“When your time on earth is ended, we calculate the total value of your life…”
These are the ominous words our protagonist, Eleanor, hears as she comes to terms with her untimely death in the hit Netflix show, The Good Place (2016 – 2020). Death is not a usual conversation starter; in fact, it can often kill a joyful mood (pun intended). For some, death is the end. Beyond the material world there is nothing more and so when we breathe our last, that’s it. But the popular series, The Good Place, took a comedic route to explore, not just our inevitable destination of death or what could lie beyond it, but how we determine how good our lives have been.
The Good Place follows the story of Eleanor, who dies and goes, not to heaven, but to ‘the good place’. As she becomes conscious in ‘the good place’ she learns why she has made it there instead of the ‘bad place’. “During your time on earth, every one of your actions had either a positive or negative value, depending upon however much good or bad that action put into the universe. Every sandwich you ate; every time you bought a trashy 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 is ended, we calculate the total value of your life… Only the people with the very highest scores, the true cream of the crop get to come here…”
These rules or criteria for access to the ‘the good place’ seem pretty straightforward. Good deeds on earth = a good afterlife. And yet we soon discover that Eleanor, our newly dead citizen of ‘the good place’ is actually not supposed to be there. Why? On earth she was a horrible, selfish person. Suddenly the paradise and perfection of ‘the good place’ starts to fall apart, and all because Eleanor’s negative past has come back to haunt her and everyone else in ‘the good place’.
I’ll be good and not give any more of the plot away at this point. Yet, on the surface, the value system of ‘the good place’ appears to be… well… good. Good deeds on earth = a good afterlife. However, several questions arise: Who decides how many points to assign for certain acts? Even in the imaginary world of The Good Place someone is deciding what’s good and what’s not. What if person lives a wealthy life on earth so that they’re able to do seemingly more good than another person who is struggling with the cost of living crisis? It’s one thing to assert that ‘good’ should be our eternal goal, but it’s an entirely separate issue when it comes to deciding what is ‘good’, what we mean by ‘good’ in the first place.
In a short but profound book called, Where is God in a Coronavirus World, John Lennox examines our notion of ‘good’. He writes, “Justifiable outrage against natural or moral evil presupposes a standard of “good” that is objectively real and independent of us, so that we expect others to agree with us in condemning certain things. These standards are “transcendent”— that is, they exist above the level of individual opinions.” Lennox is showing us that we all share ideas about what is objectively good and what is objectively bad. We’d all agree, for example, that abusing children is wrong. This agreement that you and I have is outside of ourselves; we just know it’s wrong. We’d be shocked if someone tried to argue in favour of such treatment of children. It’s “objectively real and independent of us”, as Lennox says. It’s more than mere preference or opinion to know that we shouldn’t exploit children.
But how do we explain this intuition? If we believe that there is nothing beyond death, then there is also nothing prior to life. If we came to exist in this universe through unguided and purposeless evolutionary processes, then meaning, value and significance are things we must decide for ourselves. We are free to make our morals up as we go along. This freedom can often lead us to great goods, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but as our collective history shows, sometimes this can cause great harm, such as apartheid or the holocaust. The freedom to choose what we deem to be moral or immoral stands on shaky ground if it is indeed subjective, a matter of choice. As the apartheid and the holocaust demonstrate, we don’t always agree upon how we ought to treat one another. The idea of human flourishing for some has all too often meant disadvantage and oppression for others.
The Christian worldview posits that our ability to know what good and evil is actually points to God; good resides in his very character and being. As a personal, relational being, God is the transcendent standard by which we all measure morality. Does this mean that people who aren’t religious are without morals? Not at all. We don’t have to be believe in God to know objective moral values, but it seems that God (transcending shared or unshared human opinions) would need to exist in order for these objective moral values to exist.
Unlike the points system of morality in The Good Place where you earn your way into eternal bliss through good deeds, within the Christian worldview good is not a place, good is a person – good is God. In John’s gospel in the Bible (17:3), we’re shown that life after death is not primarily about a place but rather relationship with God: “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”