Salvation Theology and “The Good Place”

“The Good Place” is an NBC sitcom, aptly described on the show’s official website in these words:

“The show follows Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell, “House of Lies,” “Veronica Mars”), an ordinary woman who enters the afterlife and, thanks to some kind of error, is sent to the Good Place instead of the Bad Place, which is definitely where she belongs. While hiding in plain sight from Michael (Ted Danson, “CSI,” “Cheers”), the wise architect of the Good Place (who doesn’t know he’s made a mistake), she’s determined to shed her old way of living and discover the awesome (or, at least, the pretty good) person within.” [NBC]

First things first, “The Good Place” (TGP) is NOT creator Michael Shur’s proposal on what heaven, the good place, and hell, the bad place, are really like, or how you get to either Place. And the show makes that clear with its lighthearted, fun, even silly presentation of the good place neighborhood, where Eleanor plus 321 other people currently reside. For example, there are lots of frozen yogurt places, and they offer some very unusual flavors, like: potato chip, your fifth birthday cake, folded laundry, full cellphone battery, inside jokes, fantasy football champion, freedom of expression, a mother’s love, a clean house, and sweet potato fries. Sorry, frozen low-fat confectionary lovers everywhere, but there’s no frozen yogurt, of any flavor, in the real Heaven. (Or is there?)

But the show does prompt legitimate questions as to what Heaven and Hell are really like, and who goes to which place. So I’m using the show as a jumping off point for a discussion of salvation theology. I’m not disagreeing with the show’s theological position on salvation, as the show does not take one.

I’ve seen every episode at least twice, and I like the show very much. The acting in the show is top-notch, and the casting is wonderfully diverse. TGP is funny, in surprising ways, and the characters are likeable and quirky. TGP is the antithesis of the typical network sitcom. In network bread-and-butter cookie-cutter sitcoms, the jokes and situations have been rehashed many times, in slightly different ways, on one show after another. If those shows are more or less hell, then TGP is more or less heaven.

I’ve seen episode 13, the finale of the first season for TGP. But for the purposes of this article, I’m mostly going to ignore it, so as not to introduce any spoilers.

Who goes to The Good Place?

In the show, each person on earth gains points based on all the good activities they do, and they lose points for each bad activity. Eleanor scored a net total of over 4,000 bad points, so she was supposed to go to the bad place. The premise of the sitcom is that she’s in the wrong place, accidentally. Then the other residents of the good place, who are supposed to be there, scored an average of around a million good points to get there. As the show explains it, very few persons go to the good place, and most everyone else goes to the bad place.

Is it in any sense true, according to Catholic salvation theology, that our good deeds are weighed against our bad deeds, to determine our final destination? Not really. Some Saints lived sinful lives, and repented rather late in life. The good thief on the cross repented in the last hours (or minutes?) of his life. What you do in this life matters, but not in the sense of adding or subtracting the moral weight of each deed.

So the good news is it’s never too late to repent. You can get to Heaven, even after a lifetime of bad deeds. You don’t need to do a certain amount of good deeds to outweigh the bad. On the other hand, if you live a good life, and then decide to turn away from the love of God and neighbor in the last years (or hours) of your life, you could still end up in Hell.

Even so, we are judged by the deeds of our lives, in a certain sense. The good deeds, done in cooperation with grace by persons in a state of grace, merit a reward in Heaven. And the bad deeds require repentance and penance in this life, or else the good person will suffer for those bad deeds in Purgatory, before they are rewarded for their good deeds in Heaven. As for those who go to Hell, their good deeds do not cancel out the evil that they did in order to be sent there. So they suffer to whatever extent they did evil and did not repent.

The other question is how many or what percentage of persons go to Heaven? In the show, it was necessary to the premise to have only a small percentage of persons go to the good place, so that Eleanor’s mistaken presence there would be all the more shocking and comical. But in Catholic salvation theology, a great controversy is brewing over just that question. Do most persons go to Heaven, or to Hell?

