“WELCOME, EVERYTHING IS FINE.”
With these reassuring words, we are ushered into the premise of the television show The Good Place. The main character, Eleanor Shellstrop, is dead. Now, being received in a business office by an executive in a suit, she’s told, “In the afterlife, there’s a Good Place… and there’s a Bad Place. You’re in The Good Place.”
I have to admit that, at first, I was quite skeptical of the show, of whether or not I wanted to commit to what was certain to be a lot of misconceived ideas based on our culture’s myriad of philosophies about what happens after we die. Right up front, the creators of the show make it clear that they are not drawing exclusively from any one religious tradition. Michael, the man who first greets Eleanor in the office and orients her to her “next phase of existence in the universe,” tells us that “every religion guessed about 5%” of the true nature of life after death. In trying to help her wrap her mind around what the afterlife is really like, Michael warns her, “It’s not the heaven-or-hell idea that you were raised on.”
For me, as for many viewers, this raises a number of questions: What does actually happen after we die? Assuming many religions are correct in believing that there is some kind of Good Place to go, who is in charge of deciding who’s in and who’s out? What are The Good Place and The Bad Place really like? And finally, what do I have to do to make sure I end up in the one and not the other?
As part of her ‘Afterlife Orientation,’ Eleanor and the other new residents of The Good Place watch a video that explains to them how they, by being “good” people, earned their spot in The Good Place: “During your time on Earth, every one of your actions had a positive or a negative value, depending on how much good or bad that action put into the universe.” Things like “helping a hermit crab find a new shell” or “ignoring a text message during an in-person conversation” would earn you points, while things like “pulling into the breakdown lane when there’s traffic” or “disturbing coral reef with your flipper” would lose you points – and “only the people with the very highest scores” get to go to The Good Place. We can see, right from the start, that “good” is being defined not only by your choices, but by the effects your choices have on everything and everyone else. Everything you do is weighed in a sort of cosmic utilitarian calculation. And many of us believe, on some level, that this really is the way the universe works. We think of ourselves as pretty decent people, better than some at least. We try to do more good than bad during our lives so that the net effect of our existence on the world around us is a positive one, and we believe that we deserve to be rewarded for our efforts.
A great example of this pervasive way of thinking is the story of the conversation between Jesus and a man who is often referred to as “the rich young ruler” (Matthew 19:16-22; Luke 18:18-23). He asks Jesus, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus replies, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.” He responds that he has religiously observed the core commandments since he was a boy, but Jesus tells him he must go further than that. He must “sell everything [he] has and give to the poor, and [he] will have treasure in heaven.” Now as Christians, if this were the only story we were given about how to live a moral life in order to get into The Good Place, we would likely feel quite hopeless about our chances and, like the rich young ruler, walk away from Jesus in sadness. More than that, some of us would probably feel quite outraged that God’s standards are so impossibly high. How could a loving God look upon this man, who has made every effort to keep God’s commandments throughout his whole life, and tell him it’s not good enough? Or, more broadly speaking, how could the “only One who is good” condemn anybody, regardless of their shortcomings, to a fate of eternal punishment in hell?
In order to fully answer the question of how a loving God can send people to hell, we must first address the cultural assumptions that are present in even asking that question. In The Reason for God, Tim Keller’s brilliant justification of belief in an age of skepticism, he explains that the problem for us is our very understanding of the nature of reality and our role in it:
“In ancient times it was understood that there was a transcendent moral order outside the self, built into the fabric of the universe. If you violated that metaphysical order there were consequences just as severe as if you violated physical reality by placing your hand in a fire. The path of wisdom was to learn to live in conformity with this unyielding reality. That wisdom rested largely in developing qualities of character such as humility, compassion, courage…
Modernity reversed this. Ultimate reality was seen not so much as a supernatural order but as the natural world, and that was malleable. Instead of trying to shape our desires to fit reality, we now seek to control and shape reality to fit our desires.”
This exactly the type of response we see from Eleanor when she is confronted with the reality of her situation. She confides to Chidi, the soul mate whom Michael assigned to her, that “There’s been a big mistake… I’m not supposed to be here.” And it becomes very evident through her subsequent behavior in that first episode as well as through flashbacks we are shown of her life on Earth that she was not and is not a “good” person by any conventional standard of goodness. But even though she recognizes her own inadequacy compared to the others who have been selected for The Good Place, she adamantly maintains that she doesn’t deserve to be thrown into The Bad Place either. Her first response is to blame the standard that she doesn’t measure up to: “this system sucks. What, one in a million gets to live in paradise and everyone else is tortured for eternity? Come on. I mean, I wasn’t freaking Gandhi, but I was okay. I was a medium person. I should get to spend eternity in a medium place! Like Cincinnati. Everyone who wasn’t perfect but wasn’t terrible should get to spend eternity in Cincinnati.” Chidi, on the other hand, does recognize the authority of the nature of ultimate reality (as any good professor of ethics and moral philosophy would), and he responds, “Apparently it doesn’t work that way.”
So do we really deserve to spend eternity in The Bad Place for our mistakes? Keller asserts that we need to understand two things about God in order to accept the nature of our ultimate reality: his justice and his grace.
Let’s first examine the concept of God’s justice: why do we consider a God of judgment to be offensive? To put the conversation in a broader cultural context, Keller sometimes responds to this question by raising another: Why don’t we believe that a God of forgiveness is offensive? If, for all the injustice mankind had suffered – oppression, slavery, murder, betrayal, abuse, racism, genocide, etc. – there is no ultimate justice, would we still adore that God of love? How could we be expected to forgive others seventy times seven times if we knew that God didn’t truly care about our suffering? Would it be fair to all of the afflicted to offer unconditional forgiveness to their oppressors? In fact, what we discover as we reflect on God’s justice, is that he wouldn’t be very loving at all if there was no judgment of evil and wrongdoing.
Becky Pippert, in her book Hope Has Its Reasons, affirms this about God’s judgment:
“Think how we feel when we see someone we love ravaged by unwise actions or relationships. Do we respond with benign tolerance as we might toward strangers? Far from it… Anger isn’t the opposite of love. Hate is, and the final form of hate is indifference… God’s wrath is not a cranky explosion, but his settled opposition to the cancer… which is eating out the insides of the human race he loves with his whole being.”
But surely, some object, even in the face of the worst human evils, people don’t deserve eternal torment. How, in less than 100 years, could you truly merit an endless existence in a lake of fire? Is God not merciful? Keller asserts that this line of questioning “misunderstands the very nature of evil,” which at its heart is our own self-centeredness. Our souls are designed to love God and our fellow man. When we elevate our selfish desires above his will for our lives, we fall apart from the inside out. The biblical imagery of hellfire (Matthew 13:42, 18:8, 25:41; Revelation 21:8), Keller observes, paints a picture for us of disintegration, for fire annihilates all that it consumes. Rather than questioning God’s mercy, Keller inquires: “What if when we die we don’t end, but spiritually our life extends on into eternity? Hell, then, is the trajectory of a soul, living a self-absorbed, self-centered life, going on and on forever.”
Ultimately, God loves us enough to give us the freedom to choose to love and to serve him or to reject him. But that choice carries with it consequences of eternal significance. C.S. Lewis puts it this way:
“Hell begins with a grumbling mood, always complaining, always blaming others… but you are still distinct from it. You may even criticize it in yourself and wish you could stop it. But there may come a day when you can no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood or even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself, going on forever like a machine. It is not a question of God ‘sending us’ to hell. In each of us there is something growing, which will BE hell unless it is nipped in the bud.”
There are only two kinds of people – those who say, ‘Thy will be done’ to God or those to whom God in the end says, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell choose it. Without that self-choice it wouldn’t be Hell.”
So the picture of a plethora of penitent people pleading to be let in to the gates of Heaven while a vengeful God shouts down, “You had your chance!” is extremely misleading. We must apprehend the actual nature of our reality and admit, ‘Apparently it doesn’t work that way.’ But if a God of judgment can also be a God of love, what does that love look like? Does he exclusively reserve his love, his gift of eternal life, only for those who have earned the highest morality scores, for those who are “the cream of the crop,” as The Good Place suggests? Not at all – in fact, this theology of works-based salvation is precisely what the apostle Paul strongly warns the church about in his letter to the Galatians: “You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.” (Gal. 5:4) Paul exhorts them, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). In other words, through grace we are liberated from the impossibly high standard set by God’s law, free from living in terror over all the possible consequences our actions might have, free from slavery to perfect performance according to some cosmic utilitarian calculation. We humbly acknowledge that we will never measure up, but we can rest in the assurance that we don’t have to, because “there is no one righteous, not even one… for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:11, 23-24).
The reason I’m getting into The Good Place is that it does a brilliant job of challenging our assumptions of what it means to live a moral life in a way that is philosophically fascinating and hilarious. However, the reason I’m getting into the “Good Place” has nothing to do with how many points I earn or lose along the way, nothing to do with how much moral philosophy I cram into my brain nor how good I am at effectively putting it into practice. The Scriptures reveal to me that I’m getting in purely on the basis of grace through faith. And that is the foundation for the hope that I have that I’m getting in at all. After all, when I look deep into my heart, I know that I could never be good enough for the “Good Place” on my own.