Hell is other people. At least that’s what Jean-Paul Sarte argues in the play No Exit and what C. S. Lewis displays in The Great Divorce. Hell consists of people moving further and further away from each other because they can’t get along. (And anyone on social media can get on board with that reasoning.)
The hellishness of other people is also featured on the recent NBC comedy series The Good Place. When I first think of the afterlife, what comes to my mind is not typically a primetime comedy show. But The Good Place is not your typical show.
The series begins with Eleanor Shellstrop waking up from death to find herself in a heaven-like state. She has died, and through an elaborate point system, she’s received more positive points through good deeds than negative points through bad deeds. She has gotten what she deserved. In the cosmic scales of morality, Eleanor has come out on top.
Except, it turns out, she hasn’t. She always suspected that there had been a mistake, and she was right… and wrong. This, indeed, is not the good place, and she, indeed, is being tortured by an evil master architect, Michael. His goal, like Satan, is to deceive: to make the inhabitants of this place think it’s good all the while causing them to unknowingly suffer. (The old ways of eternal torment have gotten stale, apparently.) There’s some mundane suffering like only having frozen yogurt rather than ice cream, but the main means of torture is not your typical fire and brimstone. It’s something more insidious: each other.
A problem keeps occurring in Michael’s scheming. He’s failing at his deception. Rather than torturing residents to further levels of immorality, the group keeps getting better. His experiment keeps getting frustrated because Eleanor keeps discovering the place she resides is pretty crappy—nothing like a good place. So the experiment keeps getting rebooted, and they journey again to discover each other and begin their quest to be good.
With the help of Chidi, the indecisive and inquisitive moral professor, Eleanor attempts to grow from a moral degenerate to be morally virtuous. He covers everything from Aristotle and virtue ethics to Kant to moral relativism. (Complex stuff to be featured on NBC). But there’s one animating question that recurs throughout the show: what do we owe one another?
This question is taken from the work of T. M. Scanlon who, it turns out, was a source to the show’s writers and whose book appears in Season 1. In his philosophy, people create agreed-upon roles and morality is living up to this social contract of created rules. What we owe one another is what we create.
In her previous life, Eleanor used her freedom liberally: working at a corrupt medical sales company defrauding the elderly, breaking promises, supporting a coffee shop owned by a known sexual-harasser. Her philosophy was, “I don’t you owe anything; you don’t know me anything,” and she lived by it.
I’ll call this the American consciousness: freedom from any constraints like pesky obligations. Perhaps we’re not as consistent as Eleanor, but many of us function by a sort of obligation-less dream. I can often think, “What I could do without the obligation to care for my kids or nurture my marriage or have to attend this benign meeting that could be an e-mail.” The dream is to not owe anybody anything—to be perfectly and completely free. Eleanor is a type of exemplar for American individualism.
In 1985, a research group led by Robert Bellah analyzed the American way of life. They found there are two types of Americans: utilitarian individuals and expressive individuals. People either value what works or what feels good. To illustrate, he provides examples of Benjamin Franklin for the first and Walt Whitman for the latter. For Franklin, humankind needed to separate from external authorities and norms. He was one of the first American self-made men. Personal ambition is the guiding ethic for utilitarians: it must be worth it. Rather than the cold, utilitarian ethos, what defines Whitman is “a life rich in experience, open to all kinds of people, luxuriating in the sensual as well as the intellectual, above all a life of strong feeling.” This ethos defined a successful, happy life. What matters is autonomous choice and self-discovery—to be authentic.
In turns out, utilitarianism and expressivism are two sides of the same coin that value freedom. What matters is choice: either if it “works”or gives you some version of the feelies. That choice could be a moral decision, where to go to church, or whether to wear a mask in public. Choice has become ingrained in our collective imagination. Our obligations are merely what will work out for us either pragmatically or emotionally—whichever we prefer.
In our American consciousness, nothing is more egregious than to have our rights infringed. This violation is raging in the culture war: how dare someone tell us or suggest to us a way to live that would violate our freedoms? Everything is about rights, because rights protect our choice, and there is nothing higher than choice. We want freedom from anything that would limit our choices—sexual choices, reproductive choices, fast-food choices, types of soap choices. This gospel of choice does not come free. There are consequences to our cultural values. While freedom was central to our founding, the American experiment worked for so long because there existed the communal mentality of membership. Bellah argues that we’ve lost the memory of neighborhood bondedness—that we owe each other anything at all. In the same way that one can view the consequences of Eleanor’s freedom, so we can see the American experiment quickly deteriorating.In essence, “What are my rights?” is private and individual. “What do we owe one another?” is personal and communal. It’s to shift from “What do I deserve?” to “What is best for us?”
But the question of what we owe one another reappears in season two that re-trains Eleanor’s moral development. Michael, after witnessing Eleanor grow morally in the afterlife, argues for the judge, the all-knowing, rule-enforcer in the Medium Place, to give the humans a second chance. If humans can progress in the afterlife, what would happen if their life could extend? And so the humans return to the land of the living for a second go-around.
