[Warning: This essay contains spoilers about The Good Place.]
While watching the final season of the NBC sitcom The Good Place, I couldn’t stop thinking about Gregory of Nyssa. A strange connection, perhaps, but, then, The Good Place is a sitcom about philosophical ethics. The premise of the show is that there is a system in place in the universe that keeps an accounting of all thoughts, words, and deeds that a person does and has, and assigns point totals to each, positive for good and negative for bad. At death, the account is totaled up, and if a person has a high enough total, she goes to the Good Place for eternal happiness. If not, she spends eternity in the Bad Place for eternal torture. In the first season of the show a woman dies and finds herself in “The Good Place,” but she quickly realizes that she has been mistaken for someone else and does not actually deserve to be in the Good Place. After a season of brilliant comedy, it comes out that she and her three friends have actually been in the Bad Place all along, in a new and innovative form of torture. The next three seasons involve the four protagonists’ becoming better people in an effort to be allowed into the real Good Place and, ultimately, fixing the flawed system of justice that runs the universe.
In the final season, the four humans finally enter the Good Place, and they discover that even though it is as cool and amazing and, well, good, as they thought it would be, it is also not really good. It turns out that endless sensual satisfaction is empty. Too much of a good thing leads to satiety, and continual satiety leads to everyone’s having mush-brains. They lose their humanity. Our protagonists’ solution is to create an ending, a door through which people can leave the Good Place for whatever is after (no one knows what this is) so that the ending gives meaning to all their enjoyment in the meantime.
As I watched the final few episodes, I, an incurable theologian, found myself thinking, “This isn’t the way it is.” And yet, I also realized that it is the only place the show could go. It is the logical conclusion of the system they set up and for a show without a god figure. It is a stunning portrayal of the end—the emptiness—of materialism. It was in this chain of thoughts that Gregory of Nyssa came to mind.
Gregory of Nyssa says that we will never fully be satisfied in our knowledge of God. There is always more mystery than we can know. Even in eternity, we will always continue swimming deeper into God’s mystery, never fully satisfied. It is impossible because God is incomprehensible. God makes God’s self known to us in Christ, in Scripture, in preaching, in creation, in others, in prayer, in all sorts of ways, but for all that we ever know of God, we can never finish contemplating him. This is why, Gregory says, Moses is said to have seen God on the mountain and come down glowing but then also is only allowed to see God’s back (Life of Moses). Our desire is never fulfilled. Therefore, we will never reach the satiety that The Good Place fears.
Yet it is also not an endless treadmill. We do not work without hope of our destination. God is with us even as we contemplate God further. We know God and also always delve deeper into our knowledge of God. Like an old married couple who knows all there is to know about each other today and also knows they will discover something new tomorrow, but bigger and better. We are satisfied with God, filled by God, illuminated by God, and yet also never fully filled, satisfied, or illuminated. In this way, we are forever delighted in the beatific vision. There are no mush-brains or complaints that heaven is boring. There is no need for a “next.”
I get it. Too much of a good thing can indeed make the good thing boring. Too much chocolate cake can make us ill. The ending of The Good Place is logically consistent within its own system (though I do have a question about who decided the relative morality and point totals of each act in this universe). It is the only place the sitcom could have ended. But God is not chocolate cake. God does not merely fill our senses. God is infinite mystery, and God fills our souls. As we think of our end, let’s borrow our images from Gregory of Nyssa rather than popular culture. Gregory’s is an end we can look forward to, one that might just sustain us in our present suffering (Rom 8:18). It’s an end that allows us to stand at the edge of the end of the world and trust.