The Problem with Heaven
Just how good can that place be?
Requisite spoiler alert: if you haven't watched the ultimate (a word I rarely use, but it definitely applies here) sitcom The Good Place, but intend to (and why wouldn't you? It's ultimate!), and would rather not have any of its many wonderful twists and insights revealed prior to watching it, stop reading now, and come back once you're through it. Skipping commercials, it'll take you a little over eighteen hours. I believe that's time well spent. To make sure you don't accidentally glimpse a spoiler, I'll spend the next few paragraphs not writing explicitly about The Good Place.
As a young child, I had a shaky belief in Heaven as an afterlife in the clouds. Good people went there after they died. I didn't outfit this special place with any architecture or landscaping. I just imagined it was nice and restful. I liked to think of the grandparents I never met being up there, smiling down at me.
As I grew into adolescence, I found myself plagued with doubts about this comforting view of the afterlife. I also began wrestling with my faith in God and Jesus as all-powerful, all-loving deities who supervised and occasionally intervened in the affairs of the material universe. I found myself uneasy with the afterlife counterweight of hell, and had a hard time reconciling it with the loving God I'd been taught about in Sunday School and my father's sermons. Dad's approach to dogma, on those few occasions when we discussed it, was classically liberal: read about it, think about it, and keep asking questions until you come to your own understanding--and then keep repeating that process as long as you live.
Dad never stopped questing, reading scholarly books, inviting door-knocking evangelists into the house, befriending religious leaders of every persuasion. I know he had lively conversations with several of my romantic partners over the years, inquiring about their beliefs. I modeled my own faith journey on his--though I believe I tended more toward doubt than faith. I wanted to believe, but somehow, I always wound up questioning.
My quest for belief took me to pop theology. Sometimes it was in the form of novels that depicted the afterlife or that other Christian dogma that is so closely related to it, the apocalypse. I remember one novel that took all the End Times gobbledygook literally, projected it into the late twentieth century, then footnoted every single Biblical reference. As literature, it reeked, but one had to admire the hard work that must have gone into building a narrative structure out of harmonizing hundreds of unrelated verses. I also read the original Life After Life, the book that birthed the cliche of walking into the Light. The Force of Star Wars treated one of my favorite movies as an allegory for Christian dogmatics. And, of course, there was that seminar on C.S. Lewis I took during my sophomore year at Willamette.
That course--during which I read somewhere between twenty and thirty of Lewis's novels and theological works--gave a face to my developing spiritual identity. One of Lewis's archetypes is the righteous agnostic, the thinker who just can't make the leap to faith, but perseveres in being a good person, all the same. I identified strongly with these characters because, as much as I wanted to believe, to be able to rest in the assurance of an afterlife gifted to me by a loving God, I just couldn't embrace it.
My quest took me to seminary, which, rather than easing my restlessness, blew away the last remnants of my childish notions of heaven. First came the Biblical studies, during which I learned that there were hardly any references to an afterlife in the entire canon, and those that were there were clearly intended as parables rather than descriptions of what could actually be expected. Then came systematic theology, presented in blisteringly intellectual mile-a-minute lectures by process theologian Schubert Ogden. He had no patience for sentiment, fuzzy thinking, appeals to authority, or any of the other crutches grass roots Christians and their enabling pastors use to bolster their belief in pearly-gates cloud-dwelling winged angelic ghosts. Grounding his analysis solidly in both scripture and an exhaustive reading of two millennia of religious philosophy, Ogden told us confidently that he could make no faith claims to an afterlife beyond the hope that human identity is absorbed into the essence of the God who is always becoming, always creating, always loving. Our attachment to consciousness is human, not divine--and worse, it's much more a concern of Western civilization than of the whole human race.
I remember some of my seminary classmates shaking their heads, arguing that being absorbed into the Great All is a concept that will do nothing for a grieving widow who wants nothing more than to be reunited with her dead husband. And yet, for me, this made so much more sense than the Family Circus style heaven I was to see depicted in religious art hanging in parishioners' homes. Over the course of my own twelve years of pastoral ministry, I found myself groping for comforting words, falling back again and again on trusting in God's love rather than any dogma related to the afterlife.
It's twenty years now since I left the Methodist ministry, fifteen since I stopped preaching altogether. Looking back on more than half a century of questioning, I now have plenty of unsatisfying answers. I know that the popular heaven--and its nasty counterpart, hell--are creatures of conquest. The Judaism that gave birth to Christianity had no concept of an afterlife apart from a shadowy place of rest. To live on past death in Jewish practice was to be remembered by one's descendants. This agnosticism toward the next world carried over into the early church, and is reflected in the New Testament. Within a generation of its birth, though, Christianity became a conquering faith, subsuming indigenous religions as it adapted itself to a variety of cultures. From the Greeks and their conquerors, the Romans, Christianity acquired the dualist model of heaven and hell. Christian theologians, seeking to reconcile their loving God with the existence of a place of eternal torment, introduced Purgatory, a place to be cleansed of one's sins over the course of millennia, until a soul was finally ready to enter into eternal bliss.
