The Good Place: Are Hedonism and Nihilism our Best Options?

Rachel Green Miller
Friday, April 16th 2021
If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.

1 Corinthians 15:32
Now God has not only raised the Lord, but will also raise us up through His power.

1 Corinthians 6: 14

One of the shows my husband and I caught up on during the pandemic was The Good Place. The show’s premise is that a young woman has died and ended up in “the Good Place” by mistake. (If you haven’t watched the show, or at least the first season, be warned, here be spoilers.) We enjoyed the show, particularly the growth of the main characters into genuinely kind and self-sacrificing individuals.

As comedies go, it was more thought-provoking than most. From the start, it raised some great questions. For example, what does it take to earn a spot in the Good Place? What about our motivations? What if we’re doing good, but for wrong or self-serving reasons? Can we do enough to save ourselves from the Bad Place? Is there any hope for humanity?

Now, the show is still a comedy, and most everything is played for laughs. But I was impressed by the subject matter’s depth. However, as insightful as the show was in identifying the problems with an afterlife merit system, the solutions they came up with were disappointing (not that I expected more from a secular tv comedy). I appreciated the show for what it was, but it left me unsatisfied with the ending.

After working hard to prove they deserve to go to the Good Place, the main characters discover that no one had been sent to the Good Place in recent history, not even Mother Teresa or Gandhi. Why not? Because the point system has become so complex that no one can earn enough points to go to the Good Place. In the final season, the characters create a new system that demonstrates that people can become better after death.

People go somewhere after death to work and get better so they can go to the Good Place. That’s right. The new and improved system is a form of purgatory. Instead of dealing with the real problem that no one can ever be good enough, their solution is to add more time. Because with enough time, most people will improve, right? After implementing their new system, the main characters finally get to go on to the Good Place.

It’s always interesting to see how popular culture depicts heaven. Often, it’s an ethereal place with clouds and harps. Other times, heaven is the place where you get everything you’ve ever wanted. That’s the version shown in The Good Place, a hedonistic wonderland. The afterlife is spent indulging your every desire, nothing but pleasure forever. But all is not as it seems.

The people in the Good Place are bored. Apparently, living for pleasure and without any real purpose leads to mind-numbing boredom. They long for a way to escape, but where can you go if you’re already in the Good Place?

Here again, I was intrigued by the show’s insight. Living for pleasure holds no lasting value, as we see in Ecclesiastes:

All that my eyes desired I did not refuse them. I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure, for my heart was pleased because of all my labor and this was my reward for all my labor. Thus I considered all my activities which my hands had done and the labor which I had exerted, and behold all was vanity and striving after wind and there was no profit under the sun.

Eccl. 2:10-11

But again, the solution is unsatisfying. The cure is worse than the disease. Instead of considering why purposeless hedonism is unfulfilling, the show offers nihilism as the ultimate answer. When the Good Place residents accomplish everything they want to do and are tired of hedonism, they can step through a doorway and escape into nothingness. What a heartbreakingly sad ending.

In the end, we watched as each of the main characters reach their decision to end their afterlives. After seasons of cheering them on and celebrating their successes against great odds, it was depressing to watch the characters say goodbye, and troubling too.

The implication is that suicide and euthanasia are noble choices and that it’s selfish to want our loved ones to stay when they’re ready to go. What message does it send to people that the best they can hope for is ceasing to exist? This is death without the hope of the resurrection. What a devastating prospect! One character’s final goodbye brought me to tears and not because he was gone. I cried for those he chose to leave behind. There is no “good” in this Good Place.

Throughout The Good Place, but especially at the end, the show left me thinking about how much it gets wrong. The truth is none of us are good enough to go to heaven on our own merit. None of us can ever do enough to earn it, “There is none righteous, not even one … for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:10, 23). Apart from Christ, we are without hope, and it’s not nihilism that awaits us. Hell is a place of eternal punishment.

That’s the bad news, but the good news is that God didn’t leave us in our sin and misery:

But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.

Eph. 2:4-7

Through Christ, we have been saved from sin, death, and hell. We have been saved from unrighteousness and for good works (Eph. 2:10). We were created with a purpose that extends through eternity: to glorify God and enjoy Him forever (WSC, Q1). And we have a glorious future ahead of us:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”

Rev. 21:1-5

I enjoyed The Good Place, but their afterlife leaves much to be desired (in fact, it made me cry). The truth is more magnificent than fiction.

Rachel Green Miller is the author of Beyond Authority and Submission. She is a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and a popular blogger at A Daughter of the Reformation.

Friday, April 16th 2021

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

J. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church