Good Place, Bad Directions

NBC’s “The Good Place” An American comedy series featuring Ted Danson (left) and Kristen Bell (right)

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by NBC’s odd duckling of an afterlife sitcom, The Good Place, featuring Kristen Bell as a wayward soul in need of moral rehab, Ted Danson as an angelic supervisor, William Jackson Harper as Bell’s roommate/soulmate/moral guide, and D’Arcy Carden as an angelic robot assistant.

If that sounds like damning with faint praise—yes, that pun was intended—it is, but only because the premise is so unusual: an unlikable woman named Eleanor is somehow mistakenly let into heaven and has to learn how to become enough of a good person to protect her secret and fit in. The Good Place has a fun setting, a host of delightful characters, and seems like a worthy addition to veteran TV writer/producer Michael Schur’s résumé, which includes Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and Master of None.

Without being too didactic or preachy, The Good Place tries its best to engage big questions like, What does it mean to be a good person? How can that be measured? And how can bad people change?

As much as I’ve been entertained, I’ve also found myself a bit troubled. I don’t necessarily expect accurate theology from a sitcom, but what troubles me is the idea, established in the pilot episode, that what qualifies a person’s inclusion into the Good Place is the aggregate moral worth of all his or her deeds, which can be quantified into discrete numerical values. (Sexual harassment? Minus 730 points. Saving a child from drowning? Plus 1,202 points.)

What’s problematic is the trouble that can ensue from acting out the premise that our works justify our salvation. As Eleanor’s moral guide Chidi explains, “If all that matters is the sum total of goodness, then we can justify any number of bad actions.” This utilitarian mindset is especially pernicious when filtered through the lens of us-against-them thinking. If the ends justify the means, then any action to defeat my opponent is justifiable compared to the good that can come out of it.

If the ends justify the means, then any action to defeat my opponent is justifiable compared to the good that can come out of it.

So, someone might decide to vandalize a pickup truck emblazoned with the Confederate flag out of a desire to combat racism, weighing one person’s property damage against the potential for the racial harassment and trauma incurred against many. It’s also how someone could justify voting for an unlikable, unstable presidential candidate in the hope that he would appoint a Supreme Court justice who will eventually vote to overturn Roe v. Wade while overlooking numerous offenses that would have undoubtedly disqualified another candidate.

When Jesus talked about heaven, he conceptualized it less as a physical place than as a manifestation of relationship. I believe in a literal heaven and hell, but I think the physicality of heaven flows out of the relational reality of heaven. In other words, we go to a place to be with God eternally after we’ve practiced a lifetime of being with God on earth. It has precious little to do with what we’ve done for God, and pretty much everything to do with accepting salvation as a gift from God.

Regarding The Good Place, I think it’s got a lot of good food for thought. My hope and prayer is that, like Kristen Bell’s beleaguered Eleanor, we in the church would learn not just to do the right things, but to do them for the right reasons and in the right ways. I pray that when we face moral or ethical quandaries, we will resolve them not through partisan logic or cold pragmatism, but by modeling processes and practices we see in the life of Jesus, following the Holy Spirit’s leading, and trusting the Father for the outcomes.

And I hope that my new body will never become lactose intolerant, because if The Good Place is any indication, heaven will have a lot of frozen yogurt. 

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  1. The late James Torrance used to emphasize the difference between contract and covenant. A contract is conditional, a contract is transactional, and it need not be relational. “If” I do this or that, then God will love me, or like me; this is a contract God. Dr. Torrance would state that instead we have a covenant God. We cannot condition God. We cannot change how much He loves, either more or less. However, although God’s love is unconditional His demands on us are also unconditional. But there is certainly no net sum of good and bad points.

    Regarding the presidential election, for many people the situation was having to decide who was the lesser of two evils. Some saw Trump as a lesser evil and others saw Clinton. At this point perhaps it is how we treat each other – conditionally or “covenantly” – that we should reflect upon.

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