The Theology of “The Good Place”

The hit sitcom helps us reflect on the tension between grace and good works

Photo by Davide Cantelli on Unsplash

I know I’m late to the party … or maybe I’m fashionably late? The final season of The Good Place recently dropped on Netflix and landed in the Top 10 shows. Apparently, plenty of people caught up along with me.

Which means, plenty of us have an opportunity to reflect on the show’s super-smart portrayal of Christianity’s tension between grace and good works.

Christianity bases salvation on God’s grace — His unmerited, unwarranted forgiveness of those who repent and place their faith in Him.

Yet Christianity also emphasizes the importance of living out one’s faith — following a moral code, doing good things, being a good person.

So which is it? Are we saved by grace or works?

Jesus said in John 14:6, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” But he also said just a few verses later in 14:21–23, “Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. … Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My father will love them, and we will come to them….” And what is the Sermon on the Mount if not a call to live differently?

The apostle Paul, the most influential writer and thinker in Christian history after Jesus, argued forcefully that we are “justified through faith” (Romans 5:1) and that if good works were sufficient for salvation, then Jesus died for nothing (Galatians 2:21). Yet he also laid out specific rules for how Christians ought to behave in Romans, Colossians, Philippians, Ephesians, and more.

We see this tension between grace and good works throughout the Gospel and Paul’s letters. What can The Good Place tell us about it?

No Spoilers Ahead!

What is The Good Place?

After dying in a bizarre accident, Eleanor (Kristen Bell) finds herself in a utopian neighborhood filled with frozen yogurt shops. An entity named Janet (D’Arcy Carden) fulfills every request instantly. Everyone gets their dream house and is paired with a soul-mate with whom to share eternity.

Eleanor asks if this is heaven, and the neighborhood’s architect, Michael (Ted Danson), explains that there’s a “bad place” and a “good place.” Only humans like Eleanor, who earned a massive number of points for their behavior and motivations while on earth, get to come to the good place.

There are just two problems. First, Eleanor is there by mistake. She lived a grossly selfish life, always looking out for #1 and leaving a wake of broken relationships and wounded strangers. Second, her selfish behavior and attitude threaten the very fabric of the neighborhood’s reality.

Desperate to avoid being discovered and sent to eternal torment in the bad place, Eleanor enlists her soul-mate, Chidi (William Jackson Harper), who just so happens to be a moral philosophy professor, to help her become a good enough person to deserve to stay in the good place.

Good Works and Grace in the Good Place

Obviously, The Good Place bases salvation on what Christians call “good works.”

People earn points based on what they do and their motivations for doing it. The points determine where and how they spend eternity. Eleanor sold fake medicine to the elderly and ridiculed everyone to salve her poor self-esteem, while the “real Eleanor” who should’ve been in the good place instead had devoted her entire life to helping impoverished people.

The system seems pretty fair, doesn’t it?

Life certainly isn’t fair. It rains on the righteous and the unrighteous alike. But in The Good Place, the good are rewarded, the bad are punished. All those good things we did, even the ones that didn’t seem to matter, matter after all! All the bad people who skated by just fine, well, that didn’t last, did it? Ha!

But the show complicates the supposed fairness. You come to sympathize with Eleanor and the other main characters as they struggle to become better people. You watch Eleanor grow and mature, and you want her to get to stay in the good place no matter what she did on earth. Seeing her effort to repent, to turn away from her old way of living, makes grace look pretty great.

The Good Place highlights a paradox of Christianity. Christians believe salvation comes through God’s grace, that it’s a free gift we don’t, can’t, earn but can only receive. Yet, receiving is a kind of action. To be open to grace, to accept the gift, is to act. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be a choice for us to make.

What Does Jesus Say?

Jesus himself is less than clear about salvation.

Yes, of course, he often describes himself and the grace created by his atoning sacrifice as the “narrow road” toward salvation.

  • “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” — John 14:6
  • “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” — John 15:5
  • To the Canaanite woman begging for healing for her daughter, Jesus says, “your faith is great! Let it be done as you desire.” — Matthew 15:25
  • And to the thief crucified next to him who does nothing (that we’re aware of) except affirm his divinity, Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” — Luke 23:43

All of these scriptures suggest that Jesus saves through grace, pure and simple.

But Jesus also expects some things from us.