Eleanor’s second chance changes her—at least momentarily. Rather than meet death by means of a truck advertising erectile dysfunction, she’s pushed out of the way of incoming traffic. For Eleanor, this new opportunity leads her to a type of gratitude. It makes her question the person she is and has become. She wants to do better. But old habits die hard. In her universe, she’s grateful. But who is she grateful to? She feels obligations but obligations to what? There are no commitments outside of her choice. Her second chance doesn’t have moral imperatives but moral options.
Eleanor’s moral life is short-lived. It turns out being good doesn’t pay off (utilitarian), nor give a lasting “feeling of fulfillment in your soul”—the grossest sentence she has ever heard (expressive). The motivation of choice can only be sustained so long. When she fades from “being horny for the environment or whatever” into disillusionment and apathy, she ends up in a bar alone on her birthday. She’s sunk back into her obligation-less days: alone and as free as she wants to be. Eleanor laments to the bartender (who happens to be Michael, the evil schemer who sneaks his way into the human world to assist) that being good has gotten her nowhere—that it’s not worth it and no one cares. At the end of her drunken confession, she attempts to settle her tab: “What do we owe you?” she asks. To which Michael responds, triggering her memory, “The real question is, “What do we owe to each other?” But the question leads to an explanation of choice: We choose to be good based on bonds with others and on the dignity of others. Who gives dignity? We give it to each other. We owe each other things because we can choose to.
Eleanor, like us, is stuck between rights and obligations. “What do we owe one another?” begins to shift her imagination from selfishness to selflessness. It’s a turn of affection.
It can be difficult to tease out where bondedness ends and rights begin—the place we stop saying “Who is my neighbor?” and enter into “These are my rights!” The question of “Who is my neighbor?” is a question of what is owed, and it’s full of theological and ethical implications. In essence, “What are my rights?” is private and individual. “What do we owe one another?” is personal and communal. It’s to shift from “What do I deserve?” to “What is best for us?”
To be fair, rights aren’t unimportant. The Constitution is an important document. The Apostle Paul appealed to his rights as a Roman citizen when he needed to. At times, rights need to be defended and upheld. Promoting the rights of the disenfranchised and oppressed are worthy causes. But rights are downstream from affection. Once my affections are moved toward charity and justice, then I’m thinking about rights beyond my own. But if rights are central, affections will rarely, if ever, be involved. The question of rights can remain cerebral and legal. In that case, I’m worried about myself and what is owed to me. It’s as if choice (and thus rights) has become so fundamental to our imagination that we’ve separated our Christian consciousness from our American way of life.
When something seeps into our affections, on the other hand, it runs wild like cancer mutating until it overcomes. The question of obligation descends to the heart and the soul and influences our existence. When affection is involved, love is the guiding motive and ethic.
For Eleanor, there are several times in the shows when she’s tempted to revert to her days of life on earth—when she wants to look out for number one and forget her obligations. But her annoying affections get in the way. For example, when she has a way out of the bad place and into the good, she turns back for her friends. She doesn’t think selfishly at this moment, because her affections are bonded to her friendship.
For the Christian, we have underlying motives of care and affection. The question of what is owed is underlaid with theological truths. The question shifts from what is mine to what is the makeup of my neighbor. If she is an image-bearer of God, then she is worthy of dignity and respect—not because I owe it but because she has it. Especially for the most vulnerable, Jesus says that He is them. When it comes to the sickly, the weak, the vulnerable, the oppressed, and the marginalized, it is not a question of where my rights are; it’s a question of where Christ is. And He asks us to see Him in them. Rights exist to protect when the main question—that is, who is my neighbor—fails. If everyone lived as if their neighbor were souls created in God’s image rather than selves to be abstracted and manipulated, the question of rights wouldn’t have to be asked. The neighbor question is a redemptive norm; the rights are needed in a fallen world. But that doesn’t mean we neglect the centrality of the “we.”
There’s one way to analyze The Good Place in a type of Jesus-juke way. (“Heaven and hell are not about a points system. Jesus came to erase the negative points and give you his positive points, both justifying and sanctifying you! You have your sins erased and the imparted righteousness of Christ. You get what Christ deserves, not what you deserve, etc., etc.”) Which is true enough. But as my personal theological education can attest to, goodness played a type of lip service but what mattered most was being right. For my training, it was about theological precision. For Chidi, it was philosophical theory. He knew the ways to be moral but failed to live up to what he knew. The choice to be moral will never make us moral—only the affections can do that. If knowledge sits in the intellect, it doesn’t do much good. Goodness needs to be embodied. For much of American Christianity, maturity consists of theological knowledge. If we have all the theological training in the world, but have not affection, we are like banging cymbals and gain nothing.
What would our Christian witness look like if we changed the reigning paradigm? How could our witness be different if we asked different questions? What if we gave up our rights and freedoms for the sake of others? What would it look like if we asked “What do we owe our vulnerable and elderly neighbors in the midst of COVID?” Or “What do we owe our Black and Brown brothers and sisters in this time of continued racial strife?”—not what are our rights but what do we owe?
Would we be taken advantage of? Maybe. Would we “lose”? Probably. But perhaps in our weakness, Christ would be strong. Perhaps the way of rights is winning the culture war and losing our soul while insisting on neighborliness, bondedness, and moral obligations to one another are the way to culture care. Maybe the way up is the way down, and in the end, this narrow way will make all the difference.
Hell can be other people, sure. But they can also be the saving grace that turns our affection.