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.