Warning: there will be spoilers for the entire series in this post. If you are planning on watching it (and you should), you should not read this. Save it and read it later 😉
It Is Over
Over the last few years I have come to love this show. I have loved that it takes ethics seriously, that it takes the afterlife as a concept seriously (though also exploits it for some good comedy), that it takes people’s mistakes and evils seriously. I won’t repeat everything that was said over at The Gospel Coalition a couple of years ago, but suffice it to say, this show is worth watching.
I do however want to highlight two ideas that appeared in the last season. These are the nature of a fundamental dualism, and the nature of a good afterlife.
What I am calling fundamental dualism here is the idea that the fundamental nature of the universe is actually two fundamental forces, one of good and one of evil. In The Good Place, these are the good place architects and the bad place architects. While the show is somewhat inconsistent here (occasionally portraying the bad place architects as actually doing good by torturing evil people, saying “Humans are evil, they deserve it”. The show portrays this attitude as being right, and it is), the general idea is that the good place architects, a handful of humans, and eventually Micheal are forces for good, and the bad place architects are forces for evil.
The problem is that this view is impossible. C.S. Lewis famously criticises this idea, and I want to highlight some problems that exist in the show as a result of holding this impossible idea.
Consider this: True bad place torturers have to be good for justice. It’s unjust when evil people torment evil people because they enjoy it. It is only justice when the evil suffer at the hands of a just judge, who is attempting to do good.
I think the bad place architects are actually better than the good place architects. The good place architects are weak, passive, uncreative cowards. None of that is good! Say what you want about Shawn, but at least he’s actually trying to do things. He has some ambition, and is often intelligent and driven enough to accomplish it. The “good” architects lack this. Shawn has some good in him apparently, the good place architects don’t seem to. If Shawn were truly fully evil, he’d be passive and lazy and incompetent. Instead, passivity and laziness and incompetence are marks of the good place architects. They are not good. They are just a different kind of evil.
It’s not an easy choice between hell and heaven in their world. Sure, butthole spiders and penis flatteners do not sound like fun. But neither does an endless zombie existence where all pleasure turns to ash in my mouth. My intuition is that a Dostoyevsky in the bad place becomes a deeper and more profound soul. Not that his suffering is good, but at least he can keep who he is! Hypatia in the good place loses that, and so did all the others.
Why does this problem exist? Because there’s a fundamental flaw in having equal and opposing good and evil forces. That problem is that a fully and fundamentally evil force has nothing good in it. Nothing good. Including things like cunning, intelligence, ambition, drive, courage, or even existence. Existence itself is a good, and so if there is a fully evil fundamental force, it ends up being self defeating. This force can never be an enemy!
No, the foundation force must be good, because it must be the most existent thing, and existence is good. It must be Existence Itself. It must be God. The Good Place shows us the incoherence of this dualism. Even Satan, the most evil thing, is a good thing twisted to evil, and is not a fundamental being but a derivative being. That’s how it must be.
The dualism in the show is self-awaredly silly, and has to be silly because it is actually incoherent. If it were not presented as silly, and if we thought about the metaphysics presented a bit more carefully, we’d start to see the holes in it.
A Good Afterlife
In the last two episodes, our heroes encounter something horrific: the millennia that the good humans have spent in the good place have ruined them. They’ve become mindless zombies, numb to all pleasure, incapable of all deep thought, robbed of all ambition or drive.
It’s easy to see why this happens. With no struggle and nothing to strive towards, they become lazy and complacent. With every possible desire immediately fulfilled, they’ve lost the ability to even have deep desires!
The solution in the show is to reintroduce death. Death, apparently, gives life meaning. Things only matter if eventually you will permanently stop existing. By creating the door and creating a potential end for each person, they have given back purpose to the people in the good place.
This is the current secular zeitgeist. Paradise is nothing more than wish fulfillment: getting whatever you want as soon as you want it. The ultimate good, according to the modern secular worldview, is having your will fulfilled. Everything comes back to the autonomous human will as the source of everything. Only what you want matters, only what you will for yourself matters for who you ought to be and what you ought to be given.
This is what Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart talks about in his book Atheist Delusions, in the chapter The Age of Freedom:
There is no substantial criterion by which to judge our choices that stands higher than the unquestioned good of free choice itself
The will, we habitually assume, is sovereign to the degree that it is obedient to nothing else and is free to the degree that it is truly spontaneous and constrained by nothing greater than itself. This, for many of us, is the higest good imaginable. And a society guided by such beliefs must, at least implicitly, embrace and subtly advocate a very particular “moral metaphysics”: that is, the nonexistence of any transcendent standard of the good that has the power (or the right) to order our desires toward a higher end.
For us, it is the choice itself, and not what we choose, that is the first good
What Hart has seen is the idolatry of the autonomous will and the free choice above all else. And that is the good place! They just get whatever they want whenever they want it. That’s how the world sees a good afterlife! Eternal wish fulfilment.
The problem is that eternal wish fulfilment, when there is no normative force on what we wish, is not going to actually be eternally fulfilling. Our heroes, after however many thousands of years of the good place, end up running out of things to satisfy their wills. Nothing more to choose. And out of things to choose, they have nothing left to fulfil them, and they leave. And why shouldn’t they? In this universe, they have exhausted all the goods. Finitely many goods for an infinite time do not satisfy, and so they cut their time short.
But in the real world, this is not the case. There is a normative force on the will, and if John Piper and the Christian Hedonists are to be believed (and they are), God’s end goal is for us to desire Him. Those who have attained eternal life by the blood of Christ will not have go-kart racing with monkeys as their highest desire (because how could that ever eternally satisfy?), they will have God as their highest desire. Finite goods couldn’t fulfil our heroes for eternity, but God, the infinite good, could! The Good Place, both the show and the location in the show, are missing God. They are missing the highest good. But heaven without God would not be good, and it would turn us all into lifeless zombies like Hypatia.
The Good Show
I am glad I watched The Good Place. It has prompted these thoughts, and many more. I have thought very deeply while watching it, more than any other Netflix show. I would love to see more like it.