The Good Place

I have just finished watching the series finale of a wonderful television show called The Good Place, starring Kristen Bell and Ted Danson. It features the fellowship and adventures of a few people who die and end up in hell, but who are told that they are in heaven, the Good Place—all the better to torture them in hell. Eventually they do indeed find their way to the Good Place (i.e. to heaven), but discover that everyone there is bored and secretly miserable. That is because in heaven people can have whatever they desire simply by asking for it, and they find that such an endless succession of pleasures ultimately leads to stagnation and misery. The series should not be viewed as offering a theological statements, but as a satire on contemporary cultural mores (a kind of The Simpsons meets Cheers)—though of course it cannot completely avoid making a statement about ultimate reality. As it turns out, the Buddhists had it right, and final reality consists in returning like a wave to the undifferentiated ocean of being. Whatever. The series invites one to enjoy the ride which traces the moral growth of the central characters, and its somewhat cheeky critique of contemporary culture. I loved it.

The series also leads a Christian to reflect upon the actual nature of the Good Place. As the series has intuited, heavenly bliss cannot consist of getting one’s every desire instantly fulfilled, so that if one wants a Coke one need only say the word and a Coke instantly appears in one’s hand. If one supposes that the foundation upon which heaven is built is the gratification of human desire, then heaven will indeed quickly become indistinguishable from hell. Heaven is not a celestial Disneyland, “the happiest place (not) on earth”, where all the earthly pleasures we desired in this life are finally indulged in the next. God is not a genie of the lamp, granting wishes. Our desires in this life do not constitute the foundation upon which heaven is built but, all too often, the problem which heaven heals. A Buddhist annihilation of human desire (the final solution of the problem offered by The Good Place) is not the answer, because the fact that we have desires is not the problem; our problem is that our desires have become twisted out of shape and need fixing.

We were made to be loved by God. Our eternal happiness—what makes the Good Place good—is that God is there. Heaven is not about us, but about Him. There is a God-shaped void in every heart that can only be filled by God, so that if He does not fill the void within us, we will be eternally empty and ultimately miserable. If we would only wake up, we would know that God is our true love, and finding our true love is eternal fulfilment, a love that always satisfies, but can never be satiated. St. Gregory of Nyssa said as much when he spoke of an eternal progression into joy. The Good Place run by Ted Danson would be of no use to us, because Jesus never made an appearance there. The philosopher Hypatia did (that darling of the anti-Christian secularists), but not the Son of God. We Christians have met Jesus, and we know that heaven is only heaven because He is there. Any lover knows this.

Heaven is not heaven because our ephemeral desires (such as for a Coke) can be instantly fulfilled, but because we will be with the Lord. Any place where Jesus can be found is heaven; any place He from which He is absent is hell. That is why St. Paul once wrote not that his desire was to depart this life and go to heaven, but to depart and be with Christ (Philippians 1:23).

Mere pleasure, the passing gratification of merely earthly desires—cannot ultimately satisfy. That is a truth that many people do not know, and we may be thankful that The Good Place has pointed it out to us. Heaven is not a theme park, where we can ride the roller coaster for free over and over again. That would indeed pale over time. Heaven—and the age to come—is the place where Jesus reigns, and where we can serve Him. It is about basking in the presence of Christ, seeing the face of God, standing in a place where the glory of God rolls over one’s heart and fills it with joy.

It is not (as some as drearily suggested) like standing in a church service forever, for church services are not times of uninterrupted glory and joy. There are flashes of glory, of course, but for most of us they are few and irregular. One should consider church services not so much a foretaste of what will come, as a promise that something better will come. If heaven’s joy may be compared with the excitement of parachuting, church services may be compared being fitted with the parachute. The fitting may have the excitement of anticipation, but the real thrill only comes after we leave the plane. So with church services: we may be blessed with anticipatory flashes of joy at Pascha, but the real joy comes after we leave this earth.

Ultimately heaven is not about finding earthly pleasures such as we might find in a theme park or fine restaurant, but about finding our true selves. We need to be changed on the inside, to become our true selves, so that heaven be will heavenly. As C.S. Lewis (that theologian of joy) once wrote, “Heaven offers nothing that a mercenary soul can desire. It is safe to tell the pure in heart that they shall see God, for only the pure in heart want to”.

If Christ has not begun to change and purify our hearts so that we love God more than we love human pleasure, heaven will contain nothing that could please us. If we have begun to change on the inside so that leave behind our false selves and love God, then heaven will all that we could ever desire. For those who can say, “For me to live is Christ” (Philippians 1:21), heaven will be a weight of glory beyond all comparison, for heaven will be full of Christ. In the words of St. Augustine, when we reach our goal, “We shall rest and we shall see; we shall see and we shall love; we shall love and we shall praise. Behold what will be, in the end, without end! For what is our end, but to reach that Kingdom which has no end?” That sounds like a good place indeed.