On the far left, some persons propose that perhaps every human person eventually gets to Heaven, and none go to Hell. But that idea cannot be reconciled with the teachings of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium. Hell is real, and some human souls are sent there, to be punished forever.

On the far right, the proposal is like that of TGP, where only a very small percentage of human persons go to Heaven, and the vast majority end up in Hell. In my estimation, though, that narrow plan for who goes to Heaven is also incompatible with Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium, and incompatible as well with the ideas of love and mercy. If very few souls make it to Heaven, it would seem as if God had erred in how we were created, or in how we were helped and guided in this life. So that cannot be true.

My view is that the vast majority of human persons go to Heaven, though most get there by way of Purgatory. In the show, Eleanor complains that it’s too hard to get into the good place, and that there ought to be a medium place, where persons like her, who are far from perfect, but not really so bad, can go. In the Catholic view, that medium place is Purgatory, where souls are purified of all their sins and faults, so that they are ready to enter Heaven. And ultimately, that’s a better plan than an eternal medium place, where the denizens are not punished as in Hell, but also lack all the joys of Heaven. Eternal mediocrity would really just be mitigated Hell.

What is Heaven Like?

Is it possible that there are frozen yogurt shops or perfect pizza places in Heaven? No, sorry, but the present Heaven is for the soul only. After death, each person is judged by God, and then their soul goes to Heaven, or Purgatory, or Hell. The body is buried in the ground (or cremated or whatever). So there are no bodies and thus no foods in Heaven. (Jesus and Mary are present in Heaven, in body and soul, but no one else.)

On the other hand, it is a well-accepted teaching of Christianity that after the general Resurrection, the blessed in Heaven are resurrected on earth, and given glorified bodies united to their souls. They will not need to eat to survive, since they can neither suffer, nor die. But perhaps sometimes they will eat food for enjoyment. And I suppose those foods could include frozen yogurt or pizza. Therefore, theologically, there could be frozen yogurt in the afterlife. Maybe.

In TGP, each person in the good place neighborhood has a soulmate. “Soulmates are real,” we are told. But it’s a little puzzling why people only meet their soulmate after death. So…no soulmates in this life, Michael? Huh. Sure seems like you lost your way there a little.

Theologically, in the Christian view, there is no marriage in Heaven. Jesus makes that clear in Matthew, where he says: “in the resurrection, they shall neither marry, nor be given in marriage. Instead, they shall be like the Angels of God in heaven.” [Mt 22:30].

The absence of the Beatific Vision of God in any TV portrayal of Heaven is understandable. There’s just no good way to show that aspect of Heaven in an earthly show. So it’s not really offensive that Heaven or the good place is portrayed as a suburban neighborhood. But it is a little unnerving that the good place is divided into small neighborhoods, as if these 322 people are separated from all other saved persons forever. It’s a dramatic device, I realize, but still, it’s very unlike the real Heaven, where all are one.

What is Hell like?

We know less about the TGP version of the bad place than the good place. In the first episode, we hear a several second clip of sound from the bad place. It’s basically people screaming in terror. Other descriptions of the bad place, in various episodes, are equally torturous. And worse still, the claim is that the vast majority of human persons go there. But, again, the show is not really making any claims about Hell; these dramatic elements serve the plot and its comedy.

Even so, it raises the question: what is Hell like? In Catholic salvation theology, it is dogma that some souls in Hell suffer only from the deprivation of all the joys of Heaven, with no tortures or added sufferings. They know what they did wrong in life. And to some extent, they know what they are missing in being excluded from Heaven. But they are not tortured. For the other souls in Hell, their sufferings are proportional to their grave unrepentant sins. Hell is a type of just punishment from God, not indiscriminate severe torture. On the other hand, I suppose that some of the most wicked persons in Hell, like Hitler, other brutal dictators, genocidal maniacs, and terrorists suffer a great deal. But each one suffers only in accord with what they deserve.