  • “Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.” — Matthew 3:2
  • “I have come not to abolish [the law and the prophets] but to fulfill them.” — Matthew 5:17
  • The Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard it said … but I say …”
  • As the crowds increased, Jesus said, “This is a wicked generation. It asks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” — Luke 11:29
  • “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching.” — John 14:23
  • “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it. Love your neighbor as yourself.” — Matthew 22:37–38

Repent means to “turn away.” When Jesus tells his fellow Jews to repent — to turn away from their old way of living and embrace the coming Kingdom of Heaven — he is not saying, “Just believe” or “Accept the gift of grace” or “Recite the Sinner’s Prayer now.” He’s calling for a radical transformation of their hearts and their lives.

When Jesus says he came to fulfill the law and then turns the Torah on its head in the Sermon on the Mount, he means that keeping laws like “Don’t commit adultery” fails to save souls. Not looking at someone with a lustful heart, however, both fulfills the spirit of the law and reflects a heart oriented toward God.

Why teach us to change our hearts if we’re saved solely by his grace?

Jesus obviously expects us to live a certain way, or else he wouldn’t have taught us to change and wouldn’t have called for the “wicked generation” of his day to repent.

The way Jesus calls us to live is extremely simple and existentially difficult. We’re to love God and love others.

So … are we saved by grace or good works?

Paul’s Dilemma

The apostle Paul worked tirelessly to spread the gospel throughout the polytheistic world of first-century Turkey, Greece, and Rome. He preached to Jews and pagan Gentiles alike salvation by faith in Jesus Christ. He denounced any suggestion that Gentiles had to convert to Judaism or follow its dietary and purity laws to be fully Christian (see Galatians 5).

But when many pagan converts didn’t stop acting like pagans, Paul began laying down some very specific rules for how to act like a Christian. Most of these rules reflected his social and cultural mores as a monotheistic Jew.

As Doug Metzger of the Literature and History podcast observes in Episode 77: The Pauline Epistles, there’s a powerful tension between Paul’s desire to teach salvation by faith and his desire for pagan converts to adhere to a certain code of behavior and morality.

To appreciate Paul’s dilemma, we have to understand his historical context.

The Jews were waiting for a political, military messiah who would vanquish foreign oppressors (in Jesus’ day, Rome) and establish Israel as a new, God-ordained superpower. The Pharisees, including Paul, believed adhering to Torah law with extra strictness would accelerate the messiah’s arrival. We might say they believed their good works would bring their salvation.

On the cross, Jesus became the latest example of a man claiming to be the messiah who obviously was not, or else he wouldn’t have been defeated and killed. Then he came back from the dead.

The surprise ending of Israel’s story upended everything the Jews thought they knew. Jesus’ followers realized that he wasn’t an earthly messiah but a heavenly one. The Pharisees and other Jews continued to hope for the former, even persecuting Christians to tamp down the heretical sect.

Photo by James Newcombe on Unsplash

But after his spiritual experience on the road to Damascus, Paul reckoned with the reality of the resurrection. He realized the resurrection meant that following Torah was not the way toward salvation, that a new way had been inaugurated on the cross.

Paul preached this new way, salvation through faith, to many of the churches he planted throughout the Mediterranean.

  • Abraham “received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while still uncircumcised.” — Romans 4:11
  • “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we stand.” — Romans 5:1
  • “[We] know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.” — Galatians 2:16

Many pagans converted to Christianity based on Paul’s teaching. But not all of them stopped worshipping other gods, sacrificing to idols, or participating in sexual religious rituals. Huh?

To modern Christians, transitioning from worshipping, say, Zeus or Apollo or Aphrodite to worshipping Yahweh, the God of Israel, may seem like the simplest, most natural conversion in the world.

But remember, the first-century world was polytheistic.

They didn’t worship only Zeus or Apollo or Aphrodite, and if they did gravitate toward one god or another, they still acknowledged and respected all of them. What’s more, it wasn’t inconceivable for a human to become a god. Caesar Augustus declared himself divine a generation before Jesus’ resurrection.

When an ancient Athenian or Roman heard about Jesus, the most natural thing was to add this new, compelling god to the existing pantheon and begin worshipping him, too.

And if Jesus required only faith, then that meant everything could be viewed as permissible. Why not get drunk and participate in orgies to worship and honor Dionysus? Why not continue pederasty? Why not gossip and lie and look down on people of lower rank? Why not perpetuate social hierarchies and inequalities? Paul himself said they just had to have faith in Jesus!