15 comments:

  1. My wife and I recently finished watching the show and had wonderful discussions along these lines as well. While I think that the show indeed is a commentary on modern culture, I also think the show’s “final solution” of the need for eventual annihilation reveals how limited the modern mind has become. Most moderns not only live without transcendence, but have lost the ability to even conceive of it.

    The show was unable to imagine a heaven that is not merely an extension of earth (though better in all the ways a 14-year-old would consider better). Every part of the afterlife is merely … earth life, with some twists. You’re correct that this is partly because they want to make commentary about earth life, but it’s also true that modern culture simply cannot imagine anything better than its current project: extend life as long as possible (forever, hopefully); remove all suffering; remove any impediment to pleasure; provide all things necessary to obtain whatever we desire. At least the show was wise enough to observe that this eventually leads to misery. But they never offer any alternative. Once the pleasure runs out, the answer is suddenly death.

    And without God, death would be a natural desire.

    Oh what times we live in.

  2. Very good article, Father Lawrence!
    I find it interesting that the portrayal of “The Good Place” is where desires are granted just by asking. In C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, hell (the Grey Town) not Heaven, is portrayed as the place where desires are granted just by asking, “The trouble is they have no Needs. You get everything you want (not very good quality, of course) by just imagining it” and “You see, it’s easy here. You’ve only got to think a house and there it is.”
    This line from The Great Divorce seems quite relevant to this show as well, again “hell” being the “grey town”, “You mean that the grey town with its continual hope of morning (we must all live by hope, must we not?), with its field for indefinite progress, is, in a sense, Heaven, if only we have eyes to see it? That is a beautiful idea.”
    Yes, I always do associate reading C. S. Lewis and Joy.

  3. Roughly 60 years ago Rod Serling on “The Twilight Zone–A Nice Place to Visit” made roughly the same point in a half-hour that Hell is the place where all of one’s desires are immediately met and that such instant gratification leads to a stultifying life without meaning or purpose. The opening narration over a scene in which a man is killed:

    Portrait of a man at work, the only work he’s ever done, the only work he knows. His name is Henry Francis Valentine, but he calls himself “Rocky”, because that’s the way his life has been – rocky and perilous and uphill at a dead run all the way. He’s tired now, tired of running or wanting, of waiting for the breaks that come to others but never to him, never to Rocky Valentine.
    A scared, angry little man. He thinks it’s all over now but he’s wrong. For Rocky Valentine, it’s just the beginning.

    I saw it the first time in reruns in my late teens, but it is indelibly imprinted in my mind and heart. I can only hope to cleanse all memory of “The Good Place” from my mind before I die.

    Serling crafted a clear, concise morality play with no way to wiggle out at the end in annihilation. It was in back and white TV too. A stark and unforgiving medium. Serling had many such tales, even the worst of them obliterates “The Good Place”.

    Frankly, I found the “The Good Place” boring, repetitive and meaningless mess after the first season. Not worth my time. It was a long winded sermon without any real point and ceased to be funny about half way through the first season. The actors increasingly unattractive and the characters less and less engaging.

    Annihilation is the only outcome modernity recognizes. It is the end game for all the modern ideologies, epistemologies and philosophies. Nietzsche hoped it would culminate in the ascendance of “The Ubermensch” which it is clear in his work is really Satan. “The Good Place” is nothing more than a consumerist repackaging softened for modern consumption.

    I don’t know, but it seems to me we could all be better of contemplating our Lord’s words: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” At hand, not a separate place we “go to” because He is “everywhere present and filling all things.”

    That is not a metaphor.

    God, forgive me a sinner.

    1. Quite right about the Kingdom of God: through baptism we enter the Kingdom now. Heaven (or “departing to be with Christ” as St. Paul says) must wait until our life’s end.

  4. Fr. Farley,

    The Good Place, the depiction of heaven, is taken from the Western imagination of heaven. I’m getting tired of myself noticing all things East/West, but it’s true. The best Protestants will talk like Lewis – and yet even here we have a problem. I’m not acquainted with Catholic writings on heaven so I won’t speculate. You’d probably communicate this better because I try with people and it’s like I fry a few too many brain cells, but happiness is just the security that comes from escaping survival mode living in many, many cases.

