One of my favourite shows has recently ended. The Good Place managed to accomplish what seemed impossible – provide some excellent entertainment through the discussion of fundamental philosophical questions. There are many thought provoking themes worth discussing; but for now I want to focus on one. One of the key Christian doctrines which the show (unintentionally I think) illustrated perfectly is the essential nature of hell (the bad place) as the absence of God.
The show follows Eleanor, Chidi, Jason and Tahani who all died and ended up in the after life in what is called the bad place. However, Michael, a demon, who has convinced his superiors to experiment with a new way of torturing people; deceives Eleanor and the others into thinking they have made it to the good place when it is really the bad place. The way he tortures them is by putting them into situations that exploits their fundamental weaknesses and vices. For example, Chidi one of the main characters, while alive on earth was crippled by indecision and imprudence and so he is constantly placed in situations involving dilemmas and having to make decisions. They eventually figure out that the good place is actually the bad place and that they are being tortured. Long story short the main characters, including Michael the demon, go through moral and character transformation eventually earning a place up in the real good place.
The real good place is a utopia – heaven without God. Everything they want and could possibly desire is at their fingertips. Anything they can conceive of, any goal they can set, and any experience they desire is immediately accessible to them. They have friends and family with whom they have meaningful, rich and loving relationships. They set goals for themselves, learning new things and skills and growing in their capacities. And so it appears that the stage is set for lifelong eternal happiness, fulfilment and joy.
However, the main characters, along with everyone else in the good place, come to find that eternal happiness and joy even in the good place is elusive and eventually nauseating and numbing. And so the solution they come up with to this problem is death. They create a portal which you step through and it painlessly and instantaneously ends your life. And so anyone in the good place whenever they decide living is no longer worthwhile they can choose to end their life. The show paints this as an optimistic and sublime solution to the purpose of human existence; when in truth it is really a philosophy of despair.
All of our actions are ordered and directed towards finding happiness, fulfilment and satisfaction. We differ on what particular thing we think will bring us happiness, however we all agree that it is what we are after. Despair is a condition that arises when we come to the conclusion that the happiness we desire and seek is ultimately unobtainable. And it is a condition that is produced not by the absence of the particular good we thought would bring us happiness and completion; but precisely by us obtaining it. Despair is the result of realising that even though we now possess the object which is the deepest desire of our hearts, happiness has still eluded us.
When we are in despair we have lost hope, because hope still retains the belief that some obtainable future good will bring the fulfilment and satisfaction we long for. Despair is crushed by the disappointment of finding that what we had set our hopes in has failed, and now there is no other object we can possibly conceive of as being capable of bringing us the happiness and joy we still long for. And therefore life is simply without meaning and purpose and continuing to live in such a condition becomes anguish and torment – what the bible calls hell.
This is the general condition of everyone in the good place, a condition they all eventually come to accept and hence choose to end their lives because death is better than living in anguish and despair. And so death provides hope – a negative hope – that it is possible to escape the torment and despair of life.
On the Christian understanding of the after life what makes the good place (heaven) to be truly the good place is because God is present; and what makes the bad place (hell) truly the bad place is because God is absent. Human beings were made to find completion, happiness and joy in friendship and union with God. He is the source of all goodness, and is infinitely and perfectly good. Therefore, all things other than God, finite and created goods, will fall short of filling this God shaped vacuum that is present in the human heart. God has given us finite and created goods as gifts to be rightly enjoyed and loved, however they were never meant to replace him. As finite goods they can never be suitable substitutes for God who is infinitely good.
The highest and greatest good in the good place is always determined and limited by what the human imagination can conceive and it is therefore finite and limited, and therefore will always disappoint as the source of ultimate and everlasting happiness. The end result is always despair.
Augustine eloquently put it this way:
Between temporal and eternal things there is this difference: a temporal thing is loved more before we have it, and it begins to grow worthless when we gain it, for it does not satisfy the soul, whose true and certain rest is eternity; but the eternal is more ardently loved when it is acquired than when it is merely desired.St. Augustine
The greatness, beauty, splendor, magnificence of God is unsearchable and therefore there will never be a point in eternity when we find our friendship with God diminishing in its capacity to fulfill and delight us. What Augustine in his wisdom reveals is the opposite: because God is eternal and infinitely great, our delight and happiness in him will exceed our expectations and our love for him and joy in him will continue to grow for eternity. The good place is truly only the good place because the fount of goodness itself is at the centre of it all, inviting us to come and share and participate in his inexhaustible goodness. Christ’s invitation to us is that “he is the bread of life and he who comes to him will never hunger or thirst”.