Such practices led Paul to argue for adhering to a moral code:

  • “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived.” — Colossians 3:5–7
  • “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” — Philippians 1:27
  • “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” — Ephesians 4:1–2
  • “So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking.” — Ephesians 4:17
  • Earlier in Romans, Paul writes, “because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in … the righteous judgment of God, who will render to each person according to his deeds: to those who by perseverance in doing good seek glory and honor and immortality, [they will receive] eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, [they will receive] wrath and indignation.” — Romans 2:5–8

And Paul isn’t alone in the New Testament in calling for certain types of behavior over others.

The apostle James similarly privileges works, writing, “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that.” — James 2:18–19

The Paradox Continues Today

The New Testament ties itself into knots trying to articulate how salvation works. Jesus, the Gospels, and Paul emphatically point to faith, to grace, as the basis of salvation. Jesus, the Gospels, and Paul also argue for higher standards of conduct and motivation.

And today, countless Sunday school teachers, preachers, and authors advocate a set of specific behaviors as “right” or “good” or “holy” in contrast to other specific behaviors. Purity Culture and the Prosperity Gospel are two prominent, extreme examples, but I dare say that almost every Sunday morning sermon features some element of “Do this to be a good Christian.”

Many Christians may not recognize the profound paradox presented in the bible and preached from pulpits because Christian morality seems as natural as wearing clothes. It’s just what you do.

Thanks to two millennia of Christianity suffusing our culture, we recognize that certain ethical behaviors are more beneficial to ourselves and other people than other behaviors.

Lying might benefit us, for example, but we resist the temptation because we’ve been taught that lying is wrong, a concept that wouldn’t have felt so obvious to first-century Romans, especially those at the bottom of the social hierarchy who, legally, could neither prevent nor redress wrongs.

So it seems natural for us to say, simultaneously, that we’re saved by faith and that we should behave in certain ways but not others. But that doesn’t resolve the tension between grace and good works. It merely covers it over.

We’re still left wondering, “Uh, if I pray the Sinner’s Prayer, does that mean I’m doing something to earn my salvation? Should I pray it again and really mean it this time?”

Even I sometimes wonder, “Have I really accepted God’s grace? I keep screwing up, after all.”

The Good Place to the Rescue?

Here’s my opinion: we get saved the same way that Eleanor gets saved in The Good Place.

Viewers come to sympathize with Eleanor, to want grace for her, not because she tries so hard to become a better person, or because she begins a series of good works, or because she dedicates her life to the less fortunate.

We want grace for Eleanor because we see her heart change. And the more her heart changes, the more her behavior and attitude change.

We are not saved by grace. We are saved by grace’s transformation of our hearts. When our hearts transform, then good works pour out.

Grace is the cause, good works are the effect.

This, in my opinion, is why Jesus teaches his disciples to change their hearts. It’s why he tells us to love God and love others, with emphasis on love being a verb, an activity, a relationship, a discipleship.

Or as Paul writes, “All that matters is faith, expressed through love.” — Galatians 5:6

It’s why Paul wants new Christians in every century to take their faith more seriously than adding church attendance and tithing to their weekly worship routine and checking a box on a census form.

Jesus, Paul, and the other New Testament authors know that we can’t transform our own hearts in a lasting way. That’s why we need faith in Jesus, the presence of the Holy Spirit, and the community of fellow believers.

We see the same lessons in The Good Place. Eleanor’s heart changes, but only with help from others. When she relies on her own effort, eventually she reverts to her old ways. And no matter how hard she tries when she is trying, it can’t add up to enough points to deserve eternity in the good place.

Salvation by grace’s transformation is not a decision. It’s an ongoing process of discipleship by and in Christ. That alone, and that only, is sufficient.

Decisions, Disciples, and Deconstruction

American Christianity has fixated on decisions rather than discipleship for the past couple centuries. From Jonathan Edwards to Billy Graham, our most influential preachers have pushed conversion by praying the Sinner’s Prayer and adhering to the social mores they favored as proof of a changed heart.

One result has been countless teens and young adults having a stunted view of faith, anxiously praying and wondering, “Did I really mean it that time?” Another result has been Christianity coming to be viewed as a list of “Dos” and “Don’ts.” If that’s all there is to Christianity, what’s the point?

Worse still, the widespread Evangelical support and apologetics for Donald Trump has made the “Do” and “Don’t” list blatantly hypocritical. How many people will leave the church because what they were taught got tossed to the side so quickly and casually when power knocked?

Photo by Nolan Issac on Unsplash

Unsurprisingly, a wave of Christians are now “deconstructing” both the faith they were taught and the person they were taught to be.

