Theology is not often portrayed in popular culture. Morality may appear, often in the form of a good vs. evil battle (which is often more of a physical battle than a theological one). But what I learned in my seminary classes about Lutheran ethics rarely shows up on screen.
However, The Good Place, a fast-moving comedy about ethics, philosophy, and the afterlife, has taken the content of my Lutheran ethics courses, given it a plot, and paired it with some hilarious jokes about human nature, farts, and pop culture.
I have enjoyed The Good Place since the beginning. The show is serial, rather than episodic, meaning the multiple plot twists and turns keep us on the edge of our seat. It’s structured like a drama, in the style of Breaking Bad or How to Get Away with Murder, but continues to keep you laughing at and cheering for the characters.
MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD. IF YOU HAVEN’T WATCHED THE GOOD PLACE, START AT SEASON ONE. IT’S AVAILABLE ON NETFLIX. GO THERE NOW.
The premise of the show is that Eleanor (Kristen Bell) finds herself in heaven or “The Good Place,” because of the extraordinarily good things she did in her life — except she didn’t do any of the amazing things she’s being given credit for.
Eleanor first tries to conceal her true identity, while convincing her fellow recently-deceased soulmate, Chidi (William Jackson Harper), to teach her to be a good enough person to stay in the good place. Chidi is a professor of moral ethics from Senagal, providing a great device to explain what strand of philosophy will be explored in each episode. Over the course of the first two seasons, Chidi lays out the arguments of several philosophers (Aristotle, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Kant are all referenced) and ethical dilemmas (a whole episode explores “the trolley dilemma”).
Eleanor and Chidi are joined in the good place by socialite and philanthropist Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and an incredibly senseless bro, Jason (Manny Jacinto). Between the four characters, the audience sees not only a racially diverse set of companions, but also four completely different approaches and motivations to ethical (or unethical) behavior.
This is needed because the ultimate twist that needs to be shared (AGAIN…MAJOR SPOILER) is that while they believed they were in The Good Place, our humans are, in fact, in The Bad Place. Eleanor is the stereotypical self-centered person and was never going to get into The Good Place, which makes sense. However, we are left wondering why the others are stuck essentially in hell. Chidi, while brilliant at studying ethics, was constantly too crippled about making the wrong choice or causing unintentional harm to actually do anything good. Jason was too focused on immediate gratification and portrayed as too dumb to know what was going on anyway. And Tahani, the philanthropist, was too absorbed in the recognition she got from her charitable activity.
No one in the show is actually a good person. They are all broken and sinful, and whatever good deeds they did in the world were overwhelmed by selfish behavior, corrupt motivations, and harm caused to those around them, intentionally or unintentionally.
The show repeatedly claims that the portrayal of the afterlife in the show is not attached to any specific religion, but tends to borrow bits and pieces from each. This is asserted in the very first episode, where I felt they got closest to Lutheran theology.
In this particular episode that caught my attention, our four humans are back on earth. They don’t know it, but they must attempt to redo their lives to earn their way into heaven. Two celestial creatures, Michael (Ted Danson) and Janet (D’Arcy Carden), try to steer them to do enough good deeds to save themselves from damnation. But after Michael and Janet are caught plotting to make the humans “do good,” they confess and explain the whole system. They also admit that, by knowledge of how the afterlife system works, now even their good works are corrupted by improper motivation. No longer is the good they do in the world for the good of the neighbor, but rather, it is only to earn their way into heaven.
Now, for the first time, our humans are condemned, they know they are condemned, and they also know there is nothing they can do to earn their own salvation.
Sound familiar? Maybe from a confession that many of us recite on Sunday mornings:
Most merciful God
that we are in bondage to sin
and cannot free ourselves.
We have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you
with our whole heart;
we have not loved
our neighbors as ourselves.
For the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us.
Forgive us, renew us, and lead us,
so that we may delight in your will
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your holy name.
Martin Luther is a lot like the humans in The Good Place. Luther existed in a religious world where salvation was understood in a similar sort of “point” system that would earn one a place in heaven. The teaching of the Roman Catholic Church viewed sin as demerits, which could be overcome with “good works”: prayers, acts of charity, veneration, and pilgrimages. At the time of Luther, the Roman Catholic Church even sold “indulgences,” which could erase sins from one’s afterlife ledger.
Luther, like our humans, also came to the realization that nothing he did would ever be enough to earn his way into heaven. He confessed his sins so constantly that he exhausted his confessor with his agony over every thought and doubt that crept into his head. Even his good actions were corrupted by his motivation, which was fear of a judgmental God.
Luther found himself at the same point that the humans do in The Good Place. When they figure out that their fate is sealed, the four humans split up, each dealing with the news in different ways. In the course of their plotlines, they demonstrate various strands of ethical reasoning. Perhaps a little on the nose, Chidi gives a classroom lecture, outlining virtue ethics, consequentialism, and deontology with images of his fellow humans acting out the philosophy he’s explaining to his students, ending with his personal philosophical mood of nihilism.
At the conclusion, the four humans reunite with Michael and Janet. Eleanor perfectly describes their situation. They are already condemned to hell. Nothing they do can save themselves, but they are still alive and they can…try.
Eleanor recognizes that, even while they are condemned, they can do something. Maybe that something is nothing more than a warning and redirection for others. Maybe it’s something with more ripple effects that they cannot see. They can continue to do good in the world, even if that good doesn’t benefit them personally.
That’s where we leave this episode, with trying. Not bad, but there was one component that was missing to make this a truly Lutheran episode: grace. Eleanor and the others haven’t ended up at the same conclusion that Martin Luther did. Luther found that his actions couldn’t get him into heaven, but that was still possible — but only through God’s action. God’s grace, which was only a gift from God rather than a reward, was enough to bring us into heaven and be with God forever.
And yet, because of that grace, Luther still “tried,” just like Eleanor. Being freed from the trap of good works and motivations meant that good actions are only good because the actions themselves are good and that they help people. Eleanor found that freedom through condemnation, while Luther found it through grace.
One final note. “Trying” is imperfect. Trying means that our good actions may not be as good as we intended. It means that we can still get caught up in the sin and trappings of this life. Trying is not succeeding.
Martin Luther was brilliant in some ways, but he was also rude, sided with power when it helped him advance his cause, and instructed violence against Jewish people. The Nazis used his anti-Semitic writings to support the campaign of genocide. While he “tried,” he sometimes got it very, very wrong.
Back in The Good Place, our humans remain condemned, at least for the moment. But one of the best things about a serial television series is that it allows for progress, setbacks, and character development. As the show progresses, our humans and their celestial guides may veer in and out of various theologies and philosophies, eventually landing who knows where.
I want our characters to succeed, and I want them — and us — to recognize the grace that has been gifted to us. Perhaps eventually, we’ll get to see our humans in the good place, not because of anything they did, but because they have been given the gift of grace. Until then, I’ll keep enjoying the show, looking for little nods to Lutheran theology.