The Insufficient Eternity of the Good Place
Welcome! Everything is fine.
That’s what the wall in front of you says the moment after you die. Or, at least, that’s what The Good Place suggests that the wall in front of you says immediately after the moment of your death.
Appearing on NBC from 2016 to 2020, The Good Place is a fantasy comedy series that traces the journeys of four “Good Place” residents (along with their celestial architect friend and his AI sidekick) as they make their way through the afterlife. The show gained a significant following and garnered much praise for its originality, thoughtfulness, and approach to wrestling with questions about humanity, goodness, eternity, and philosophy. If you’ve not seen the show and intend to, stop reading now because there are (checks notes) an infinity of spoilers below.
Like many people, my wife and I watched The Good Place on Netflix delay as we found the time (you were busy watching the various new Disney+ shows too, admit it). But earlier this year, we completed the journey alongside Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, Jason, Janet, and Michael.
To summarize the plot, the cast spends the first season in the seeming paradise of the Good Place, learning that the four main characters should, in fact, not be in the Good Place. In a shocking twist at the end of the season, they learn that they’re not in the Good Place, but in a version of the corollary “Bad Place” intended to torture them by making them think they’re in the Good Place. (I know, right?) The next couple of seasons involve a series of afterlife hijinks involving attempts to redo the fake Good Place experiment, trips to the “Medium Place”1, Bad Place interruptions, several return trips to earth for various reasons, the introduction of new characters, several challenges to the system, and (finally) a competition to show that the rules governing the afterlife are flawed and in need of remedy.
It’s a winding journey that comes across as convoluted and confusing at times. But it’s a journey that’s both entertaining and thought-provoking. Philosophical lessons and tropes abound throughout the episodes, providing a “I’m learning something here, aren’t I?”-type feel. Nerd that I am, more shows should include quotations from Plato, Aristotle, and Kierkegaard. As consistently (thought-provoking) and excellent as the show was, the final season (and final episode in particular) left much to be desired.
Let me explain.
The Eternity of the Good Place
In the final reason, our afterlife-savvy characters (finally) make it to the (real) Good Place as a reward for showing the flaws in the existing afterlife point system and for instituting a new system for gaining entry to the Good Place.2
After arriving in the Good Place, Eleanor and company learn a startling truth: long-time inhabitants of the Good Place have basically atrophied during their stays—nothing is fun or exciting or really even remotely memorable anymore. They have experienced everything they want to experience long ago and have basically become eternal, smoothie-drinking zombies.
In response to this quandary, the gang suggests a “final” doorway that, once passed through, causes the person to no longer exist. This door comes with safeguard: no one is going to be forced through it, a process is in place for preparing someone to enter nothingness, and the final doorway is not inevitable. Theoretically, someone could simply stay in the Good Place for eternity (or in the parlance of the show, infinite Jeremy Beremies).
In the final episode of The Good Place, most of the gang goes through the door into nothingness.3 Chidi, Jason, and Eleanor eventually decide they have spent enough time in the Good Place and decide to cease existing. For those familiar with eastern philosophy, the eventual pursuit of release into nothingness comes as no major surprise, since the end of existence is a core tenant of Buddhism and certain strands of Hinduism. But for a show largely Western in its philosophical approach and conversations about death and the afterlife, this is something of an odd turn.
Hedonism Is Not Enough
But more than the fact that ceasing to exist is a deeply unsatisfying way to end a story,4 the ending of The Good Place remains entirely insufficient for two reasons. First, because the core purpose of the Good Place superimposes a consumerist, hedonist mindset onto the experience of eternity. Prior to the final episodes, a huge part of the philosophical enterprise of The Good Place involved pushing back against the pervasive consumerism and me-first hedonism that’s characteristic of our culture. Each of the human characters learns to overcome their narcissistic egoism.
First with the OG gang and then (though more briefly) to the second round of characters, the ethical imperatives of The Good Place advanced a program of “others first.” But when true eternity came around, all that seems to have mattered was self-centered fun: go-kart races, trips to famous landmarks, opportunities for self-improvement, and the like. While it’s framed positively, doing whatever you want in the Good Place is only morally acceptable because it is the Good Place. Eternity can be a self-centered free for all!
Scripture reveals relatively little about what eternity is going to actually be like. But one thing that I think we can be relatively certain about is that entertainment for entertainment’s sake is not going to be high on our list of priorities in eternity. That’s not to suggest that the new heavens and new earth will be monotonous and devoid of amusement (Jesus could tell a good joke, after all). But it also does not seem prudent to assume that eternity will be one long vacation where we can just do whatever we want. There’s more to existence than mere enjoyment—especially eternal existence.
Relationships Drive Eternity
The second reason that the end of The Good Place is insufficient is because the concept of eternity at work in the Good Place ignores the relational center of eternity. Presupposed throughout the narrative arc of The Good Place (and at times, outright blatantly stated) is the importance of relationships for cultivating the good life. The gang overcomes all manner of problems because of each other. They gain entrance to the Good Place because of their relational growth. In numerous situations—but especially evident in the seasons-long Eleanor-Chidi dynamic—interpersonal relationships are why existence matters and how people can learn to truly be good human beings. As anyone who has long-term friendships knows, relationships do not necessarily grow stale.5 In healthy relationships, there is never want for another thing to talk about or the boredom that overcomes everyone in the Good Place.
In light of the Christian worldview, the most glaring absence is, of course, the opportunity for a relationship with the One who stands outside of time and human experience. For the Christian, a relationship with God6 stands as the purpose of eternity. The Good Place attempts to avoid religious partisanship, but particularly in the experience of the Good Place, the void of central relationship appears stark.
Relationships—even between a handful of souls—are endlessly dynamic even before you raise the possibility of being able to go and do and experience anything that you could ever possibly imagine. In truth, relationships are the great multiplying force that stave off stagnation and make us better people. That second factor is perhaps the driving force in The Good Place. But then, in real eternity, those relationships are no longer enough? Something just does not add up.
In the End
I get it: it is hard to land the plane, particularly when your show has masterfully woven together conversations about first things with 21st century pop culture. And what eternity looks like—let alone what the experience of eternity entails—is not something that we can really talk about with any degree of certainty. But a heaven only enjoyable for its hedonism and a boring eternity that gives way to a zombie-like existence or nothingness is a disappointing and empty end.
But eternity is not going to be an all-access pass to Disney World. And relationships—which even in our warped earth are complex, multifaceted, and always growing and changing—are not suddenly going to stop being important drivers of purpose. Because of that, positing an insufficient eternity and turning toward Eastern concepts of liberation through nothingness does not a satisfying end make. In fact, an eternity focused on the self, an eternity devoid of the dynamics of relationship, an eternity without a relationship with the Timeless One—this begins to sound not so much like an eternal good place after all.
1 The non-descript sort of place that is in between the Good Place and the Bad Place.
2 The new system boils down to a soft universalism with a reiterative process for learning how to be a truly good person after death, wherein there are some intriguing parallels to purgatory. Also, I should note that fellow CP writer David Justice offers his own take on all this, which you can find here.
3 One friend I spoke to, for instance, understood the door more as a metaphor for death and the journey toward being okay with that. I’m slightly skeptical that that’s the intended message, but if it is, then I’m probably more okay with this ending that I think I am.
4 There’s a reason that Western myths tend to end with, “and they lived happily ever after.”
5 Yes, we all have people with whom we used to be friends but grew apart or had something come between us. But I would argue that this reality is almost certainly an artefact of sinful humanity and our boundaries within time.
6 Be it the beatific vision, theosis, or some other concept.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia.