My wife and I recently finished the 4-season sitcom from NBC called The Good Place. The show’s charm make the fascinating questions about the nature of a person, ethics, and the afterlife all the more winsome to explore. If you haven’t seen it, here’s a quick overview of the show [Spoilers ahead!].
Four strangers wake up in an idyllic little town, and they are told by the welcome committee that it is the afterlife, and that they’ve made it to the “Good Place” (as opposed to some hellish Bad Place). But they come to discover that this Good Place is relatively intolerable mostly due to the fellow residents. The gang finally put their heads together and realize they are in fact in the Bad Place, or at least a weird version of it. The Architect of their little town reveals that they are correct; he is a demon who was charged with concocting an experiment where humans are used to “torture” each other through their friction-inducing personality quirks.
Upon learning this, they embark on a series of break-out attempts, strike deals with angels and demons alike, and risk everything to make it to the real Good Place. Once they overcome the odds and finally arrive, they find that its inhabitants are spaced-out dullards of their former mortal versions of themselves. Not only that, but the gang didn’t “earn” their way to heaven on the show’s wacky point-system whereby if you do enough good deeds and earn points, then you can enter the Good Place upon death, and likewise if you do enough bad deeds and lose points then you dwell in the Bad Place forever.
And now we get to the idea behind the finale. Here’s how the gang attempts to “fix” The Good Place or heaven. Two suggestions:
First, give the inhabitants of The Good Place an ability to “opt-out.” To cease to exist. To choose oblivion over continued time in The Good Place.
Second, give every person an infinite number of chances to get to the Good Place.
Some of my more biblically/theologically conservative readers would have serious concerns with either of these amendments to the typical afterlife story. But, I think The Good Place creators and writers are doing something interesting and really worth thinking about with this story. The show depicts these adjustments as having the desired effect of making the afterlife the best it can possibly be.
Here’s the collection of afterlife ideas that they are trying to fit together:
You can have everlasting life in heaven
You don’t have to stay in heaven forever if you don’t want (you’re not trapped)
Reincarnation - you get multiple (as many as needed) tries to morally refine oneself to the point of being the sort of person that would vibe with the Good Place
Purgatory - the reincarnation cycle does this purging of moral dross over however many iterations
Torturous Dante-Inferno-like hell scenarios are a bit preposterous and no one deserves such a fate
Ultimate contentment is achievable in The Good Place
No matter your religious background, it’s really not a bad list. Of course, reality isn’t such that it will be whatever you or a show-creator imagine it to be. None of this is evidence that this is what the afterlife will be like. But, as long as we are in the area of hope, speculation, and dreaming, this is an interesting set of ideas.
You may have noticed a conspicuous absence on the list.
God is nowhere to be found. Presumably, one of the main features of traditional afterlife portrayals is the presence of God. Now, I think the show trades on the notion that perhaps “God” exists in the way the Buddhist’s and other eastern traditions conceive of it. We are all God in a way. The show depicts the main character, Eleanor, finally choosing to “opt-out”; and when she steps through the archway of no return, she dematerializes into a little light-speck that “travels” down to earth to influence the soul of another extant mortal on their quest for moral betterment. Being itself (God) is an ocean, and Eleanor is but a wave in that ocean, rising up for a moment, and dissipating as it resolves its tidal force.
But, I could easily imagine an alternate version of The Good Place where there is a more traditional infinite being of perfect love, who is clearly separate from human beings. In this world, it is not so obvious that characters would be “opting-out” so often. In relationship with such a God, there would be this deep well of satisfaction, contentment, and joy that would never run dry.
For me, the most puzzling part of the finale and the whole heaven set-up is that characters are choosing to “opt-out” almost immediately after reaching a place of “contentment” or being at peace. They indicate that “they are ready” to enter oblivion, non-existence, crashing their wave back to the ocean. But, if contentment truly was reached, then why not continue existing in that state of mind/being? Aren’t we all striving after contentment? Doing everything we can, either consciously or subconsciously, to steer our ships closer to the shore of happiness. Why in the world, then, once you finally achieve it in The Good Place would you want to choose to cease to exist? If contentment is the highest good, then why not dwell there forever?
Tony and I talk more about what would make the afterlife desirable and other ideas from The Good Place in this week’s episode.
And as always, Stay Curious.