In binge-watching the show “The Good Place,” which takes place in some afterlife dimensions and somehow successfully blends comedy, morality, philosophy and jokes about robot sex, I couldn’t help thinking about the Genesis story of brothers Cain and Abel.
“The Good Place” has been such a hit in part because it’s unique in taking up this core, human question — Why be good? And for the hundreds of millions of people who believe or suspect there is something after death, what does it have to do with how we treat others?
As the NBC show heads to the finale of its third season Thursday night, an answer seems to be in sight. “The Good Place” has created a heaven and hell for our time, a system in which it’s all about how humans treat one another and in which we rise or fall together rather than alone.
Spoiler warning, for those who haven’t seen the show!
Things have been speeding toward a conclusion, unveiled in the last couple episodes, that the whole afterlife system is apparently rigged — humans can’t get into the Good Place (a.k.a. heaven) these days because modern life in our flattening world is so complicated, we can’t avoid unintended bad consequences.
All of this may go against the grain of a wide swath of Christianity, evangelical Christianity in particular, which argues that belief — not actions — is essential to salvation. But as an evangelical, I embrace “The Good Place” theology if it affirms that, yes, we are our brother’s keeper. There has not been a more pressing time to consider that biblical story than today.
“The Good Place,” created by Michael Schur (who was also behind the shows “Parks and Recreation” and “The Office”), imagines the afterlives of four humans who, on balance, lived mostly average lives on earth. It begins with strident salesman Eleanor, indecisive philosopher Chidi, self-involved socialite Tahani, and clueless Floridian Jason thinking they’re in the Good Place, then realizing they’ve been tricked and are actually in the Bad Place — a secular stand-in for hell. The show, which has been renewed for a fourth season, coming this fall, can also be watched on streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu.
In a combo buddy-chase scene that takes place in trippy alternative dimensions, they wind up escaping with the help of the demon Michael (Ted Danson) who was supposed to torment them but became their friend, and his assistant, not-a-robot Janet. The six of them become an unlikely but endearing team, crusading against the unfair point system that relegates humans to the Bad Place and working tirelessly to reveal and rectify injustices with the help of the powers that be — namely, the Judge (played by Maya Rudolph), in whose fair and capable hands their fate rests.
Throughout the show, it becomes clearer and clearer that gaining points is tied directly to being good — and deep questions are raised about whether humans can become better, and whether we become good (or better) on our own, or whether our standing rises or falls communally.
The point system in “The Good Place” is specific. Singing to a child is a net gain of 0.69 points. Committing genocide, on the other hand, will cost you 433,115.25 points. Maintaining one’s composure in line at a water park in Houston will get you 61.14 points, but telling a woman to smile is a withdrawal of 53.83 points. The list goes on, with debits and credits racked up according to what will bring another person (or group of people) pleasure or pain. This isn’t bald utilitarianism; instead, it is a sort of point system based on the Golden Rule as laid out by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.”
Conceptions of heaven vary from one religion to the next, and some say the right belief is the necessary ingredient to enter their respective Good Places. Particularly in American evangelical strains of Christianity, orthodoxy is often viewed as more important than orthopraxy — a word for having the correct conduct. Believe the right things, the thinking goes, and God will command St. Peter to open up the pearly gates. You may have done the right things all your life, but if you don’t believe correctly, then you will be left sitting outside the gates, in the place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
“The Good Place” concerns itself almost not at all with right belief. It barely touches institutional religion, except at the very start, when Michael explains that all the world religions were only a few percentage points right about how the afterlife works. The only person to have correctly predicted the afterlife before death, he says, was not a saint or monk but a Canadian named Doug Forcett who, during a mushroom trip, predicted the Good Place with “92 percent accuracy,” says Michael, in whose office hangs a portrait of Forcett. The closest thing the Good Place has to God is the Judge, played by an exceedingly rational, burrito-loving Rudolph, who does not require belief or even loyalty so much as honesty and reason.
The characters spent the first season figuring out that what they thought was the Good Place was a twisted version of the Bad Place, tailor-made to torture them. But somehow the experience ended up bonding them together, so much so that they found each other back on earth when Michael was able to get them all a second chance at earning more points. They didn’t come to any astonishing beliefs about God or the salvific nature of Jesus, but they did grow in love of each other. They learned to put each other first, to serve one another, to care for other people.
In an earlier season, a once-strident, individualistic Eleanor forgoes her chance to head to the Good Place alone so that she can stay with her friends. Over time, she and Chidi fall in love with each other, but even then they don’t abandon the rest of their crew. Tahani frees Jason from their questionable marriage so that he and Janet are free to be together, and the group is able to resist the seeds of division sown by Trevor, a chaotic demon from the Bad Place. They stick together. They have gone through trials and tribulations and come out stronger. This keeps them heading to the Good Place.
“Am I my brother’s keeper?” is a question we all have to answer for ourselves, and our current political climate makes that question feel especially urgent. How are we responsible for each other, the show wants to ask.
“The Good Place” is not an inherently partisan or political show, but that question has incredible political consequences. If we are, indeed, our brothers' keepers, then we cannot in good conscience allow our brothers to be torn from their families at our nation’s borders. If we are our brothers' keepers, we cannot stand idly by while they are banned from serving in the military, or lose the ability to put food on their table during a government shutdown, or are the victims of racism and violence. If we answer the question “Am I my brother’s keeper?” in the affirmative — as “The Good Place” does — then we are responsible to our brothers. And the afterlife, and our admission to it, depends on how we answer this question.
Jesus said that whatever we do for “the least of my brothers,” it is as if we have done it for him.
Laura Turner is a writer in San Francisco.