In 2017 many Lutherans, like myself, were excited for the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation, a celebration that just closed with Reformation Sunday 2018. It makes me wish I’d been introduced to the TV show The Good Place earlier, because it has so many applicable points to theology. Particularly, in relation to Lutheran theology.
In the world of The Good Place, the secular afterlife is based on an elaborate point system (a social credit score of sorts), a few arbitrary rules, and no mercy. Mercy is essential for the points necessary to earn a ticket to the Good Place, but the afterlife shuns it. Open a door for someone and earn 30 points. Buy a tabloid magazine and lose 75. If you’re French or from Florida, you automatically go to the Bad Place no matter what sort of life you lead. It’s the sort of system that kept Martin Luther pestering the monastery’s confessor night and day.
The Good Place system posts the almighty figure, in this case the Judge rather than God, in a very Puritan, up-religion way. It evokes the old sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” where humans’ salvation is a spiderweb over a fire, weighed down by a brick representing sin. In the context of the show, though, the Judge is less angry than apathetic to the situation. It is a system where everything is on the individual to please the higher power with no chance for mercy or grace. And for Luther, it’s even worse, because in the world of The Good Place, farting is actually a sin (you lose 7.5 points). (Famously, Brother Martin was told by his exasperated confessor, “You’re confessing every time you fart. Come back when you’ve committed a real sin.”)
As grim as the real world idea of that system is, it’s a testament to the show’s writing that it isn’t unremittingly bleak in the philosophical ramifications. Although, it does hint at it. The character Chidi, for instance, has a breakdown after learning about the Good Place system (and his impending damnation). And honestly, small blame to him.
A personal aside… I get annoyed by the notion from my acquaintances and friends who aren’t religious or, who are but aren’t Lutheran, that the notion of grace is just a security blanket to make us feel better, but I can’t deny that God’s mercy is a very comforting concept. But it’s still a challenge. Knowing that we cannot of our own will, please God, we are called to still live good lives and not use grace as an excuse to do whatever we want (see the horror novel Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner for more details).
There’s still about half a season left of #3 to go of The Good Place, though, and it has the potential to be renewed. I look forward to seeing how the philosophy and theology develop from here, especially given that forgiveness and mercy earn Good Place points, but the architects and Judge don’t seem to value them in practice.