The popular TV series, The Good Place, is certainly not the place to look for a systematic theology of Christianity, nor even a place for the consideration of what is good and bad. Perhaps it does however point to the problems faced by the average person when it comes to altruism, selfishness, and justice.

The premise of the story follows a well-worn concept of morality, punishment, and reward. Presently, and throughout history, there have been a great many people who subscribe to the concept that the good and bad deeds of a person are followed throughout their lives by cosmic forces and then weighed at the end of one’s life. If the good deeds outweigh the bad deeds by a certain score, the person is ushered into heaven (the Good Place) and if the minimal score is not achieved, the person is ushered into hell (the Bad Place). It makes for funny television and has been used as a plot device in many stories. It allows one to think about the nature of a good or selfless act and the true nature of altruism (can we ever perform a selfless deed? or are we always looking over our shoulder assessing our assessors?).

It also points to the complications of living in the Western World in the 21st Century. Consider for example this exchange from Season 3, Episode 10,

Michael : [pulls up a page from the Book of Dougs]  In 1534, Douglass Wynegar of Hawkhurst, England, gave his grandmother roses for her birthday. He picked them himself, walked them over to her house, she was happy. Boom… 145 points. Now… yeah, here we go.

[pulls up another page]

Michael : In 2009, Doug Ewing of Scaggsville, Maryland, also gave his grandmother a dozen roses, but this time he lost points. Why? Because he ordered the roses using a cell phone that was made in a sweatshop, the flowers were grown with toxic pesticides, picked by exploited migrant workers, delivered from thousands of miles away, which created a massive carbon footprint, and his money went to a billionaire racist CEO ….

[pumps his fist in the air]

Michael : Whoo!

Tahani Al-Jamil : That is a very odd thing to cheer.

Michael : Don’t you understand? The Bad Place isn’t tampering with points. They don’t have to. Because every day, the world gets a little more complicated, and being a good person gets a little harder.[1]

That last sentence may be one of the most insightful lines of the entire show. “Every day, the world gets a little more complicated and being a good person gets a little harder.” That seems like something with which we might all agree. It feels difficult to navigate the good and bad of our world. It is challenging to know what posts to “like” or “care” about or “laugh” at or be “sad” about or be “mad” about on social media. It is hard to know whether to be happy or sad about another statue torn down somewhere around the world. It gets more and more difficult to determine if child labour was used anywhere in the supply chain that provides me with my morning coffee, my breakfast fruit, or my favourite candy confection. I wonder if I should be eating my favourite candy confection when many do not have food or clean water in our world. How do I invest money wisely without contributing to the capitalistic greed of the contemporary economy? I wonder if I am doing the right thing by supporting someone who is presently in need of a meal, when I know that they are the same mix of selfish, altruistic, lazy, hard-working, nasty, and nice person as I am. When I am in a tough spot, do I need a motivational coaching session, or do I need a helping hand? What does my friend need in a similar situation? The possibilities and permutations seem endless. How do we navigate the problems of this world and become a good person who does not look down upon others who have not yet achieved my “point value” in the pursuit of good?

Of course, the answer is that we can’t. None of us can be good enough to work our way into “The Good Place.” It becomes obvious that we must give up on seeking to be good or we will turn ourselves into neurotic do-gooders who question every move. The main characters of the TV show are designed to show us the variety of ways in which humans have tried to solve the problem; most of which end in ineffectual neurosis. Chidi Anagonye’s philosophical solutions are as ineffective as Jason Mendoza’s abandonment of moral systems. Some watching the television show will finally understand that there can’t be a point system that determines our eternal destiny and will abandon this deficient idea. And some, might actually put their faith in the love and grace of a forgiving God who sent a substitute to take their place.

[1] The Good Place, “The Book of Dougs” Season 3, Episode 10, Ken Whittingham Director, 2019.

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