Now the demons (devils) of TGP’s bad place are portrayed as comical bad guys, in human form. And they are in charge of torturing people in the bad place. But in Catholic theology, the real Hell is analogous to a prison, and the devils are fellow prisoners with condemned human souls; they are not in charge of Hell. It is terrible to have to endure the company of devils forever. But the sufferings of Hell are not meted out by demons, but by the justice of God.

Does Eleanor Deserve Hell?

Would the TGP character, Eleanor Shellstrop, played by Kristen Bell, deserve Heaven or Hell if she were real?

In my understanding of Catholic teaching, all those persons and only those persons who die in the state of grace — which is the state of selflessly loving others — go to Heaven. Sometimes they need a brief (or long) stay in Purgatory first, but they are saved. But all those persons who are so entirely selfish that they truly love no one, along with all who truly hate others with a real and full malice, will go to Hell.

If we judge Eleanor by her life on earth, it would seem that she deserves Hell. We are shown no redeeming qualities from her life on earth (so far in the show). However, when she is in the good place, she begins to learn to love others selflessly, which would imply salvation in Heaven. The only problem is that, in Catholic teaching, your eternal destination cannot change after death. No one who dies deserving Hell gets to repent and learn to love others after death. So, sorry Kristen, but your character, it seems, deserves to go to the bad place. And that is the initial premise of the show.

What about Kristen Bell, the actress? Is she on the road to Heaven or Hell? Well, she seems nice. But how can we know for sure? She is quite a good actress. Maybe she’s just pretending to love others selflessly. Who can say? Well, if she’s not on the road to Heaven now, maybe she’ll repent and change careers to become a lawyer who gets innocent people off death row and also helps hungry homeless orphans. Or a lifeguard. But Ted Danson? Lost cause for sure. (Just kidding.)

What happens next?

It’s difficult to see where “The Good Place” would go for its second season. But the first season was full of fun surprises. Will TGP be renewed or cancelled? My prediction is we will see a second season of TGP. It’s a great show, though its quirkiness might be off-putting for some viewers.

In Catholic salvation theology, these questions about who goes to Heaven, why, and how many, are generating a lot of controversy. There is quite an extreme range of opinions on the subject, too large a range. I expect that Pope Francis will write on the subject within the next several months, in 2017. And I think he will teach that all persons of good will, that is, all who love others, go to Heaven: Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, other religions, agnostics, atheists, LGBT persons, gay married couples, et cetera, et cetera, as long as they love others and follow their own conscience (not someone else’s conscience). And that will be a very shocking twist to the story of Pope Francis. Kind of a TGP episode 13 for him, if you know what I mean.

For more on this subject, see my booklet: Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, and Limbo or my book: Forgiveness and Salvation for Everyone.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

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8 Responses to Salvation Theology and “The Good Place”

  1. Bob says:

    Ron: I am not nearly as well versed in theology as you are. But, I have read many of the writings of the Saints and the mystics – particularly the Carmelites. I believe at death we choose to go to heaven, (maybe by way of purgatory), or hell. If at judgement we despair and flee from God’s mercy we go to hell. Just as Satan did. He would rather be prince in hell rather than least in the kingdom of heaven (and subject to the Blessed Virgin). I think God offers repentance even at the particular judgement. Sadly I have known persons who have said to me “I’m going to Hell, I know it, and I don’t care”. Seems insane to me. I trust in God’s mercy.

    • Ron Conte says:

      OK. First, the Church does NOT teach that we decide at the point of death between heaven and hell. That claim nullifies all that the Church teaches about how to live in this life, about the Sacraments and the state of grace and morality. That is a serious error. Second, Satan is not “prince” in hell, he is not there yet. When he is sent there, he will be a prisoner in the prison that is hell, not a leader there. Third, the idea of repentance after death is contrary to the definitive teaching of at least two Ecumenical Councils and of the ordinary and universal magisterium. If you die in the state of grace, you are saved; otherwise, not. There is no repentance after death, even during the particular judgment.