    Say you’ve got your hunter gatherer, who is also hunted from time to time by man and beast and weather, and then a surplus of food is won. Fast forward and we’re in civilization which is advanced survival mode living where ideally you’re not worried about food and water and now you’ve got some time for other things. Fast forward and you’re stocking your barns and saying, “what shall I do, I think I need a bigger barn”. Fast forward and you’re finding God in speculation over philosophy. You find this happiness – which is often just advanced survival mode living. The fear of death is gone but death is still real. This is happiness. Happiness is a delusion that because I’ve got no active predators, and I’ve got food and water, etc. – I’m safe.

    This is the same happiness that we experience most of the time. We are selfish and when our selfishness is satiated in whatever ways, we feel happy. Shopping for example gives dopamine hits to the brain. Seeing the connection between the “relief” you feel when you go from feeling that your life is in danger, to the relief you get when you get a significant raise, when the restaurant makes your food really well, when the line empties suddenly and you’re at the front of the line, when every light is green on your way to work, etc. I mean I could write a book tying every passion to the fear of death. Because passions are mostly nothing but fear instead of faith. You fear you’ll never be happy in your marriage, you adulterate and divorce – fear/faith : survival/faith. You fear you’ll never be respected unless you sacrifice your family for your career and you move up the ladder – fear/faith : survival/faith. You fear there’s really nothing to gain by losing your life and you apostatize – fear/faith : survival/faith. But in each case of sin, the “relief” the satisfaction, is the same as when you feel as though you’ve escaped death or escaped a survival situation. And the irony is, you’ve actually done the opposite each time.

    Protestantism’s heaven is built on this principle in many ways of seeking happiness in God versus happiness in stuff/creatures. But the impulse to be selfish comes from our fear of death. Fear of death is transformed into a blessed ignorance of death but all along all our selfishness comes from fear of death. If we never died we would have no reason to be fearful. No wonder we appreciate the Resurrection more than any other Christian group. But if we never died what makes us happy would be totally different – because it would no longer flow from fear. If we knew that we were truly immortal, what makes us “happy”, would no longer have any connection to our own survival – because we are truly past survival – not just deluding ourselves that we can beat death with a full barn. So, moving our selfishness over to God, being selfish in God – many Protestants see this a key component to living the Christian life. The problem is, God will not be your dopamine hit. Now, I know Lewis is not thinking of God like this, it’s much deeper – but in another sense – it is like a prolonged “high” of sorts in God. He is ultimate survival need fulfiller – and this is true – and of course humans are more than in need of survival.

    What’s missing is an Orthodox heaven. We are among the Holy Ones, the Powers, the Seraphim…. We are the Holy Ones in council ruling and reigning with Christ. Those who have been cured from selfishness, the least who are now the first. Those who really believed their hairs were numbered and who feared Him who could destroy both soul and body in hell. Heaven is where we live after being cured from selfishness. God is fully everything to us, and we in communion with the entire body of Christ, rule and reign. So, it just seems, the Protestant view of God as selfishness fulfillment falls short of Orthodox anthropology. And this is because selfishness is natural to their system, where it is not in Orthodoxy – because Ancestral Sin is true – and death sets up this selfishness that needs destroyed. Whereas Original Sin will make selfishness either good or bad – since death is not the enemy so much as depravity. Once depravity is dealt with selfishness remains but can be transformed into selfishness in God, happiness in God. I don’t believe Orthodoxy is compatible with this view because death’s defeat is also the death of selfishness. All of our asceticism is aimed at killing the remaining selfishness in us – because you can give your body to be burned and not have selfless love and it all be for nothing. You can cast out demons in Jesus’ name and go to hell.

    So, Orthodoxy, because we believe that we are elevated beyond selfishness, happiness, and that our destiny is to become “gods by Grace” – has a higher teleology/eschatological view of man – and heaven isn’t wish fulfillment – that as you/the show, pointed out, wouldn’t work anyway. There will be joy in heaven, but it will have no connection to death/survival – because that’s what Jesus defeated for us – he won’t leave remnants of it in us for eternity.

    God bless you,
    Matthew Lyon

    1. Just a brief reply to your thoughtful and long comment. I would distinguish modern evangelical Protestants from older classic Protestants. The latter are far closer to us than the former.

      1. This may be true. I’m not really sure how it would work. I know a Classical Protestant would not think of heaven as wish fulfillment, but in a sense they do – why? Because God is their highest wish. He’s better than an eternal vacation, or He makes the eternal vacation what it is. I admit, that God makes Heaven, Heaven.

        But they omit, that we are meant to become gods, selfless, passionless, as God is. And so, Heaven being the continual presence of God, moving eternally, incrementally, infinitely in the enjoyment of God is very much the same as having wish fulfillment, only it’s wish fulfillment of the best kind. It’s very similar imaginatively to a long high, that keeps increasing eternally – in God. I’m not saying this sounds horrible I just don’t think it’s true anymore.