Eleanor also deconstructs. While she recognizes the problems with her behavior, on some level she views her actions and attitude as consistent with her self-centered “me vs. them” worldview. Anyone who responds differently to this world is either deluded, advantaged (i.e., the “them”), or magically, irritatingly virtuous — they deserve to be pulled down to her level with a cutting insult or worse. Such a heart makes lasting change impossible.

But when Eleanor’s heart changes, she doesn’t just begin acting differently and with different motivations; she also deconstructs her self-centered worldview and reconstructs an others-centered perspective that fundamentally reshapes her choices, actions, and motivations. She becomes a new creation and therefore behaves in new ways. She has repented.

Deconstructing Christians aren’t turning their backs on God. They’re just finished with a faith built on a “one-and-done” salvation prayer and a rules-list that often reinforces power structures and exclusion more than it edifies people. They’re reconstructing a faith centered on love and inclusion. They’re repenting, or turning away, from their old lives in favor of new life.

Sound familiar?

The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis

To conclude, I turn to another piece of fiction that has shaped how I approach the paradox of grace and good works: The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis, the final installment in The Chronicles of Narnia series.

Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

Near the end of The Last Battle, the Narnians battle the invading Calormenes. But first, the god of the Calormenes, Tash, occupies a nearby stable to kill whoever enters.

Nonetheless, the devout Calormene warrior Emeth demands to enter the stable and look upon his god. Mysteriously, an older man reemerges, dead, in his place. The Calormene leader, Rishda Tarkaan, pretends it’s Emeth.

As the ensuing battle reaches its climax, Rishda Tarkaan, attempts to force the last king of Narnia, Tirian, into the stable. Tirian grasps Rishda and hurls both of them inside to face Tash. Once inside:

“A terrible figure was coming towards them. … It had a vulture’s head and four arms. Its beak was open and its eyes blazed. A croaking voice came from its beak. ‘Thou has called me into Narnia, Rishda Tarkaan. Here I am. What has thou to say?’ … Tash pounced on the miserable Rishda and tucked him under the upper of his two right arms.”

After the battle, Tirian and the other Narnians happen upon a living, breathing Emeth. He explains what happened when he stepped into the stable to meet Tash.

“I was forced to fight for my head against one of our own men. … the Tarkaan had set him there to slay any who came in if he were not in their secrets … having slain the villain, I cast him out behind me through the door. Then I looked about me and saw the sky and the wide lands, and smelled the sweetness. … I began to journey into the strange country and to seek [Tash].”

Rishda’s horror upon seeing Tash, then, was partially because of shock. He never believed in Tash, much less that Tash would show up.

Since boyhood, Emeth had served Tash and desired to know more of him; “the name of Aslan was hateful” to him. Yet when we sought Tash in the “strange country,” he encountered Aslan. He expects Aslan to kill him for serving Tash, yet Aslan licks his forehead and calls him, “Son.”

Aslan explains to the confused Emeth:

“I take to me the services which thou hast done to [Tash]. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore, if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted.”

In other words, Emeth lived and acted with a heart aligned with Aslan all along without even realizing it.

Emeth didn’t believe the right doctrine and didn’t say the right prayer, yet he had a heart oriented toward Aslan and a life reflecting that heart.

Like The Good Place, C.S. Lewis uses fiction to convey a profound truth as simply and memorably as possible: we are saved by hearts transformed by grace, and transformed hearts overflow with loving good works.

Of course, this raises a new problem. If we’re not performing good works, then does that mean our hearts haven’t been transformed?

You can see how and why Christians fall into emphasizing codes of behavior and doing good works. If “faith without works is dead,” as James says, then it’s easy to become anxious if we’re not Mother Teresa, and it’s tempting to perform works to prove one’s faith.

That puts the cart before the horse. Like Eleanor, we can do a lot of good things on our own power for awhile, but lasting change comes from transformation, and transformation comes through grace, and grace washes over us through faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection and all it means.

It means:

  • We’re not saved by a statement of belief. Like Eleanor, like Emeth, we’re saved by a state of heart.
  • We’re not saved by following rules. We’re saved by faith expressed in love.
  • We’re not saved by a decision. We’re saved by a commitment to loving God and loving others.

This, I think, is how humanity turns earth, how each of us turns our little spheres of influence, into the good place. This is how we win the battle.

The challenge, then, isn’t figuring out whether faith or good works get us to heaven. It’s letting grace transform our hearts and help us figure out day-by-day, moment-by-moment, how to act in love toward God and others.

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Writer tackling faith, politics, relationships, writing, media, & other impolite topics. College Teacher. Podcaster. My newsletter: https://tinyurl.com/yy7znuy8

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