure we experience now are pointers to something other-worldy, magical, heavenly even… in The Weight of Glory he describes these moments as echoes of a future time and place: “For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” But for Lewis even the fulfilment of these things — the hyper-coloured reality — is not actually what these pleasures point to.
What they point to is God.
God and his glory.
God is missing from the Good Place. And it’s that God is missing, and that the desires of the characters can be fulfilled in the goodness of pleasure as an end, or telos, that makes walking through that final door — euthanasia — seem ‘good’.
Death is not good.
And God is missing from The Good Place.
And I’d say that’s why nobody wants to stick around for eternity (and why I’d be ok with Robyn not wanting to put up with just me forever).
The Good Place is a fairy story without God. And I mean this in a pure sense; it’s a very enjoyable tale, it is mythic and beautiful, and fundamentally human in all the good ways it should be (and what a killer twist at the end of season 1). But it seeks to do what Tolkien says fairy stories should do — offer consolation — by offering a picture of a “good death” when perhaps true consolation can only be found in a truly good life.
Part of the problem is that the Good Place, with its unabashed humanism, has every character acting as the hero in their own story. Everyone who gets to the good place has pulled themselves in by the bootstraps. They’ve worked to save themselves. They’ve achieved. All they have now is the fruit of their hard work; or more work; which is satisfying for a time, but not forever. Even true love for another person can’t, in the honest appraisal of perhaps the smartest TV writers ever, sustain life for eternity.
This left me feeling sad. Not because I didn’t want to say goodbye to Chidi, Eleanor, Tahani, and Jason (oh Jason)… but because I don’t want to say goodbye to those I love at all. What euthanasia attempts to hide now doesn’t look any more compelling to me in hypercolour; death actually is a terrible thing. Existence trumps non-existence. Light offers consolation; darkness doesn’t.
Both Tolkien and Lewis depict heaven — in new, restored, creation terms — as a case of “further up, and further in” — growing deeper in a sense of glory in another, rather than in ourselves. Delighting and knowing more of God and his goodness, not simply the goodness of created stuff.
In Narnia, at the end of The Last Battle, one of the characters (the Unicorn) when discovering the ‘new creation’ — the new Narnia — sees that it is a fuller version of reality anticipated by the goodness, pleasures, and beauty, of the previous one. It’s his Weight of Glory in story form, in this new creation “every rock and flower and blade of grass looked as if it meant more.” and the unicorn, upon arriving, shouts:
“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that is sometimes looked a little like this… Come further up, come further in!”
Tolkien’s Leaf By Niggle is a beautiful picture of the afterlife that was, in some ways, echoed in some of the more satisfying depictions of heaven offered in The Good Place. It has Niggle, an artist, enjoying the coming to life of the beautiful works of art he created — true art, that reflected the creativity of the creator of beauty — and pressing ‘further up, and further in’ to that beauty, taking all the time in the world to come to terms with the goodness of a new, restored, reality.
“He was going to learn about sheep, and the high pasturages, and look at a wider sky, and walk ever further and further towards the Mountains, always uphill. Beyond that I cannot guess what became of him. Even little Niggle in his old home could glimpse the Mountains far away, and they got into the borders of his picture; but what they are really like, and what lies beyond them, only those can say who have climbed them.”
This little short story from Tolkien, and Lewis’ ending of Narnia, throw us towards the source of actual satisfaction — or at least show us that consolation is found not by completion, but by pushing deeper into love and goodness. They suggest such a ‘push’ works better, eternally, when you are pushing towards something, or someone, infinite.
The Good(er) Place — one that offers actual consolation — is the place where God is.
This might seem like pious waffle and a way to overthink a TV comedy — but the hollowness of the vision of the afterlife offered by The Good Place is not just because euthanasia seems like a terrible consolation; an eternity of pleasure in beautiful ‘things on tap’ rather than joy in the one who made beauty is also not consoling. Where The Good Place doesn’t achieve the emotional highs of the ending of Narnia, or The Lord of the Rings, or other fairy stories is in offering the best imaginable ‘euthanasia’ — a good death — while offering none of what Tolkien calls a ‘eucatastrophe’ — a ‘good catastrophe’ — an interruption of the natural ordering of things that thrusts us towards our telos, particularly the goodness and fullness of God.
The Good Place is ultimately a tragedy, not a comedy (or fairy tale) because death is not defeated but embraced. Comedies and fairy tales have, by not simply ‘satisfying’ endings where our desires are met, but happy endings where they are exceeded. They have a eucatastrophe that brings a sudden joy, a taste of consoling truth, to the audience.
The Good Place doesn’t console, or bring joy, in Tolkien’s terms, because its good place is not true. Tolkien says:
“The peculiar quality of the ”joy” in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a “consolation” for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, “Is it true?”
For Tolkien the goodness of the Bible’s story — the story it tells about the afterlife — is that we are not the hero, and that the change brought by the hero is not simply time enjoying the fruits of our own victory, but that we are raised from the dead. ‘True’ consolation looks forward to the renewal of all things, secured by God’s ‘eucatastrophic’ interruption of history in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Who’d want heaven without the God who renews all things? Without Jesus?
Because The Good Place has each person in heaven there as a result of their own efforts, there is no ‘telos’ beyond the self, and one’s improvement, but also nobody to glory in or love; no experience of grace; no desire to ‘push further up, and further in’ into the knowledge of the author of beauty; the true consoler. Where the throne in heaven in the Bible’s story is occupied, and the centre of the action, in The Good Place, everyone gets a throne, everyone rules their own little kingdom, and nobody wants to stay. The Good(er) place offers something more satisfying than the green door on the good place, it offers us a throne, and one on it, and invites us to push ‘further up and further in’ to knowing and glorying in the infinitely good and loving one on the throne whose glory will take an eternity to wrap ourselves up in.
Here’s how the Bible describes the Good(er) Place… with God at the centre.
“Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!””
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.
— Revelation 21:3-5, 22:1-5
In the real good place, nobody will want to leave.