What does it mean to be good?

One of my favourite TV shows of 2018 was The Good Place – a very funny show that asks a very important question: what does it mean to be good?

Nathanael Smith summarizes the first season plot:

The premise of episode one is a juicy one: Eleanor Shellstrop has died. She’s ended up in The Good Place, a version of heaven that each religion “got about 5% right”. It’s a perfectly engineered afterlife designed by the angelic Michael (Ted Danson) for the very best people in the world – if you’ve lived a life of perpetual excellence and your “positive points” vastly outweigh your “negative points” then you end up in The Good Place. Eleanor, as a lawyer who got people off death row and helped out Ukrainian orphans, has made it. Only the Eleanor Shellstrop we’re following, played by Kristen Bell, is not that Eleanor Shellstrop. There’s been a mistake. She’s not supposed to be there.

The genius of the show is that has people asking questions about eternity (is there one?) and how they might get there (how good do I need to be?).

But as this article in SYFY WIRE points out that just begs more questions

But what makes one a “good person”? And how do you become a good person? Can a bad person truly become a good person? William Jackson Harper’s character Chidi might argue that these are subjective questions with too many intricacies to fully explore. The philosophers and psychologists SYFY WIRE spoke to on the subject agree — to an extent. Good, they say, is still good, and there are plenty of ways to measure, understand, and harness it.

Jennie Pollock points out that that this notion of merit is a popular one and a strong one in Christianity

Although The Good Place explicitly states that its points system is not based on that of any one religion, many people believe that Christianity operates on the same basic principle: try to do more good than bad, and hopefully St Peter will let you through the pearly gates when your time comes.

But the world is full of mixed evidence when it comes to the goodness of humanity. As Mr Smith says

At the end of the day, I don’t buy The Good Place’s message – I think the world is a pretty good defence of Calvin’s idea of Total Depravity and I remain convinced that we’re a people desperately in need of a saviour.

Fortunately there is hope.

Even one of the criminals crucified next to Jesus on the cross made it in. He was such a bad person that he was being executed for his crimes. But with his dying breath, he admitted: ‘we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.’ He then turned to Jesus and said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingdom.’ And Jesus replied, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.’ 

At a stroke everything else was forgotten, blown away in the wind, as if it had never happened. The same offer is open for you, and you don’t have to wait till the last minute for it; you can, even today, grasp the peace of knowing where you are going when you die. Death no longer has to be a fearful inevitability; it can be an old friend that you greet with open arms because you know you will be remembered. 

And that is good news.

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