A Hunger for God in The Good Place
NBC’s critically-acclaimed comedy series, The Good Place, now on its fourth and final season, asks surprisingly serious questions: what does it mean to be a good person? What does it take to become good? The series follows Eleanor Shellstrop who, upon dying, arrives in the Good Place, where those who had lived moral lives spend eternity after their death. However, she quickly realizes she is there by mistake, having lived a selfish life, and problems soon arise in the Good Place. With the help of a moral philosophy professor and several other newfound friends, she endeavors to become a better person to deserve staying in the Good Place. In a surprising twist, it is revealed none of the main characters had earned the right to live in the Good Place. They are, in fact, in the Bad Place, undergoing a new form of psychological torture, unintentionally tormenting one another while under the illusion they live in the Good Place. Yet they have, to the surprise of their tormentor, Michael, become better people and, with his help, try to lead better lives in order to legitimately arrive in the Good Place.
A key theme of the series is that good deeds are done for their own sake without selfish motivations. As the main characters attempt to earn their way to the Good Place, they continually fail to earn more good points. Their good deeds are only performed for their own benefit and do not count as good deeds. They must each truly desire the good and act simply because they want to do the right thing for the benefit of others. Only after realizing they can never earn their way to the Good Place once they know about it, they begin to try to help their family and friends on Earth redirect their lives so they can make their way to the Good Place, even if the main characters no longer have any hope of arriving there themselves.
Christian faith both affirms and confronts the show’s first theme. Christianity agrees that good deeds must be done with a heart that desires what is good. The Ten Commandments list a series of behaviors believers should not engage in such as theft, murder, adultery, lying, idolatry, and more (Exodus 20:1-16). The final commandment, however, emphasizes that not only should individuals not engage in these practices, but are not even to desire them. Not only should a person not steal from a neighbor, but he or she also ought not to even covet after a neighbor’s possession (Exodus 20:17). Jesus emphasizes in the Sermon on the Mount that each command prohibits behaviors and heart attitudes. A person is guilty of murder for even hating another (Matthew 5:21-22). A person is guilty of adultery for even lusting after another person (Matthew 5:28). The Good Place and Scripture agree that being a good person is not simply performing good actions, but requires a heart which desires after what is good.
Where Christian faith parts with The Good Place is in asking whether or not we can truly desire the Good. In the most recent episode at the culmination of season 3, Michael discovers that all human choices have unintended consequences. Simply buying a tomato can support exploited labor and agricultural practices which damage the environment. He concludes that the world is too complicated to be a good person and that the points system is rigged against human beings. His proposed solution is to stop counting unintended consequences against human beings. He asks that the bar be lowered for humans. Jesus, on the other hand, is clear: the only One who is truly Good is God Himself (Luke 18:19). Goodness is nothing less than absolute perfection. The verdict, according to St. Paul, drawing from the Psalms, is “There is no one who is righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10 NRSV). Both agree: it is impossible to be perfect. However, Christian faith refuses to lower the standard. Christianity offers a far different solution, one which is related to the second major theme of The Good Place.
The second central theme of the series is that individuals improve because of the other people in their lives. Throughout the show, the main characters bring out the best in one another and try to change to please one another. Throughout their various attempts to improve themselves, Michael consistently intervenes to keep them separate so they cannot improve. Once he finally turns to their side, he continues to intervene to keep them together, recognizing that they need each other to continue to improve.
God has given the Church to do that very thing: “let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24). The Church is a community of people which helps one another pursue what is Good. However, Christian faith does not stop there and, in so doing, goes far beyond the relationships of The Good Place. It is in this extraordinary relationship that Christianity also finishes its response to the series’s first theme. The Gospel is not that God lowered the stakes or merely left humanity to strive to make small improvements together: it is that God Himself came down, united Himself to humanity by taking on flesh, and, through His Spirit, empowers humans to live in light of His will.
The central relationship of Christianity, the union of Christians to Christ Jesus, is reflected in the sacrament of baptism. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4). By union with Christ’s death and resurrection through baptism, Christians have died to their sinful, selfish desires and have been raised to live in light of the love of God. God does not lower His standards or leave humanity to struggle on its own. Through Him, humanity is united with ultimate Goodness Himself and is given the power to know, desire, love and pursue the Goodness only found in a relationship with Christ Jesus.