Heaven is a place
A place where nothing
Nothing ever happens
—Talking Heads, “Heaven”
Everything good must come to an end in order to be meaningful. That’s the message at the center of The Good Place, the afterlife comedy that ended last week after four seasons and 52 hilarious, philosophically enriching episodes.
Whereas Jean-Paul Sartre declared in his play No Exit that “hell is other people,” The Good Place proposed that heaven is other people; the loving friendships of the “Soul Squad” were genuinely salvific for the entirety of humanity. What began as an experiment in hell by the demonic architect Michael (Ted Danson) on four unsuspecting humans—the sinfully spunky Eleanor (Kristen Bell), moral philosophy professor Chidi (William Jackson Harper), aristocratic philanthropist Tahani (Jameela Jamil), and Floridian doofus Jason (Manny Jacinto)—concludes with a poignant and provocative solution to the problem of an eternal afterlife: death itself.
In the penultimate episode, “Patty,” the Soul Squad finally made it to the actual Good Place, only to discover that everyone there was languishing with boredom (there’s always a twist in this show, isn’t there?). So Eleanor offers a solution: They create the option to leave the Good Place through a door which leads to … well, that’s unclear, but most likely a peaceful transition into oblivion. In other words, they propose death as the solution to eternal life. The idea is met with ecstatic cheers by the Good Place residents.
So, instead of Sartre’s “no exit,” the sitcom’s finale, “Whenever You’re Ready,” is more like, “Yes, one exit, please.” We witness the Soul Squad experience the passing of thousands of “Jeremy Bearimy” units of time until each chooses to shuffle off this immortal coil. Jason decides he’s ready after finally playing the perfect game of Madden. Tahani stays on as an afterlife architect. Chidi says he feels a “quietude in my soul” about walking through the door and convinces Eleanor it’s his time. Before she goes, Eleanor meets back up with Michael to support his dream of becoming human. (Their relational trajectory, from torturer-victim to parent-child to mutual friends, has been one of the The Good Place’s greatest strengths, and the finale’s final scene is remarkably affecting, if not a little silly, with his sendoff to Eleanor: “Take it sleazy.”)
Noticeably absent from this heavenly realm in The Good Place is God. The judge of the afterlife, Gen (wonderfully portrayed by Maya Rudolph) is a burrito-eating, podcast-binging demigod of sorts, but she’s quite limited in her abilities and was “born” during the beginning of the cosmos. Perhaps the closest we have to the divine is Janet (D’Arcy Carden), the all-knowing, Siri-like not-a-robot-but-not-a-girl.
Janet serves as the final guide for every human as they walk through the door into the unknown beyond. But even as Janet apparently remains in existence in the new Good Place after all her friends leave, she’s certainly not a deity, and her trajectory feels the most tragic (all her friends leave, so she’s now perpetually alone). This is an eternal afterlife wholly absent of God, where humans endure character-forming tests by a group of trained demons until everyone eventually earns their way into a paradise of hedonism for eternity, until they feel complete (at best) or bored (at worst), in which case they voluntarily end their own existence. It’s a hybrid of universalism, syncretism, and—to put it bluntly—a type of hereafter suicide.
Where does this central idea of “death brings meaning” come from? The Good Place finale features cameos from its two academic philosophy advisors, Todd May from Clemson University and Pamela Hieronymi from UCLA. May’s book, Death, which appeared in Chidi’s teaching curriculum in earlier seasons, is likely the inspiration for this afterlife death-after-death. Alluding to Jorge Luis Borges’s short story, “The Immortal,” where death threatens the meaning of existence through negation, May suggests that “immortality threatens the fact of mattering itself.”
In other words, the sad reality of death nevertheless makes every living experience precious and purposeful; as time-bound creatures, our very fleetingness gives us significance. The philosopher compares eternal life to a novel that never ends—it just keeps going on and on forever, lacking any sense of closure or direction.
Or, instead of a novel, we can draw a connection to a beloved TV series ending after only four seasons. In this, The Good Place is emblematic of its very message of self-chosen consummation. Rather than drag the sitcom out into potential irrelevance, tedium, or mediocrity, The Good Place ends on an upward trajectory filled with pathos and optimism, making fans simultaneously sad and satisfied. At peace, even. It’s as if creator Michael Schur, the cast, and the writers had to make a similar choice to their characters, of when to “walk through the door” and allow the show to end.
I think the timing was right—in spite of the brilliance of the first two seasons with their huge metaphysical twists and complex moral philosophy ruminations, the third season had some rough patches, and this fourth season often struggled to maintain consistency and freshness.
Does the Good Place reflect our ideas of “heaven”? As a Christian theologian, I’m inclined to say no, at least not the conception we have as “a new heaven and a new earth” where God will make his home with us and “there will be no more death” (Rev. 21:1–5). I confess, I initially found myself truly troubled by The Good Place’s apparent atheistic cosmic euthanasia, which seemed like an overly romanticized view of death. Yet, upon reflection, I think there’s some truth to discern here, particularly for Christians. If God has conquered death through Christ, then we need not glorify or fear death, even as we grieve its reality and mourn with those who mourn. Death is not our ultimate source of meaning for existence—God is. As there’s a time to be born and a time to die, a time to weep and a time to laugh, we can face all of it with a sober recognition of the real sadness of death and a courageous hope anchored in God’s unending love for us.
Perhaps the greatest contribution of The Good Place is not in its theology, but in its ethics. Schur was always more interested in making a show about moral philosophy than about religion; it’s looks at what it means to be a good person here and now. As theologian Jürgen Moltmann once wrote, “Whenever we ask about ‘life after death’ we are really asking about a meaningful, livable, and beloved ‘life before death.’” This is the beauty of The Good Place, a goofy show so full of hope and joy (even in the midst of hell itself) that invites us to practice hope and joy in our present-day hells.
The Good Place reminds me of Jesus’ parable in Luke 16 about Lazarus and the rich man, a narrative metaphor not necessarily intended to unpack the metaphysics of the afterlife, but to provoke our theological and ethical imaginations and make us rethink how we’re treating other people today in light of eternity.
In our contemporary world filled with political turmoil and vitriol, where systemic injustice runs rampant via impersonal bureaucracies and immoral political leaders, The Good Place reminds us that our theology and philosophy must be practiced—our orthodoxy is only as good as our orthopraxy. And we can begin practicing the presence of heaven right now, loving and being loved by our friends and neighbors, giving each other grace when we inevitably screw something up, picking one other up, and trying again.
The Good Place is over. I’m sad that it’s done, but I’m also grateful for the time I spent with it. I think I’m ready for it to go. Take it sleazy, everyone.
Joel Mayward is a pastor-theologian and film critic. The author of three books, he is currently a PhD candidate at the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts (ITIA) at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.