The opening scene of the pilot episode of one of my current fave TV shows finds Eleanor (Kristen Bell) sitting on a couch in a waiting room staring at the words “Welcome! Everything is fine” painted on the wall opposite her.
A door to an inner office opens and a man in a blazer (Ted Danson) invites her in. They sit across a desk from each other, and he introduces himself as Michael. She responds by asking, “Where am I?”
Michael says that she is dead. “Your life on earth has ended, and you are now in the next phase of your existence in the universe.”
Eleanor answers, “Cool, cool. I have some questions … Am I … (pointing upwards) or is this … (pointing downwards)?”
“It’s not the heaven-or-hell idea that you were raised on,” Michael says. “But generally speaking, in the afterlife, there’s a Good Place and there’s a Bad Place. You’re … in the Good Place.”
Did I mention this is a comedy?
It doesn’t take long before the show’s central conflict reveals itself — Eleanor shouldn’t have been sent to the Good Place; she was actually a pretty terrible person on earth, and the only way to get to the Good Place is by accumulating a net positive amount of points. She is the first to realize this problem, and tries her hardest to keep from being “outed.”
What plays out over the next three years of NBC’s “The Good Place” is a hearty dose of ethics, smart metaphysical humor, and a sassy robot girl named Janet. Except she’s not really a robot, but … it’s complicated.
One of my favorite scenes is the orientation video produced for new arrivals to the Good Place. You can watch it above. I’m especially fascinated by the point system that the Good and Bad Places are based upon.
In the video, Michael explains:
During your time on earth, every one of your actions had a positive or a negative value depending on how much good or bad that action put into the universe. Every sandwich you ate, every time you bought a magazine, every single thing you did had an effect that rippled out over time and ultimately created some amount of good or bad … When your time on earth has ended, we calculate the total value of your life using our perfectly accurate measuring system. Only the people with the very highest scores, the true cream of the crop, get to come here, to the Good Place.
In “The Good Place,” going to heaven or hell depends on one’s final “score.” That might sound amusing, but it absolutely amazes me how many people live their real lives according to this reasoning. This kind of moral reckoning likely makes sense to lots of people. In fact, I would guess that a large percentage of Americans believe in heaven and hell, and most of them probably believe that the way to get to heaven is to accumulate more good actions than bad.
What shocks me even more is that so many Christians live this way, too. Throughout my career as a pastor, I have visited more than one person on their deathbed who has said to me, “I’m not worried about going to heaven. I know I’ve been a good person.”
I want to say to them, though I usually don’t say it as bluntly as this, that BEING A GOOD PERSON HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH HEAVEN OR HELL.
In fact, that’s the exact opposite of the good news of Jesus Christ. The core gospel message is that God loves us — period. We are all sinners, all flawed and broken, but God forgives us anyway, and not because of anything we have done, but on the merit of Jesus Christ’s advocacy on our behalf.
This was the central theological point of the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther protested the clergymen who were traveling the countryside selling “good points” to folks to boost their chances of gaining heaven. Luther insisted that God didn’t work this way; we couldn’t earn our way to heaven, but could only rely on grace to get us there.
In other words, God has no point system.
Paul put it like this: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Eph. 2:8-10).
The good news is that we are saved by grace, not by good works, but that we are created to be people who do good works. The good works are not a means to an end; they are the end themselves. They are what constitute a meaningful, purposeful life.
You are already loved, already saved, already held in the arms of God. Nothing can tear you from God’s arms, nothing can separate you from God’s love. You are secure.
You will be in the Good Place one day, along with everyone else.
But until then, let’s do everything in our power to make this planet, this earth, this nation, this neighborhood, God’s Good Place.
Join us at our next Faith on Tap session, Feb. 12, 7 pm at 723 Ft Worth Ave, as we take a deeper dive into “The Good Place” and what it means to be good.