Infinite Human Desire: The Afterlife of The Good Place as Affirmation of Christian Hope
Image: The Good Place promotional material, Fair Use.
Since I’m usually around a year behind popular culture (if not more), I only recently watched the final season of The Good Place. I’ll go ahead and show my hand immediately—I love the show and equally loved the final season. Often described by Marc Evan Jackson—the actor who plays Shawn on the show and the host of The Good Place The Podcast—as the smartest, while simultaneously dumbest, show on television, The Good Place does what few shows can. Alternating between fart jokes and dialogue about Kant, and having one of the main characters succinctly explain the major Western ethical theories while preparing a monstrous batch of “peep chili” (if you haven’t seen the show, you read that right), few other shows have been so dedicated to both sophomoric humor and philosophical dialogue. For me, that alone makes the show worth watching. Yet, in this piece I explore another reason I find this show meaningful—its exploration of desire, death, and finitude. And, ultimately, I suggest that the show presents an apology for a Christian anthropology and perspective on eternity. Said differently, the show can be seen as a rather exhaustive interrogation (and eventual affirmation) of Augustine’s famous phrase regarding our desire for God, “You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”
Here I’ll focus just on the last season of the show. It opens with Team Cockroach—Chidi, a tortured moral philosophy professor; Tahani, a recovering socialite; Jason, a loveable knucklehead; Eleanor, a savvy, reformed narcissist, and Michael, a demon who defected—trying to save humanity by convincing the Judge (the show’s closest equivalent to God) that humans can become good after death. After much toil and an unfortunate incident involving a “horse blob” named Daisy, the Judge is convinced that the current “afterlife system” is broken. However, rather than fixing the system, the Judge decides to eliminate earth and all humanity so the universe can start over—partially so that she can go back to binging TV shows. However, she and Shawn, the demon who previously pretended to be “The Almighty Judge on High of All Beings Living and Dead for All Eternity,” eventually are convinced to institute a new afterlife system that is essentially a purgatory where people have the chance to become better and earn their place in the actual Good Place—the show’s closest equivalent to heaven.
Here’s where things get interesting. Well, more interesting. You see, in episode 9, “The Answer,” we find out that Chidi has suddenly become decisive, based partially on the realization that “There is no answer but Eleanor is the answer.” If the show stopped there it would be in line with previous work done by Michael Schur, the creator of The Good Place. Schur co-created Parks and Recreation, which centered a loving family as what gives purpose to life. The same message is even more explicit in the penultimate episode of The Office—produced by Schur—where Jim sagely tells Dwight, “You just gotta do everything you can to get to the one woman who’s gonna make all this worth it,” and then comforts his wife Pam saying, “Not enough for me? You are everything.” Life might not make sense, but find someone to love and everything will work out.
This account of love falls under what political theologian Vincent Lloyd refers to as secular love, which “is intimacy that embraces difference and fluidity: love of young and old, male and female, and… black and white. It is love that is ultimately about me, about becoming more me, using others on my quest for self.”(1) The problem with this love is that is ambiguous, diffuse, about my individual choice, my individual development, and not about love of God because, to quote Lloyd again, “love of God conforms the self to the image of another,” namely God. (2) Not only does secular love fail to transform the self, it is also powerless to transform the world around us. Secular love is the kind of naive love—what Martin Luther King Jr. called “emotional bosh”—that can help you get through the day, but doesn’t do anything to address the root cause of the problem, namely, our distorted selves and fallen world.
So, how do we know that The Good Place repudiates this secular love? After the new afterlife system has been put in place and Team Cockroach has been granted access to The Good Place they find that things are terribly wrong. Hypatia of Alexandria, who has been in the Good Place for millennia, states, “This place kills fun and passion and excitement and love,” because “you do everything, and then you’re done. But you still have infinity left.” Or, in Schur’s words reflecting on the finale of the show, “It doesn’t matter how great things are, if they go on forever they will get boring.” In the show, then, the Good Place is saved by opening up the possibility of non-being—an archway in the woods known as the Last Door that, once walked through, will end one’s existence in the Good Place and perhaps end existence altogether.
