Are You Good Enough for the Good Place?

[Spoiler Alert: This article discusses major plot points from the TV Show The Good Place]

Winner of the 2018 TCA Outstanding Achievement in Comedy award, NBC’s The Good Place stars Kristen Bell (of Frozen fame) as Eleanor Shellstrop, a heartless person who couldn’t care less about anyone besides herself. Eleanor earns a living as top-salesperson for a fraudulent pharmaceutical company where she daily takes advantage of elderly people by selling them fake medicine, and even appears to take pleasure in it.

After Eleanor abruptly dies, she wakes up (with no memory of how she died) in the “Good Place.” The Good Place has been constructed by a charismatic immortal being named Michael, played by TV legend Ted Danson. Upon their entrance into the Good Place, new arrivals sit through a brief orientation which features Michael at his best.

Getting to the Good Place
How do people get to the Good Place? Simple: by being very good people. Ultimately, everything that we do on earth, from eating a sandwich to buying a TV has some positive or negative effect on our overall ‘good person’ score. At the end of our lives, the value of our good deeds are measured against our bad deeds and those people with the highest scores get to go to the Good Place. As Michael says to the new arrivals, “You are here because you lived one of the very best lives that could be lived.”

This is an interesting view to be sure, and one that is held by hundreds of thousands of people all over the world. Few people seem to be sure what exactly heaven will be like, but most people seem to be pretty confident that they will get there if they live a good enough life.

Part of the reason for this confusion is that many think of Heaven as an eternal lounge where we will be eating golden apples and partying in mansions—that Heaven is ultimately about us and what we want. Even in Michael’s orientation video to the Good Place, the focus is self-centered. What about all those people who didn’t make it to the Good Place? “Don’t worry about it,” Michael says. Ultimately, this is about you. Michael even tells the new arrivals that they will find their true soulmate in the Good Place, so that they can be perfectly happy forever.

However, it quickly becomes apparent that all is not as it seems in the Good Place. Eleanor realizes that there has been a mistake. She doesn’t actually belong in the Good Place at all. Desperate not to be discovered and sent to the Bad Place, Eleanor begins attending ethics classes taught by her soulmate, Chidi. She does her level best to try to become a better person, but her attempts soon show how difficult being a good person actually is. It seems that even Eleanor’s best deeds are tarnished by bad motivations.

Before long, we find out that Eleanor is not the only one who doesn’t belong in the Good Place; but no mistakes have been made. Eleanor and company are not really in the Good Place at all; rather, they are trapped in the Bad Place and Michael is a villain in disguise. No one, it seems, is good enough for the Good Place.

Reconciled in the New Place
The show offers a fascinating view of Heaven, Hell, and the exploration of what it means to be a good person. But the most important question the show explores is simply this, “can anyone really be good enough for the Good Place?” The simple answer, according to Christianity, is that we cannot.

The Scriptures affirm that our hearts are desperately wicked, and that, left to ourselves, we are hopelessly entangled in our own brokenness and sin (Jeremiah 17:9, John 8:34, Romans 1:28-32). Even our best attempts sometimes take us down roads full of unforeseen consequences and disaster. Often, our bad or misplaced motivations muddle our good deeds.

But as Eleanor finds out, ethics lessons and ‘trying harder’ doesn’t get it done. We need more than a ‘leg up’ or a ‘helping hand.’ What we need is a savior, someone who can take away our sin, transform our lives, and show us how to be who we were made to be. And this is exactly what Jesus offers us.

According to Scripture, our sins have separated us from God and earned us a place apart from him for all eternity (Isaiah 59:2, Romans 6:23)—a place where we will be eternally absorbed with ourselves, stuck in our own rebellious, life-depleting ways. Without the love of God, we would all be lost in this state forever.

However, by living a sinless life, Jesus took the punishment that was ours on himself and made it possible for us to be reconciled to God (Romans 5:10, 2 Corinthians 5:18). Jesus offers us redemption, which frees us from the impossible task of making ourselves good enough for Heaven. But Jesus’ death and resurrection is about more than getting to Heaven. When we trust Christ, we are freed to become who we were made to be and to live the life that God intended.

And who is it that God intends us to be? The book of Titus speaks of the Gospel which “trains us in righteousness” (Titus 2:11-14). Why do we need this training? Because in the biblical narrative, our final end is not just lounging around in paradise. We are co-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17), and we will be rulers and vice-regents with him in the New Heaven and Earth (II Timothy 2:11-12, Revelation 20:4-6). By making us more like himself through his work of sanctification, Christ is preparing us to fill these great roles in eternity.

Ultimately, none of us is good enough for the Good Place. We need Jesus. We need redemption. We need the Gospel; but the Gospel we need doesn’t cut us loose to do what we want after we have “prayed the prayer.” Instead, it turns us loose to be the sort of people that God made us to be—the sort of people you will find in the New Heavens and the New Earth.

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Ben Keiser

Ben Keiser is a writer, teacher, and student of theology, whose chief interests include biblical theology of heaven and earth, C. S. Lewis, and early Christianity in the first three centuries. Ben has a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Liberty University. He resides in Colorado where you can often find him hiking in the mountains.