Struck by Russ Ramsey, Free for CAPC Members
Death’s party-crashing ways are detailed in a new book by Russ Ramsey, titled Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death.
**Spoiler Alert: This article contains spoilers for The Good Place.**
I have always loved the sitcoms of Michael Schur, and The Good Place has been no exception. A wacky yet smart comedy about an afterlife that is divided between the Good Place and the Bad Place—generic equivalents of Heaven and Hell—where people get sent depending on how many “points” they accumulate during their life on earth, The Good Place always somehow managed to toe the line between irreverent and thought-provoking. The premise of the show was so silly that it became a mere backdrop for evaluations of philosophical ideas and dialogues—a fascinating juxtaposition that worked with a cast that gave one hundred percent earnest delivery to the most ridiculous scenarios side-by-side with the most elevated concepts. And as long as The Good Place presented questions for consideration, it more-or-less worked.
The story began when Eleanor (Kristen Bell) arrived in what she thought was the Good Place only to discover she was there by mistake—she really belonged in the Bad Place. Over the course of season 1, Eleanor teamed up with a few more characters who didn’t quite belong—Jason (Manny Jacinto), Tahani (Jameela Jamil), and Chidi (William Jackson Harper)—and together they all had to figure out how to not get caught and how to learn how to live moral lives in the afterlife. When the story turned at the end of season 1, revealing they were all actually in the Bad Place and participants in an elaborate torture scenario, the set-up for season 2 became clear as the demon in charge of their torture, Michael (Ted Danson), geared up for another several rounds of trying to figure out what made his human subjects “tick.”Why doesn’t the Good Place satisfy? It doesn’t satisfy because it’s an eternity of people getting literally anything they want—anything they can ask for or dream of or do—for the rest of all time.
Seasons 1 and 2 were the strongest the show ever was as the four humans navigated ethical dilemmas, as Michael slowly reformed, and before the plot became too convoluted. (D.L. Mayfield wrote on these seasons for Christ and Pop Culture in 2018.) Excellent philosophical questions were raised, and the setting of the afterlife itself was never taken that seriously, reading more as a plot device or an escape room the characters had to figure out how to get out of. But as the story progressed, complications ensued. The setting shifted for a time away from the Bad Place and back to earth, reminding us that this show was not, after all, pure fantasy. We always knew Michael Schur and his team of writers were working with humans who were supposed to be humans in his show about the afterlife, but in going back to earth in season 3, there was a tonal shift—a reminder that no matter how much playing around with fantasy they did in the realm of the story, the philosophy they were examining existed in the real world with real implications, too.
No place is this driven home more than in the final season of The Good Place. Near the end of season 3, our four humans and Michael discovered that there was a problem with the points system. Shockingly, nobody has gotten into the Good Place for 500 years, and it falls to our human heroes and Michael to fix the system, or the Judge (Maya Rudolph) is going to wipe out the entire earth and start all of humanity over again. Taken at face value, this conflict reinforces a running theme of the show: that what we do isn’t enough to save us—we can never do enough to be good enough for “Heaven.” Ignoring the fact that there is no real concept of “salvation” in the world of The Good Place—no source of salvation outside of the self and the self’s works—this is a solid enough theme for the final season of a show examining the afterlife, philosophy, and what it is that we owe to each other while living this life. In fact, this theme gave the writers plenty to work with for the first three seasons, and it had previously left enough unsaid for people to examine on their own. (For example, if what we do isn’t enough, then what do we need?) But going into season 4, the characters end up facing a real problem to fix or all of humanity will be destroyed: if that sort of system is broken, why is it broken? And how do they fix it?
It seemed the main conflict of the final season, and thus finding a solution, would revolve around saving humanity and fixing the point system. But the writers chose to take the season beyond that. Because there is a problem in trying to answer questions like this in a story that has—no matter how silly it has tried to be—set itself literally within the walls of its own premise. Eventually the questions are going to have to be answered. The writers couldn’t say the afterlife is broken and humanity is doomed!… And then not fix it. The moment this became the major conflict of the story, it became a conflict that had to be resolved. By creating a literal afterlife as their setting, they couldn’t wink and nudge and present symbolic scenarios. What Eleanor and Chidi and the rest go through in the finale is intended as definitive answers to all the many questions they raised over the course of four seasons of philosophical examination—and a reminder that Michael Schur, like any other writer, has a definitive worldview.