This possibility of non-existence solves the problems named by Hypatia; however, it raises a new question. Is secular love enough? In the final episode of the show we get a definitive answer. First Jason decides to walk through the door. However, his main relationship was with Janet, an “anthropomorphized vessel of knowledge” who has acquired human traits, not a human. So, perhaps that explains his departure. The inadequacy of secular love, though, becomes undeniable when Chidi, one half of the main couple driving the series, feels that he no longer desires existence in the Good Place and walks through the Last Door. Chidi, the man who said “Eleanor is the answer” decides to leave a peaceful, seemingly perfect, eternity with her because he no longer wants to exist. Eleanor follows him through the Last Door shortly after, and in the final shot of the show we see Michael who now has been turned into a human—presumably to one day walk through the Last Door as well.
Though this is all presented rather beautifully in the show, people have noted that it is not exactly the happy ending we have come to expect. For example, an Atlantic article reflecting on the finale was titled “The Good Place Felt Bad in the End,” and a recent Church Life Journal article critiqued the show’s ending for presenting an unsatisfying, consumerist view of heaven. I essentially agree with both of these articles, but wish to interpret the show’s ending in a different light. Whether intentional or not, The Good Place has shown that the best possible version of secular earth, infused with secular love, will fail to satisfy. Platonic and romantic relationships, the ability to enjoy all of history and obtain any and all skills and knowledge—these are ultimately not enough to satisfy human longing.(3) The show can be seen as an elaborate thought experiment, which demonstrates that we would give up the most perfect imaginable secular existence in the hope of something more, in the hope of transcendence.
The final sequence actually speaks to this desire for transcendence. It has been established that even Janet—who possesses all knowledge in the universe—doesn’t know what happens when one walks through the Last Door. However, we do get a brief glimpse of what happens. We follow Eleanor through the door and, while she mostly dissipates, she seems to continue on as a small light that travels to earth and encourages a man to perform a good deed. Though this sequence is intentionally ambiguous, I argue it speaks to a yearning for something more on the part of the creators of the show. This is the one small glimpse of transcendence we get in the whole show, and it seems to speak to our natural human desire for something beyond this world—beyond even an idealized version of this world. It is reminiscent of a favorite C.S. Lewis quote from his essay “The Weight of Glory,”
There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit— immortal horrors or everlasting splendours… Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat—the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.
We are not ordinary, or, to put it differently, every ordinary person is immortal, made in the glorious, sublime image of God, and it is to God that we crave to return. No alternative will do. There is much beauty to be found in this world, but as the Christian tradition and, I argue, the Good Place show us, none of it can satisfy our longing for the infinite, our longing for God.
View Sources (1) Vincent Lloyd, “Post-Racial, Post-Apocalyptic Love: Octavia Butler as Political Theologian,” Political Theology vol. 17, no. 5 (2016): 453. (2) Lloyd, “Post-Racial, Post-Apocalyptic Love,” 453. (3) Some fans of the show may disagree with what I’m saying here and point out that in the show the reason stated for walking through the Last Door is a sense of completion and fulfillment. Yet, I argue that it is clear that those who choose to walk through the door clearly do not feel complete and fulfilled, because they desire something different, something more, and this is why they decide to go through the Last Door. In my interpretation, the Last Door represents desire, not the fulfillment of it, because if all desire was fulfilled prior to walking through the door then there would be no reason to walk through it.
(1) Vincent Lloyd, “Post-Racial, Post-Apocalyptic Love: Octavia Butler as Political Theologian,” Political Theology vol. 17, no. 5 (2016): 453.
(2) Lloyd, “Post-Racial, Post-Apocalyptic Love,” 453.
(3) Some fans of the show may disagree with what I’m saying here and point out that in the show the reason stated for walking through the Last Door is a sense of completion and fulfillment. Yet, I argue that it is clear that those who choose to walk through the door clearly do not feel complete and fulfilled, because they desire something different, something more, and this is why they decide to go through the Last Door. In my interpretation, the Last Door represents desire, not the fulfillment of it, because if all desire was fulfilled prior to walking through the door then there would be no reason to walk through it.