The Good Place Isn’t Fair
Editor’s note:This post contains spoilers through the season four premiere of The Good Place.
For three seasons now, The Good Place—one of television's most morally minded shows—hasn't made much room for Jesus. With the debut of season four, his absence has never been more glaring. So glaring, in fact, that I think the show makes a compelling argument for a Christian view of sin and salvation: that humans cannot save themselves through good works, but need to be rescued by supernatural mercy.
The Good Place, in which four flawed people meet in a strange, works-based afterlife, argues in big ways and small how terrible humans are. Some of the best jokes are about the little ways we are selfish or annoying: using the term “bro code” or clipping your toenails on an airplane. The flashbacks to the previous lives of the main characters consist of a collection of (hilariously specific) demonstrations of selfishness, indecisiveness, vanity, and theft—but also the betrayals and failings of others, especially parents, that shaped these sinners. The vanity displayed by Tahani (Jameela Jamil), for example, is shallow and obnoxious and taints most of her actions, yet it is also a reaction to her parents pitting her against her prodigy sister, who is their obvious favorite. Jason (Manny Jacinto) may engage in clueless destruction, but it’s pure imitation of his equally destructive father, Donkey Doug (Mitch Narito). The show’s main character, Eleanor (Kristen Bell), has been taught by her parents to look out for herself at the cost of others, thanks to their neglect and dismissiveness. Human sin, in The Good Place, is both individual and shared. We control our actions, but the entire world is both intertwined with others and marred by sin.
Season three introduced us to Doug Forcett (Michael McKean), the human who has come closest to understanding how everything works and who lived his entire life making himself miserable trying to run up “points” to earn his way into the Good Place. Doug drinks water filtered from his own toilet so he doesn’t take fresh water away from beavers. He also grows his own food (only radishes) and gives some to a food bank. He has rescued every stray dog that’s ever wandered onto his property. The show later reveals that nobody has made it into the Good Place in hundreds of years; even Doug winds up with a negative moral score. Michael (Ted Danson), the immortal architect who begins to question the afterlife he’s helped design, explains that each choice is so tied up in systems and consequences that nothing is simply a single good choice, with no negative consequences. In other words, “there is no one who does good. Not even one.”
Human sin, in The Good Place, is both individual and shared.
For 2,000 years, Christian theology has said something similar. In fact, Christians make an even more dramatic claim: that no one has ever been good enough except Jesus Christ, God’s son. Even Paul, a Pharisee and rule-follower, said his own identity and actions were nothing compared to knowing Christ. Doug Forcett’s doomed attempt to earn his salvation mirrors the legalists often admonished in the New Testament. All he accomplished in his feverish morality was making himself miserable.
As season four begins (the series’ last), the main characters are in the midst of a deal they previously brokered with Michael’s superior, the Judge (Maya Rudolph). Attempting to prove that humans can become better, if given the right opportunity, they’ve been allowed to design a new simulated Good Place for a fresh batch of recently deceased humans. But is their plan doomed for failure? The Good Place is infamous for its plot surprises, so I hesitate to make a prediction about what the rest of the season will hold.
To be fair, the show has had a few dramatic instances of self-sacrifice on the path toward (possibly) saving humanity, moments that better echo Christianity. In season two, Michael pushes Eleanor through a portal to meet the Judge, causing himself to stay behind and face a group of vengeful demons alone. At the end of season three, Chidi (William Jackson Harper) makes a decision to wipe his memory of a loving relationship with Eleanor in order to not risk their experiment, a significant emotional sacrifice for them both that still has implications at the start of season four.
One could even argue that Eleanor, whose life on earth should have earned her no second chances, has already been the recipient of prevenient grace. But for now, the show’s moral vision mostly remains rooted in the notion of fairness: I should get into the Good Place because I’ve earned it. In God’s kingdom, however, redemption comes through Christ’s love and sacrifice, not through human works. Indeed, Christ loved us while we were still sinners. And so a Christian vision of the afterlife is gloriously, miraculously unfair. It is, to borrow a phrase from Calvin and Hobbes, unfair in our favor.