I was never under any delusion that the writers of The Good Place were going to take a sharp turn into Christian philosophy in the last season, and certainly not in the finale, but I watched with interest to see how they would have their four human characters “fix” the afterlife. What the final several episodes ended up being were an interesting study in a self-proving philosophy of why a man-made eternity doesn’t work.
Eschewing any concept of God, as the show has always done, it’s up to the four humans to fix the problem with the points system. But, as it turns out, the problem goes much deeper than the points system. Because once that problem is fixed and humanity is saved and people are getting into the Good Place again, it just so turns out that the Good Place—which is, remember, a stand-in for Heaven—is just not that good after all. Or perhaps we should say, it’s too good. And here is where the final episodes of the series camps out. Why doesn’t the Good Place satisfy? It doesn’t satisfy because it’s an eternity of people getting literally anything they want—anything they can ask for or dream of or do—for the rest of all time. This endless self-gratification has turned the residents of the Good Place into mushy minded epicureans who have had so much of a good thing they are practically being tortured by it. People in the Good Place, it turns out, have lost all meaning and therefore all reason for existing.
There is something quite fitting to all of this, because this is precisely the sort of Heaven that would exist were humans to actually create Heaven—and it would exactly dissatisfy the way Schur and his writers describe it being unsatisfactory. Imagining an eternity constrained and designed by the limitations of the human mind, and human desires, bound by time and by earthly conceptions, grounded in an unknowable and always changeable morality (which is to say, not grounded at all). That sort of Heaven would be no Heaven at all. Or it might feel like a sort of Heaven at first, but would turn slowly into a Hell.
We do, after all, need something or someone outside ourselves and transcendent to ourselves to define our meaning for us.
But Schur does not assent to this. Instead, in his Godless afterlife, Schur opts to give meaning to it the only way he knows how, which is to say that death gives meaning to life, even in the afterlife. The only way for residents of the Good Place to find meaning in their time there—and to actually be happy in the Good Place—is if they know they can die. And not only if they know they can die, but if they get to choose to die whenever they want.
So this becomes Schur’s grand finale and final answer to his four-season philosophical examination of the question: What do we owe to each other? Death, apparently. When we’re ready—because it should be our decision to make, and it’s what gives all our lives meaning, after all.
I said it earlier, and I’ll say it again: The source of my frustration is not that The Good Place did not present Christian answers to eternal questions. But I think it should be said loud and clear that death is bad. It is not good; it is bad. God hates death, and any worldview that espouses death as a moral good, as something that gives life meaning, or something that should be celebrated, is a bad worldview.
The finale of The Good Place is filled with characters we’ve come to love growing tired of the Good Place, and then throwing parties for themselves so they can walk through a door and cease to exist. Even Michael only finally finds fulfillment once he gets to become human so he can eventually die. Chidi, in his last night with Eleanor, holds her close and says of his upcoming death, “None of this is bad.”
But it is, and we should see it that way. And a vision of the afterlife where our heroic characters are rewarded, ultimately, by “getting” to die is a pale, shallow, and damning meditation on what it means to be human. Death is not a reward.
It is the promise of eternal life in Christ after death that gives life meaning. It is that death has been defeated that we can go through life with any hope at all. It is that death no longer has any sting that we can face it. All points value systems are ultimately insufficient, all human conceptions of a Godless afterlife ultimately bereft of meaning, because without a God covering our sins in all-sufficient grace, there is no amount of merit we can accrue to earn our way into “the Good Place.”
If The Good Place does anything right at all, it demonstrates how feeble all human attempts are at recreating something only God can conceive of, while demonstrating how depraved our sins make us—how infinitely unfit for Heaven by any works of our own. But the answer doesn’t lie in a pale humanistic utopia. That way could only end in death as the ultimate reward. When we are invited in to dwell with God in eternity, it will be more than we could ever ask or imagine—but most importantly, it won’t be about us. God doesn’t demand our death; he demands our life, and that we live with him for eternity. That’s not only a better story than any human can ever invent, but it will be no burden to bear at all.
For as low as $5/month, you’ll get access to free offerings from creators and authors we love, exclusive access to our member’s only forum, and exclusive content and podcasts — and you’ll help ensure that CAPC keeps getting better and better.