That's essentially where popular dogma settled, though Protestants chose to dispense with Purgatory as non-Biblical (though calling heaven and hell Biblical is still quite a stretch). This ruthless application of Biblical literalism, coupled with intellectual rigor, led John Calvin to conclude that the omniscient, omnipotent God had decided from the beginning of time which souls were destined for heaven and hell, and that somehow this was an act of cosmic love.
Which finally lands me in The Good Place.
The high concept of this serialized comedy, doled out in 22-minute chunks, is that Heaven and Hell--the Good Place and the Bad Place--are very much what those early Catholic theologians imagined them to be. There's a point system, with everything a person does earning either points or demerits. Come out on top, and, after dying, you wake up in the Good Place. The Good Place is filled with neighborhoods in which people can enjoy all the things they loved most in life. They're given homes that match their personalities, paired up with soul mates, and encouraged to indulge themselves as they complete the bucket list items they never got around to.
Into this comfortable, but far from spectacular, afterlife comes Eleanor, who wakes up after a bizarre accident in the office of Michael, the Architect of her neighborhood. At the end of the first 22 minutes, it becomes clear that Eleanor doesn't belong here. On earth, she was a shallow, selfish person who took delight in the difficulties of others. Her lack of belonging is underlined by the inappropriateness of her home and of her soulmate, a moral philosopher named Chidi. Two of her neighbors also seem out of place: a jet-setting trend-setter named Tahani, and her soulmate, a Floridian wastrel named Jason who is masquerading as a Buddhist monk. The first season revolves around Eleanor studying philosophy with Chidi in an attempt to be able to pass herself off as belonging in the Good Place. At the end of the season, the big cliffhanging reveal is that Michael is, in fact, a demon, and this is actually a prototype of a new kind of torment for condemned souls.
There are more twists and turns in the following seasons than I can possibly sum up, but it all really comes down to this: the afterlife is broken. Nobody is getting into the actual Good Place, because the deck is stacked against humans. It's impossible to earn enough points to counter all the demerits. Michael is eventually won over to the quest of his four test subjects who, no matter how often he reboots the neighborhood, always seem to wind up improving themselves rather than succumbing to the torment of knowing they don't really belong. The five of them, plus Janet, a heavenly supercomputer, ultimately argue their case before the Judge, a cynical being who is the closest thing the Good Place has to a God, and finally convince her to create a way for humans to earn their way into heaven after death--in a word, Purgatory. Finally successful, they board a balloon that takes them to the real Good Place, only to discover that it's no more functional than the neighborhood Michael designed. The reason: an eternity of blissful indulgence is ultimately numbing. This leads to the final tweak to the cosmos that makes the Good Place truly good: Michael and his team invent a way out. Once any resident of the Good Place has had enough, once they're ready to move on, there's a gateway to being finally, completely dead--or, perhaps, absorbed into the Great All, Ogden-style. The last hour is about our protagonists each reaching that point of decision and stepping through.
There's a lot to love about this smart, hilarious, and touching comedy. I think it's summed up best by the idea that what makes human life so precious is that it's finite. If we knew for a fact that we had eternity waiting for us on the other side, the privations of the world would lose their urgency, and death would become something sought after. This can be found in many of the humans of the nineteenth century, which speak of death as a welcome relief from the tragedies of earthly life. It's an idea that is easily challenged--what's the point to life, if true meaning comes afterward? Why bother even trying to solve the great problems of the world? The sooner suffering people die, the better.
I'm glad we've left that era behind. Human life is precious, and the greatest work of humankind is making life better for more humans.
Which highlights the problem with God. It's hard to know what intelligence was behind the creation of the cosmos in The Good Place. It's certainly not the Judge, even though she does seem to be in charge of the whole thing. More likely, it was a creator in the Deist mode, a watchmaker who, on the seventh day of Creation, didn't just take a break, but retired for the rest of eternity. That resolves one side of the all-powerful/all-loving paradox, known in philosophical circles as theodicy: an all-loving God who was all-powerful would simply end suffering. Since suffering exists, either God is not all-powerful, or is and just doesn't care.
There's no all-loving God in The Good Place. I think that works to its benefit. It doesn't, however, answer the question of how the afterlife got so forked up--or why it's up to four humans, a reformed demon, and a computer to fix it. But that may be asking too much of a TV show which, as smart as it is, is still a sitcom.
Besides, the thought that eternity might not be all it's cracked up to be is strangely comforting to me. The truth of human existence is that we don't have infinite capacity for experience and improvement. At 58, almost 59, I am increasingly aware that I am forgetting things. I think it's more about the size of my hard drive than my age--inconsequential older memories are being overwritten with new ones--and while it does frustrate me at times, it's also oddly comforting. Perhaps I don't have to always be defined by what happened to me when I was 16, or 34, or even 55. And I find myself much more content with the experiences I'm having, less anxious to do it all. I know I won't live to do or see or hear or taste everything on my list. I won't finish all the books I own, won't hike the Pacific Crest Trail, won't climb more mountains, will never be an actor or a singer, won't earn a doctorate, probably won't publish a novel. And all of that is all right.
Make no mistake, I'm not done yet. I've got many more years ahead of me.
I'm just much better now at letting go, and letting myself be in the moment. And that's a very good place to be in.