        The difference is, while there is eternal pleasure at God’s right hand (Psalm 16:11), it is not the sort of pleasure we can associate with escaping death and survival – and my thesis is, not mine really, brighter Orthodox theologians – that much of what we consider to be happiness is just the illusion that we have beat death. This is the root of wish fulfillment and the root of finding ultimate selfish joy in God. Protestants make no distinction between selfish love for God and selfless love in God. God is totally selfish in Protestantism and this is actually good for us because since He always means to glorify Himself we benefit in that we are included in this project. God is fully self-centered yet never egotistical. It would be like saying, “Since God is fully for Himself, who can be against us?” You could easily switch pronouns and it would make no difference theologically. You can be totally self-centered, and as long as your pursuit for happiness is in God, this is very good. You can be a Christian hedonist like John Piper and ultimate selfishness in God is actually what it means to glorify God. And to an extent it makes some sense. But the problem in it, is that many times, what causes us to appreciate and glorify something/someone, is that they provided us a happiness rooted in survival, security, self-preservation. Our happiness is often nothing more than the feeling of security. What happens when we no longer have any need for security as in the New Earth? Will God not transform us into His likeness, which is needless, non-security seeking, selfless? If He does, then what will our joy be? It will not be so much in that God provides this in Heaven as our ultimate joy. It will be a transformation into selflessness where our enjoyment of something will have no connection to it bringing us into a sense of security.

        And this is Life/Way we are called to live in now. We are to see every human in a way in which we do not need them for security, but can love them as Creations of God, made in His Image. We can love without any need for a return. This is what Scripture calls us to repeatedly and repeatedly warns us not to find security in saving our life but by becoming selfless, self-forgetful, and losing our life. This is God-like.

        For example, the Westminster Confession of Faith (by extension the London Baptist 1689 Confession, Lewis, Jonathon Edwards) – all sort of go together I think.

        Q: What is the chief end of man?
        A: To glorify God and enjoy Him forever.

        I’m still working some of this out, but at what point does our enjoyment of God cease from treating God as the ultimate survival Provider, and go to becoming selfless love ourselves, fully satiated in God but also selfless.

        Instead, we are encouraged in this scheme, to be totally selfish in God. If selfishness is really an effect of the fall, of fear of death, how can it be part of the New Earth?

        So, it will also create a different piety. A trying to find ultimate pleasure in God instead of sin. It is all so interconnected with Reformation/Augustinian theology that I’m willing to say that selfishness, which is the root of wish fulfillment, is in the best of Classical Protestantism.

        Thanks,
        Matthew Lyon

        1. Matthew, union with Christ is not happiness. You are correct that happiness is transient and usually contingent on “getting what we want” Union with Christ is joy. What Protestants miss is the need for a life of repentance as a greater union with Jesus Christ allowing joy to replace transient happiness.

          Joy is a fruit of participating in His mercy and can be experienced in the midst of profound existential pain and suffering.

          Jesus call is “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” It is not “Don’t worry, be happy”

          1. I think joy is at least largely an ability to love without there being any need for a return. God’s love is what it is without seeking any return that adds something to Him. Our love is basically needy love. We love but we want a return. It does “add” to us. This is what Jesus warns us of. Even the Gentiles love like this. We are to have feasts with people who can never return the favor. The poor are often our opportunity to love someone with no way of paying us back. I’m saying, that if you really dig down, most of what makes us “happy” is this return and that it is rooted in our mortality – yet, we are all immortal following the Resurrection. A man loves his wife because she is submissive perhaps. This doesn’t mean submission is wrong, it means he loves her selfishly. In one sense this is not love at all. A parent loves their child because they provide them with a sense of worth or because the child loves them. I’ll never forget a smart kid in a Bible college I hired saying that people have children for the same reason people have dogs, they want someone to love them. This is love, but in another sense it is not love at all – and again, this is happiness, but if we were going to have “joy” as a category and “happiness” as a category – and I don’t know if we should – then this would fall under happiness. It seems to me that properly defining Christian love as selfless is what is needed not saying happiness and joy are totally different things. Theirs is worldly love and then there is Christian love. One is based on need fulfillment one is based on knowing all your needs are already met in God no matter what.

            I’ll give a more graphic example. A husband loves his wife because she provides him with conjugal rights. He feels that she loves him because she gives him what he needs. If he doesn’t receive this from her it feels like hatred. But does he really need this? For Paul, no. But because of sin and temptation, we are to mutually submit. Paul is all about selflessness and yet he tells married couples not to deny each other. Why? Because of sin. He’s not saying we should be selfish, he’s saying we should help each other avoid sin because we are not yet whole. Now, this doesn’t mean all relations of this sort have to be fully selfish – but for the couple who sees that this is not actually a “need” but that the pleasure expected, needed, is rooted in survival, and has the capacity to reject the need, you get Orthodox couples who live together the rest of their lives in celibacy. People would think they stopped “loving” each other. This also doesn’t mean intimacy is bad in itself, it just means, some are capable of going above it – and what is more rooted in survival than procreation? Nothing. This is why since sin is selfishness, and since selfishness comes from death, no passion is usually stronger because no other passion gives the illusion of freedom from death stronger than this. Most “hard” drugs mimic the pleasure of intimacy as well, like cocaine. Now apply my same situation to current re-figurations of marriage, and the question should arise but probably won’t, “Do I need a same-sex ______, a whatever __________, to be happy? Well, yes I suppose you do if you are locked in a mindset that to escape death this is the only way that will do it. And even here it fails logically. A person fully convinced that unless ________ is gratified they will be unhappy is the same thing as saying unless _________ is gratified life will be like a death. But the Christian has already died and life we now live….. So, a Christian in union with Christ can transcend death by the Spirit because they are no longer bound to death though it has an operative power within them. They can, by faith, by asceticism, train the body and the mind to fight fear, passions arising from fear of death. The Christian who fights by trying to find more pleasure in God than in _________ , is going to have a hard time! Because, the chemical cocktail you get from feeling good in sin – God mostly never gives this to a person because if He did they would use Him as a drug – and eventually it is likely that despondency will set in as they lack motivation to strive against sin because selfishness is still the principle by which they seek to conquer sin.

            So, how will this color your view of heaven? For Protestants, the best of them, they will want their selfish desire transformed into selfish desire in God. They are still selfish, but God meets their need instead of something morally wrong. It’s not that this is all wrong, but it lacks the realization that ultimately God wants us to be selfless as He is. The prescription for change will be different and will focus on transforming pleasure. The therapy in Orthodoxy will be ascetic because what needs fixed in selfishness in itself. God is still fully our joy, but once we have been redeemed from death, sin, and Satan – we are free from death, so to go on treating God as a survival mechanism, even as highest happiness, is redundant. You’re already alive forever and you will either stand or fall in the Judgment. You as a Christian will either seek to kill the sin inside you through finding happiness in God or you will seek to kill/starve the sin inside you through asceticism – or as so many do, they will make peace with their sin because they save already been saved eternally. So, anytime this topic is addressed, you get Original Sin brought in because they are totally related.

            Father Romanides is in my head I know, but I’ve only read a few of his books, but I can’t argue with them. I’ve been thinking over Ancestral Sin for 3-4 years. But I think having been Reformed, I see it easier than others because soteriology is front and center in Reformed churches, you know where you’re theology comes from. Most Protestants do not know the source of their theology and assume it all comes straight out of an honest reading of Scripture. For example Jonathon Edwards has shaped our view of heaven in America much more than he ever did with hell – but who would ever know that? Just the people who already love him. What average Protestant knows their whole Gospel would fall apart without Original Sin? Only those who already glory in it as part of the overall package of what their gospel is. The others just assume it’s “Bible”. And they make up the majority of Christian imagination which is malformed – and which is why we have shows like the Good Place I assume.

  5. You have a stronger stomach than I. I can’t stand to watch modern TV shows or movies any longer. I find their celebration of degeneracy and the overt propaganda they contain to be too much to handle.

    1. Dear Father

      After reading some of these posts I think people think way too much. Can anyone whose alive tell us anything certain about heaven, hell or whatever (if anything) be in the middle? Christ taught us only what we humans can handle, (which isn’t much in my opinion) and all I can say personally is that I hope to spend eternity with Christ and experience whatever He has in store. In any case I’m enjoying The Good Place , and though it might now be theological, I am appreciating the moral lessons thus so far. (I just finished season 1). Thank you for the post Father.

      1. It’s just whatever you think you will be in Heaven, just like whoever you think you may have been if sin never entered the world – these things often become a guide to how to live – and they sit as a presupposition you never think about but your whole world is built on. If you’re wrong about them, if will have a huge consequence.

        Say Heaven is just the place we all go after we die and that it is basically just very happy. Or heaven is living large with a lot of virgins. You can’t tell me this won’t have a steering effect on your life.

        I muse a lot with caffeine in the morning so I write long responses that probably are a waste of time but they help me express my thinking.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *