WARNING: Spoilers to follow. I did my best to only discuss the overarching narrative without revealing the destinies of individual characters, but the big picture must be discussed.
Most people, if they had really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world.C.S. Lewis
What do you hope will happen to you after you die? There are so many things we might wish for that cannot be fully realized in this life: reunification with family or friends who are no longer with us, release from suffering and pain, restoration of what is damaged and broken, justice for what’s been done wrong, perfect loving relationships… the list could go on forever. Do you believe that there is a Good Place where all these hopes will ultimately be fulfilled?
If you haven’t seen The Good Place, I recommend beginning with the first article I wrote on the show, “Getting Into The Good Place,” which discusses how I fell in love with the brilliant, creative mixture of moral and eschatological philosophy which makes up the heart of the show. And if you’ve ever wondered, “How do I get into Heaven?” or if you’ve ever thought, “I don’t want to end up in Hell!” then that article is a great place to start. After four seasons of afterlife adventures, I felt compelled to write about the show again. For when our beloved band of misfits finally makes it to The Good Place, after lifetimes of longing for Heaven, they find out it’s not perfect. Something’s wrong with The Good Place.
My first reaction was, “Oh no! That can’t be! What could possibly be wrong with The Good Place? It’s supposed to be paradise! It’s supposed to be… well, what is it supposed to be?” My frustration with the idea of a broken Heaven was quickly replaced by my fascination with why it was dysfunctional.
Upon entry into The Good Place, Eleanor, Chidi and the rest of our crew discover that the people there are unsatisfied. The architects of The Good Place have run out of ideas for how to make Heaven fun and people are slowly devolving into a vegetative state, left devoid of real meaning, purpose or fulfillment.
In one sense, the critical failure of The Good Place to truly be Heaven is due to the inability of the characters to find their hope in something eternal, something Real. Their desire for The Good Place is limited to the realization of whatever crazy fantasies they can come up with, like playing the perfect game of Madden football on a big screen TV inside an actual football stadium or being able to travel to anywhere in the world you’d always wanted to go in the blink of an eye. So they live out those dreams, they fulfill their fantasies and then… they’re bored.
C.S. Lewis calls this “The Fool’s Way” of dealing with the problem of desires that have been left unsatisfied, and it’s a problem that many of us have already discovered during our lives here on Earth. Even the very best vacations, the most thrilling experiences, and the most fulfilling relationships still leave us wanting more. In his book, Mere Christianity, Lewis writes that the fool “goes on all his life thinking that if only he tried another woman, or went for a more expensive holiday, or whatever it is, then, this time, he would really catch the mysterious something we’re all after… always thinking that the latest is ‘the Real Thing’ at last, and always disappointed.”
The Good Place imagines that this problem of disappointment continues on even into the afterlife, on to the furthest reaches of the imagination and up to the highest aspirations of our wildest dreams.
So Chidi, the great philosopher, comes up with a solution. He begins with the premise that death is what makes life and all of its pleasures meaningful. We cherish life and love because we know we’re going to lose it one day. He surmises that the way to fix the afterlife, the way to reinvigorate eternity with meaning and purpose, is to give people the option to leave. To fully enjoy it, people need a way of getting out of The Good Place. So, one by one, characters leave through a final door and cease to exist. And when we see these characters that we’ve grown to love, and who have deep love for one another, choose to walk through that final door… it’s heartbreaking.
A dramatic contrast to how my own Christian faith conceives of Heaven, the principles which guide Chidi’s solution align very closely with Buddhist philosophy. The Four Noble Truths dictate that suffering in life is caused by desire for and attachment to things that are inherently transient and impermanent. Those things will always leave you wanting more, so enlightenment is found in detachment from those desires. For C.S. Lewis, the presence of these unfulfillable desires is evidence “that we were made for another world,” one in which experiencing the presence of God, the source of life and joy and every other good gift, would fulfill all of those desires for eternity. God doesn’t need to end us in order to end our suffering, whether from weariness of pleasure, from sickness or from death. But for a Buddhist, liberation is achieved in freedom from existence itself.
The experience of existence, for a Buddhist, is inextricably bound up with suffering. Chidi himself, trying to comfort those who are still clinging “selfishly” to their attachment to others who want to walk through the door, advises, “for spiritual stuff, you gotta turn to the East… Picture a wave. In the ocean. You can see it, measure it, its height, the way the sunlight refracts when it passes through. And it’s there. And you can see it, you know what it is. It’s a wave. And then it crashes on the shore and it’s gone. But the water is still there. The wave was just a different way for the water to be, for a little while. You know that’s one conception of death for a Buddhist: the wave returns to the ocean, where it came from and where it’s supposed to be.”
The characters then experience a moment of peace and insight, reflecting, “Not bad, Buddhists.” It certainly is a beautiful metaphor. But when I think of the water which constitutes those I love most losing its form, no longer holding together as the beautiful waves that I know them to be, each refracting the sunlight differently, taking different shapes and rising to different heights, and I think of them crashing and slipping away into a vast, formless sea, I’m devastated. I would never hold them again? Never get to hear their voices? Never get to laugh together, to sing and to play, to love and to be loved by them? I would lose my own sense of self and identity entirely? That’s not bad. It’s horrifying! But thankfully, it’s also not Heaven.
Try to imagine Heaven. Now, it may be easy for some, as John Lennon claims, to imagine there’s no Heaven. But to imagine what Heaven is really like, on the other hand, is not easy, even if you try. There are so many different cultural and religious conceptions of Heaven that our understanding is quite often a muddled mixture of various philosophies and belief systems. The Good Place presents the afterlife intentionally along such confused lines, borrowing “about 5 percent” from each of the world’s major religions. But even if we stick just within the Christian tradition it’s hard to get a clear picture of what Heaven really looks like. Consider some of the Biblical passages that are used to describe it:
“There he showed me the holy city of Jerusalem coming down from God in heaven…each of the twelve gates was a solid pearl. The streets of the city were made of pure gold, clear as crystal.” – Revelation 21:10, 21
“And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. And they sang a new song, saying: ‘You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.’” – Revelation 5:8-10
For years, I’ve heard other Christians confessing their struggle with the idea of even wanting to go to Heaven. They say things like, “I’m sure it’ll be great, but won’t we get tired of singing all day…forever?” or “I don’t really care about having gold streets or pearly gates, so… it’s hard for me to get excited about going there. I mean, it’s better than the alternative…” For a long time, I hadn’t really thought much about the details, nor did it bother me that much that the Biblical descriptions of heaven seemed a little obscure. I knew and loved Jesus, so when he told me he was “going to prepare a place for me” in his Father’s house (John 14), I just trusted that it would be good. Unimaginably good. And maybe that’s enough for you. But if it isn’t, I’ve also found C.S. Lewis to be tremendously helpful in framing the Biblical language:
“There is no need to be worried by facetious people who try to make the Christian hope of ‘Heaven’ ridiculous by saying they do not want ‘to spend eternity playing harps’. The answer to such people is that if they cannot understand books written for grown-ups, they should not talk about them. All the scriptural imagery (harps, crowns, gold, etc.) is, of course, merely a symbolical attempt to express the inexpressible. Musical instruments are mentioned because for many people (not all) music is the thing known in the present life which most strongly suggests ecstasy and infinity. Crowns are mentioned to suggest the fact that those who are united with God in eternity share his splendor and power and joy. Gold is mentioned to suggest the timelessness of Heaven (gold does not rust) and the preciousness of it. People who take these symbols literally might as well think that when Christ told us to be doves, he meant that we were to lay eggs.”
What’s missing from The Good Place, as well as many Christians’ conceptions of Heaven, turns out to be the most important thing about Heaven. The Bible reveals to us that we get something far more joyful than merely a pain-free, pleasure-saturated existence, far more purposeful than merely singing songs all day or walking through pearl gates on streets of gold, far more fulfilling than merely ceasing to exist. We get God himself. Our Creator, in all of his splendor and goodness and love, wants to be with us. It’s what the story of The Bible is all about. It’s not a tale of delayed gratification of our small-minded dreams of transient, impermanent things. It’s about God rescuing us from the brokenness in this world and in ourselves, and transforming us through his grace into new creations that are united with him. Our hearts long to be with God; his presence is that something more that all the joys and all the sorrows of this world are directing us toward. Revelation 22 paints a beautiful picture of what it will be like when we are finally in the presence of God; the nations will be healed. The curse, which has plagued our world since the first sin marred creation, will be removed. We will see God’s face, and “there will be no more night. [We] will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give [us] light” (22:5).
So we wait in anticipation of what it will be like when God finally makes his kingdom come and his will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven. There will be a resurrection of the dead (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17). There will be a new heaven and a new earth, where God will dwell with his people and there will be no more suffering, crying or pain (Rev. 21:1-4). We may not know exactly what this precious, ecstatic, infinite, joyful union with God is going to look like, but we know one thing. Once we get into The Good Place, we won’t be bored and we certainly aren’t going to want to get out of it.
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