  2. Dora says:

    So Mr. Conte has a sense of humor and whimsical imagination, after all — we just never saw it on the website! Refreshing article! Will have to check out TGP!

  3. Tom Mazanec says:

    (Jesus and Mary are present in Heaven, in body and soul, but no one else.)

    Does this mean that Jesus and Mary are located in a physical place, so I could say that they are, say, 25 billion light years away in the direction of Orion’s Sword?

  4. Mark P. says:

    I think it would be extreme if the Holy Father would write such a sweeping statement on Salvation theology. If the message is to just love your neighbor and follow your conscience, why go to Mass? Why go to confession? Why pray? I agree that all people CAN be saved, but not that all people WILL be saved. For example, there is a difference between an atheist in North Korea who may have practically no exposure to the Gospels and lives under state-compelled atheism, and an atheist here in the US who is fully aware of Christianity and chooses not to embrace it. So it would seem to me that the person in N. Korea is more forgiven than somebody here. And it would be an example of just how complicated such a document would be to create.

    It would seem disingenuous for Jesus and the apostles to basically ask the children of the church to follow its teachings for 2000 years, then just say that it doesn’t matter after all. What is the use of all the parables Jesus used on how to get into heaven, and the New Testament letters telling us to live good Christian lives and avoid false teachers? All the Christian martyrs died for the message of “love your neighbor and follow your conscience?”

    Or, is the message basically that faithful, practicing Catholics, fully knowledgeable on what constitutes objective and actual mortal sin, are just held to a higher standard than those outside of the faith? If such a statement were made by the Pope, why would anyone have reason to convert to the faith, or remain in it? What if, after such a papal decree, a Catholic’s conscience told them to abandon the faith?

    Or maybe your statement was an inside joke about this TGP show? I’m really not sure.

    • Ron Conte says:

      I was not joking. I think the Pope might teach just as I said. The easiest path to Heaven is to be a believing and practicing Catholic Christian. The further away you go from the Church, the harder it is to be saved. But each person is judged by their own conscience, and love of others implies the state of grace, which is necessary for salvation.

  5. Mark P. says:

    Hi Ron,
    Thank you for the reply. I just think that issuing such a teaching would have adverse effects on the Church. We are already struggling to retain and convert members, and it seems to me that such a statement from the Vatican would cause even more of a defection. And it would make spreading the Gospel and recruiting people into the Church even more of a challenge. People tend to naturally take the path of least resistance. So what advantage is it for someone who loves their neighbor, but is committing objective mortal sin, to join the Church? For once they join, and become aware that they are committing actual mortal sin, they are obliged to repent and abandon their previous lifestyle. Then it seems as if the Catholic missionary / evangelist is left in a conundrum. On the one hand, we are told to spread the Gospel, but on the other, it would seem that recruiting such a person into the Church would put their soul into jeopardy more so than if they just continued to live their life without hearing the Gospel. How would the conversation go? “Hello, I have a wonderful proposition for you. The life you are leading right now can get you to heaven. However, if you join the Catholic Church, you will have an even greater chance! BUT, you must receive the sacraments, attend Mass every week, immediately repent for any mortal sin you commit (as you hand them the list), pray frequently, perform good works, and entice others to join you. Are you still interested?”

    Did St. Paul waste his time establishing churches in all of those formerly pagan areas? It would be extremely challenging to craft a teaching that proclaimed the simple message that love of neighbor alone is sufficient for salvation, while retaining the importance of the Gospel message (which the disciples were commanded to do) and the call to conversion. And I think that such a teaching would cause people to fall away from the faith rather than join the faith. Doesn’t God want to invite people into the Church, not make them question whether they really need it?

    So to me it’s one thing for the Church to accept this path to salvation as a theological possibility, but quite another to issue it as a formal teaching without seemingly contradicting and undermining a lot of the New Testament and many years of Church teachings.

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