One of Sara’s and my favorite shows lately is The Good Place. Basically, a woman finds herself dead and that she has mistakenly gone to heaven, despite not being a great person. Hilarity ensues. Etc.
I like it. I like that the show prods at important questions like “What does it mean to go be a good person?” and “Who decides what is good?” in a light-hearted, fun way. It’s great, when not taken too seriously.
But I often like to take things too seriously. So it got me thinking…
The show revolves around a very common Western conception of the world, one in which there is a “God” who judges right from wrong, good from bad, and in which the afterlife is a means to either reward or punish people for how they lived their lives. There is an objective better way to do things and someone is keeping score. In the show, “God” is literally keeping a point tally. When someone does a good thing, the score increases. When they do a bad thing, it decreases. If they reach a certain score, they go to The Good Place.
It makes for good TV. And I think it’s worth pointing out that it is almost certainly not true.
How can I know this? I can’t. But I can say, at the very least, that we have absolutely no evidence to support it or reason to believe it. Nothing in our everyday lives suggests such a reality. It’s just a story that some of us (but not most of us) have passed down from generation to generation.
And I can also say that if the universe really is like this, it is an incredibly cruel, unjust, bad place. It would be a universe that sends a vast majority of people into eternal hellfire, damnation, and torture, without ever really clearly articulating what being good is. As it is now, Christians have one idea, Buddhists have another, Muslims have another, and secular humanists have yet another. What kind of God would set up such a universe where the majority of people are doomed to hell due to no fault of their own?
Perhaps more importantly though, I hope that it’s not true. I’d much rather live in a world where a life well-lived is its own reward, not some ticket to the actual good place. I’d much rather live in a world where I’m allowed, and even expected, to explore for myself what is good. I’d much rather live in a world where each generation discovers unveils goodness and possibility that no one before ever had before.
The traditional Western belief of a God judging us from on high casts us in the eternal role as children, waiting for a parent to let us know if we’ve been good or bad. It actually prevents us from being maturing and self-actualizing in that it demands that we judge ourselves by someone else’s standard. It never allows us to grapple with what we truly value and believe is good. In other words, it prevents us from being really, truly good.
Does how you are living now feel good? Not feel good in the way that eating an ice cream sandwich feels good. But feel good in the way that helping someone cross the street, or admitting a difficult truth, or genuinely contributing to change feels good. Are your actions in alignment with your true value and beliefs? In a solemn moment of honesty with yourself, do you feel that you are in right relationship with yourself, your family, your community, your planet, the universe?
For me, there is no real goodness apart from our own honest answers to ourselves.