‘The Good Place’ and the Quest for Satisfaction
The hit TV show, “The Good Place,” has recently ended, and I have been reflecting on its message and legacy. Many Christians started the show, but upon seeing that the system used to get to “The Good Place” was not the Christian view of salvation, decided not to watch. However, upon watching all four seasons of the show, I have been completely stunned at how in pursuit of scrutinizing the idea of eternal reward based on our actions, it has clarified ever more that the Gospel is the only true way.
(Note: this article will contain spoilers, so if you would like to watch the show and be surprised it may not be the article for you. Go watch it, then come back and read this).
The Good Place begins with Eleanor Shellstrop dying and getting to “The Good Place” only to realize she was put there by mistake. She then confides in her soulmate, a moral philosophy professor named Chidi, who takes on the moral dilemma of either helping Eleanor or coming clean about the mistake. At the end of Season 1, Eleanor makes a shocking realization: “The Good Place” is actually the Bad Place. She discovers that everything that has happened has taken place in order to slowly torture four humans: herself, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason (or rather, to have them torture each other). After this realization, we as the audience embark on a journey to The Real Good Place with these characters, a journey that is filled with glimmers of biblical truth if we look for them.
Doug Forsythe and the Weight of Legalism
The four end up teaming up with Michael, a demon turned good, to find a way to the actual Good Place, and so the journey begins. One stop they make is with a man named Doug Forsythe, who is a sort of afterlife legend. One day in his life on earth, he happened to guess how the entire point system works (that each action has a number of positive or negative point value attached to it, and you need a certain number of points to make it to the Good Place). They visit Doug’s house in order to find the ideal way to live a moral life on earth, but they find him utterly consumed with every action. There is no joy, only duty. He drinks his own urine so as to not waste water (remember, this is a sitcom). He does whatever people ask him to do if they say it will make them happy. Then we see him step on a snail and grieve the loss of a few points. He makes one tiny mistake and crumbles under the weight of his failure.
Here’s the craziest part about their time with Doug: later in the show, after seeing how much he tries to earn points, they are able to look at his point file and see that he was never even close to having enough points to get into The Good Place. In fact, no one has made it into the Good Place in over 500 years. All of Doug’s work has been for nothing.
Doug Forsythe, for us, is a picture of legalism. I see so much of myself in Doug. I am so quick to scrutinize every action and beat myself up over mistakes. But it is not so with Christ. If we are in Christ, we have been justified. We are made righteous in the sight of God. Because of this, we can do good out of gratitude and delight in God’s commands. John Newton beautifully writes,
Our pleasure and our duty, though opposite before, since we have seen his beauty, have joined to part no more.
Because our status is secure, we can delight to serve God and be obedient. We do not have to scrutinize every action and crumble under the weight of our failure. We do not have to, because Jesus was crumbled for our failure. We are free from it. What a sweet gift!
We also learn from Doug Forsythe that as hard as we try, on our own we are not enough. We can never earn Heaven for ourselves. We are never so good that we are beyond the need of God’s grace. Isaiah says,
All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.
Every attempt at righteousness is still soaked in sinful motivations. Nothing we can do will ever be enough. Thanks be to Christ for being enough for us so we can live forever with Him if we put our trust in Him!
The Judge Comes Down
However, let’s return to the story. Upon this realization about Doug, the group appeals to the judge, claiming that the system is broken and that no one can ever be good enough to earn eternal reward. She disregards this at first, but the group convinces her that she doesn’t understand how difficult Earth is. She agrees to go down to Earth and experience life so that she can better understand those whom she is judging. While this is obviously not a perfect analogy of Jesus coming to Earth, its bears fascinating similarities. What an interesting fix to a problem by non-Christian creators of the show! They needed a judge who understood what Earth was like.
Christian, that is already ours. The God of the universe experienced what it is like to live on this Earth. We serve a God who understands hunger, thirst, exhaustion, sadness, and so much more. As the writer of Hebrews says,
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we were, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
We were made for a God who knows what it is to be human. This desire is innate within us. That much is clear in the creation of this show. And wonder of wonders, this comfort of having a God who became man is ours.
The Real Good Place and the Insufficiency of Hedonism
After a very long and complicated journey, they finally get to the real Good Place. Michael, Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, Jason, and Janet are all so excited. However, things quickly take a turn for the worse (again). All the beings that work there coerce Michael into running The Good Place and they quickly flee the scene. To the audience this is quite confusing. Why would you want to leave the Good Place? Amidst the confusion, someone who has been in The Good Place for a very long time pulls the group aside and begs them for help. She explains that the Good Place is fun for awhile, but once you have done everything you want, you are trapped. Life gets boring and your brain turns into mush.
This shocks the group, but then they come to a shocking conclusion on how to fix it. They make a way for you to leave. They reason that the only way for meaning to continue in The Good Place is to make a way to leave. That mortality, the ability for things to end, is the only way meaning can be restored. That is how the show ends: the characters leaving the real Good Place and not knowing where they are going, but knowing it will be peaceful.
I sat with this ending for awhile, and it hit me. The real Good Place just shows us that hedonism fails. That if you pursue your own desires and are unhindered in that pursuit, it won’t satisfy. The Real Good Place seems closer to Hell than anything else. They are left to just pursue pleasure at all costs only to realize again and again that it doesn’t satisfy, and they are left with nothing but boredom and misery. They seem to say with Marie Antionette on her deathbed that she has had it all and “nothing tastes.” Left to our own desires and pursuits, we will always be left unsatisfied.
Christian, Heaven is not so. In Heaven we are not left to go and find the thing that fulfills the void in our hearts. We will be with God, and we will be free of sin. We will be full and we will overflow. I have sometimes heard people say that Heaven does not sound great because we will be serving someone else, not ourselves. But here’s the thing: serving ourselves doesn’t satisfy. No matter how long you have to follow your own desires, you will never be full. In Heaven, we will always be looking to Him. And we will be operating from a place of unimaginable fullness. And deep pleasure will be found.
Watch The Good Place, and Look to Christ for Satisfaction
In an interview with Michael Schur, the creator of the show, he says,
The second you conceive of any system of what happens after you die, you then realize, oh, there’s a million flaws with this. The history of philosophy is people saying, “Hey, you know how we believe this? Well guess what, this sucks — we’ve got to revise it.” This show is no different. We were constantly proposing theories and then realizing how flawed they were.
The Good Place is a fascinating show full of attempts to figure out how the afterlife should work, and you end up left more convinced that the biblical view of eternity is the only way. Go watch “The Good Place” if you want to watch the journey of trying to figure out what worldview doesn’t fail. As I watched it, “The Good Place” became its own apologetic for me. I watched the characters try something new and I watched them realize it’s shortcomings. I wanted to grab their shoulders and say, “Oh you are so close. Yes, you do need a judge to come down. And He has! Yes, nothing we do will ever be good enough to earn us eternal bliss. And we do not have to earn it ourselves! Yes, left to our own desires we will never be full. But there is one who fills us up with Himself and aligns our desires with His. This is true freedom and true pleasure.”
The Psalms say:
As the deer pants for flowing streams,
So pants my soul for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
For the living God.
Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love
For his wondrous works to the children of man!
For he satisfies the longing soul,
And the hungry soul he fills with good things.
Jesus is the only one who can ever fill the God-shaped hole in our hearts. Nothing else will ever be able to fill it. He is the only one who can satisfy. Look to Christ for freedom, He gives it abundantly. Look to Christ for understanding. He understands you because He came down. Jesus entered into the mess so He could one day make everything new. Look to Christ for satisfaction. He is the only one who can ever fill us, and He loves to do so.